The Subversive Narratives of Advent: Part 3 of 3
by Herb Montgomery
“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth on those God’s favor rests.’” (Luke 2.11-14)
We’ve arrived! This is our final installment of our Christmas series this year at RHM, and we’re looking at Luke’s birth-narrative this week. Again, I want to recommend the volume The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I believe you’ll find it to be a very user-friendly resource in wresting what we today call “The Christmas Story” from ancient and modern forms of imperialism and their co-opting of these narratives.
Luke’s birth-narrative is quite different from Matthew’s, which we looked at last week. One of the differences is Luke’s narrative centers the voices of women more than Matthew. (Luke’s entire Gospel does this actually.) Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives also differ on geography. Luke progresses from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth with no time spent in Egypt. Matthew starts in Bethlehem then moves to Egypt, and then moves onto Nazareth. Another difference is that, unlike Matthew’s narrative, which was for Christian Jews in Galilee, Luke’s narrative is for a broader Gentile-Christian audience. This may help to explain the way that Matthew treats the Herodians in Galilee as the tools of Rome while Luke chooses a much more direct aim at Caesar himself.
To quote John Dominic Crossan in a recent panel discussion, what we see in the first century is not “Christianity against Judaism.” Rather we see, “Christian Judaism against Roman Imperialism . . . Of course [the followers of Jesus] are within Judaism, and of course they’re fighting with other groups as they’re elbowing one another for the future of their people in the cauldron that the Romans have created as any empire does to divide and conquer.”
This is the back drop I want us to see behind Luke’s birth narrative. In Luke, we’re not seeing Jesus versus Judaism, but rather Jesus versus Rome. (We can find signs of a growing anti-Semitism in early Christianity in Luke’s gospel: not as much as in John, but certainly more than in Matthew, and most definitely more than in Mark.)
To perceive Luke’s agenda in writing his narrative, we must read the narrative through three filters: 1) first-century Christianity, 2) Christianity in first-century Judaism, and 3) Christianity in Judaism in a context of Roman imperialism. We’ll start with the last one, Roman imperialism, and work our way backwards.
When we speak of Roman imperialism, we’re referring to the integration of military, economic, political, and theological/philosophical layers in Rome. This four-pronged imperialism was a method of economic distribution; a type of human, social organization; a world order and its exercise of (or lack of) social justice; and specifically, Rome’s vision for global peace.
It was Augustus Caesar who, during the time of Luke’s birth-narrative, was entitled Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Here is why.
Rome experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius, was like his father deified, or regarded as a god. He was given the title Augustus in Latin (One who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (One who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, “The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.”
And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four of these aspects in his gospel. In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus’ teachings on wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to the Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive “kingdom.” Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities such as Mars the god of war, but it included the worship of Caesar as the incarnate representation of the Divine.
As theologian Adolf Gustav Deissmann wrote, it’s important for us to recognize “the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, ‘lord’” (p. 349)*.
Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives is also beneficial to us. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, Augustus’ father had a dream in which he saw the sun rising from Atias, his wife’s womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the “Son of God” fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the “Son of God” fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.
Here’s a description from the 2nd Century CE of the divine conception of Augustus Caesar; it cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:
“When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified her self, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)
Propertius’ Elegies quotes the god Apollo as saying:
“O savior of the world… Augustus… now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you’” (4.6.37– 39).
An ancient inscription in what’s Turkey today refers to Augustus, “divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.”
So Caesar Augustus, conceived of Apollo, was, in Roman theology, the Savior of the World, and Luke’s gospel responds to that context.
Judaism in Roman Imperialism
Jews in Roman-occupied territory hoped for a world free from injustice and foreign oppression. In the Jewish Sibylline Oracles, a series of fictional prophecies within Judaism and early Christianity, we find this vision:
“The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.” (2:319-324)
The hoped-for world in the Jewish vision for the future looked like a family, where YHWH as parent provided equally for all—enough for everyone, always.
There were also two competing strands in Judaism regarding the fate of the Gentiles (including the Romans) in this vision. One strand was violent and retributive:
“In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey . . . Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, “Where is the Lord your God?” My eyes will see her downfall; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets . . . The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick dust like a snake, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their fortresses; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall stand in fear of you.” (Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16-17)
This is actually quite mild compared to some Christian versions of the future of this world that are being touted today. Nevertheless, the other Jewish option was less violent, more restorative, and involved the conversion of the Gentiles:
“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah. 4:1-3, cf. Isaiah 2:2-4)
All injustice, oppression and violence would cease. And other prophets envision YHWH providing a rich feast where there was enough for all, Jew and Gentile alike:
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)
By the 1st Century, this vision also included a Messiah figure through whom this new world would be birthed into existence.
