Jesus in an Historical Context

29 May
Historical Jesus

from Google images

By placing the birth of Jesus in the context of other historical figures, Luke does what no other writer of religion does. He places the main character in an historical context. Jesus is not a myth made up to accommodate a belief. Neither is he a legend that might be a part of history but is unable to be proved. Rather, ancient historians speak of Jesus: Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Mara Bar-Serapion, Thallus, Lucian and the Talmud.

Caesar’s decree (Luke 2:1) was not a world tax but an enrollment or a census of some kind. Official censuses for the purpose of taxation took place every 20 years. There was one in 28 BC, another in 8 BC. The next official empire-wide census for the purpose of taxation, however, was conducted 21 years later. Something occurred around the time of Christ’s birth to delay taxation by one year. Caesar did not directly tax the Jews in Herod’s kingdom. He took an annual tribute from Herod, but it was Herod who taxed the Jews and their properties. In fact, after Herod’s death one of the first things the people asked of Archelaus was to relieve them of the heavy burden of annual and sales taxes.[1]

A world census requiring an ‘oath of allegiance to Caesar’ was conducted for celebrations in Rome for Caesar’s silver jubilee as “the divine savior who has brought peace to the world”[2] and to recognize him as Patar Patriae or “Father of the Country / Nation / Empire. The celebration also coincided with the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome.[3] This census took place in 3 BC[4] and was presented to Caesar on February 5th 2 BC. It was probably this celebration that delayed the regular 20 year census/tax conducted throughout the empire. The year 2 BC was considered so special that Rome probably made it a free year.

On the other hand, Jesus came into the world without anything. No one gave him as much as a comfortable room in which to lay his head (cf. Luke 2:7). The great powers of the world were completely unaware of his presence. Compare: “He was in the world and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (John 1:10) with the statement above concerning the celebration of Caesar’s silver jubilee: “the divine savior who has brought peace to the world.”[5]It wasn’t until later that Jesus became well known throughout the Roman world, but this was done through the preaching of his followers. Nevertheless, from his birth to his death, Jesus was rejected by his countrymen and unknown to the world.

Thus, by putting Jesus’ humble birth in the context of the world’s celebration of Caesar’s silver jubilee, God shows us that he will accomplish what he desires without the power of men of great authority. He does not need our power or our approval concerning anything he does (cf. Daniel 4:34-35). Instead, he will use the efforts of men submissive to his authority to preach his word, and thereby men, who are equally inclined in their hearts, will submit to the word preached to them and honor God by receiving Jesus as their Lord.

The phrase: “in his own city” in Luke 2: 3 means everyone went to the official place for the enrollment in the city in which they currently lived. It had absolutely nothing to do with going to the city of one’s ancestors. Such an undertaking would have only created chaos throughout the empire, and for no good reason. The purpose for which Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem had nothing to do with the Romans. Rather, they went to Bethlehem, because they were of the house and lineage of David (Luke 2:4), and Herod conducted his own loyalty census “when all the rest of the Jews swore allegiance to Caesar”[6] In this manner Herod could keep a close eye upon anyone whom the Jews thought had a claim to be their king.


[1] JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 17.8.4 (204-205)

[2] Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, 58-61.

[3] See my studies: Did Augustus Tax the World and Worldwide Census.

[4] JOSEPHUS; Antiquities of the Jews 17.2.4 (041-042)

[5] Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, 58-61.

[6] JOSEPHUS; Antiquities of the Jews 17.2.4 (041-042)

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Posted by on May 29, 2016 in Gospel of Luke


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