What was the Roman world like at the time of Jesus' birth?
In the century before Jesus' birth, the Romans were just ripping each other apart. Until a few decades before Jesus was born, the Roman system had a marvelous administrative way of avoiding tyranny by not having a king, but by putting in two consuls, who were like kings for a year. Each of them kept an eye on the other. That system had worked fine for the Romans for centuries.
But as soon as they got an empire in the century before Jesus' birth, the two consuls started to grab more and more power, and they weren't going to share. They were in transition from a republic, which had worked for 600 years, to an empire. They took the mightiest military machine of its age, split it in two, and sent it against one another, so Italy was being ripped apart, Greece was being ripped apart, the whole Mediterranean world was being destroyed. When finally Caesar Augustus won out--he was the last one standing--there was a huge collective sigh of relief from all over the Mediterranean.
This was the 2nd of September, 31 B.C.E., 31 years before Jesus' birth. At that point, the elite said, "It's over, it's over, peace." The economy started booming again, the sea lanes were free of pirates, the roads were relatively free for commerce. So Caesar Augustus became a god incarnate.
Today, if you talked to most people and said there was a human being in the first century who was called Divine Son of God, God from God, Lord and Redeemer, and Liberator and Savior of the world, 99.9% of people would say it's Jesus we are talking about. But Caesar Augustus was called all of those titles before Jesus was ever born. Those were his titles.
Now, there were many eternal gods, those who had been there forever, like Jupiter--in Latin he would be called a "deus." And there were divinized humans gods like Caesar--in Latin he would be called a "divus."' If you were a human being who had done something very very good for the world, you were elevated to the status of a god. People at that time believed it could happen because they also believed gods and goddesses came down from Heaven and married or had intercourse with humans and produced a child who was a semi-divine being.
But in Greek there is no distinction between `deus' and `divus', so if you are speaking Greek, when you say "son of God" it seems to mean the same thing, whether you're referring to a divinized human or an eternal god. There is no other word like a "Son of a Divine One" in Greek. So when this translates into Greek for Jesus, and for Augustus, they are both, in Greek, "Son of God."
Fully divine. The Romans didn't waste much time saying, "How can Caesar be fully human and fully divine?" They did it primarily with images. On every coin you have inscriptions of Caesar as divine. In the ancient world, being divine was a job description, meaning somebody who does something very important for the human race. So when that claim was made of Jesus, they were not claiming that he wasn't human--they were quite aware in that world that he could be a human being--but they claimed it based on his having done something extraordinary for the human race.
Did Jesus believe himself to be this title that he was later given by the Gospel writers and by Paul?
Jesus was claiming to know the will of God and to know what the Kingdom of God was supposed to be. If I were talking to Jesus, I would say, "How do you know that? How are you so certain that Caesar isn't right? He's brought peace to the world and everything else, how do you know your system is right?" I think he would say, "Well, it's in the covenant with God." If I asked if he was the Messiah, he would ask, "What do you mean by Messiah?" If the Messiah is the leader who is going to win a battle against the Romans, then no, Jesus wasn't the Messiah. But if the Messiah is the one who reveals the word of God, Jesus' answer might be, "Yeah, because I've done that."
What was Roman imperial theology? And why did this theology cause the gospel writers to describe Jesus, especially in the Nativity stories, as they did?
In Suetonius, you get the whole story of Caesar. Along with Tacitus, he's one of two major sources for history about the Roman emperor. He goes through the whole life of Caesar--tells you all he did. Then you get into the death of Caesar and you're ready to believe Suetonius is telling you something big was happening. And then at the very end, he says, "By the way, this is how he was conceived." You see the story first, and then you're ready to believe this guy can't be conceived by just anyone. According to the story, his mother, Atia, went to the temple of Apollo, fell asleep during the service, and Apollo impregnated her in the guise of a snake. Therefore, Augustus is the son of Apollo--so it's another way he's divine. Not only is he the son of Julius Caesar who is divine, he is also directly conceived by Apollo.
I have no idea how many people took that story literally. Or how many people took it metaphorically. And I think most of them didn't make that distinction. They heard the story, they got the message.
