In his God & Empire, John Dominic Crossan talks about how the Gospels’ portrayal of everything about Jesus’s birth is designed to underscore his status as both royal and divine. That’s probably a familiar point, but what I learned from his book was that much of the Christian imagery surrounding the birth of Jesus was already in circulation within Roman sources. It makes sense, I suppose, that the available concepts of <royal> and <divine> were situated within the empire’s hierarchy. Octavian was frequently characterized as a king, human and divine at once, son of the gods, etc. But it goes further. Crossan translates a contemporaneous inscription:
The eternal and immortal nature of everything has bestowed upon mankind the greatest good with extraordinary benefactions by bringing Caesar Augustus in our blessed time the father of his own country, divine Rome, and ancestral Zeus, Savior of the common race of men, whose providence has not only fulfilled but actually exceeded the prayers of all. For land and sea are at Peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord, and prosperity. (God & Empire, p. 108)
Here Octavian is praised as creator, long awaited answer to prayers, and savior of the whole world (land and sea). Crossan explains that “the phrase ‘peace on land and sea’ became almost an Augustan mantra at the heart of Roman imperial theology. The only question, of course, was whether peace on earth was to be established as Augustus’s peace through victory or Jesus’s peace through justice.”
Crossan notes that Jesus grew up just a few miles from Sepphoris. Around the time Jesus was probably born, Josephus records a small rebellion in Sepphoris, which was brutally suppressed by Roman authorities. Here’s Crossan’s conjecture about the aftermath:
Those who survived would have lost everything. I speculate, therefore, that the major stories Jesus would have heard while growing up in Nazareth would have been about “the year the Romans came.” I push the speculation a little further: At some chosen moment in Jesus’s youth, did Mary bring him up to the top of the Nazareth ridge, point out Sepphoris, and talk about “the Year of the Romans”? From all such talk, what did the young Jesus decide about God, Rome, resistance, and violence?