The Roman Empire and Palestine during Jesus’s Milieu

Tia Jamir

In the coming weeks before Christmas, we shall explore the varying portraits of Jesus’s birth depicted by Matthew and Luke. They both write in their own distinctive way to narrate the rescue or salvation of God through the Davidic Messiah Jesus the Christ. I aim to unpack the birth narratives from Matthew and Luke in shorts essays by focusing on the contextual milieu of the first-century Mediterranean world. I will repeat and echo concepts and themes through out the essays to facilitate contextual reading of the text. This harnesses for us some “spectrum” of the stories which we might have missed before. This is a critical re-reading. However, the “critical” questions and discussions do not undermine our beliefs but gives substance to our confession in the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to offer some correctives in re-framing and understanding our beloved Christmas stories instead of empty sentimentality and fuzzy feelings.

First, many wrongly assume that there are universal truths, which everyone from all culture, time, and place can access to and know them exactly in the same manner. Such false thinking or premise stifles intimate connection with the past and our sacred text. Just as there are different ways to think, talk, and reflect about a Hindu god(s) and an Islamic concept of One God, because they are coming from different socio-cultural worldviews/grid, humanity assume about the same things like love, honor, parents, jobs, security, or gods but mean completely different things. This awareness is fundamental. Put differently, an American Baptist will read the Scripture differently then a Naga Baptist.

Second, the different grid system gives rise to divergent coping mechanism to the way we connect to the past. Nevertheless, everyone needs sensitive/correct lens to read their past, especially, if this involves faith claims and confessional stories. In other words, the stories of the past are shaped by the themes and conflicts of their time not ours. For example: Can we understand Mahatma Gandhi as the father of the nation and a brave warrior for justice without understanding the dark canvas of British imperialism in India? We need to frame the right “context” to hear our stories and narratives. To do this well, leads to my third point, we must learn to distinguish between “background” and “context.”

Backgrounds refer to the still scenes in a photographer shop behind you—like the Taj Mahal or the Statue of Liberty—as you smile for the camera. They are there, but not real and cannot interact with you. On the other hand, context gives you wings to fly into the past and engage with it. As such, context interacts with you and so changes you even as you change it. There exists an organic relationship between context, text, and readers(s). To talk about this intimate relationship, we might speak of matrix to designate the mutual creativity of text and context. Thus, we may pose another question here: What is the contextual matrix that we must know to understand the Christmas stories as literary products of the first-century Mediterranean world?

Just as we cannot understand the life and times of Gandhji without the context of the British Raj in India, we must frame the contextual matrix of the imperial Roman Empire of the first-century CE to hear the Christmas stories. The clash between the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of Christ frames the context or matrix for our Christmas stories (Matthew and Luke). The different ideological doctrines represented by the two kingdoms will demonstrate the distinctive Christmas stories. This means the stories developed within “Christian communities” for their edifications within the “Judaic” faith and under the “Roman Empire.” All of these three elements are crucial to see the stories of the birth of our savior. Now we turn to Matthew and Luke’s contextual milieu to hear their Christmas stories.

Caesar’s Empire and Socio-political reality
Within the lifetime of Christ, the Roman Empire was only two generations old. The Empire had seen bloody wars, both civil and international. The era of big personality conflicts between Julius Caesar and Pompey ended with Caesar gaining the upper hand only to become a political martyr. This drove the Republic back into civil war. After years of violent bloody turmoil and conflict, and many battles later, Octavian took the title Augustus and reigned supreme over Rome. As Caesar’s adopted heir, Octavian implicitly became the “son of God” and an immortal. His ascendency was marked by two brutal and tactical maneuvers. First, Octavian and Anthony defeated the so-called “enemies of Rome”—Cassius, Brutus, and the other conspirators involved in Julius Caesar’s assassination in their attempt to save Rome. Second, a subsequent civil war between Octavian and Anthony that definitively shaped the future of the Mediterranean region. Octavian brought about the age of peace and justice. He was the king that became known (at least in popular belief) for putting an end to all conflict and for restoring the confidence of the citizens. His adopted heir Tiberius (under whom Christ was crucified) carried on his programs and consolidated his work, only to be followed by the disastrous Gaius Caligula and the shrewd but weak Claudius. Despite its internal turmoil and some international conflicts, for Rome this was a time of unprecedented power. Rome sat in a luxury delicately spun through influence, intrigue, patronage, and religion. 

The imperial poets and historians (i.e., writers)—Virgil, Horace, Livy and many others—in their own ways penned a grand narrative of the empire which had now reached its climax. Behind this grand meta-narrative lay the cold, hard, brutal reality of Rome’s exercise of power. Rome’s ruthless and efficient military machine made sure that peace was maintained at any cost. Rebellion or “terrorism” was punished swiftly. Crucifixion, conceived of by the Persians and perfected by the Romans, was a symbol of Roman peace. Its implicit message was “settle down” or “shut up” and the oppressed people usually listened.

Caesar was portrayed and understood by the masses to be God incarnate—the son of God. Within this imperial ideology, the cult (worship) of the emperor was itself the fastest growing religion of the first-century. Games, festivals, and rituals of all sorts were organized to honor the emperor. Royal priesthoods were established to facilitate the cult of the Emperor. Statutes of the emperors were sculpted using the established motifs present in sculptures of the mainstream Greco-Roman Pantheon. The “good news” or “Gospel” was that the Roman Caesar was in control, and that he brought salvation, justice, peace (pax Romana), and liberty to the world.

