Augustus and the New Testament
102: New Testament Survey
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree
that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
short verse found in the book of Luke is the only specific mention
of Augustus Caesar in the Bible. However, who was Augustus
Caesar? How did Augustus and his reign as emperor of the
Roman Empire affect the people of New Testament times? While
these questions merit voluminous answers, this paper will attempt
to offer but a few select answers to these important questions.
to the Roman historian Livy, Augustus Caesar was considered "founder
and restorer of all our temples." However,
he would never have achieved such a grand title without a grand
rise to power. Augustus was born on September 23 in the year
63 BC. The
title "Augustus" was not bestowed on him until 27 BC. Until
then, he was simply known as Octavian after his father Gaius Octavius,
who was a moneychanger "who distributed bribes among the voters
in the Campus [of the Senate] and undertook other electioneering
it is quite clear that Octavian's roots were neither honorable
nor virtuous. Yet, after the brutal murder of Julius Caesar
on the floor of the Roman Senate, this son of Gaius Octavius and
Atia, daughter of Marcus Atius Balbus and Julius Caesar's sister
Julia, was next in line to become the new emperor of Rome.
of his first actions as emperor was to form a triumvirate (a three-person
oligopoly) between Mark Antony, Lepidus, and himself. He
then used this triumvirate to defeat Brutus and Cassius, who led
the murderous mob against his great-uncle, Julius Caesar. With
Brutus and Cassius dead, no more military forces from the old Roman
Republic survived. Hence, the Roman Republic was no more
and the triumvirate was in sole control of Rome. Eventually
Lepidus was "dropped" and Antony was killed, leaving
Octavian as virtual dictator.
to the historian Eusebius, "It was the forty-second year of
Augustus's reign…when our Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ…was
born in Bethlehem, in Judaea." Although
the reign of Augustus was near its end, he had already established
a relationship with Herod the Great, who would play an important
role in the early life of Christ. Augustus Caesar was responsible
for expanding Herod's territory. Augustus also gave Herod
other considerations because, as Suetonius stated, "in Caesar's
affections [Herod] was second only to [Marcus] Agrippa," who
later became Caesar's son-in-law.
death of Augustus on August 19, AD 14, led
to the rule of his stepson, Tiberius (AD 14-37). It
was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius that John the
Baptist began baptizing people in the Jordan. Caligula,
or Gaius, (AD 37-41) succeeded Tiberius, Claudius I (AD 41-54)
succeeded Caligula, and Nero (AD 54-68) succeeded Claudius I (all
were descendants of Augustus.) By examining the dates of
the reigns of these emperors and by examining biblical references
to them, it is
clear that the descendants of Augustus were directly or indirectly
responsible for the execution of Jesus and the persecution of the
Christians who followed Him.
it is clear that Augustus had a great deal of indirect impact on
the life of Jesus and on Christianity. Not only did Augustus
issue the census that took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, but he
also gave Herod the immense power necessary to effect the slaughter
of the innocents in his quest to kill Jesus. Furthermore,
the emperors who descended from Augustus placed Jesus' reluctant
executioner, Pontius Pilot, in power and persecuted Christians,
through Nero and others, for generations to come. Obviously,
Augustus Caesar had no knowledge that these events would unfold
as a result of his life or through his descendants, but this serves
as an excellent example of God's Work and the triumph of His Will
through the life of one man.
Early History of Rome: Books I-V of The History of Rome from
, Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt,
London: Penguin, 1960, 290-1.
, Translated by Robert Graves, Middlesex,
England: Penguin, 1979, 56.
Annals of Imperial Rome
, Translated by Michael Grant, London:
Penguin, 1971, 32.
The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, Translated
by G. A. Williamson, Revised and Edited by Andrew Louth, London:
Penguin, 1989, 17.
, Translated by G. A. Williamson, Revised by
E. Mary Smallwood, London: Penguin, 1981, 80-1.
in Acts 11:28, 18:2 and Nero who persecuted and executed Christians,
possibly sparking 1 & 2 Peter as a response. See the
caption for the "Head of Nero" on page 637 in Eerdmans
Handbook to the Bible