“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” Matthew 2:1-3
The story of Christmas has not just one “Son of God,” but two. Most of us know this part of the Christmas story: when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a star appeared to guide the wise men to see Jesus. But in the middle of this story is their interaction with King Herod, who was “disturbed” by news of this new child labeled as “King of the Jews.” Herod himself had already been given the title “King of the Jews” when Rome installed him as king. You can’t have two “King of the Jews.” It was a bit awkward and ended up being deadly for many of the kids around the time of Jesus’ birth. You don’t find that part of the story on Christmas cards.
Kings aren’t too fond of someone else being called King of their people, city, or region. While the Romans allowed other kings to rule underneath their true King — Caesar — there was to be no confusion about who the Savior of the world, the King of all kings, the Son of God, was. And to them, it wasn’t Jesus.
Caesars, Gods, and Comets
To understand this story, we have to go back a little before the time of Jesus to a guy named Julius Caesar. You know, the guy who was killed in the Senate by Brutus and whom we’ve named small dogs and a salad dressing after. Yes, that guy. He ruled from only 46-44 BC, but his impact on history is undeniable, especially for the Caesars who would follow after him.
During Julius Caesar’s short reign, he adopted an 18-year-old personal heir named Gaius Octavius, known as Octavian. At Julius Caesar’s funeral games to commemorate his honor, a bright comet is seen in the sky flying by for the next seven days. Octavius and others comment that this was the soul of Julius Caesar and that he must have indeed been a god. Just two years after this event, Julius Caesar is officially recognized as a god by the Senate, becoming the first Roman to be deified. They minted coins to commemorate and instill this story and this narrative into their culture, politics, and even religion.
This is pivotal to understanding the parallels between Octavian — who would later be known as Augustus Caesar, becoming Rome’s first emperor — and the story of Jesus.
Two of Everything
An inscription taken from a building in western turkey dating a few years before the birth of Jesus the Christ puts the magnitude of Augustus Caesar’s reign and story into perspective:
“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 the whole world a new aspect; 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 the Providence which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us the emperor Augustus…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, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times…the birthday of the God Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of good news concerning him.” (Priene Inscription, Western Turkey 9BCE)
It’s hard to miss all of the parallels and the shocking language that was used for Caesar Augustus that we as Christians use exclusively for Jesus Christ, but let’s go through a few of them:
“Divine Caesar…the beginning of all things…” – The idea that Caesar August is the beginning, the reason, and the ordering of all things is directly challenged by what will later be said about Jesus the Christ. For He is “before all things,” the one that all things are “for,” “whom made all things,” and who continuously “holds all things together” (Hebrews 2:10; Colossians 1:17; 1 Corinthians 8:6). There can’t be two people to which all things live and move and have their being and purpose!
“Sent to us…and our descendants as Savior…” – Caesar Augustus was sent, to people and all generations apparently as the savior of the world. In Jesus’ story, the angels make the same declaration in far humbler circumstances: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12) All people would be blessed and could be saved through Jesus.
“To put an end to war…” – All emperors, kings, and rulers ran their campaigns and their legacy on the idea of “bringing peace.” Peace is what citizens, families, even governments wanted, and Rome most of all wanted to keep the peace in order to keep their power. Caesar Augustus knew the importance of leading in the name of peace. Jesus the Christ would be the ultimate bringer of peace as foretold in Isaiah 9:6: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And as announced by the angels in Luke 2:13-14: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
“Having become God manifest…” – Even before Jesus, the idea of gods taking human form and walking among people was there in the Greek, Roman, and other pagan religions. The prophecy of God drawing near to His people in Isaiah 7:14 is taken up again in the story of Jesus’ birth, where the Messiah, Jesus, is called “Immanuel” or “God with us.” Later the Gospel writer John would say that God “incarnated” and made His dwelling among us (John 1:14).
“For the whole world the beginning of good news concerning him…” – Good news was usually delivered by a messenger to people or to a king that a battle had been won, a war had ended, or that someone powerful had come to put an end to injustice. The “good news” is one of the major tenets of Christianity, news that the angels brought to all on the announcement of the birth of the Messiah. The “Good News” is that Jesus was not only here but came to be the true Savior of the world through His life, death, and resurrection.
These last two aren’t taken directly from the inscription but can be easily seen from the story of Jesus and the story of Julius and Augustus Caesar.
At the funeral of Julius Caesar, a start lit up the sky, signifying the divinity and the departure of Julius Caesar, whom the Romans gave the title of “god.” At the birth of Jesus, the star in the sky signified the coming Messiah, that the Lord God Himself had come to the world. The two stars were only about 36 years apart (42 BC for Julius Caesar and around 4-6 BC for Jesus), but the connection between stars, divinity, and the presence of God was unmistakable.
Two Sons of God
Lastly, it was shrewd, calculated, politically motivated, and personally beneficial for Caesar Augustus to call his stepfather Julius a “god.” Because what do you get to call yourself if your father is God? Well, the “Son of God,” of course.
While Julius Caesar’s reign was short, Augustus Caesar’s was quite a bit longer, even overlapping the birth of Jesus Christ from the years of 31 BC to 14 AD. As Augustus fought to become caesar, eventually became Rome’s first emperor, solidified the cult of emperor worship, and deified his adopted Father, he changed Rome forever. The danger and the parallel here are unmistakable as Caesar August proclaims himself as the son of God even as, during his reign, the true Son of God was born.
While the history and connection between a first-century Roman Emperor and the Messiah’s birth aren’t well known, the importance of these events is huge! For one, it sets the birth of Christ within history, within a hostile world of kings, political posturing, false deities, powerful language, and memorable imagery.
It also highlights the importance of identity, story, and true hope. Caesar Augustus had all the power, wealth, soldiers, and political tools to manufacture and spread the story of his divinity. And yet, the humble beginnings of Jesus Christ are what has lasted and brought peace, hope, and tidings of great joy to the world. We orient a whole season around Christ, not Caesar. We mark our days, months, birthdays, and years around Christ, and not Caesar. Christmas is named after Christ, not Caesar.
The Christmas story — and history! — of the coming Messiah is the reason we name our kids John, Matthew, Luke, Mark, Paul, Peter, and even Jesus, and why we name our dogs and our salads after Caesar.