If you're going to tell the story of Jesus and you're going to play it off against this, then you're going to have divine birth and divine conception. The story of Jesus' conception comes up late in the gospels. It's only in Matthew and Luke, which were written after Mark, the oldest gospel.
But even if the gospel writers created a story of Jesus' divine conception and birth, the top question someone in the first century would nevertheless ask is: "What has he done for the world?" Because that's how they thought of the "Son of God." Not just what he's done for me or how he makes me feel. What has he done for the world? And that's where Paul, as Jesus' apostle, has to come up with an explanation.
How did Paul do that?
At the time, the prevailing belief was that in order to achieve peaceful civilization, you first secured victory. You capture a country, put it back on its feet, you build the economy, you build the roads, you build the whole infrastructure. As long as it doesn't rebel and it pays its taxes, you support it. So for example, if there's a major earthquake at Ephesus--there were earthquakes along that fault line all the time--you send a letter saying, "Dear Caesar, Savior of the World, We Need Help." And if you're Caesar, you've got to furnish it. This is a very reciprocal game. So the opening word of Virgil's Aenead, which is the New Testament of Roman Imperial Theology, is "Arma (arms, weapons)." Off Actium, which is where this battle on the 2nd of September 31 B.C.E. took place, there's a huge inscription saying, "Having established victory in this place, I secured peace on land and sea," and it's signed, as it were, "Caesar, Son of God."
So the Romans would not ask if there's another way. But Paul is saying that there is another alternative. First, you establish justice, then you live in peace. It's an alternative program based on the claim that God is just, that God is not violent, that God was revealed in Jesus, who was not violent. And there is an alternative lifestyle to this program. It's taught and practiced by small groups from the bottom up, not from the top down like Roman Imperial Theology. Paul's program advocates and announces a new theory of global justice.
And that's what Jesus also taught.
He gets it first from Jesus. Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God stands against Empire Rule. And not because Romans are particularly cruel, nasty, and brutish, but because they represent normal civilization. Jesus believes in a just God who will stand against that civilization. "Kingdom of God" is Jesus' language: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.
Paul puts it in different language--he talks about the lordship of Christ, which speaks better to pagan Greeks. It's different language, but the point is that both ideas establish a counter to what was then considered "normal" civilization.
In what ways did Paul confront the Roman Empire?
When he says Jesus Christ is Lord, that is another way of saying, as Jesus did, that the Kingdom of God has already arrived on earth. One speaks directly to Jews and raises the issue of whether the world should be violent or non-violent. But Jesus Christ is Lord speaks to pagans--and it also raises the question of whether this is a violent or non-violent opposition to Caesar.
What we don't catch is that the language of Paul is high treason, making a claim for Jesus that is ridiculous. Caesar was running the world, and he controlled the Roman Empire and brought peace to the Mediterranean--all of that at least makes sense because he is divine.
But Jesus? This nobody? Who was crucified on a Roman cross? He is actually the Lord of the universe? It's either very stupid or you're talking about a radically different type of world, a different type of God. You're not doing fine-tuning--lowering the taxes, lessening the oppressive nature of the Roman Empire. Paul is saying that the whole system is not the will of God.
You can understand why Jews who'd been oppressed would be attracted to Jesus. But why would pagans-who enjoyed peace and prosperity under Roman rule--be attracted to Paul's message?
Some would, some wouldn't. Imagine Paul talking to a pagan who might say, "I can see what Caesar has done for us. He's protecting the Roman empire; the economy is booming. I've never had so much work and my family is doing very well. I don't need your Jesus." So Paul moves on. Now, if another worker says, "I don't see what Caesar has done for me. I was working hard before he went up to Heaven and I'm working hard after he's in Heaven. I'm living in a dirty tenement. Tell me what your Jesus might do for me." Now Paul's got a client.
In any system, where the economy is booming, it doesn't boom for everyone. And there might be very conservative people for whom the raw excesses of a booming economy are destroying the values they hold dear. I'm thinking of people who might find the whole dislocation of family life in the big cities intolerable.
