“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed …” Thus begins the most famous account of the Christmas story, found in Luke 2. One thing has never changed: taxes. But in this story everything else does. A baby was born who would change the world vastly more than the emperor who decreed the taxation census.
Luke the historian has set up another comparison in this story. In Luke 1 the stories of John and Jesus were compared; in Luke 2 Jesus Messiah is set alongside of the most powerful ruler of the Roman Empire. Even those reading Luke many years later knew that no emperor ruled longer or more powerfully than Caesar Augustus, adopted son of Julius Caesar, both of whom were deemed as divine by many in the day.
Into this story comes Joseph. He is from the house of David, so he and Mary travel to Bethlehem to be enrolled for the census. With this notice, Luke begins setting up his comparison between the house of Caesar and the Messianic house of David. Then Luke writes the familiar verse: “And it happened while they were there that the days were fulfilled for her to give birth, and she birthed her first-born son and wrapped him and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guest room.” Despite the kingly heritage, Jesus was born in the most humble of circumstances, traditionally a cave serving as a stable (the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem still preserves this birth cave under the apse of the church).
Further, Luke records the angelic announcement of the birth to one of the humblest professions in society: shepherds. Why shepherds? They were the keepers of sheep that would be taken to the temple for sacrifices and used for the Passover feast. Jesus would both be the Passover Lamb and the Good Shepherd.
The angel’s announcement to them was astounding, though, because it continues the comparison with Caesar:
“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11)
For those in the know at the time, this announcement was literally revolutionary. Inscriptions of the day speak of Caesar Augustus’s birth as “good news” (see the inscription text at the end). This Caesar was acclaimed as Savior of the world, and he was called Lord. Temples were even built in his honor. Now Jesus was being announced in these same terms by a representative of the God of heaven and affirmed by the host of angels that joined in singing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of goodwill.” Even here there is a comparison. Caesar Augustus ushered in the Pax Romana—the Roman peace—which was brought about through military domination. Jesus would bring the peace of God through men of goodwill.
Were the shepherds or Mary and Joseph aware of the revolutionary implications of the angelic announcement? Probably not. But when Jesus many years later spoke with grace and truth to those around him, those oppressed of society like the shepherds flocked to Jesus, while those in authority hated him because he told the truth about them and their corrupt motives for power and wealth. The persecution of Christians by the Romans over the next three centuries was a logical outcome of this announcement, as is the continued persecution of the church around the world today.
A number of days after the birth when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple, the old man Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be a light to the gentiles, and that “this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against … that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34). Jesus would become a divider and truth-teller who would reveal the evil hearts of people, yet would ultimately die for those very people that they might become people of goodwill who would pursue peace for the world.
Text of the Priene Inscription celebrating the birthday of Caesar Augustus:
Decree of the Greek Assembly in the province of Asia, on motion of the High Priest Apolionios, son of Menophilos, of Aizanoi whereas Providence that orders all our lives has in her display of concern and generosity in our behalf adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with virtue for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us a Saviour who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order; and whereas Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him; ….. [proconsul Paul Fabius Maximus] has discovered a way to honour Augustus that was hitherto unknown among the Greeks, namely to reckon time from the date of his nativity; therefore, with the blessings of Good Fortune and for their own welfare, the Greeks in Asia decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23, which is the birthday of Augustus; and, to ensure that the dates coincide in every city, all documents are to carry both the Roman and the Greek date, and the first month shall, in accordance with the decree, be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.”