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How Jesus is like Caesar Augustus, but better

It’s the year 2017 AD in the western world this year. Did you know that the AD means anno Domini; which is latin for ‘the year of our Lord’… our calendar counts the years from an estimate of the year that Jesus was born (it’s probably a few years out). But things could be different. We could be counting the years from the birth of Caesar Augustus; if the Roman empire had survived and continued to expand the way it was under his rule.

Did you know that lots of the titles used for Jesus: son of God, saviour of the world, the one who brings ‘peace on earth’ were all first used of Caesar Augustus, and proclaimed in a thing called a ‘Gospel’ (a Roman proclamation of good news)? There’s an inscription from 9BC called the Priene Calendar Inscription, which proclaims the following:

“whereas Providence that orders all our lives has in her display of concern and generosity in our behalf adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with virtue for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us a Saviour who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in peaceful order; and whereas Caesar, when he was manifest, transcended the expectations of all who had anticipated the good news, not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him; ….. proconsul Paul Fabius Maximus has discovered a way to honour Augustus that was hitherto unknown among the Greeks, namely to reckon time from the date of his nativity; therefore, with the blessings of Good Fortune and for their own welfare, the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23, which is the birthday of Augustus; and, to ensure that the dates coincide in every city, all documents are to carry both the Roman and the Greek date, and the first month shall, in accordance with the decree, be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.”

This inscription marks a move in the empire to recalculate the year, and the counting of years, from a new beginning date for the calendar; the birthday of Augustus, who was called ‘our God,’ the saviour who brought peaceful order and made war to cease…

And yet…

It’s 2017 AD, not 2026 AD. And the AD refers to Jesus, not Caesar.

You’ve got to wonder why. Don’t you. There were so many good things about the Roman empire; they were cultural innovators, educators, inventors, architects, world builders and had a pretty impressive military with a winning record. The empire also had a sophisticated economic regime and some pretty impressive propaganda, which centred on the spread of ‘good news’ like this, and on worship of the impressive emperor. Statues of the emperor, and coins bearing his mugshot, would circulate around the empire marking his reign, and signalling that it was Caesar who guaranteed the trade that was making people rich and comfortable within the empire (the same sort of coin that Jesus would one day say ‘give to Caesar what has his image on it,’ and give to God what has God’s image on it).

These statues would give people a sense of how to dress, and how to style their hair, and would reinforce the emperor’s place as a God. There’s even a line in Livy, the Roman historian’s work Ab Urbe Condita, which claims Augustus was celebrated as the “founder and restorer of all temples,” he was the head of the Roman state religion, the Pontifex Maximus (high priest)a pretty impressive man with a very impressive legacy (at least as he tells it, in his will, the Reg Gestae Divi Augustus — which translates as the ‘deeds of the Divine Augustus,’ his own claim of divinity.

At the heart of Augustus’ claim to peace was a pretty sinister suppression and destruction of anybody who stood against the empire. Rome was an intolerant military regime that used its propaganda skills to humiliate and destroy those who would not conform; who mastered the art of military conquest, certainly, but also, by the time of Caesar Augustus, had figured out how to crush any opposition from within. Augustus oversaw the transition from Republic to Empire, and his power was absolute; this sort of concentration of power would subsequently be abused by future Caesars in some pretty horrible ways, but Augustus represented the first absolute concentration of Roman power into the hands of one man.

This was the sort of power that meant that when, in the 70s BC, Rome faced an uprising from slaves in the empire, led by Spartacus, they crucified 6,000 men along one of Rome’s busiest thoroughfares, the Appian Way. This was a very clear message about these men who would oppose the empire, and helped give the cross it’s propaganda power. The cross was a symbol of total humiliation, reserved for slaves and eventually to those who would oppose Caesar; to empty their claims of power. This is also what led to a coronation of an entirely different sort of king; and the re-calculating of the calendar all over again. Augustus learned from this sort of history and realised that real power wasn’t just about the ability to decide between life and death for thousands of slave-warriors, but in being viewed as a god-man. Augustus was the ruler of Rome when another would be king entered the scene, as we’re told in Luke’s Gospel:

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” — Luke 2:1

A census is where a king would, for pride’s sake, measure the size of the kingdom and their military might. It’s the sort of activity that underpins claims like these in Res Gestae:

“I undertook many civil and foreign wars by land and sea throughout the world, and as victor I spared the lives of all citizens who asked for mercy. When foreign peoples could safely be pardoned I preferred to preserve rather than to exterminate them. The Roman citizens who took the soldier’s oath of obedience to me numbered about 500,000. I settled rather more than 300,000 of these in colonies or sent them back to their home towns after their period of service ; to all these I assigned lands or gave money as rewards for their military service. I captured six hundred ships, not counting ships smaller than triremes…

I carried out a census of the people, and I performed a lustrum after a lapse of forty-two years ; at that lustrum 4,063,000 Roman citizens were registered. Then a second time I performed a lustrum with consular imperium and without a colleague, in the consulship of Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius; at that lustrum 4,233,000 citizens were registered. Thirdly I performed a lustrum with consular imperium, with Tiberius Caesar, my son, as colleague, in the consulship of Sextus Pompeius and Sextus Appuleius; at that lustrum 4,957,000 citizens were registered.”

Bizarrely it’s this census that brings about the birth of an alternate king in the town in which his birth is prophesied; this act of human power and ego boosting that fuels a bragfest for Augustus also introduces a new king; God’s king, into the world. It is pretty amazing that God organises history in this way so that Caesar is basically a pawn in his plans; or a bit player at the start and end of Jesus life (though by then it’s the authority of a different member of the family that is employed to legitimise the execution of Jesus).

Jesus was tried and sentenced to death for exactly the same crime as Spartacus and his slave-soldiers; for opposing the empire. In Jesus case it was for claiming the same titles that Caesar claimed for himself; titles that would later lead his followers to write ‘Gospels’ claiming that Jesus is the one who would bring peace on earth.

Here’s what ultimately leads to the death of Jesus; on a cross — which incidentally is no longer a symbol of Roman power, but of the subversive power of the Gospel; the king who turned the whole world upside down and reshaped history so that we count the date from his birth, not arguably the most powerful man ever to have lived.

Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12-16

Crucified. This was meant to be the humiliation of Jesus; the emptying of his claims, at the hand of Caesar. This was a tool meant to ensure the calendar kept ticking over undisturbed. Somehow, at least as history and the calendar in the western world has unfolded, Jesus is like Caesar, but better. Somehow there are crosses on buildings all over the world marking the peace of Jesus, and his kingdom here on earth, rather than eagles bearing SPQR proclaiming the pax Romana (the peace of Rome).

There’s a series of announcements voiced by different people in Luke’s Gospel that sound very much like that Priene Calendar Inscription, using titles very much like Caesars, and these claims about Jesus are much easier to track down than the claims about Augustus, because Jesus is like Caesar Augustus, but better.

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” — Luke 1:32-33

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” — Luke 2:14

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.” — Luke 2:29-32

And this from Jesus himself, as potentially a more accurate res gestae (literally ‘things done’):

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

That he ultimately achieves this mission via a cross; Rome’s symbol of power, the symbol that ultimately changes the course of the empire (and the calendar) is a delicious irony that we sometimes miss because we’re so removed from events.


The author

Nathan loves stories. He gets to tell the greatest story in the world — the story of Jesus — as a job, and to his kids. But he also loves how many other stories help us see and feel our way through the world. And Like But Better is a way to bring these loves together.

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