Behind Luke’s Gospel: The Roman Empire During the Time of Jesus

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION……………………………………………………………… 1
An Overview of the Roman Empire during the First Century………………………. 2
Subjects of the Emperor……………………………………………………. 3
The Imperial Cult…………………………………………………………. 7
Israel During the Time of Jesus…………………………………………….. 9
Luke and Empire………………………………………………………….. 11
Birth Narrative in Luke 2…………………………………………………. 13
Tribute to Caesar in Luke 20………………………………………………. 15
CONCLUSION………………………………………………………………. 18
BIBLIOGRAPHY…………………………………………………………….. 19

INTRODUCTION

Something new is emerging in American Christianity.  Many in the church were brought up to believe that the United States was given to us by divine right.  We are not only “proud to be American,” but we will sing out “God bless America, land that I love.”  Sitting in certain churches on Independence Day could leave one wondering if it is a worship service honoring the Christian God or the American flag. On the surface there is nothing wrong with liking a particular heritage or location, but what happens when you realize that the consumption of your so-called blessed nation may be fueling the oppression of many across the globe?  What happens when the things that you grew up taking for granted are now the very things that perpetuate suffering?  Our world is one in which over a billion people lack access to clean water, where every seven seconds a child dies of hunger, where a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, where one hundred million children are denied basic education, where forty percent of people in our world lack basic sanitation, and where Americans spend more annually on trash bags than nearly half of the world does on all goods.[1] This is the reality of empire.  The empire creates the façade of peace and security, all the while perpetuating suffering for other parts of the world.

The realization of many about the American empire has moved them to take a closer look at the historical context of the New Testament.  Numerous students of the Bible are discovering that the Roman Empire had a major influence on the characters and writers of the gospels, Acts, the epistles, and the Apocalypse.  In the Gospel of Luke in particular, there are some obvious references to the Roman Empire and its interaction with Jesus.  Because both the authors of the New Testament and contemporary American Christians are faced with the task of living faithfully in the midst of empire, it will be our aim to examine the emergence of Roman Imperialism in the first century.  Then our attention will shift to examining two key texts in the third gospel (the birth narrative of Jesus, and the question of tribute to Caesar) as they relate to the Lukan view of empire.

An Overview of the Roman Empire during the First Century

Many consider the Roman Empire one of the greatest civilizations in history.  In regards to the New Testament, the story of early Christianity finds its setting under the shadow of a metanarrative (a grand self-legitimizing story)[2] that dominated most of the Mediterranean world and even beyond, namely the great myth that Cesar was the divine harbinger of peace and salvation for the world.  Caesar Augustus is the earliest figure of the Roman Empire that the New Testament makes reference to, as he was the emperor during the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2).  Born in 63 BCE,[3] he came to power in 31 BCE[4] after a period of political unrest following the murder of Julius Caesar.  The Roman Republic struggled for a time in civil war when Octavian (later called Augustus) took the throne.  Octavian was the adopted heir of Julius Caesar and would rule in the footsteps of his surrogate father,[5] who had led with near dictatorial authority.  After his death, Julius Caesar was officially deified while mourners chanted, “Those whom I saved destroyed me.”[6]

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