In the years that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, there was a series of bloody civil wars that engulfed much of Italy. Eventually Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son Octavian came out on top. Four years later Octavian became Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. And proclaimed that he was the son of God.

In the city of Priene, in Turkey, you can find a stone inscription which was written in praise of Caesar Augustus, this ‘son of God’. It makes three very specific claims:

  • The gods sent Augustus as a ‘saviour’
  • His birth was ‘good news’ (gospel) for the world
  • By his ‘appearance’ (his epiphany) he would end war

So, how did he match up to these claims?

When Augustus came to power, the Republic of Rome was already large, stretching as far as France in the West, and parts of Turkey in the East. But not large enough. Augustus was a skilful military leader, and enormously extended it, pushing his forces much deeper into Europe, conquering the Balkans and cutting huge swathes into northern Africa.  So did he end war with his ‘epiphany’?

Across this Roman Empire was a huge network of roads stretched into every corner of the conquered territories. And at the centre, like a bloated spider in its web, was Rome itself. And the spider had a ferocious appetite. All those conquered lands supplied food and luxury goods for Rome. Egypt sent grain; olive oil and gold came from Spain; spices and perfumes from the East; mosaics came from North Africa. There were factories producing bricks and clay goods in industrial quantities. Wine flowed in from Egypt, Spain and France – at her peak, the city of Rome consumed 200 million litres a year. Was this ‘good news’ for the world?

And of course one of the most profitable commodities traded was human flesh. From Germany, from Egypt, from Turkey: every battle victory resulted in the capture of thousands. In the markets, slaves could be purchased in ones and twos for skilled artisan or administrative work, or in bulk for farming or mining, where they would live and die anonymously, cheap and expendable labour. 30% of the population of the city of Rome were slaves. So, was Caesar a ‘saviour’?

At the centre of the web, the spider that was Rome grew fat on the benefits of this trade. And how did the government deploy this obscene income stream? On its war machine.

70% of Rome’s expenditure was on its army. At its peak it had around half a million highly trained and disciplined troops, equipped with cutting-edge military technology. For an empire that prided itself on its peace, on the benefits it brought to its peoples, it sure needed a lot of soldiers to do it. And as we know, the Romans made an art form of judicial murder.

Of course Rome was not the first great oppressive empire. Remember the Egyptians, and their exploitation of slave labour to build their great cities. Later came the Assyrians, who made the terror of their treatment of war captives a weapon in its own right. Then were the Babylonians, who seized and extended the Assyrian empire with crushing power. They were followed by the Persians, who invented crucifixion as a useful means of punishing and deterring rebellion. After the Persians came the Greeks, whose oppression under Antiochus IV exceeded all that had gone before.  

Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. And after those days: the Han dynasty, the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the Third Reich, the USSR… They all have the same MO. They all claim to be good news. To be the saviour. Empire is like a monster with many heads. It is the juggernaut of history, crushing all who stand in its way.

During the time of the Persian Empire, the prophet Daniel interpreted a dream. And in this dream, the empires of antiquity were represented like a great statue. Listen:

“In your dream O king, you saw a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay… This was the dream. Now we will tell the king its interpretation. You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory… You are that head of gold. Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these.” (Dan 2:31-33, 36-40)

Luke 2 opens with Mary, Joseph and the unborn Jesus, living within the iron kingdom, which is indeed breaking and crushing. As they make their way to Bethlehem, the juggernaut of history is bearing down on them, and – make no mistake – it will crush them if they step out of line. Because we should be in no doubt about this: the empire permits no rival.

Let’s remind ourselves of the claims that Caesar Augustus made for himself.

  • He was the ‘son of God’.
  • The gods sent him as a ‘saviour’.
  • His birth was ‘good news’ (gospel) for the world.
  • By his ‘appearance’ (his epiphany) he would end war.

We’re familiar with these words. We hear them a lot. But we can miss how political they were when Luke wrote them in his book.

First: gospel (good news). In our reading, the angel told the shepherds, ‘I bring you good news (or glad tidings) – literally, ‘I am gospelling you’. Gabriel has already ‘gospelled’ Zechariah in the previous chapter (Luke 1:19). When the grown-up Jesus walks into the Nazareth synagogue, and reads from the book of Isaiah, he announces that he has come to ‘gospel’ (Luke 4:19).  And on it goes. It is the coming of Jesus Christ which is good news, whatever Caesar may claim.

