Luke and Matthew have chosen different ways to tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s tone, tenor, and plot are set on a grander scale. Mary is more prominent, and Joseph recedes into the background. The high divergence between Matthew and Luke indicates that the stories are fictions. No common tradition lies behind their narratives.
Luke constructs his narrative around a series of parallel stories concerning the cousins, Elizabeth and Mary. As parallels, their stories are both similar and dissimilar. The parallels recall memories of scripture stories his audience often heard. In the ancient world, silent reading was virtually unknown. Most folks would have heard these stories as part of a performance at a Jesus-community meal.
The style of these stories is strongly reminiscent of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures that was widely used in the diaspora. The Greek of this translation is koine, i.e., common Greek, not the elevated language of Classical or Attic Greek. It also contains many Semitisms, Hebrew idioms translated into Greek. The author of the Lucan birth narrative has imitated the style and idiom of the Septuagint. This gives the story an archaic, old-timey, mythical sensitivity that led critics in the past to speculate that the author used Aramaic oral traditions, but we now see that the gospel’s style reflects the author’s art. It creates a type of verisimilitude.
The story of Zachariah and Elizabeth recalls the story of Abraham and Sarah. In both stories the principles are old and childless, a curse. In both cases, the birth is divinely willed. This sets up a series of miraculous births.
The gospel of Luke divides history into three periods: Israel, Jesus, and the church. This division of history occurs in no other gospel. So powerful is the Lucan mythological creation that it appears to us as natural. To this day we continue to divide history before (BC) and after (AD) Jesus’s birth. Facilitating this overall schema, the birth narrative depicts Jesus’ family as observant Jews. The Septuagint style greatly facilitates this model. Luke’s birth narrative contains canticles, perhaps better referred to as psalms, because this is what they emulate.
The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel appear to continue the storyline of Jewish scriptures. The family is observant, Zachariah is a priest in the temple, the angel’s messages indicate the babies are to fulfill long awaited Jewish expectations. Yet this Jewish-sounding and -looking story takes place within the context of the Roman imperium. The empire keeps erupting onto the story’s surface, sometimes obviously, at other times implicitly.
King of the Jews
The first line of the story implicitly invokes the empire: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was this priest named Zechariah” (Luke 1:5). The mention of Herod, king of Judea (or the Jews—either translation is correct), brings the empire into play. The title “king of Judaea/Jews” implies a complicated relationship to Roman power. Given the Jewish character of this story, one might expect a reference to the Jewish high priest.
Herod was a client king and his initial patron was Mark Anthony and the Roman senate. Roman power enabled him to defeat his rival Antigonus who had Parthian support. During the Roman civil war between Mark Anthony and Cleopatra on one side and Octavian, Julius Caesar’s adopted son, on the other, Herod sided with his patron, Mark Anthony. Upon Anthony’s defeat at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE, Herod beat a hasty retreat to Octavian’s camp, convinced him of his loyalty and utility, and thus successfully switched sides.
As king of Judaea/Jews, Herod undertook a large building program, much like his new patron, Caesar Augustus. He built the seaport Caesarea Maritima (notice the name), the fortress at Masada, and a new and magnificent temple in Jerusalem. This building program had the negative effect of raising taxes, but the positive effect of putting many people to work.
Herod’s dates are somewhat confusing. It is not quite clear when his reign begins (probably 39–40 BCE) or when he dies (between 4 BCE and 1 CE). His reputation is also ambivalent. Josephus is of a mixed mind, positive in his early writing, more negative later. Matthew casts Herod as a villain, while Luke passes no judgement. Peter Richardson, Herod King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans, suggests that it depends upon your point of view. In all likelihood, Herod was no worse than the average Hellenistic king, i.e., brutal, and better than many others.
Herod’s title, “king of the Jews,” is prominent in the Lucan trial and death scene as the inscription over the cross. The empire is always lurking around.
Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus Imperator
While the story of Zachariah and Mary receives a very Jewish cast, the initial introduction of Herod, king of the Jews, invokes a background of intrigue and violence, which will be variously on display throughout the story.
