Whose Kingdom, Which Lord? Jesus & Nationalism, part 2 (Caesar Augustus and Empire)

Whose Kingdom, Which Lord? Jesus & Nationalism, part 2 (Caesar Augustus and Empire) May 19, 2010

This is part two of a five part series on Jesus and Nationalism.  It reads as one fluid written sermon so you may want to read the rest of the series.  I have never spoken this sermon but figured I would use the blog to get the text out there…


Earlier I had you turn to Luke chapter two which is the longest account we have in the bible of the birth of Jesus. Let’s read verse one together:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  Luke 2.1

Let’s stop there and ask a few questions.  First, who is Caesar Augustus?  What makes this figure so important that he gets mentioned in the same narrative as the birth of Jesus?  Second, why does this text mention the “Roman world?”  How is this significant in regards to Jesus’ situation when he is born?  Are these two references to Caesar and to Rome simply to mark a specific moment in history?  Perhaps, Luke wants to give us clues about when Jesus was born?  Based on the details in this chapter, it is quite easy to assume that this is his aim.  But what if there is something more to Luke’s method of writing than simply marking dates.  Maybe he is telling two stories at once: the story of Jesus’ birth and an underlying story of how Jesus related to the Roman Empire.

So, who was Caesar Augustus?  We actually know quite a bit about Augustus from historical accounts.  He became the ruler of the Roman Empire in 31 BC after the murder of his father Julius Caesar.  He would be hailed as a hero who ushered in a time of peace after the strife of civil war.  The themes that were proclaimed during his reign were those of freedom, justice, peace, and salvation.  Whenever these ideas were announced to people, they were called “good news” or “gospel.”  Augustus would be called the great “savior” who had brought prosperity to the people of the Roman Empire.  At least to those who had power and prestige.

For an estimated ninety-seven percent of the empire, poverty was the byproduct of such prosperity.  The masses of people in the Roman Empire were taxed unbearable amounts, which caused much poverty.  Augustus made his capital city of Rome the priority for his social programs while he taxed the territories outside of Rome in excruciating numbers.  For instance, he would give all the people in his Capitol city a monthly distribution of grain.  This was a strategy to keep his residents loyal to his lordship.  In order to accomplish this he had to tax those in the outer territories in large quantities.  It would have taken between 200,000 and 400,000 tons of grain each year to feed the whole city of Rome.  All of this grain is believed to have been imported.  But if Rome is taking all this grain, what does the rest of the world eat?  And how does the grain farmer make any kind of significant living?  You may be thinking to yourself: If conditions were so bad for so many, couldn’t they have revolted?  But you have to remember that Augustus controlled one of the most powerful armies in history.  As we have already said, he was hailed as bringing peace to the empire, but this was maintained through fear.  If you mess with Rome, you will get whipped out by our military.  If you do what you are told, you will be able to survive.  It was the old peace through strength mentality that kept the Roman Empire strong.

Besides maintaining stability through taxation and military threat, the Roman Empire also established an imperial religion.  The name Augustus was one that was given to him by the Senate of Rome.  Prior to this he had been called Octavius.  Augustus literally means “worthy of worship.”  And indeed he became the object of worship throughout the Empire.  One scholar named Ethelbert Stauffer states: “In the framework of ancient liturgy he was invoked like one of the ancient national gods of Rome…and he was surrounded with such an abundance of religious honour that many people thought there was nothing left for the worship of the heavenly gods (Tacitus).[1] Not only had he been declared “worthy of worship” but his father Julius was divinized after he died and this gave Augustus grounds for claiming the title: “son of god.”[2] There is an inscription that was written around 9 BC that gives us some insight to the way in which he was being hailed as more than a man:

The most divine Caesar…we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things…; for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura; Caesar…the common good Fortune of all…the beginning of life and vitality….All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year….Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [the emperor] Augustus, whom it [Providence] filled with strength for the welfare of men, and who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and [whereas,] having become [god] manifest (phaneis), Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times …in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him…, and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (euangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth]. (OGIS 2.#458)[3]

Not only was Augustus worshiped through inscribed poetic language, but he was also worshiped through statues and temples that were built in his honor, sacrifices, and the use of coins.  Coins have been found from this time period that had the face of the Emperor with the inscription “Divine Caesar.”


