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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
In Matthew, Jesus was born under Herod’s reign. Herod died in 4 B.C.E., and the census referred to in our passage this week took place under Quirinius in 6 C.E., ten years after Herod’s death.
Remember, Matthew’s version of the Jesus story is based in Galilee, as seen in its closing chapter. Luke’s version of the Jesus story is Judean-based, and more specifically Jerusalem-based, as seen in both the closing chapters of Luke and the book of Acts. In Acts, the Jesus movement doesn’t return to Galilee but instead takes root in Jerusalem and grows from there. Luke’s burden is to tell a version of the Jesus story that takes on the oppression of the Roman empire, contrasts Jesus with Caesar, and raises up the imperial rule of Jesus’ YHWH (the basileia that is translated as “kingdom”) against the imperial rule of Rome.
From the very beginning of Luke, Jesus’s story is brought into conflict with Rome.
In Matthew, Jesus is from Nazareth (Galilee). In Luke, Jesus is from Bethlehem (Judea), the city of David. This detail would have brought to the minds of Luke’s audience Micah’s words:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)
All of this, again, would have served the purpose of contrasting the imperial reign of the God of the Torah, which David’s kingship symbolized for many Jewish members of Luke’s audience, over and against the imperial rule of Rome.
In the first few chapters of Luke, Jesus’ movement isn’t characterized as the start of a new religion competing with or replacing Judaism, but rather it’s a Jewish renewal movement anticipating the liberation of Judea and surrounding Jewish regions from Rome.
The angel doesn’t appear to the ruling class or Jewish representatives of the empire in Jerusalem, but to rural shepherds, who we’d call “blue collar,” in the fields of Bethlehem.
Economically and socially, rural Judeans and Galileans living in agricultural villages were the people most negatively impacted by Roman imperialism. Families had to make hard decisions and often sacrificed their community bonds to survive. In these communities, indentured farmers and shepherds cultivated their own versions of the Israelite liberation traditions that had long inspired hope for liberation from oppressive rulers and renewed the Hebrew prophets’ calls for justice. (For more details on the social climate these shepherds lived in, see Richard A. Horsley’s Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder.)
Luke’s angelic announcement to shepherds has many layers to it.
We’ll conclude with one of those layers and what it might mean for us today, next.
(Read Part 3)