December 1, 2020

Contradicting the World’s Propaganda

Long before I read N.T. Wright and other contemporary authors, my eyes were opened to what Scot McKnight calls “The King Jesus Gospel” through the work of the great Roman Catholic Biblical scholar, Raymond E. Brown.

His two little books, A Coming Christ in Advent, and An Adult Christ at Christmas, though considered “liberal” by some because of Brown’s use of critical methodology, show Brown’s remarkable insight into the Biblical and cultural contexts and subtexts of the Christmas story.

Today, a quote for your meditation on the public and political implications of Luke’s account of Christmas (Luke 2).

Adoration of the Shepherds, Campin

Luke speaks of an edict that went out from Augustus Caesar when Quirinius was governor of Syria. He thus gives the birth of Jesus a solemn setting, comparable to that which he would give the baptism of Jesus by John — under Tiberius Caesar when Pontius Pilate was prefect in Judea (3:1). In the instance of the baptism Luke was hinting that the ripples sent forth by the immersion of Jesus in the Jordan would ultimately begin to change the course of the Tiber. He is hinting at cosmic significance for the birth of Jesus as well. The name of Augustus would evoke memories and ideals for Luke’s readers. In 29 B.C., one hundred years before Luke wrote this Gospel, Augustus had brought an end to almost a century of civil war that had ravaged the Roman realms; and at last the doors of the shrine of Janus in the Forum, thrown open in times of war, were able to be closed. The Age of Augustus was propagandized as the glorious age of pastoral rule over a world made peaceful by virtue — the fulfillment of Virgil’s dreams in the Fourth Ecologue. In 13-9 B.C. there was erected a great altar to the peace brought about by Augustus, and this Ara Pacis Augustae still stands in Rom as a monument to Augustan ideals. The Greek cities of Asia Minor adopted September 23rd, the birthday of Augustus, as the first day of the New Year. He was hailed at Halicarnassus as the “savior of the whole world”; and the Priene inscription grandiosely proclaimed: “The birthday of the god marked the beginning of the good news for the world.” Luke contradicts this propaganda by showing that paradoxically the edict of Augustus served to provide a setting for the birth of Jesus. Men build an altar to the pax Augustae, but a heavenly chorus proclaimed the Pax Christi: “On earth peace to those favored by God” (2:14). The birthday that marked the true beginning of a new time took place not in Rome but in Bethlehem, and a counterclaim to man-made inscriptions was the heraldic cry of the angel of the Lord: “I announce to you the good news of a great joy which will be for the whole people: To you this day there is born in the city of David a Savior who is Messiah and Lord” (2:10-11).

(emphasis mine)


  1. A wonderful example of how context can help make scripture so much more meaningful.

  2. Considering how Luke contrasts Christ and Augustus, it’s interesting that Christ and emperor came to be so closely compared in the minds of Christians three centuries later. Quite a shift.

    • I don’t know that this is necessarily the case. I think that this is groups like the Jehovah’s witnesses and Independent Baptists, who emphasize contrasts that happened under Constantine, that were not necessarily there.

  3. Raymond Brown is awesome. One of my professors studied under him at Fordham, I believe, and she used his material extensively in our Gospel of John class (at our highly evangelical seminary!)

    • Big fan of Raymond Brown as well, his books on John and his analysis on the communities that wrote the Gospels….

      • I’m a big fan as well. To me, he demonstrates the possibility of combining a faith commitment with an honest methodology acceptable even to total skeptics.

  4. David Cornwell says

    The more we understand the contextual situation of the coming of the Saviour, the better we can understand the true nature of the Kingdom coming. The world of His day was a dangerous one which knew a thing or two about “civil religion.”