Christmas vs the Empire

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by Craig Keener

In many circles, editorials and sermons on the true meaning of Christmas have become a routine, perhaps almost obligatory, protest against the materialism and rush of the season. Christmas, of course, has taken on various expressions in a range of cultures through history, along the way picking up fir trees, wrapped gifts, and developing permutations of figures such as St. Nicholas of Myra (a fourth-century bishop).

Most customs we associate with Christmas did not exist in the first century, but two books that are now in the New Testament describe the circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth. The circumstances in the first, Matthew’s Gospel, portend Jesus’s future conflicts with hostile members of the elite. Although welcomed by outsiders, Joseph, Mary and Jesus have to flee from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape the wrath of the jealous tyrant Herod the Great. My wife, who was a refugee, readily identifies with their plight as refugees (although gifts from the Magi and the large Jewish community in Alexandria should have provided Jesus’s family a measure of comfort).

Back in Bethlehem, however, Matthew’s scene immediately develops into one of terror. Herod, king of Judea, massacres the male infants remaining in Bethlehem. Three times the narrative lists the objects that have threatened the mad king’s rage: “the baby and his mother.” Whatever Matthew’s sources for this account, his portrayal fits the recorded character of a king who murdered three of his sons, his favorite wife, and anyone he saw as a potential threat to his throne. His young brother-in-law, for example, a high priest who was becoming too popular, had a drowning “accident” in a pool that archaeologists suggest was only three feet deep.

The apathy of Herod’s religious advisers in the Sanhedrin, who also appear in Matthew’s story, is also not surprising. (They predict where the child will be born but, unlike the Magi, do not go to honor him.) Ever politically astute, Herod had killed resistant members of Jerusalem’s older Sanhedrin and replaced them with his own political lackeys. He would certainly not need to trifle with consultants’ opposing scruples.

Regardless of how much Matthew’s original audience knew about Herod’s brutality, however, they could envision him like the anti-Jewish tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who also slaughtered Jewish babies. Most of all, they would associate Herod’s behavior with that of Pharaoh of old, who killed baby Israelite boys in Moses’s day. Ironically, it is Egypt that here provides Jesus’s family refuge, and in the angel’s later words to Joseph (“Return to Israel, for those who wanted to kill the child are dead”) Matthew echoes God’s words to Moses: “Return to Egypt, for those who wanted you dead are now dead themselves.” Political corruption makes Jesus’s own home the most dangerous place for him.

Matthew’s “Christmas story” appears against a backdrop of political exploitation and repression. What about the other earliest Christmas story? In Luke’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem because Augustus’s census requires this. The powerful Roman empire, then, provides the backdrop to this story. By providing this backdrop, however, Luke also implies a series of contrasts between the birth of the new king appointed by God and the abusive power of the world’s leading king.

Jesus is born outside in a stable, perhaps in a cave adjoining the home of some relatives. The mighty Augustus, by contrast, rules from a palace, basking in the wealth of his empire. Some estimate that childhood mortality in Egypt, whose agricultural wealth Rome exploited, may have been 50 percent, while Rome kept peace in its capital by providing free grain to its citizens. Jesus, however, is here identified with the poorest of the poor, virtually homeless at his birth. In the words of the Gospels, he had “nowhere to lay his head.”

People circulated the “good news” of Augustus’s reign, hailing him as “Savior” and “bringer of peace” to the Roman world. (Augustus imposed peace by conquering whom he could conquer and by suppressing much dissent.) Humans hailed Augustus as divine in imperial temples in the eastern empire; even Herod the Great built temples for worshiping the emperor, as well as naming cities in his honor. Yet it is only heavenly choirs who hail the boy born in a stable. These choirs announce good news that a Savior has been born, the true Lord, whose mission includes bringing peace on earth. The first to hear this good news are shepherds, a class of workers mostly despised by urban elites throughout the empire.

If made explicit, such contrasts between the political king and his new rival could connote treason, but the rest of Luke-Acts shows that Jesus and his followers are not out to violently overthrow the empire. Rather, they work for change as they pray for the coming of God’s kingdom.

What we learn from the first “Christmas stories,” then, is more than a challenge against seasonal greed, gluttony, and grudging giving. It challenges us to consider to which king our loyalty lies. Do we pledge first allegiance to those who achieve power by violence, intrigue, and economic or political exploitation? Does it matter where our wealth and merchandise come from? Or do we pledge first allegiance to different values, identifying with those in need and working for peace and justice in the world?

If it is the latter, these are values not only meant to be celebrated during Christmas season. In both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke the earliest scenes of Jesus pave the way for the rest of his ministry of healing and restoration and its culminating conflict in his execution by those who considered him a threat. In context, then, these first stories about Jesus’s birth challenge us to follow his sacrificial way of life, no matter what it costs us.

Formerly at Eastern University’s Palmer Seminary, Craig Keener is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and the author of 17 books and some 200 articles.

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