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Caesar Augustus and the New Testament
Jason Freewalt
BIL 102: New Testament Survey
Dr. Kierstead

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.[1]

This 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.

According to the Roman historian Livy, Augustus Caesar was considered "founder and restorer of all our temples."[2]  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.[3]  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 services."[4]  Therefore, 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.[5]

One 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.[6]  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.[7] 

According 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."[8]  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,"[9] who later became Caesar's son-in-law.[10]

The death of Augustus on August 19, AD 14,[11] led to the rule of his stepson, Tiberius (AD 14-37).[12]  It was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius that John the Baptist began baptizing people in the Jordan.[13]  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,[14] 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.

Thus, 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.

[1] Luke 2:1, NIV.
[2] Livy, The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of The History of Rome from its Foundation, Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, London: Penguin, 1960, 290-1.
[3] Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Translated by Robert Graves, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1979, 56.
[4] Ibid., 55.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 59.
[7] Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Translated by Michael Grant, London: Penguin, 1971, 32.
[8] Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, Translated by G. A. Williamson, Revised and Edited by Andrew Louth, London: Penguin, 1989, 17.
[9] Josephus, The Jewish War, Translated by G. A. Williamson, Revised by E. Mary Smallwood, London: Penguin, 1981, 80-1.
[10] Suetonius, 88.
[11] Ibid., 110.
[12] Tacitus, 35.
[13] Luke 3:1, NIV.
[14] Claudius 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. •• Freewalt Family •• Search •• Terms of Use

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