The Imperial Roman Empire
As we can see, the Romans determined the conditions of life in Galilee where Jesus lived and carried out his mission. Roman warlords appointed the young military strongman Herod as “king” and provided him with armies to conquer his subjects. Roman governors such as Pontius Pilate appointed and deposed the high priests who ruled Judea from their base in the Jerusalem Temple. The Roman Empire of the first- and second-centuries CE was the sole superpower. It stretched from the moors of Scotland out to the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys in Iraq, and from the North Seas of Germany to the sands of the Sahara. If we were going to take a trip through the Roman Empire in the first- or second-century CE, it would look like something like this. Starting at the United Kingdom, we will cross over to Belgium and Holland, through Germany and France, on down to Alps—Switzerland and Austria, and cut through Hungry and Romania and Bulgaria, down through what was Yugoslavia and to Greece and then on to Turkey, through Syria, Lebanon, into Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Egypt. Of course, we would get into Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and up into Morocco and then finally winding down in Spain. If you were to take that journey today, even in the day of the European union and their Euro, we would need to change our money at least a dozen times, and a dozen visas (more if you are not American or Western European), and hear many languages. However, in Matthew and Luke’s days, one language—the language of Rome, Latin (and Greek)—carried you anywhere in that empire. This was the world Christ became man. This is the big picture. Now we turn to see what kind of social construct the super power was constructing, that is, their imperial “ideology.”

Ideology: Caesar’s and Christ’s
Ideology deals with ideas about power. It shows the relationship between social meanings and institutional structures by envisioning, representing, describing, expressing, and communicating social and cultural capitals—powers. Hence, ideology, as a social construct and as a social theory shows the relationship between action and structure. Ideology becomes a set of values, attitudes, interests, and modes of perception and evaluation. A given group to set itself off from other groups and to make sense of its experiences shares these, normally unawares. Rome’s ideological power stemmed from Roman imperial theology. Like any other cultures or civilization, Greco-Roman civilization has always been imperial, that is, unjust, unfair, and oppressive. In contrast, Jesus’s incarnation challenges the empire with a vision of a new creation (“Behold! I make everything new”) in a way far beyond even our present best hopes for freedom, democracy, and human rights. Peace through victory or, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace centered Roman imperial ideology. In contrast, Christ as a Jewish visionary following the prophetic traditions of Israel talked about another peace and victory. Nevertheless, both Rome and Christ claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in the world. Christ and his disciples (brothers and sisters) opposed directly the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace. In a sense, the entire study on the Gospels or the Scriptures is about the clash between those alternative visions of world peace. One is Rome’s vision, following civilization’s normalcy, of peace through victory and the other is Christ’s radical vision of peace through justice.

We must see that the Roman imperial ideology was an immensely successful advertising campaign. The whole world was engrossed in the Roman way of life through technological innovations, roads, coins, statutes, building projects, and provincial administrators, and various religious ceremonies. At the center of the imperial ideology lay the divinity of the emperor. He was the incarnate heart of the Roman imperial theology. The emperor was the great benefactor, through whom the great blessings of justice and peace were distributed to the grateful populace—who in turn worshipped him, honored him, and paid him taxes. Rome’s military power secured the empire’s external frontiers, but ideological power sustained its internal structure. Rome naturally spoke of itself in transcendental terms, portraying herself as an empire divinely mandated to rule without limits of time or place. It did not simply proclaim dominion around the Mediterranean Sea. It announced world conquest, global rule, and eternal sovereignty. When Jesus of Nazareth rallied against the Roman Empire, he did so not with military, economic, or political power but exclusively with ideological power. When Jesus the Messiah (Christ), the incarnate God himself, appeared with the proclamation that the “Kingdom of Heaven (or God)” was at hand, he was donning the mantle of a standard expression for a very Jewish concept—God is transforming the world. The Kingdom of God is Christ’s expression of God’s will for this earth. It is about the transformation of this world into holiness.

The Good News of Christ
The disciples of Christ went about declaring the “Gospel” of Jesus Christ within this world. Imagine living in that world and hearing Christ and his disciples talking about justice, peace and the good news of a crucified Jew. The message (gospel) of Christ and his fanatical group is dangerous. It cut right to the central core of the Roman Empire. The Gospel of Christ-followers “simply” stated that Jesus—not Caesar—is Lord. This message had huge socio-political-religious ramifications. Where were they getting this counter-imperial ideology/theology? Were they the first to subvert the message of the imperial claims to universal supremacy with another gospel? Do they have a legitimate source for his Gospel? As Christians, perhaps the instinctive and intuitive reaction is to say, “of course they do!” However, this hardly settles the question.

Looking ahead
To finish this part of the discussion, I present a tentative summary about our understanding of the Gospel. The Christian Gospels, written in Greek narrates about a Jewish Messiah, executed by Roman authority, the master of the first century Mediterranean world. This much is clear. Before the written Gospels, it existed as an oral proclamation. As Paul would say—what God has done through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ—which happened “according to the Scriptures:” 1 Cor 15:3-4. Clearly, the Scriptures to which Paul is referring here are not the four Gospels (they were not written down yet), but the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. Many believers tend to turn the “Gospel” into a system of belief. The Gospel is not merely a message for the individual, rather the Gospel as we have just seen, is the proclamation that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead and has thereby been demonstrated to be both Israel's Messiah and the world's true Lord. With this contextual matrix, Matthew and Luke wrote their accounts of Jesus’s birth to demonstrate Christ as the Cosmic King.