Augustus was the God-Emperor when Jesus was born. But an artisan from a satellite village to a Graeco-Roman city came to be called Son of God.
One of the few stories from Jesus’ childhood is presented in Luke’s Gospel (2:41-52). Jesus was with his parents in a group of travellers who were returning from the Passover in Jerusalem back to Galilee. But Jesus had stayed behind listening to and questioning the teachers there. This was remarkable for the son of a carpenter from a village in the hills near the lake. Carpenters and other artisans were lower down the social strata than peasant farmers, who at least had their own land.
Archaeological discoveries over the last 30 years have given us more insight in the locality in which Jesus grew up, and Nazareth was not an isolated country village. Sepphoris, which is not mentioned in the Bible, was the capital of Galilee in Herod’s time. When Herod died (~ 4 BC) there was a revolt that was put down by a Roman legion coming in from Syria. There were 2000 crucifixions following that revolt, and Sepphoris was one of the towns that was structurally damaged. When Jesus was in his 20s, there was a major rebuild of this into a Graeco-Roman city. It is less than 4 miles from Nazareth, about a 1 hour walk. There was much work for artisans then, and they would have to communicate with the townspeople in Greek. In addition Jesus would speak Aramaic, and also understand the Hebrew scriptures. Perhaps this helps to explain
I think this sheds some light on the enigma of the carpenter’s son who astounded people by his authority, as illustrated in Matthew’s gospel (13:54-55): “Where did this man et his wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son?”
What do we make of this?
In his book on Jesus,John Dominic Crossan asks the question:
“Is Christian faith always (1) an act of faith (2) in the historical Jesus (3) as the manifestation of God?
“Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography”, John Dominic Crossan, HarperCollins e-books
And in the season celebrating the incarnation – God standing beside us – then it is timely to affirm this. And Crossan goes on to say:]
“Christianity must repeatedly, generation after generation, make its best historical judgement about who Jesus was then and, on that basis, decide what reconstruction means as Christ now”
In loving the Lord our God with all our heart, souls and minds, then we should not shy from discoveries that shed a few more chinks of light on who Jesus was then, but instead assess them. That Jesus was a deeply impressive human being is, in my belief, without question. From our perspective, with nearly 100% literacy, it gives pause for thought that a carpenter was normally one of the 97% have-nots and the literacy rate was probably about 3%; the scribes were powerful – the Wikipedia of their time? Perhaps, the close relationship between Nazareth and the reconstruction of Sepphoris may have provided a special environment for Jesus.
Here is how Crossan describes Jesus’ mission:
‘Miracle and parable, healing and eating were calculated to force individuals into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and unmediated physical and spiritual contact with each other.
Through Jesus the Christ, this is an enactment of the two great commandments – love God, love your neighbour.
And Crossan continues:
“He announced, in other words, the unmediated or brokerless Kingdom of God.”
… as in the tearing of the curtains of the Temple.
Jesus’ non-violent manner, seeking justice for the poor, and challenging the precepts of the rulers of that land, could hardly be more different from the might and majesty of Augustus Caesar, the son of a god (Apollo), the adopted son of another god, Julius Caesar.
Given the clash, given the fate of another son of Julius Caesar, what bravery was shown by the early followers of Jesus and the writers of the New Testament! They expressed their experience of Jesus in his life, and the experiences that continued after his death, in a way that usurped the claims of the emperors. And because of that we have available to us the “unmediated Kingdom of God”.
Their inspiration was from the Law and the Prophets, with the latter half of the book of Isaiah providing the role model of the suffering servant., introduced as:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not cry out, or raise his voice in the streets/
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on the earth.”
Isaiah, 42:1-4, NIV
In an upside-down SWOT analysis, from this weakness came Jesus’ strength, and the threat from Rome became the Church’s opportunity.