Historical Context For Christmas

Originally it was my idea to produce a video for Advent.

I had big plans – a group of friends and I would wake up at four o’clock in the morning, setting out in our coats with a small camcorder in hand and an SD card freshly formatted to capture footage of the sunset that I hadn’t realized would occur closer to seven-thirty. We would get the footage and then write up a meaningful poem recitation and we would record someone reading that over some probably-copyrighted music. It was a pretty solid plan.

And then work, maybe-bronchitis but definitely-sick, and “who wants to wake up at four o’clock in the morning” reared their ugly chimera heads. The ambitious plans for a video dissipated like a mist, which I believe was a blessing, because the video was far too flashy in the first place. It’s my plan now, God willing (which I didn’t say before, of course) to have something simple done by Christmas. The point is to give glory to the Almighty, which is the perspective I’m trying to come from.

It’s challenging.

But during the process of making this video, I’ve been doing some research about the historical equivalent to the season of Advent – the time leading up to the birth of Jesus. I wanted to know the historical context of the birth of our savior, so I started to look up the political and cultural state of Palestine during the time of Jesus.

Although I’m still researching, I wanted to share a few big points that I found interesting. I hope you do to!

  •  Jesus was born at what is likely the absolute worst time ever.

I remember when I really grasped that the Roman Empire talked about within the Bible was the actual Roman Empire I’d read about in my high school history books. Suddenly, Jesus had context. He had physically walked on this world, at a specific point in time, in specific places. Big things were happening when he was here – things that would have put the time period in the history books even if he hadn’t been born into the world.

People were living their lives in the shadow of a huge split between wealth and poverty. Wars were being waged. Nations were being conquered under the iron fist of Empire. Politicians were being bribed and bought off, local governors were bowing to the whims of an unofficial dictator who was hailed as a savior.

A dissertation about this subject observes that, “in regard to the New Testament, the story of early Christianity finds its setting under the shadow of a meta-narrative that dominated most of the Mediterranean world and even beyond.”

The Roman Empire dominated.

We see Christ Immanuel being born under the reign of Caesar Augustus, the first Roman ruler following the assassination of Julius Caesar and the Civil War that it sparked. Massive Roman conquest in the provinces had occurred within the lifetime of the elders living during Jesus’ birth. The fall of the Roman Republic and the reformation under Caesar Augustus into a new Roman Empire had happened merely thirty years before.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Empire had attained so much power that Augustus sought that “all the world should be registered” and, according to the Gospel of Luke, “all went.”

  • Politics were utterly corrupt.

First off, you have Herod the Great, who is notorious not only for murdering members of his own family, but also, in fear of the baby spoken of as the “King of the Jews,” systematically murdering infant boys in the area surrounding the town of Bethlehem in a failed attempt to kill the Messiah.

Herod, technically a Jew, was the Roman-appointed “client king” of Judea, the region in the south of Palestine containing Jerusalem and Bethlehem. His brutality was condemned by the Sanhedrin, the religious elite and Jewish ruling body of the day.

Similarly, the Sanhedrin was not particularly righteous either. Not only were many members of the Sanhedrin, of both major political houses, legalists in terms of morality, as time progresses we see their true colors as they bend over backwards for the regional Roman governors in an attempt to have Jesus executed.

In the heart of the Empire, Caesar Augustus was renowned for maintaining shrewd diplomatic relationships with his senators and subjects.

“In order to remain in high regard before the Roman Senate, Augustus never fully claimed to be the ‘dictator’ of Rome (although it seems that for all practical purposes he wielded such authority). The structure of his leadership was similar to that of a constitutional monarchy, in which he was able to acquire great power without creating animosity between him and the senators.”

  • These conditions reveal that Jesus is not “out of place” today.

I’ve heard a lot of cultural voices asserting that Jesus is utterly irrelevant in today’s society. He lived in a different time and his “teachings” are nothing we can’t find in self help books. That, or we can circumvent the need for good teachings and healthful behavior with medication.

The idea that our society is so much different from the time Jesus came into the world is absolutely ridiculous. Just comparing the “bread and circuses” trope of the Roman Empire, in which the Roman government relentlessly taxed the outer provinces in order to provide welfare and entertainment for the citizenry of Rome, to today’s culture of massive government welfare programs and mindless, joint corporate/government controlled television programming is like looking in a mirror to a different time.

Plus, the constantly disastrous state of humanity does nothing if not pointing to the everlasting need for a savior. As much as the Roman conquest was the overarching meta-narrative of the Mediterranean, so to are brokenness, strife, and chaos utterly beyond repair and in need of a perfect savior the overarching meta-narrative of the world. As we rapidly approach Christmastide, let’s take the days leading up to the new year to reflect on our need for a savior.


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