Here are two examples of that pre-Christian Jewish expectation of a Messiah.
“Raise up for them their king, the Son of David . . . to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth . . . He will judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness . . . All shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (For) he will not rely on horse and rider and bow, nor will he collect gold and silver for war. Nor will he build up hope in a multitude for a day of war.” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21, 23-24, 29, 32-33, emphasis added.)
The other example is from a Dead Sea Scroll fragment found in Cave 4 at Qumran:
“He will be called Son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High. Like sparks of a vision, so will their kingdom be; they will rule several years over the earth and crush everything; a people will crush another people, and a city another city. Until the people of God arises [or: until he raises up the people of God] and makes everyone rest from the sword. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all his paths in truth and uprightness. The earth will be in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease in the earth, and all the cities will pay him homage. He is a great god among the gods [or: The great God will be his strength]. He will make war with him; he will place the peoples in his hand and cast away everyone before him. His kingdom will be an eternal kingdom . . . ” (4Q246, emphasis added.)
From this brief sampling we can see that at the time of Luke’s writing, many within Judaism possessed the hope of restored world where all injustice, violence and oppression would be made right through the emergence of a Messiah figure. There were some who believed this would be accompanied with violent retribution against oppressors, and others who believed it would through more restorative and reconciling means, more nonviolent, retiring justice for everyone.
Christianity within Judaism within Roman Imperialism
Like the Sayings Q and the gospel of Mark, Luke begins the Jesus story with John the Baptist. Like Matthew, he adds a birth narrative rather than starting the story with an adult Jesus. But Luke begins even his birth story with John’s conception before Jesus’s. The experience of John’s parents in Luke’s birth-narratives is curiously parallel to that of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people (compare Genesis 15-18).
There are also parallels to the stories of Hannah and the birth of the prophet Samuel, who anointed King David (read 1 Samuel 1-2) For Luke, John is the renewed “Samuel” anointing Jesus the renewed “David.” At the baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus, through John, becomes the renewed “anointed one.”
Miraculous conceptions by divine intervention are a staple within Jewish birth-narratives, and especially so in the time of Rome. Within both Judaism and Roman imperialism, birth-narratives were not so much biological explanations as much as they were about the destiny of the children being born. In our story this week, Luke interweaves the birth-narratives of Isaac, Samuel, and Caesar Augustus with those of John the Baptist and Jesus, and he describes Jesus as “the Christ,” the Messiah, the son of David, the renewed “King of Israel” born in David’s city, “Bethlehem.”
Let’s read Luke’s proclamation of the angels to the shepherds through our filters of Judaism and Roman imperialism. Luke skillfully integrates into his story the hopes of Judaism and the subversion of the political theology of the Roman Imperialism. Jesus, for Luke, is simultaneously the fulfillment of one (Judaism) and the subversion of the other (Rome). Again, this is not Jesus against Judaism, but Christian Judaism against Roman imperialism.
I’m going to color code this passage for Christmas.
Green phrases represent fulfillment (of Jewish hopes) and Red represent subversion (of Roman imperialism). Black phrases respond to both.
“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and ON EARTH PEACE to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2.10-14)
In Luke’s birth-narrative, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah in convergence with Judaism and Lord, Savior, and Peace-bringer in divergence with Rome.
As Borg and Crossan state in The First Christmas about using the title of “Lord” for Jesus:
Used simply as “the Lord” it meant the emperor, especially from Caesar Augustus onward, just as, for example, “der Führer” simply means “the leader” in German (where all nouns are capitalized), but eventually designated Adolf Hitler as the supreme and only leader. In that context to have called Christ “der Führer” would have meant death in Dachau. (p. 154)
Two Visions/Versions of Peace
Rome also had its own gospel of peace that Luke responds to in his version of the Jesus story.
By 9 BCE, the Roman province of Asia Minor was making this declaration about Augustus:
“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior—he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [euaggelia-the gospel], not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings [euaggelia] residing in him…. For that reason, with good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the New Year in all the cities should begin on 23rd September, the birthday of Augustus… and that the letter of the proconsul and the decree of Asia should be inscribed on a pillar of white marble, which is to be placed in the sacred precinct of Rome and Augustus.” (Quoted from The First Christmas, p.160, emphasis added.)
In that same year, a magnificent “Altar of Peace” was dedicated in Rome’s Campus Martius. It was consecrated not just to the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) but, more precisely, to the Pax Augustana (peace of Augustus). It was given the name Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace.
