We leaned in, all flushed from playing hide and go seek in our crushed red velvet suits on Christmas Eve. Our cheeks, rosy from play and too many candy canes, we pressed in to get a seat around the Christmas tree and listen to my uncle read the story about the babe in the hay. The lights on the tree blinked red, blue and green, the room was hushed and little eyes sparkled as the story began the same way year after year; “And there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed”(Luke 2.1).
As magical and unique as the story of Jesus’ birth may seem to contemporary readers, it is important to understand that the narrative of the birth of the Savior is drawn upon an ancient map of rulers and deity stories that existed long before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
In antiquity there are deity stories associated with most great leaders so that the worship of a particular ruler was good and proper. The founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus were born from the union of a virgin and Mars. When Mars learned of their birth and tried to have the boys drowned in the Tiber, it overflowed and they were saved to be raised by a she-wolf as cubs. Alexander the Great, was said to be the son of his mother Olympia and the Greek god Zeus and therefore innately divine.
Gaius Octavian Caesar Augustus was helped by a bright and burning star–what we now believe be Haley’s comet-- that fell across the sky during the funeral games of his adopted father and great uncle, Julius Caesar. The comet was understood to be a sign of Julius Caesar’s reception into the realm of the gods and verification of his deification. Thus, Augustus styled himself as the first citizen of Rome also with the flaming star which added to his status the divi filius or divine son. Throughout his long and storied reign, Augustus would never allow himself to be depicted as a god, rather he embraced the status of son of god.
More interesting perhaps, is the use of “gospel” or “good announcement” for the telling of the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth since in the early centuries of the Common Era, “gospel” was the word used for the edicts or actions of Roman emperors that were for the good of the world. In fact, peace, hope, faith and victory were all divine articles who should be worshiped. These entities are familiar and frequent in the lexicon of Augustus and Roman emperors after him. Augustus was heralded as the savior who ushered in Pax Romana, the peace of Rome.
When we consider the birth narrative of Jesus in its 1st century context we understand more clearly that the stories that Luke and Matthew convey are not just about a cuddly baby with furry sheep and shepherds gathered around. Rather, the depiction of Jesus’ birth drawn upon the map of the divine son notion, is—from the beginning—a challenge to the rule of Rome and the kingship of Caesar. Luke here is clearly and expertly telling the story of a new king who has come from the one God and he crafts his story in such a way that his audience will not miss his cues. The message is clear about this Jesus, from the first cries in the manger, there is a new king and he has come to set us free.
 Mark Reasoner, Roman Imperial Texts (Fortress Press, 2013).