In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah,* the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’*
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Translation: And it happened in those days, an ordinance from Caesar Augustus went out (that) all the inhabited world be taxed--this taxing happened first when Cyrenius was governor of Syria--and all were going to be taxed, each one into their own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, into a city of David which is called Bethlehem because he is out of the house and lineage of David, to be taxed with Mary who was engaged to him (and) being pregnant.
And it happened, while they were there, the days of her bringing forth were fulfilled, and she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the guest room. And there were shepherds in that region, abiding in the field and keeping watch over their flock by night, and an angel of the Lord came to them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were struck with a great fear. And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold! I bring a joyful message to you, a great gladness, which will be to all the people, for to you, today, in the city of David, is brought forth a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger."
And suddenly it happened, with the angel a multitude of the hosts of heaven, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of gracious purpose." And it happened, as the angels went from them into heaven, the shepherds were saying to one another, "Let us go even to Bethlehem and see this word which has come to be, which the Lord has made known to us." And they came quickly and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. And seeing, they made known concerning the word, the one spoken to them concerning this child, and all the ones who heard were amazed concerning what had been spoken to them by the shepherds. But Mary was keeping together all these words, bringing them together in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they heard and seen, just as it was told them.
Background and situation: Caesar Augustus was the big winner of the Roman civil war. He was Octavian, the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. Upon the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 BC), the 19 year-old Octavian formed an alliance with Gen. Mark Antony (his rival for leadership of the Caesarians), and they defeated the anti-Caesar faction headed by Brutus and Cassius at Philippi (42 BC).
After Philippi, Octavian and Antony had their inevitable falling out, and went to war against each other. In the propaganda lead-up to war, Antony began a campaign to recognize Julius Caesar's son by Cleopatra as the rightful heir to power in Rome. Octavian was an adopted son, and saw Antony's move, correctly, as a political threat.
Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. (Octavian was not much of a warrior or military strategist. The true victor was his commander, Agrippa.) Thus ended the Roman Civil War. Octavian--now Caesar Augustus--was given credit for ending thirteen years of chaos. Many called him "the savior of the world." (Augustus was exceptionally skilled at generating positive publicity for himself.)
A Great Gladness: There is no evidence of an empire-wide census at the time of Jesus' birth. Caesar Augustus conducted three censuses during his long 41-year reign. The census closest to the birth of Jesus was in 8 BC. All of Caesar's censuses were limited to Roman citizens, however.
When Quirinius (Cyrenius in Latin) was governor of Syria, there was a local census in the year AD 6. Herod had died in 4 BC. His son, Herod Archelaus, succeeded him, but was replaced by Quirinius in AD 6. The arrival of Quirinius meant that the region was now under direct Roman control, and they celebrated the occasion by increasing their effort to squeeze the people dry.
The census of Quirinius was accompanied by widespread uprisings. This was not the least uncommon. Whenever Caesar, or local governors like Quirinius, ran censuses, they would nearly always be accompanied by uprisings and revolts. The tax burden was already excessive, and people lived in a grinding poverty, under the bootheel of Rome, that was getting worse, and not better.
Until Jesus, the most famous Galilean would have been Judas the Galilean who, according to Josephus, led the revolt against the census. The revolt was, of course, brutally crushed. Some historians trace the emergence of the zealots to the uprisings against the census of Quirinius. The zealots, in turn, were part of a chain of events that led to the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-70.
The imposition of an empire-wide census, with each person returning to their home town to be "registered", is not very likely. It would have been a logistical nightmare, for one thing. The population of the entire empire would have been on the move to somewhere.
Secondly, it was never Roman policy to make people return to their home town for the census. Besides, where, exactly, is one's home town? For some, this might be a no-brainer because their family has lived in one spot for generations. For lots of others, however, such a question would be very confusing.
Luke was not writing history. He was writing theology in narrative form. He begins his Christmas story by noting the big wheels of the world--Caesar! Quirinius!--and how they like to jerk people around. Roman power makes Joseph dance to its tune, sending him across the country to get "counted" so that Rome could get more efficient at taking his money for taxes. This was wrong on history, but absolutely right on truth.