[1]. Ethelbert Stauffer, “Augustus and Jesus,” in Christ and the Caesars (1952, Wittig Verlag; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008), 96-97.

[2]. N.T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 64.

[3].  Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire, 23-24.



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  • Amy Stone

    I like how your “book” is crackless B)

    • If you are referring to the slides, they were ppt images from another talk I have given on Augustus in regards to this text 🙂

      • Amy Stone

        Yup. I like the slides. They look great! (they make me laugh too, ’cause cracks–and the lack thereof–are funny). I’m impressed with the work you’ve done here.

        I’ll get back to you on the content. I’m trying to finish my last research paper of the semester (I know, the semester was over on Friday 🙁 ).

        • HA! Anything having to do with cracks that are unexposed or exposed is comical indeed 🙂

          Look forward to more of your thoughts and good luck on that final paper!!!!

  • I have a feeling I know where you’re going with this…

    …and I like it. 🙂

    http://www.jmsmith.org – Disciple Dojo

  • Hey Kurt, I also think I know where you’re going here. You should read Matt Regeir’s thesis if you haven’t already.

    I don’t know if you plan to get to this later, but I think another facet of the Roman rule that bears highlighting is that it was maintained not only through physical violence and the threat thereof, but by a kind of intellectual and spiritual violence through what we would call propaganda. It managed to actually convince the majority of its inhabitants that Roman rule was ‘good news’ by ending the smaller scale tribal warfare and including local deities into the Roman pantheon. Not to mention, the proliferation of advanced technology.

    • Tucker… I hope to do a “bait and switch” on both you and JM… ha ha!

      On a more serious note, I have perused Matt’s thesis as it was a valuable tool bibliographically for a paper I wrote which has some of the foundational material of this sermon. I wont go into much detail on propaganda because of the nature of sermonizing :-), but I would say that the imperial religion was indeed the greatest source of such. Such a gospel captured the imaginations of primitive peoples and allowed Rome to have the upper hand. Great insight!

  • Amy Campbell

    Maybe i am stating the obvious, but as far as parallels go there has been serious Obama worship going on…i even saw some political cartoons around easter that were disturbing…the Obama poster colors done on a lithograph (i think that’s the correct word..) of the traditional empty tomb scence.

    I’m not an expert on theology, what i have are the remains from growing up Southern Baptist…but didn’t some Jews expect the Jewish Savior to come reigning in a powerful position….however he did not…which is why so many doubted that he was the true Savior. So, quite frankly, it wouldn’t suprise me one bit if his 2nd coming isn’t going to be with trumpet sound and everything fixed in an instant…but instead, Jesus’s second coming will come more slowly…maybe as the world reaches a ‘critical mass’ of just enough true Christians to really turn things around…

    Sorry if i’m stealing any thunder, those are my meager thoughts. I’m looking forward to reading more of yours 🙂

    • Hi Amy…

      I don’t know if I’d go so far to make the parallel between Obama and Augustus. Our president, with all of his flaws, is a follower of Jesus Christ. However, if you were to look at the way we salute a flag, or hold up the constitution as if it were inspired… then I might be inclined to say you are heading in the right direction…

      Where you are correct is in the power of symbols to capture our imaginations. Eagles, flags, Crosses with flags draped over them, and yes, even iconic emblems of a president would be parallels. In the ancient world coins (which I mentioned) are a good example of this that is still reflective in our world today…

      Either way… none of us are experts of theology 🙂 We are just searching the Scriptures and history to try and make sense out of it all. Your thoughts are highly valued here and please come back and say more!

      • A parallel I’m sure you will draw if you haven’t already…is the notion I’ve seen put forth by both Shane Claiborne and N.T. Wright that emperors used their “images” (in both coin and statue) as a reminder to subjects of a far-flung empire, as to who was their ruler. In his latest popular work “After You Believe,” Wright goes into some detail about how this is part of what it means for us to bear God’s image.

    • Amy, I haven’t seen the political cartoon you speak of; but I have to wonder if it was actually an example of ‘Obama worship’, or rather a caricature drawn by an OPPONENT who believes Obama is an ‘antichrist’ figure whose followers supposedly ‘worship’ him? I know of many ‘Christians’ who think that way (that is they think Obama is ‘antichrist’ and that those who approve of him ‘worship’ him AS IF he were Christ).

