Luke 2:1-5 – Birth of Jesus: Background


Luke begins the story of Jesus’ birth by situating it against the background of a Roman census (Lk 2:1-5), an event in the secular history of the Roman empire. The setting is indeed solemn. A similar background is also provided for the call of John the Baptist and his prophetic ministry in Luke 3:1-2. By referring to an enrolment of “all of the world” i.e., the Roman empire, Luke suggests the world-wide significance of the birth of Jesus. Caesar Augustus ruled over the Roman empire from 27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E. Palestine was then a territory under Roman rule. At the mention of Augustus, Luke’s contemporaries would recall a major event in the Roman empire, namely, the end to the long civil war in the empire and the consequent peace that was brought about by Augustus. The altar of Pax-Augusta (Augustan peace) in Rome testifies to the Augustan era pf peace. He was hailed in some parts of his kingdom as “saviour of the whole world”, and even ‘god’, as many Greek inscription of the time testify. A particular inscription, known as the ‘Priene inscription’, has the following regarding the celebration of Augustus’ birthday: “the birthday of the god has marked the beginning of the good news through him for the whole world”. This political and religious background is in sharp contrast with the picture Luke paints of Jesus’ birth. For Luke, the real Saviour of the world and the real bringer of peace is none other than Jesus (Cf. Lk 2:11, 14, 38) whose birth story he is about to narrate. In contrast to the majesty and opulence of the Roman emperor who was regarded as saviour, the circumstances that attend Jesus’ birth are totally different; Jesus, the Saviour and King of Peace is born in lowly surroundings.

Luke’s statement about the census in Luke 2:1-3 is beset with many difficulties. During the time of Caesar Augustus censuses for the sake of taxation-assessment were held in certain provinces of the empire. But there is no evidence, apart from Luke 2:1-2, of a census that covered the entire Roman empire. Similarly, there is no evidence of a decree by Caesar Augustus requiring a census of the entire empire. Besides, the requirement to register oneself in one’s own ancestral town is also not attested by any other source. It is, therefore, impossible to solve the chronological and other difficulties raised by the Lukan reference to the census. For Luke, however, the Roman census is a providential reason for the movement of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the city of David and Joseph’s ancestral town. (Bethlehem is about 90 miles from Nazareth). Luke wants to show that Jesus comes from the Davidic lineage through Joseph (Cf. Lk 1:32-33). The census, thus, serves an important function for Luke. It also helps the evangelist to situate Jesus’ birth in the context of world events. What is important for Luke is that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David (Cf. Ps 87:6). David was first a shepherd when God called him. He was grazing the sheep of his father Jesse in the vicinity of Bethlehem (1 Sam 17:14-15, 34-35). Also, Micah 5:22 speaks of Bethlehem as the place of the origin of the ‘ruler of Israel’ (Cf. Mt 2:6). This text of Micah is quoted in Matthew 2:6: “And you, O Bethlehem … from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel”.

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