The Birth of a King of Kings
His birth was said to have been foretold by ancient prophecy and heralded by signs and portents, declaring him a coming king of his homeland and the ruler of the world. The story goes that his mother became pregnant through a mysterious encounter with a deity, making him a son of a god—Apollo—and his earthly father had a dream vision of his unborn child displaying the authority of Jupiter. Ancient Roman sources tell that further signs and good fortune followed him throughout his rise to adulthood and the surprising events that made him the ruler of the known world.1
The ancient stories of Augustus Caesar’s birth and youth have some strange parallels with the birth and early life of Yeshua (Jesus) as Luke relates it in his account (Luke 2:1-21). Yeshua, according to Luke, is born in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, heralded by the angels as the Savior, Messiah, and Lord, and Luke tells us that his mother, Miriam, became pregnant through an encounter with the Spirit of God when she was still a virgin.
It’s not hard to find skeptical contemporary biblical scholars who have seen these similarities as signs that Luke has invented these legends to fit a certain type.2 The theory goes that Luke wanted to make Yeshua seem kingly, and so he made up stories of the kind of miraculous signs that were said to have accompanied the birth of Augustus or other prominent rulers of the ancient world.3
And yet, other prominent scholars have pointed out that this theory does not square with all the ancient evidence.4 And to any reader who is well-acquainted with the history of that ancient context, this should be apparent because Luke’s story is so strikingly different from that of the Augustus propaganda.
The Profile of a Ruler
The story of Augustus is one of a child born into wealth, privilege, and political power. And unlike the modern American world where politicians like to play up their humble roots, in the ancient world, riches and status were generally seen as a sign of heavenly blessing, while poverty was a sign of sin and divine disfavor.5 When Mark Antony wanted to criticize Augustus, he claimed that Augustus’ great-grandfather was a freed slave and a rope maker!6 And Cassius of Parma allegedly taunted Augustus by claiming that his grandfather was a baker.7 In other words, these critics were saying, “If some of your ancestors were commoners, what makes you so special?”
The story of Augustus fits the ancient profile of a blessed person assuming ultimate power.8 Augustus was from a historic, well-connected, and wealthy family. His rise to power was ensured by his adoption as heir to his relative, Julius Caesar—the most powerful man in the world at the time. Augustus was part of the elite 1 percent, which was considered a vital proof of his claim to status and rule.9
If Luke was trying to craft a similar story for Yeshua, he gets so many of the elements dead wrong.
Even though Luke and his readers would have been well-acquainted with the legends of Augustus, if Luke was trying to craft a similar story for Yeshua, he gets so many of the elements dead wrong. Yeshua’s family is not wealthy. Yeshua is part of the 99 percent of persons in the Roman Empire who live in what we would consider abject poverty. They are not well-connected; though descended from David, all the recent generations on the list of Yeshua’s ancestors are people that no one has ever heard of (Luke 3:23-31), and there is no wealthy politician to adopt Yeshua and bestow on him the mantle of power. Even in his father Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem, his family lived in a humble, ordinary home. They can’t even offer a guest room to Yeshua’s heavily pregnant mother.10 He has a pauper’s birth, and his mother lays him in a feeding trough for animals to sleep (Luke 2:7).
And in shocking irony, when angels appear in the heavens over Israel announcing the birth of Yeshua the Messiah, the only people there to witness it are a group of humble shepherds who probably didn’t even own the sheep they were tending (Luke 2:8-14).11
A Different Kind of King
Luke could easily have invented a story in which the infant Yeshua displayed signs of power over Israel’s oppressors. Instead, he tells us that Augustus Caesar utters a decree in Rome, and on the other side of the world, Yeshua’s father and pregnant mother are forced to travel like refugees to be counted in the emperor’s census (Luke 2:1-5), all so that Caesar can know how much in taxes he can squeeze from his Jewish subjects. The Jewish people under Roman rule in the first century were largely powerless, and Yeshua entered the world as a powerless one among them.
Luke can only be said to have done it as some kind of ironic twist on the tradition.
If Luke has invented his story, he can only be said to have done it as some kind of ironic twist on the tradition. People have made up a lot of legendary tales about leaders throughout history, but no one ever makes up a story like this.12
To my knowledge, the only parallels in ancient writing are to be found in the Tanakh. Throughout the Torah, Jewish history, and even prophetic writings, God raises up the weak and the lowly and brings down the proud. He calls Moses out of exile and obscurity to challenge the mighty Pharaoh and lead the Exodus (Exodus 3:16-18). He chose David to establish the messianic dynasty—who was the youngest son of a sheep farmer, and whose own father didn’t even consider him worth presenting before the prophet as a candidate for kingship (1 Samuel 16:4-13). From start to finish, the story of the Tanakh is often about God walking with Israel through poverty, suffering, and hardship (Nehemiah 9:9-15; Isaiah 41:8-20).