So now Christianity offers a society to pagan city-dwellers that it fits in--it looks like the associations we know existed at that time. This Christian society believes in a God who is just, and here's how that justice works out: We share what we have. If I break my wrist and can't work for a week, I get supported by this community--and then I'm expected to share with the community. It's a socio-economic safety net, in other words. But it also gives you a world run by a God who cares about you.
Is the Christmas story all about reacting to Roman theology?The story of Matthew describes Mary and Joseph's flight from Herod, the King of the Jews--but Rome had established the King of the Jews. The Magi, the Wise Men, the people from the East, come saying, "Where's the King of the Jews?" Well, they're asking Herod, the King of the Jews, where is the newborn King of the Jews. In other words, Where's your replacement?
It's very important to note that they didn't ask "Where is the Child?" That immediately sets up a King of the Jews as appointed by Rome against a King of the Jews proclaimed by the Heavens. We know that because the story of the star of Bethlehem represents wisdom of the East--it's the East that recognizes the alternative King of the Jews, not the West.
So you're getting a really powerful message that foretells that when the time comes, this person will be crucified. The accusation is going to be that he was called the King of the Jews.
The irony is that the story has him fleeing for safety from his own homeland to Egypt--which reverses, of course, the story of the Great Exodus, the fleeing from Egypt into the Promised Land. Because now the homeland has been taken over by Herod, the King of the Jews appointed by Rome. So, where do you go? Matthew uses Egypt as a metaphor for the place of tyranny from which the Exodus took the people to their own homeland. This is Matthew's way of setting up his anti-Roman vision. But remember, the gospels are a critique of what I call the "normalcy of civilization"-and it just happens to be Rome at that time.
People tend to think Jesus came with a new vision of justice, and that the Romans were all evil. But that isn't really what you're saying.
Not at all.
But God of course doesn't punish Cain--he simply marks him. You can't punish the evolution of humanity; there's no point blaming the farmers for overtaking the herders, and there's no point blaming the people who built the cities. That's just what happened. The dark side of civilization has always been a struggle between those who have and those who don't. There are always armies, and you always work by that model of "first victory and then peace." We give you peace and here's the price.
The price, of course, is the army all along the border with the barbarians and constant warfare on that border. You have peace internally but non-stop war outside. Civilization has always been imperial.
It almost surprises me that Paul, and then successive generations of Christians, would even be attracted to another version of civilization. Because the first way is so much easier.
That is what I call the drag of normalcy. And basically what the Romans said was, "If you cooperate, you'll be protected. If you don't, you won't." And imperialism has been the way the world's been run up until the last century, when humans created totalitarianism.
I think if you were alive in the first century, talking to Jesus or Paul, you could validly say, "That's a really lovely idea, a really lovely idea." You might even be sarcastic. But what has changed between the first and 21st century is the increase in violence. Not so much in violence itself but in our capacity for violence. I don't think that Genghis Khan with weapons of mass destruction would be better or worse than anyone today. It's not that we are getting more evil or even getting more violent, we're just getting more dangerous weapons.
I believe that 2,000 years ago we got a warning from Jesus that our system was untenable. We have always worked on the basis of violence. Violence has always been civilization's drug of choice. We are now at the point where withdrawal, or continuation with our addiction look equally horrible. It didn't always look that way.
Jesus and Paul saw a vision over a short time. They both claimed that something had begun, and they both claimed it would be over soon. We know they were wrong. We've just ended the worst century in the history of the world in terms of violence. So I'm simply saying that when I read Jesus or Paul today, the Kingdom of God doesn't sound to me at all like just a nice idea. It sounds like an early, desperate warning, but we didn't know it.
Maybe that's why Christmas is so evocative to people. It's about a new non-violent possibility for a dark violent world.
In Luke's story the angels announce it to shepherds, to the poorest of the poor. In Matthew's story, the stars announce it to the Magi, the wisest of the wise. Only those two groups hear the message and travel to find the Peaceful One. That invitation is repeated each Christmas, but all too often it is simply part of the nostalgic unreality of the season. Peace becomes the great ornament we hang each year on the tree of the world, only to pack it away again in the basement of history.