The gospel of peace proclaimed through Roman Imperialism was a peace through militaristic victory and the violent overthrow of Rome’s enemies. In Luke’s gospel narrative, however, Luke channels the nonviolent, restorative Jewish visions of peace. Luke’s Jesus shares the vision of peace on earth rooted in restoration of justice for all the oppressed. Even Luke’s choice to describe shepherds as the first recipients of this angelic announcement is significant. Shepherds were from the marginalized peasant class who most acutely experienced Roman oppression and exploitation. Just two chapters after the birth narrative, Luke’s Jesus is announcing “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” and “sight to those with prison blindness.” He has come “to let the oppressed go free” (see Luke 4:18). The angels’ message to the poor shepherds in Luke 2 foreshadows the entire message of Jesus in the gospel of Luke.
For Luke, Rome’s peace gospel and the peace gospel of Jesus come face to face. Jesus and Rome hold out to humanity two alternative transcendental visions for arriving at peace on earth. Rome’s way, peace through the violent forces of militaristic victory and oppression, is the way of all empires. Luke’s Jesus promises peace through nonviolent, restored justice for all people.
Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan write: “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world” (The First Christmas).
The world has yet to see if choosing the way of nonviolent restoration of Jesus produces lasting peace. First, that way must be chosen.
Contrary to the ways Christian imperialism and colonialism have co-opted the Jesus story throughout history, Luke’s Jesus is a Jesus who points the way to peace based upon justice restored through nonviolent means.
Today, these two “gospels” still grind against one another, even for Christians. Today we still see a conflict, but it is not Rome versus Jesus, it’s Christian imperialism versus Jesus. Imperialism’s effort to produce peace on earth, even today, and even in Christianity, still tries to place weapons in the hands of the “good guys.”
A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of some gross Christian rhetoric (Jerry Falwell Jr.’s speech at Liberty University is an example), I created this satirical meme and posted it online: “Peter, all that is needed to stop bad guys with swords is a good guy with a sword.” —Jesus
What Jesus actually said was, “Those who live by the sword will die by it as well.”
It is important for Christians who seek to follow Luke’s Jesus to understand the history of the American empire’s second constitutional amendment. The United States was founded on peace achieved through revolutionary violence. And the American Empire is much like Rome if we substitute the word “freedom” for “peace.” As Rome proclaimed “peace,” so America proclaims “freedom,” but our freedom is not lasting. It is the type of freedom one achieves by being the biggest bully on the top of the hill, and it’s not freedom for everyone. It is a freedom achieved by violence and maintained and preserved by violence, almost identical to the “peace” of Rome that depended on its imperial armies.
This is why the American constitution has a second amendment. If citizens’ freedom were to ever be threatened again, they must have access to violent means to help them achieve it once again.
But today we are seeing the fruit of this unlimited access to violent means to ensure one’s freedom. Jesus could have very well said, “Those who achieve freedom by the sword, will be destroyed as well by the sword.”
Let me at minimum say this. The second amendment is not the standard for a follower of Luke’s Jesus. Jesus shows us a way to peace and freedom rooted in restoration, justice for all, and nonviolent means. In the face of tyranny, American followers of Luke’s Jesus are not permitted to use violence even if a secular constitution permits them to. Luke’s Jesus points out a way to peace and freedom radically different than the path of violence. Jesus taught of two paths: the broad path, though it seems right to most people, is the path that leads to death. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. There is another path that Jesus told us leads to life, and he modeled that path for us.
Luke’s gospel is the gospel of peace achieved through the nonviolent restoration of justice and equity for everyone. Peace on earth means no more oppressed and oppressor, no more dominant and subjugated, just equity and peace for all.
“The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people . . . peace on earth on those God’s favor rests.” (Luke 2.11-14)
- List at least three paradigm shifts you’ve had this year from Matthew’s and Luke’s birth-narratives either by reading The First Christmas or by going through this series. Share these insights with your HeartGroup.
- Discuss as a group how understanding the cultural matrix of Judaism and Roman imperialism changes your reading of the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.
- How can you apply the values in these narratives, especially in relation to peace, freedom, violence, and nonviolence, as followers of Jesus within our American Empire today?
This will be our last eSight before Christmas, so from all of us here at Renewed Heart Ministries, Happy Holidays to each and every one of you. We wish you also a very merry new year.
It’s our hope that, once again, your heart has been renewed and you’ve been empowered to follow Jesus more deeply in this coming year.
Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.
I love each of you dearly.
I’ll see you in two weeks.
*1910, Light from the ancient East. The New Testament illustrated by recently discovered texts of the Graeco-Roman world, L.R.M. Strachan, transl., London