Luke writes that the birth of Jesus happened at the time of a census ordered by Caesar Augustus. According to Luke 2:1, Quirinius was the then governor of Syria. In accordance with this edict by Caesar, Joseph who lived in Nazareth of Galilee went to his ancestral city of Bethlehem in Judea to be enrolled. That is how Luke demarcates historical, political and geographical boundaries surrounding the birth of Jesus.
By placing the birth of Jesus within the concrete historical parameters of the reign of Caesar Augustus, Luke subtly makes a comparison between Caesar Augustus and Christ. For Luke, “Who is the real Prince of peace – Caesar or Christ?” is a big question he wants to answer.
The Circumstance of Luke’s Christmas Story: Census
Only in Luke, we see that Jesus was born at a time when the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had given out a decree for a census. Scholars have disputed about the historicity of the census, but a better approach to understanding Luke’s Gospel is to move beyond ‘Luke the historian’ to ‘Luke the theologian’.
This helps us to understand that Luke wrote with theological purposes and history is used theologically in writing the book.
Therefore, our main concern is not whether Luke’s account here passes that historical scrutiny but rather it is the purpose and motive of his writing.
One of the main intentions of Luke in writing the Gospel is to present a political apology to the Romans on behalf of the Christians. To show that Jesus was not an insurrectionist who instigated people to rise up against the Roman Empire and also to argue that his followers are politically harmless.
Hence, Luke begins his story with Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem to be enrolled in accordance to the Emperor’s decree during which Jesus is born.
In order to understand this point more clearly, we need to examine who was this Caesar Augustus and what kind of a person/emperor he was. How did the people consider him? This will enable us to comprehend how Luke presents Jesus as the true Prince of peace.
A Brief Profile of the Life of Caesar Augustus
The word “Caesar” is a title given to the Roman Emperors. The Emperor who is mentioned in Luke 2:1 is Gaius Octavian (or Octavianus, Octavius). He was born on September 23, 63 B.C. at Nola in Italy. He reigned over Rome
from 27 B.C. till his death in August 19, A.D. 14.
Gaius Octavian was the nephew of Julius Caesar who adopted him in 44 B.C. after which he was also known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius.
After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. by Brutus and Cassius (we all know the last words of Julius Caesar: Et tu, Brute?) the empire was divided into three and Gaius Octavian got one portion while the other two went to Julius Caesar’s generals Mark Anthony and Aemilius Lepidus.
They formed a triumvirate and ruled over Rome. Avenging the killing of Julius Caesar, Gaius Octavian along with Anthony and Lepidus defeated and executed Brutus and Cassius in 42 B.C. at Philippi.
However, Octavian was a shrewd person and hence he defeated Lepidus in 36 B.C. and amalgamated his kingdom into his. Later on, he defeated Anthony and his beloved Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt (remember Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra?) in 31 B.C. making himself the sole ruler of Rome.
When he defeated both Lepidus and Anthony, thereby bringing an end to the triumvirate, he buried the long history of war and conflict for the throne that ensued the assassination of Julius Caesar and ushered in peace to the Roman world.
Recognizing the peace and tranquility that Octavian had ushered in to them the Roman Senate bestowed on him the title “Augustus” in 27 B.C. Octavian ruled over the whole of Roman Empire from 27 B.C.-A.D. 14. He also changed the names of two months in Roman calendar to July and August honoring both his uncle and himself (July for Julius Caesar and August for Augustus).
There was great prosperity in the Roman world during his reign. He established the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), also called Pax Augusta, throughout his empire and roads and communication systems were constructed for easy mobility of the people, particularly the Roman army, from one end to the other end of his empire.
As he brought in peace to the world Octavian was called the “prince of peace” by the Romans and was acknowledged as “the divine savior who has brought peace to the world.” Not only that the Romans honored him by calling him the “inaugurator of peace on earth.”
