(Read this series from its beginning here.)
The most well-known Roman story of divine conception was of Caesar Augustus. In The Lives of Caesars, Suetonius cites Discourses of the Gods by Asclepias:
When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent [Apollo] glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. (94:4)
Many scholars believe the divine Caesar Augustus’s conception story was patterned after Alexander the Great’s conception legend as well as that of the Roman general Scipio Africans, imperial conqueror of the Carthagians. In these Greco-Roman stories of divine conceptions, male gods impregnating human women to bear great leaders or conquerors were quite common.
So it appears that Luke’s divine conception of Jesus, with the spirit of God coming upon Mary (Luke 1:35), laid the foundation for concluding Jesus was superior to Caesar. That world did not think conception by human-divine interaction was impossible, and so Luke’s telling of the Jesus story had to begin on equal footing with Caesar’s. Consider the story of Jesus’ birth through these political lenses, not modern scientific ones. Luke contrasts the politics of Jesus with the politics of Rome. Both Jesus and Caesar were referred to as the son of God, both were referred to as the savior of the world, and both were also titled as Lord. Luke’s listeners would have to decide which peace was genuine, lasting and life-giving: the Pax Romana from Caesar, his armies, and his threats, or the peace found in following the teachings of Jesus. Roman peace came through military conquering and the imposed terror of threat toward anyone who disrupted Rome’s peace. Jesus’ peace came through a distributive justice where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough and everyone sat under their own vine or fig tree (Micah 4:4).
We’re now nearing the season of Easter. Let’s not forget that Jesus was crucified by Rome not because he was starting a new religion, but because his political teachings on justice for the oppressed, marginalized, and disenfranchised threatened to upset the status quo underlying the Pax Romana. His audience was growing and Rome had to silence his voice.
The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, offer consistent political comparisons between Jesus’ vision for human society (God’s just future) and the status quo of the society Jesus found himself in instead. This makes me wonder how our own contemporary society’s political goals would fare if we compared and contrasted the values of the American dream with the values we find in the Jesus story.
We’ll consider some of these comparisons and contrasts, next.