Most theological systems conscript the Lukan birth narrative, along with its Matthean counterpart, into the service of incarnational Christology. This is to say that Luke’s nativity story—the virginal conception in particular—is understood to present the mechanism by which God became a man. In this way the Lukan account fills the lacuna left by the Fourth Evangelist. It answers the question How did the word become flesh? Once this question is resolved by the Matthean and Lukan Virgin Birth, a newborn divine Christology is ready to meet the needs of various theories of redemption.1
Once the reader has been entranced by this hermeneutical mirage, the good news announced to Mary, to Zechariah, and to the shepherds—the good news about Israel’s national existence under a new Davidic king—is lost in a sea of theological depths. The earthly and political hopes of the Jewish people become the spiritual and heavenly hopes of the universal Man. Christ’s virginal conception, once a sign of Israel’s sudden ascendancy out of the pits of pagan domination, is transfigured so as to reinforce a transcendent savior myth.
Certain modern scholars—particularly those interested in early Christian opposition to empire—have, however, recognized the miry political atmosphere into which the Lukan Jesus is born. For these readers the poor and colonized Jewish Jesus represents the true son of God (Luke 1:32-35) over and against the claims of the rich and colonizing Roman Caesar Augustus, divi filius. Whereas Caesar embodies the hierarchical and militaristic forces of empire from the luxury of his palace, Jesus embodies the egalitarian and pacifistic ethos of God’s kingdom from a dirty feeding trough. The one offers a fraudulent εὐαγγέλιον of power—peace and liberation wrought through violent subjugation4—the other brings the true gospel, a gospel wrought through humility and self-giving love.
There is, of course, a kernel of truth in this reading. The regal rhetoric of the Lukan birth narrative does subvert Roman theo-political propaganda. The ideological origins of this opposition and parody are, however, wrongly identified by anti-imperial interpreters. Luke rejects Caesar’s empire not because it is hierarchical and illiberal, but because it is pagan and not Jewish. The problem with the Roman empire, that is to say, is that it is not God’s empire, not Israel’s empire.
In what follows I will briefly examine Luke’s Christmas story in order to draw out this point.
God’s covenant with David
The birth of Jesus in Luke first and foremost constitutes the fulfillment of divine promises made to King David—both in the sense that Jesus will repair David’s fallen booth as Israel’s monarch and in the sense that he will quell the enemies of his people.2 Born of “David’s house” (Luke 1:27; 69, 2:4) Jesus will receive David’s throne upon which he will rule and protect Israel (Luke 1:32). And as Jacob’s new warlord, Jesus will become the “savior” for “all the people [of Israel]” (Luke 2:10-11). He will manifest the “strong arm” of the “savior” God who has “pulled down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:46-55). He will be, in fact, a Davidic “horn”3 raised up so that Israel might “be saved from [their] enemies and from the hand of all who hate [them]” (Luke 1:69-71). In other words, Jesus will be Israel’s conquering king, a new David equipped for the cause of nationalistic expansion. Pagans will no longer determine Israel’s course.
God’s covenant with Abraham
Jesus’ birth in Luke is secondly celebrated as the telos of God’s promises made to Abraham and his sons. For Luke, the fulfillment of this particular covenant, as with its Davidic counterpart, comes in the form of a patriotic revival of the Jewish nation. For Mary, for instance, God’s political and economic realignment within and without Israel by means of the Messiah (cf. Luke 1:51-53)—his decision to “help his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy”—will prove the Lord’s faithfulness to “Abraham and his descendants” (Luke 1:52-55). Zechariah marks the Abrahamic covenant in terms equally political: God swore an oath to Abraham so that “[Israel], being rescued from the hands of [their] enemies, might serve [the Lord] without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all of [their] days” (Luke 1:73-75). The characteristically Patriarchal hope for land, descendants, and blessing (cf. Genesis 12:1-3), therefore, is cloaked by Luke in distinctly Davidic garb. When the pagans have been defeated by the Messiah, then Abraham will be happy.
Isaiah’s glorious Jerusalem
Luke also directs attention to the political core of Israel’s messianic hopes by invoking the patterns established in the book of Isaiah. This is most clearly evident in the stories of Simeon and Anna. Simeon, a man “awaiting Israel’s consolation,” declares that he has seen God’s “salvation… a light for revelation to the nations and for glory to your people Israel” in the face of Jesus (Luke 2:29-32). Anna, on the other hand, reports that in the birth of Jesus the “redemption of Jerusalem” is now underway (Luke 2:36-38). These words and phrases, carefully chosen by Luke, fit neatly into the apocalytpic web by which God consoles his people in their humiliation (cf. Isaiah 40-41), grants them salvation from their enemies (cf. Isaiah 45-48), and subjugates the nations under a glorious Jerusalem (cf. Isaiah 60-62). Isaiah’s expectations then, like Luke’s, are no less than thoroughly political in scope: God will mend Israel’s pathetic status among the idolatrous nations and in so doing make Jerusalem the international capital of religion, wealth, and power. The tribes of the earth will watch in awe when Israel’s God exalts his people on the world’s stage.
A hope dashed
The patriotic Jewish heart warmed by Luke’s birth narrative, of course, quickly chills as it scans the progression of history. Israel will by in large reject their Messiah (cf. Acts 28:25-28) and Jerusalem will be destroyed as divine punishment (cf. Luke 21:20-24). Christ’s apostles will therefore have to find worthy tenants for the kingdom elsewhere. Leaving Israel and Jerusalem behind, they will turn to the Gentiles. Pagans-turned-God-fearers, tested through the fires of persecution, may have what it takes to man the helm of God’s coming empire.
1—For most Protestants, the Virgin Birth ensures the efficacy of the cross—the debt incurred by human sin must be paid by the sinless one, God himself. Among the Orthodox, on the other hand, God’s taking up of the human condition is in and of itself salvific.
2—In 2 Samuel 7:8-11 God tells David: “I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth. And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning and have done ever since the time I appointed leaders over my people Israel. I will also give you rest from all your enemies.” Various psalms capture these ideas as well: “I have found my servant David… The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him… I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:19-27).
3—As with much of the material in the Lukan birth songs, the image of the exalted horn derives most directly from Hannah’s birth song over Samuel and the king he will come to anoint: “Those who oppose the LORD will be shattered. He will thunder from heaven against them. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth and will give power to His king. He will exalt the horn of His anointed” (2 Samuel 2:10). A figure endowed with wondrous military prowess is imagined.
4—See the Calendar Inscription of Priene.