Gradually, their respect for him developed into their worship of him as a “god” and “divine” which may be the beginning of “emperor worship” among the Romans, and against this background many books of the New Testament were written.
Similarly, the birthday of Octavian, September 23, became the New Year day in the calendar of Emperor worship which was commemorated as the “day of the arrival of the good news (or gospel) to the world.”
Who is the Real “Prince of Peace”? Caesar or Christ?
The Caesar, thus, mentioned in Luke 2:1 is this shrewd but very able emperor of Rome, Gaius Octavian who was not only held in high esteem but was worshiped as “son of a god” and “prince of peace” or “the inaugurator of peace on earth” and “savior” by the Romans.
Jesus’ birth was during the reign of this Emperor who was considered as the “bringer of peace” and who was worshiped as “divine” and “savior.”
Only Luke, among the Gospels, emphasizes that Jesus Christ was born during the reign of one who was worshiped as “divine”, “prince of peace” or “son of god”. The question of who the real “son of God” or “prince of peace” is – was a crucial point for Luke to consider.
Luke 2:1-20 makes it remarkably clear that the birth of Jesus and the joy it brings is much better than Caesar’s. The words and terms Luke uses to describe the birth of Jesus resonates the worship of Caesar as “divine” and “prince of peace.”
At Jesus’ birth there is “great joy” (2:10b) for “all the people” (2:10c) and the baby who is born is a “Savior” (2:11a). That is why His birth marks the “beginning” of “good news” (or “gospel”, 2:10b) to the world. Luke’s characteristic use of “today” or “this day” in 2:11 should not be overlooked.
Luke uses this word quite often to suggest the “beginning of the time of messianic salvation.” Its import is that real joy and peace comes only with Jesus not prior to him. This baby born is the Messiah, the Lord (2:11b). One notable point we notice here is that, for Luke, the baby born in the manger is the Savior because he is the Messiah and the Lord.
His teaching is that with the birth of Jesus’ human history enters into a definitive stage. It is not the exalted and dignified Caesar, adorned with all the honors and titles bestowed on him and issues decrees from the magnificent royal palace in the imperial capital city of Rome, who is the real “prince of peace” and “savior”.
But the real “Prince of peace” and “Savior” is the baby born in the manger wrapped with swaddling clothes in a lowly and insignificant city of Bethlehem
and being worshiped by the shepherds.
Looking at the picture presented before us, we see here that Jesus is not what Caesar is .
Caesar has power, honors, royal robes, subjects, throne and dwelling place in a royal palace but Jesus is lying in a manger being wrapped in swaddling clothes surrounded by lowly people.
But the great paradox is that the baby in the manger is greater than the mighty Caesar!
If the birthday of Caesar Octavian was celebrated with great pomp and gaiety by the Romans throughout the Roman “world” then it is only in the birth of Jesus that the real “joy to the world” comes (Luke 2:14).
The messengers of the birth of Octavian were mortal humans but the messengers of the birth of Jesus are “angel” and “a multitude of heavenly host” (2:13) thereby revealing more cosmic significance of Jesus’ birth.
The birthday of Octavian resulted in the happiness of the people but the birth of Jesus results in magnification and praise of God (2:13).
The birth of Jesus reveals the “glory to God” effecting the onset of “peace on earth” (2:14) because He is the only and true “Son of God” because He Himself is “the Lord”. In effect, the Caesar is a divinized human while Jesus is the humanized God.
Many people may do marvelous things before humans and they may be able to bring peace to the people.
Nevertheless what Luke says here is that such peace and prosperity is momentary but the peace that Jesus ushers-in through His birth is the true and permanent peace for human beings because He is the real “Prince of peace” and “Saviour”.
Hence Pax Christi is higher and better than Pax Augusta since Jesus’ birth marks the “beginning” of a new relationship (peace) not only among humans but between God and humans.
Menjiwapong Jamir is a Research Scholar at Senate of Serampore College
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