Gods, Angels, and Emperors: Subversion and Incarnation (Luke 2)

Jesus’ birth was a deeply subversive affair in at least a few ways. Perhaps most obviously, the proclamation of the angels recorded by Luke was a direct assault upon the power of the Roman Emperor. When Augustus was finally crowned in 9 BC, the assembly explains their reasoning thus:

Divine providence which orders our lives created with zeal and magnificence the most perfect good for our lives when it produced Augustus and filled him with virtue for the benefaction of humankind, sending us and those after us a savior who put an end to war and established all good things! Augustus appeared and exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good tidings, not only by surpassing the benefactors before him, but not even leaving those to come any hope of surpassing, so the birthday of a god marked for the world the beginning of good tidings through his coming (from Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization 2:64).

This speech, which was given at Augustus’ birthday and proposed the creation of the new beginning of the year:

It’s hard to say whether the birthday of the most divine Caesar is a matter of greater pleasure or benefit. We could fairly say it is a new beginning of all things and he has restored all things—perhaps not to our natural state since everything has become imperfect and fallen to misfortune and would have simply embraced self-destruction had not Caesar been born for their common benefit—a breath of new life for all! . . . Thus all people should see to celebrate his birthday, that of the most divine Caesar, and thus it shall be New Years Day for all citizens.

You can imagine the context of this (typical!) proclamation. Provided by a Roman Governor in Asia Minor, it was a steppingstone in the Emperor Cult which would become so important for the book of Revelation, but is already present, here. Caesar, who was seen as the son of a God, as Savior, and his birth is seen as beginning a new age, one which would bring peace and benefaction and renewal to all things.

It’s in this context that Christ was born and—once we’ve been acculturated to the images of Caesar’s birth—the comparisons are obvious indeed. Caesar’s birth is celebrated with pomp and circumstance, dignitaries and sycophants arrayed in a grand parade come to pay honor to him whom honor was certainly due, and while there, arrayed in his royal garb, he is presented praise and even worship. Contrasted to that is Christ’s birth, which is itself celebrated with familial joy, but the human court which surrounded him were society’s lowest members (shepherds), and they saw him arrayed only in wrapped in strips of cloth, his throne a manger. Of course, this humble image is itself subverted by visiting dignitaries, this time of the angelic sort, who appear with a heavenly army and announce: 

Glory to God in the Heavenly Places!
Peace on Earth for the People He Favors! (Luke 2.14).

Here we have again a repeated theme in Luke–Acts: Christ is Lord, and Caesar is not. In the days where Augustus Caesar reigns and his census seems to move Mary and Joseph where he wills, it is only accomplishing the will of God that he might be born in Bethlehem to fulfil prophecy (Luke 2.1–7). In the time of Tiberius Caesar rules with a Roman governor over Judea, the coming of her true king is proclaims (Luke 3.1–6). And that king is not just a son of David and King of Judea (as he is in Matthew’s account), but also a son of Adam and Son of God and thus king of the World (Luke 3.23–28). We could go on, but the point should be clear: Luke wrote to purposefully show that the Kingdom of God was opposed to all of the kingdoms of the Earth and Jesus’ birth announced the coming of a new king and a new kingdom, which would seek to and ultimately destroy all of the powers currently in play (Herod, of course, realizes this and tries to kill him!). 

Those announcing at Caesar’s birthday were right: a new beginning was coming, one to which nothing before or afterwards would be able to compare, a new breath of life, a Savior and a God was born. They were just a few years early and focused on the wrong person. 

Too often, at least in my tradition (but even in traditional modern readings), our rejection of Christmas as a religious holiday tends to lead to a rejection for the appreciation for and a close reading of the Incarnation itself. But if you read Luke (as well as the other Gospels, but I know Luke best), you will find in the Incarnation the same story that you will find elsewhere. At the beginning we have the question presented: Who is your true King? At the end, at least for some, we have the answer made clear: “We have no king but Caesar.” Here in the manger, surrounded by Angels, we find the story of Jesus as a whole: Cradle, Crown, and Cross.

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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