Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Jesus and Rome

Recently, I was having lunch with my dad, and we got talking about the Bible, as we do sometimes.  We discussed the importance of context in understanding the Bible (and any old text, for that matter).  As a college teacher, I stress the importance of understanding the social and cultural conditions in which a text was created.  If I need cliffs notes and commentaries to understand a medieval poem like The Canterbury Tales, I definitely need such study aids to understand a 2,000 year old middle eastern text like the Bible.

And so, with context in mind, this Christmas morning, I began to read the gospels' accounts of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew and Luke).  I used a big old study Bible I got in college called The New Interpreters Study Bible, which is full of helpful commentary and context, written by Bible scholars.

What I discover enriches and deepens a story that's become a bit stale with time.  In both gospel accounts, Jesus is presented as a threat to the Roman Empire, someone whose values and mission will directly subvert the political and military power of his day.  Luke chapter 2 begins, "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered," emphasizing the fact that Israel at this time is under Roman rule.  When Jesus is born, however, his birth is not announced to the powerful elite, but to lowly shepherds.  Luke continues:

"In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone about them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.'" 

Not only is the blessing given to lowly shepherds, but it is meant for ALL the people, not just the rich and powerful.  The commentator writes, "It is important that (1) news of Jesus' birth goes not to the elite and the powerful, but to shepherds, the lowly, and (2) that the titles given to Jesus--Savior and Lord--had been given to the emperor as well.  Luke's narrative sets up a sharp contrast between Jesus and Augustus, as well as their "rules."


In Matthew's gospel, this contrast between the political and military might of the Roman empire and the humble, servant-king of Jesus, is also emphasized.  When King Herod, who was basically a Roman puppet-ruler over Palestine, learned of the birth of this Jesus, he sent legions of soldiers out to kill all the newborn children in that region.  Herod represents the kind of rule that the Roman empire represented--a powerful military, and deep divisions between the haves and the have-nots.  (Much like the present-day United States).  By contrast, Jesus would come to represent the very opposite: non-violence and a compassion for the marginalized.

The commentator writes of Matthew's introduction of Jesus: "Imperial figures like Alexander the Great and Augustus were said to have been conceived by a divine being.  But Jesus greatness will not consist of military domination but of life-giving service."

When viewed in this context, Jesus turns out to be much more interesting, subversive, and inspiring than we might normally think.


Jesus was middle-eastern (i.e. not white) and poor, and much of what he said defied the political and religious authorities of his day.  In short, Jesus was actually pretty cool.

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