What is the difference between the birth of Jesus and the births of other gods and heroes in the ancient world as we read in the myths? The big difference is that Jesus is real and those other figures are just imaginary. The Greek and Roman gods never existed but Jesus actually was born and grew up and walked around the lands of Galilee and Judea.
One of the ways the Bible reminds us of that is by putting the birth of Jesus in a specific historical context. Whereas those other gods and heroes are placed in the mythic past, the Bible places Jesus firmly in history, not distant history but recent history for those who were reading the Gospels for the first time.
When we read that Jesus was born in the days of Caesar Augustus, we are tempted to pass over such descriptions as meaningless decoration to the important part of the story. I’m going to suggest that we slow down and allow these details to sink in. Let us try and read this Gospel as if the Roman Empire was not ancient history but rather the defining political and cultural force of the day. To do this, we are going to compare Jesus Christ and Caesar Augustus.
Before he was a Roman Emperor named Augustus, he was a young man named Octavian, born close to sixty years before Jesus. Octavian was not born as a king or an emperor or anything else. There was no way someone could have predicted what he would become.
Octavian’s grandmother was the sister of Julius Caesar and Caesar eventually adopted Octavian as his own.
Things really took off for Octavian when Julius Caesar was assassinated. Octavian and Mark Antony took their armies against those responsible for the murder. But that alliance didn’t last long and eventually Octavian fought and defeated Mark Antony. Octavian became the first emperor and was thenceforth known as Caesar Augustus. The name Augustus means “the illustrious one.” It obviously reflects his great humility.
So the first thing that we need to notice is how Augustus comes to power. It is through military might. First the defeat of his enemies and then the defeat of his allies. It is through violence that Augustus reigns.
One of the things that Augustus was known for was the creation of something called Pax Romana, often translated as Roman peace. For many of the lands found within the Roman Empire, they were experiencing peace for the first time. Conflict, based either on ethnic hatred or economic greed, came to an end for the first time in many generations. This sounds like a good thing and it is an impressive achievement. But at what cost?
Augustus didn’t create Pax Romana by convincing the people of the virtues of peace or by helping conflicted parties work through their conflicts. Roman peace was enforced through threats of violence. The message of Roman peace was this: “You will stop fighting with your neighbours or we will destroy you.” It worked. Most of the time.
Another thing that Augustus was known for was his working to strengthen morality. Augustus rightly understood that a society that was immoral to the core could not survive. Augustus attempted to build his empire on a solid foundation of moral virtue. He did this by legislating morality and punishing immoral acts with harsh penalties. To be fair to Augustus, he took these laws seriously and when his own daughter broke them, he had her exiled. Ultimately these laws failed to improve the morality of the empire. You can punish certain acts but you can’t really legislate morality.
Augustus called himself the son of god, being the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who had been made a god after his death. Augustus was also considered lord and saviour. Despite this, he was still a mortal and he knew he could not live forever. Most of his plans for succession failed and eventually the empire passed on to his step-son Tiberius. Tiberius didn’t live up to the legacy of Augustus and his successors were even worse. The seeds for the downfall of the Roman Empire had already been planted at its own birth.
So how does Jesus compare to Caesar Augustus? One difference is that Jesus was born as a king and his throne didn’t depend on being adopted by another ruler or the winning of some battles. Jesus, while still in the manger, was already King of kings and Lord of lords. This is why we find in Matthew that Herod the Great felt so threatened that he had all the young boys in Bethlehem murdered. Jesus was born as a king.
We find that Jesus fulfilled the role of Prince of Peace. That would seem to have something in common with Augustus and his Pax Romana. But only a superficial level. There is peace and there is peace. The Roman idea of peace was the absence of conflict, an absence motivated by the threat of violence. The Hebrew idea of peace was shalom, which means wholeness. Shalom is not just stopping two people from killing each other, it is about the restoration and reconciliation of the relationship between the two people. This is the type of peace that Jesus was born to bring. Jesus brings peace in three areas: peace with God, peace with other people and peace within ourselves. This peace comes not from the threat of violence but from an inner healing that comes from becoming a follower of Jesus.
This is related to the next aspect of Jesus. Like Augustus, Jesus is also interested in morality. When Jesus grew up, he surrounded himself with people that the religious leaders called the sinners. These were the prostitutes and tax collectors, people no self-respecting rabbi would normally associate with. When we read these stories, we might get the impression that Jesus was so nonjudgmental that he didn’t care about morality. That is not the case at all. Jesus cared very much about morality and holiness. But Jesus didn’t see that as happening by imposing strict rules and threatening harsh punishments. Morality came about through loving relationships and through lifelong discipleship. Like the peace we already mentioned, this is something that was done from the inside out and Jesus was willing to do the hard work that would lead to lasting change.
Caesar Augustus’ empire was built on violence, violence against his enemies. Jesus’ kingdom was also built on violence, but this time violence against the king. Jesus experienced his greatest victory on the cross, allowing his own creation to kill him in a painful and humiliating manner. But this was not the end.
Augustus’ legacy fizzled out after a series of bad successors. Jesus’ reign continued, first with the resurrection from the dead, then the ascension into heaven and it continues as Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf.
Anyone who observed Augustus and Jesus at the beginning of the first century would have assumed that Augustus was far superior. History has demonstrated that they were wrong and that it is only Jesus that has created lasting change.
The earliest Christians had a very simple but radical creed. The basic Christian confession was Jesus is Lord. That might not seem radical to us, but in their context, it got them into much trouble. Saying Jesus is Lord was also claiming that Caesar was not Lord. The Christian confession was a direct attack on the authority of the Emperor.
Jesus Christ was born during the reign of the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. Although they had similar interests in peace and morality and both claimed to be Lord, Saviour and Son of God, they were in fact very different. Jesus born in a manger, growing up in humble circumstances, was able to achieve what Augustus could only dream about. He did it not through human power but by the power of the cross and the resurrection which was able to do the deep work to make lasting change.