When the angel addresses Mary, he says:
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his dominion will have no end” (1:31–33).
The title, “son of the Most High,” is a variation on the imperial title, “son of God.” “Throne of David” and “house of Jacob” pick up on “king of the Jews.” But the ending, “and his dominion will have no end,” echoes the promise of Jupiter to Romulus concerning the future greatness of Rome in Virgil’s Aeneid.
Will take the leadership, build walls of Mars,
And call by his own name his people Romans.
For these I set no limits, world or time,
But make the gift of empire without end” (Aeneid 1.371–75, Fitzgerald translation)
In Mary’s psalm, traditionally referred to by its Latin name, “Magnificat,” we see a powerful image of a young, lower-class girl shaking her fist at Rome’s might and brutality.
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,
for he has taken notice of the low status of his slave girl.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones,
and exalted the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (1:47-53).
“Savior” is another imperial title. The reference to the hungry and rich sent away empty refers to the Lucan Beatitude and Woes (6:21, 24).
We have so long shrouded the census story into a sentimental image of Joseph and Mary trudging in the snow to Bethlehem and the debate about whether there was a worldwide census (surely not), that we miss the brute power on display in this introductory sentence to the story of Jesus’ birth.
In those days it came to pass that a decree was issued by Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of the whole civilized world. (This first census was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) Everybody had to travel to his own town to be counted in the census (2:1–3).
The Greek word for decree is dogma, a very strong word. The emperor’s title is Caesar Augustus, an imperial title, not his name. In 3:1 the emperor is referred to as Tiberius (his name) Caesar (title). The sheer power envisioned in a census of the whole world (oikoumene) is incredible, but it demonstrates in one sentence the imagined power of the empire—that all people can be moved by the wish or command of the emperor. That mighty power contrasts with the pictured birth of the infant Jesus in desperate conditions of poverty.
It came to pass while they were there that the time came for her to give birth, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a feeding trough, because the travelers’ shelter had no place for them (2:6–7).
An angel announces the good news (gospel) of this child’s birth to a group of shepherds. “Good news” (gospel) is a term from the cult of the emperor to celebrate his birthday which brought peace to the whole world. (See the Priene Inscription.) The birthday of the emperor is good news to his subjects because of the great benefits he brings. Shepherds are in keeping with the upside-down character of the story. Shepherds were viewed as unclean because they wandered in and out of borders.
The angel announces:
“I bring you good news of a great joy, which is to benefit the whole nation. Today in the city of David, the Savior was born to you—he is the Anointed One, the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.” (2:10–12)
“Savior” and “Lord” are Roman imperial titles, while “city of David” and “Anointed One” are Jewish. But the real contrast is between these mighty, manly titles and the baby, strips of cloth, and a feeding trough. The good news, the gospel, is announced to a group of shepherds, the lowest of the low, not to some mighty group like the Roman senate or Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The contrast could hardly be sharper.
The angel’s announcement concludes with “a whole troop of the heavenly army praising God”:
Glory to God in the highest ,
and on earth peace among those God favors! (2:12–13)
The promise of peace, pax romana, was Augustus’ greatest boast: he had brought peace to the empire following years of civil war.
The Lucan birth narrative maintains a strong contrast between the empire of Augustus and the empire of g-d to be inaugurated by a baby. This theme will play out in both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The empire is mighty and brutal. It will kill Jesus. Acts ends with Paul awaiting his execution, although he is clearly innocent.
Luke’s anti-imperialism is subtle and often implicit, not in your face. But he indicates from the beginning that this story, while coming from a backwater province of the empire, announced to a lower-class girl, and signaled by a baby born in poverty, is yet g-d’s mighty work to overthrow the thrones of kings.
The angels announced that g-d’s peace and its sign is a baby in a feeding trough. In contrast Roman’s pax romana comes through the power of its military. Two thousand years later, the debate about peace still rages and the modern empires continue to bank on huge military machines. Luke’s birth narrative raises a profound issue that goes to the heart of how we envision our politics.
Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge. Brandon is a charter member of the Jesus Seminar and was co-chair of the Christianity Seminar, Phase I.