Christianity versus Roman Nationalism

Contained within the two-volume work of the physician, Luke is a polemic which when read against the backdrop of the Roman Empire is seen to be pro-Kingdom of God and somewhat anti-Roman Empire. An important virtue in the first century for a Roman citizen to possess was a nationalism not unlike what we see today around the world and in our country. Luke, however, challenges the early Christians and us to abandon worldly nationalism for the all-encompassing global and celestial kingdom of God.

Within the world that Luke-Acts (1) circulated was an imperial cult whose worship was mandatory for its citizenry and which would eventually bring persecution to followers of Christ. Christians who refused to utter “lord Caesar” and offer incense to him because Christ was the only Lord were accused of atheism and put to death unless they recanted Christ and worshiped Caesar (cf. Mart. Poly. 8.2). Contending with the mindset that Caesar was “lord,” Luke posited an alternative to the emperor cult with Christ as Ceasar’s replacement. The golden age of Augustus had passed along with the hype given to his reign by Virgil, Rome’s national poet (cf. Aeneid 6.791–97; Ecl. 4.4–52).

In the literary style beloved by the Greco-Romans, Luke employed the epic (2) as his literary device while promoting Jesus Christ as the true “Savior” and “Lord” of humanity and not Caesar. Moreover, the “kingdom” of Christ was supreme to that of Rome as evidenced by Luke’s employment of terms distinguishing the two. These points—that Luke contended with cultic worship, wrote using the literary device of the epic, and semantically distinguished between Rome’s and Jesus’ kingdom—demonstrate that the purpose of Luke’s writings was to elevate the “kingdom of God” above the Imperial Kingdom of Rome.

At the beginning of chapter two of his Gospel, Luke pointed out that Augustus ordered a census as a reminder of the timeframe in which the Lord was birthed. Luke may have also intended for his audience to absorb the story of the young Christ inquiring of and answering the scholars in Jerusalem at age twelve as a referendum to a similarly gifted, and young, Augustus. In spite of certain scholars claiming that this section (Luke 2:41–52) is fiction (3), history attests otherwise as to its probability.

Jewish males began their education at a young age and progressed as they aged: “At five years of age for Scripture; at ten, for Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments; at fifteen for Talmud” (Pirke Aboth 5.22; cf. Nid. 5.6; Meg. 4.6). Jesus, being twelve, would have been naturally inquisitive, but the nature of his inquiry shone forth his understanding to the astonishment of the scholars. Some of the most prominent characters have extra-biblical sources attesting to their prowess as youths. Moses had a great understanding as a child (Antiq. 2.230; Philo, Moses 1.21); Samuel prophesied at twelve (Antiq. 5.348); Abraham distanced himself from his idolatrous father at two weeks old while and at fourteen he instructed farmers on livestock and sowing to avoid ravens (Jub. 11:18–24). Youthful prowess and distinction of heroes was also a characteristic of Greco-Roman characters in literature (cf. Philostratus, Vit. Apoll. 1.7; Plutarch, Alex. 5; Cicero 2.2).

Since Roman society was so infatuated with Augustus, Luke sought to counteract the god-like esteem of a ruler by positing the Son of God who was to reign on David’s throne as the one and only God (4). The birth of Augustus was prophesied and marked by omens. A notable politician had a dream and upon meeting young Augustus identified him as the savior of Rome. The politicians Quintus Catulus and Cicero dreamed that he was in the lap of and endowed by Jupiter (Zeus) thus making him the “son of a god.” Julius Caesar who was later deified selected Augustus as his successor (Suetonius, Aug. 94). “It is … certain that both Luke and his readers knew of Caesar Augustus, and quite probable that they knew also of at least some of the stories, legends, and traditions that had gathered around him (5).” Therefore, that Luke sought to counteract the imperial cult or at least the idea of such, may well be attested to in the early stages of his Gospel through the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus as well as Gabriel’s announcement of Christ’s identity (Luke 1:32–33).

The reign of Caesar Augustus brought the Pax Romanum after years of civil war. What’s more noteworthy is that Caesar Augustus’ reign had a Messianic aura about it in the minds of the Roman people, so when Luke mentioned Caesar Augustus in light of the story of Christ Luke proposed that Jesus was the true Messianic figure and not Augustus. Vergil’s national epic of ancient Rome “prophesied” about the reign of Caesar Augustus as the anticipated reign of the Roman people. Vergil’s epic was published in 19 BC, so by the time of Luke’s Gospel, the notion of Caesar Augustus being the “Messiah” was firmly implanted in the Roman mind. Augustus’ reign was synonymous with peace and prosperity, but Jesus’ reign in the kingdom of God would solidify the very concepts of peace and prosperity.

