Before you preach again on the birth of Jesus, it might be best for you to lay it aside and start from scratch. The Christmas story has been so sanitized and romanticized over the centuries that even Hollywood—as jaded a culture as can be found anywhere—fails to capture the gritty pathos that surrounded Jesus’s arrival.
Truth be told, even some churches annually idealize the birth of our Savior. Yet it was anything but ideal.
Without question, 6 BC was a lousy time to live in Judea. Herod the Great had seized the throne of Israel through bloody intrigue and with political support from Rome.
Then, once in power, he guarded his stolen title, “King of the Jews,” so ruthlessly he even put his own sons to death when any of them posed a significant political threat.
Macrobius, a fifth-century writer, recorded, “When [Caesar Augustus] heard that Herod king of the Jews had ordered boys in Syria under the age of two years to be put to death and that the king’s son was among those killed, he said, ‘I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son!’”[ref]Macrobius, The Saturnalia, trans. Percival Vaughan Davies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 171.[/ref]
Caesar’s comment illustrated the sad irony of Israel’s condition. Herod, though not really Jewish, pretended to be a pious religious Jew by eliminating pork from his diet, but he indulged an insatiable appetite for power.
He built a magnificent temple for the God of Israel—an architectural wonder in its day—and gave its administration to one corrupt high priest after another.
He taxed Jews through the temple in keeping with the Old Testament Law and then used the proceeds to break the first commandment, building cities and temples in honor of the emperor and his pantheon of Roman deities.
The larger Roman Empire—bounded on the west by the Atlantic . . . on the east by the Euphrates . . . on the north by the Rhine and Danube . . . and on the south by the Sahara Desert—was as vast as it was vicious.
Political intrigue, racial tension, increased immorality, and enormous military might dominated everyone’s attention and conversation.
Judea existed under the crush of Rome’s heavy boot. It was a time of unprecedented economic and political advancement for the rich and a time of horrific oppression for everyone else.
By the first century BC, a dark cloud had settled over Israel, blocking any ray of hope.
The first Christmas, all eyes were on Augustus—the cynical Caesar who demanded a census to determine a measurement for increasing taxes even further.
At that time, who was interested in a young couple making an 80-mile trip south from Nazareth? What could possibly be more important than Caesar’s decisions in Rome . . . or his puppet Herod’s edicts in Judea? Who cared about a Jewish baby born in a Bethlehem barn?