  • Amy Campbell

    Had to repost this, b/c it got lost in submitting.

    For one, I don’t believe President Obama is the Antichirst, though i do have close family that have believed that (my mother’s sister). My Daddy (I am souther, so while grown, he will always be my Daddy) says he is not. Though sometimes i belive either Sarah Palin or Hillary could be the lady in red. It’s a toss up (tongue in cheek)….

    President Obama is a good man, and he is a follower of Christ, Kurt. Thank you for pointing that out.

    Maybe he is one of the millions who will eventually play a key role in bringing about a thousand years of peace.

    So in that since, he had brought hope to our nation.

    Thanks for the responses 🙂

    • thanks Amy…

    • Amy Campbell

      To correct a couple of typos: Southern, not souther…and sense, not since…*blushing from embarrassment*…thanks.

    • Though sometimes i belive either Sarah Palin or Hillary could be the lady in red. It’s a toss up (tongue in cheek)….


  • Katrin Hefke

    Thanks for your posts, Kurt. Important questions. It reminds me on Claiborne and Haw in “Jesus for president”. What do you think about their book?

    • Hi Katrin! your welcome 🙂 I love that book! I read many of the same authors that they draw from… Have a great weekend!

  • John Holmes

    Kurt, the statistic you quote of 97% of the citizens of Rome are in poverty was very interesting. It made me really think of the statements in Luke-Acts about poverty and wealth. No wonder Jesus was addressing this so much.

    In Luke 4 he says the Spirit is on him to proclaim Jubilee, the cancel of debts and poverty…. In Acts 4, it seems the selling of Land was the Sprit’s way of destroying the poverty, how do you think we can use this model in our time and in our church’s too see a Kingdom reversal, it seems that Luke is the principle and Acts is the practice, this comes from my own studies, ? How do we enact the jubilee?

  • Joey Stevens

    Thanks Kurt for producing this. Looking forward to 3rd installment.

  • Amy Stone

    Keep it coming, Kurt. Nice work!

    For fun, if you ever have the time, check out the 70’s era mini-series I Claudius, about the Julio-Claudian dynasty. We used to have a videotaped copy, taken off of PBS, but recently rented it on DVD from Netflix. It’s not totally historically accurate, because it’s a dramatization, but is definitely worth watching (for people who are nerdy enough to care about such things 😉 )

    • That sounds cool… I hope to get to watch that sometime 🙂

  • About that grain distribution: do you have a source for that? Wright has argued that one of the problems in Rome was overpopulation. The solution was to grant citizenship and privileges to army veterans in the provinces so that they would stay away from Rome. Giving free grain to the populace would be counter-productive in such a scenario.

    • Amy Stone


      He said the grain was “imported” not “distributed for free” (not that it’s a big theological point). 🙂

    • Marc… I agree with wright, however you may view it as counter-productive with population issues; we have to keep in mind that on the other end the goal was to keep Roman locals happy. If the largest population center is happy and bought into the propaganda of the empire, they will be willing advocates for the purposes of the larger roman agenda… which also included inviting soldiers who retired to move beyond the borders of the city. And, while population issues were important, the primary reason that this was advantageous (according to Wright) was that it was a source of imperial security in other corners of the conquered territories that kept un-intimidated could choose to revolt. Move people who love the Empire into these territories with benefits… then you have imperial security.

      As far as my source on the grain, I think the stat came from here: Cassidy, Christians and Roman Rule in the New Testament: New Perspectives, 7-8. This distribution was called “Bread and Circus” as it was often combined with some kind of entertainment for the people.

      If you want to know my more research driven version of this project, you can read my paper called: Behind Luke’s Gospel: The Roman Empire During the Time of Jesus.


      • Amy Stone

        I really should listen to those little voices inside my head sometimes. There’s one that says, “Don’t answer questions that are directed at others.” Usually I take heed, and I’m always sorry when I don’t. Surefire way to look stupid. 😳

  • Janie Mock

    Kurt, On what basis do you say that Obama is a follower of Jesus Christ?

    And to Amy Campbell: I’m Southern too (I joined GRITS!) and I didn’t know there WAS any other name for one’s daddy except Daddy!!

    • Janie, I’d invite you to watch this video about his faith and conversion. He is not perfect… I disagree with him on abortion, but I do believe him to be sincere as believer… at least as much so as our former president, if not more.