Luke is writing about the true "savior of the world," one from the line of the great King David. He looks to Bethlehem, the city of David, and not to Rome, the city of Caesar. All the synoptics take this point of view.
In verses 6-7, Luke uses strong language to assert the birth of Jesus--literally, "But it happened, in the existence of them, there the days are fullfilled of her bringing forth." It doesn't read very smoothly in English, but notice how Luke underlines the birth with three key words: It happened (egeneto) in the happening (einai), the bringing forth (tipto).
Jesus is identified as Mary's "first born son." The word is prototokos. It will pop up again in Colossians 1 where Jesus is described as "the first born of all creation." (Did the author of Colossians know Luke's gospel? Was the author of Colossians, with his notable cosmic vision and high christology, expanding on Mary's "first born son" and proclaiming him the "first born of all creation"?)
There was no room for Joseph and Mary in the kataluma. The word refers to the upper room of a house, the guest room--not, in other words, some wayside hotel, barn, or cave. In the case of Joseph and Mary, the guest room was already taken--Uncle Zechariah from Wichita had already claimed it--and they had to stay in the other "room" which, at night, would be home for animals, but during the day would be cleaned up and used by the family.
Joseph and Mary were not alone in the dark of night somewhere. Mary had the baby in a home, surrounded by family. (As an aside, notice also that Luke says nothing at all of any paternity issue. Unlike Matthew, Luke says nothing about Joseph being troubled by the pregnancy and wanting to divorce Mary.)
The birth is announced to shepherds in the field, and not to the powerful in rich palaces. The scandal of the virgin birth is not so much that Mary was a virgin. Lots of famous people were said to have been conceived by various gods, including Caesar Augustus himself. The scandal was that Jesus--a poor kid from a jerkwater town--was born of a virgin. (The image of the shepherd also is a reminder that King David, soon to be mentioned yet again, was also a shepherd.)
Whenever the word "angel" appears in scripture, think: "window into heaven." Angels tell what is happening from the perspective of God. The shepherds are bathed in light (perilampo)--the glory (doxa) of the Lord! The shepherds were absolutely terrified--the word phobos is used twice. (What's more, it's mega.)
The angel announces "good news (euangelion) of great joy for all the people"--or, in my translation: "...a joyful message to you, a great gladness, which will be to all the people."
Luke didn't invent the word euangelion. It was a word that was commonly applied to Caesar. "Euangelion! Good news! Caesar is victorious in Gaul!" In the case of Jesus, the "good news of great joy" is for "all the people (panti to lao)"--not just the powerful, in other words, as was commonly the case.
Somewhat surprisingly, the word savior (sotare) appears only twice in the synoptics--Luke 1, Luke 2. It was a politically-charged term since, after all, Caesar Augustus was known as "the savior of the world." He had brought order to the world after a long war. Great poets, historians, and politicians lauded the peace of Augustus.
Luke's announcement of Jesus as "savior" is directly anti-imperial. It's a way of saying, "Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not." Moreover, this "savior" comes from the house of David. He is not only "lord," but "messiah."
The angels go into heaven, and the shepherds "said to one another (allelous)." All the shepherds are involved in the discussion. Discussion in the New Community is egalitarian, not top down.
They go immediately to Bethlehem and see (idomen) "this thing that has happened (gegonos, again) which the Lord has made known (ginosko) to us." The shepherds share what they have learned. Already, we see signs of the mutuality and reciprocity of the kingdom of God. The shepherds share with each other, and with Joseph and Mary--no privileged information here. The words of the shepherds stir "all" who hear them. They return praising God.
Meanwhile, "Mary was keeping together (suntare) all these words, bringing them together (sumballos) in her heart." Just as the shepherds experience mutuality and, one might say, "wholeness" with each other, Mary also experiences this "wholeness" in her heart. Sunetare has the sense of integration, taking into oneself. Sumballos has the sense of bringing together, even throwing together.
Thus is born the true savior of the world--not Caesar Augustus, the oppressor, false savior of the world, protector of those with power and privilege, but Jesus the Lord, whose birth is "a great gladness" and "good news of great joy for all the people."
Image: Giovannia Bellini, Madonna and child, 1480-1490