How fitting is it then, that when God sends the Messiah, He does not come bearing the signs of wealth and privilege. He walks with His people and experiences their struggles, even as one of the poor and needy (Isaiah 41:17; 53:2-4). The closest thing to the trappings of wealth Yeshua is ever associated with is when his dead body is placed in the borrowed tomb of a well-off member of the Sanhedrin (Matthew 27:57-60).13
Luke wants us to see the contrast between Caesar and the Messiah.
Luke inverts the typical glorious origin story for a king in a way that seems clearly intentional. He fills his birth story with problematic historical details of Yeshua’s poverty and powerlessness, but then sets them in striking contrast with the signs of Yeshua’s divinely given authority. Even the details about Caesar’s census could have been easily omitted. But Luke wants us to see the contrast between the self-proclaimed lord and savior of the world, Caesar—who carved his path to power through blood and treachery and subjugation of the weak and poor, who offers the peace of Rome at the point of a sword and threat of painful execution on a cross—and Yeshua, the one whom the angels proclaim as the long-awaited Messiah, a child indistinguishable among a mass of powerless people traveling across Israel, refugees in their own homeland, tossed like leaves in the wind by the politics of a far-off nation.
God with Us
What Luke is really telling us is that when God says He is with Israel, He means it. God does not stand far off from human suffering and make decrees like just another petty tyrant. When God sends the King Messiah, he does not come with an army, enriching himself at his people’s expense (cf. 1 Samuel 8:10-18). To the contrary, he humbles himself and identifies with his people in weakness, he takes their sorrows and fragility upon himself (Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 7:8). He suffers as one of them and even suffers in their place so that he may raise them up to new life in a renewed creation where “God will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness” (Psalm 96:13).
A light shining in the darkness.
That is why the followers of Messiah Yeshua have always seen in this story—of a refugee family, an exhausted teenage mother, and their infant wrapped in spare cloth and placed in a pauper’s bed—a blessed moment of holiness, calm, and a light shining in the darkness, giving hope to the world that the Lord reigns.
As Miriam, mother of Yeshua herself, sang during her pregnancy:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
1. Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Augustus, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/suetonius/12caesars/augustus*.html
Virgil, The Aeneid, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/228/228-h/228-h.htm
Augustus Caesar, The Deeds of the Divine Caesar, https://droitromain.univ-grenoble-alpes.fr/Anglica/resgest_engl.htm
Cassius Dio, Roman History, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/cassius_dio/45*.html
2. John Dominic Crossan is perhaps the most prominent of these. You can see his kind of thinking in this interview: Why The First Christmas is not like any Nativity story you've ever heard before (https://bustedhalo.com/features/busted-john-dominic-crossan)
3. For example, Alexander the Great or the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who were said to be born of vestal virgins.
4. N.T. Write is perhaps the most prominent of these. See his article on the virgin birth in Luke and Matthew: God in a Manger: The Message of the Gospels and the Problem of the Virgin Birth,
5. This cultural perspective is clearly visible in Suetonius's fawning biography of Augustus, The Lives of the Caesars. Suetonius defends Augustus’ right to rule by telling of his important and wealthy ancestors. And then he brushes off criticisms where Augustus’ contemporaries had tried to say that some of his ancestors were commoners. And, in a way, you even see the connection between divine blessing and wealth and divine curses in hardship in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures (this is spelled out very clearly in Deuteronomy 28:1-29:1). Still, the Tanakh stories are also very unusual in the ancient world for seeing God’s blessing even happening in poverty and of God choosing to bless and associate with people of very humble origins. In most of the ancient world, the only people that they thought the gods would want anything to do with were kings and wealthy rulers (or extremely attractive women).
6. Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/suetonius/12caesars/augustus*.html
8. That is the paradigm of divinely selected favor and authority that you can see in the presentation of Augustus in Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars or Virgil’s Aeneid.
9. Which is why Suetonius was so quick to defend it against critics like Mark Antony
The Mishnah is a group of documents that recorded oral traditions that governed the Jewish people during the time of the Pharisees. One of its regulations states it “expressly forbids the keeping of flocks throughout the land of Israel except in the wilderness—and the only flocks otherwise kept would be those for the Temple services (Bab K.7:7; 80a).
These shepherds were in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, not out in the wilderness where regular sheep were kept. So, they must have been priests.
Why would priests perform menial shepherding duties for the Temple? It’s because the sheep were intended to be sacrificed for Passover. It was the priests’ job to make sure the lambs were without blemish and completely unharmed before being sacrificed.
According to the Jewish Mishnah (AD 200 but also containing longstanding oral traditions of previous ages), animals in the vicinity of Bethlehem (specifically near Migdal Eder — “Tower of the Flock").
The law also said that animals to be sacrificed had to be born within five miles of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is just five miles from Jerusalem. The hillsides around Bethlehem, therefore, were a first century lamb factory farm. When the lambs were born, they were wrapped up in strips of cloth to protect them and placed in a stone feeding trough in the birthing barn until the priest could come by and inspect them.
12. Even the Buddha, who taught his followers to renounce all worldly desires, was legendarily said to have been born in wealth and privilege.