Second: saviour. Again, remember the angel’s words to the shepherds ‘to you is born this day, a Saviour’ (Luke 2:11). This is echoed later by Simeon, ‘Now Lord, let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation’ (Luke 2:30). Again and again Luke shows us how God’s purpose of salvation is being worked out through Jesus, climaxing in one of the key statements of Luke’s gospel in chapter 19 (v.10) – ‘the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’.

And the third significant word used about Caesar in that inscription is epiphanes which translates as ‘manifestation’ or ‘enlightenment’. And this word, too, is found in the early part of Luke’s gospel. In chapter 1, Zechariah sings over his newborn son, John – who, of course, is the one who will point to Jesus. Listen again to these words, in the light of Caesar’s claim.

“You (John) will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light (epiphanes) to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

If I’d given you a bingo card of Caesar’s claims, you’d be shouting ‘house’ by now.

Luke is stacking up a set of claims about Jesus that are charged with political significance. He’s making it clear that Jesus brings a kingdom which challenges everything that the Roman Empire represents.

And here, at the beginning of the story, Mary and Joseph are making their way to Bethlehem, with the juggernaut of history bearing down upon them. And Luke presents us with the utterly mismatched pair: Caesar and Jesus.

  • Caesar commands armies. Jesus is an unborn foetus. His life hangs by a literal thread, that slim cord that joins him to his mother’s body.
  • Caesar can sit in Rome, dictating the movement of millions of people thousands of miles away. Jesus is a passenger, carried along on the tide of other people’s choices, as his heavily pregnant mother is making the perilous journey from  Nazareth to Bethlehem.
  • Caesar possesses exorbitant wealth. He owns palaces, orchards, vineyards, extravagant works of art, gold jewellery, rich clothing, he eats the finest fare. Jesus doesn’t even own a cradle.

Surely the empire will crush this baby saviour like a juggernaut running over a rabbit without even noticing.

But if Caesar is tempted to be complacent, sheltered as he is by his wealth and his privilege, protected as he is by military garrisons bristling with state of the art weaponry, he would do well to read the book of Daniel. Because in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, there was another element. We’ve read about the statue, each component representing a new kingdom which would succeed the last. But also there was a stone, a little stone rolling down the hillside. A pebble, which can surely do no harm to anyone. We return to Daniel 2 (vv.34-35).

“As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

And then Daniel explains this part of his dream to the king.

“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever; just as you saw that a stone was cut from the mountain not by hands, and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation trustworthy.” (vv.44-45)

Long before the arrival of Jesus, Daniel is pointing towards a kingdom that will be set up by God, not by humans; a kingdom that will bring an end to all previous kingdoms; one that will be indestructible, and therefore everlasting. This kingdom will come in an unexpected way, in smallness, in frailty. But it will be unstoppable.

And so it is. The nearly silent, almost hidden birth of the one whose kingdom will eclipse anything that Caesar can muster, will stubbornly resist all that the empire can throw at it.

Holding the infant Jesus in the temple, the aged Simeon says this: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34). Simeon foresees the kingdom that this baby will rule will prove to be a stumbling block to many. It will never accommodate human power structures. It cannot be brought in with force. It will always challenge the pomp and wealth of emperors and kings and presidents.

So what does all this say to us in General Election week?

  • Cast your vote on Thursday, but do not believe the propaganda of human rulers.
  • Cast your vote on Thursday but do not put your trust in human leaders.
  • Cast your vote on Thursday but remember that the one who is truly the Saviour will not be on your ballot sheet.

The rulers and would-be rulers of this world will always set themselves up as benevolent saviours, guardians of peace. But ultimately, all humans are corrupt, and all lies will be exposed.

Whoever is Prime Minister on Friday morning, God will still be on the throne. His kingdom is not built with human structures. And nor can it be stopped by human plans. The Caesars and Herods and Putins of the world will bow before him. So too will Sunak and Starmer and Farage.

Long ago, the psalmist wrote these words:

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.
(Ps 146:3-5)

In Rome today you can visit the mausoleum of Augustus, where his body lies. It’s a large and imposing structure on the river Tiber. But if you visit Jerusalem, you will not find a tomb containing the body of Jesus Christ.

Helen Paynter is the Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence

Image Credits:
Priene inscription. By Adolf Deissmann – Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World, Public Domain,

Foot statue. From Metropolitan Museum of Art Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (“CCO 1.0 Dedication”)
Polling station. cc, House of Commons Library .

Caesar, the saviour?
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