As Vergil wrote after the manner of Homer, so Luke wrote after the manner of both, but more so the former. Epics were recited publically and read privately (Plutarch, Moralia 711a–713f; Pliny, Epistulae 1.15.2; Tacitus, Dialogus 13.2) (6), so Luke ensured that his work would reach a wide audience. Like the Aeneid, Luke-Acts shows a people being born out of an ancient race (Trojans, Israelites); traces the journey from the homeland to the new capital (Troy to Italy, Galilee to Jerusalem and Jerusalem to Rome); is divided into two parts (Aeneid 1–6 and 7–12; Luke and Acts); leads to the finding of a new race (Romans and Christians); and establishes a kingdom (Roman Empire; the kingdom of God). These elements among many others point to Luke-Acts as an epic; especially the founding of a new race which was the subject of both Homer’s and Vergil’s epics.

A term Luke was fond of using was basileia. This term is often translated as “kingdom” with variations for “king” and “reign.” The variation translated “king” is applied to Herod (Luke 1:5; Acts 12:1), hypothetical monarchs (Luke 14:31), Jesus (Luke 19:38; 23:2; Acts 17:7), Pharaoh (Acts 7:10, 18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (Acts 13:22), and Agrippa (Acts 25:14, 24, 26; 26:2, 7, 13, 19, 26–27, 30). When the variation translated “reign” is used, it is attributed to Jesus (Luke 1:33; 19:14; 19:27). However, when speaking of the “reign” of the Romans (cf. Luke 2:2; 3:1), Luke used the term hegemonia. Each term is legitimately translated as “reign,” but the former may be more indicative of legitimacy and sovereignty while the latter of leadership or governing. If there is a noteworthy distinction between the terms, it is minute, but enough that Luke used the distinction.

The core of Luke-Acts was to distinguish Christ and his kingdom, or rule, from Rome and that of Caesar. While living under Roman government, Luke was never critical in his works of the empire or its administration. Luke’s lack of criticism may stem from an appreciation of the empire’s ability to aid in the spread of the Gospel. Luke recorded what happened as it may have been pertinent to Christianity, but makes no further comment. The work itself is enough to show that a distinction in Christ’s reign would be everlasting and far different from that of an earthly empire. Therefore, Luke wanted his audience to know that Jesus was Lord and Savior and that His kingdom was everlasting, not Rome’s.

As we consider just how much Luke’s two-volume work sought to elevate Christ as the true King, His domain as the all-encompassing Kingdom of God, and disciples of Jesus as not of this world, what sort of people ought we as Christians be today who do the same? A great amount of our time is spent preaching the worldly kingdoms of their politics, but would Luke have us do this? More importantly, would Jesus? To be a special people to God means to be a people who live according to the Kingdom of God. When we concern ourselves with so much worldly politics pertaining to American nationalism, perhaps we ought to spend some time rereading Luke-Acts.

  1. For a study of the reception of Luke’s writings as Luke-Acts or Luke and Acts, see C. Kavin Rowe, “Literary Unity and Reception History: Reading Luke-Acts as Luke and Acts,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29, no. 4 (2007): 449–57; and Andrew Gregory, “The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke-Acts,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29, no. 4 (2007): 459–72.
  2. Cf. Marianne Palmer Bonz, The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).
  3. Bonz, 133 n. 20–21, pp. 174–75; Rudolph Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 300; and Martin Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (New York: Scribners, 1934), 106.
  4. Augustus was deified by the time of Luke’s Gospel and was often called “lord” or “savior,” so Luke intended to show that it was Christ who was Lord and Savior rather than Augustus or any other emperor (cf. Horace, Carm. 4.5). The very name “Augustus” meant something greater than human, and the month of August in our calendar is a tribute to him. In the first century there were temples dedicated to Augustus as well as Julius Caesar to depict them as gods.
  5. Bradly S. Billings, “‘At the Age of 12’: The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2.41–52), the Emperor Augustus, and the Social Setting of the Third Gospel,” Journal of Theological Studies 60, n. 1 (April 2009): 70–89. For further reading on Luke and the imperial cult, see C. Kavin Rowe, “Luke-Acts and the Imperial Cult: A Way Through the Conundrum?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27, no. 3 (2005): 279–300; and Justin R. Howell, “The Imperial Authority and Benefaction of Centurions and Acts 10.34-43: A Response to C. Kavin Rowe,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31, no. 1 (2008): 25–51.
  6. Bonz, 63–64.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.