Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jesus and Augustus Caesar

August is my favorite month.  I love the warmth of summer as the season drifts toward fall.  The flowers are in full bloom; birds are extremely happy, oblivious to the coming chill.  We may get occasional hurricanes in Florida then, but the rain and wind has never been too bad in our area.  If anything, the storms have demolished a few unwanted motels, identify weak roof shingles that needed replacing and generally swept away the dead palm branches.  The electrical outages that sometimes accompany the storms only heighten our appreciation for Florida’s many charms.

August, too, carries the astrological sign Leo.  How can anyone not like a month graced by the King of the Beasts?  What’s the alternative: a fish?  A blind lady holding a scale?  A crab?   I’ll take the magnificent cat every time.

Definitely, I love August.  It’s just a coincidence that I was born this month.

Another reason I like August is its role in history.  It’s named for Octavian, the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar.  The great Roman didn’t have an heir and so adopted Octavian, then just 19, and bequeathed him a share of the country’s power.  Renamed Augustus, which means “revered,” Octavian eventually became the first emperor of Rome and ruled 44 years.

July was named after his uncle and elongated by borrowing a day from February.  Not to be outdone, the emperor renamed the eighth month, then known as Quintilis or “fifth,” and also absconded with a day from February.  Maybe he thought that would make winter shorter.

Another famous person, Jesus, also may have a tie to August.  Early Christians had no idea when their savior was born – the Bible doesn’t say – but modern historians have taken a hint from the book ascribed to Luke, where shepherds described as being in the field with their flocks came to the manger to worship the baby.  Since shepherds in ancient Israel were in the field during the late summer, August seemed like the right month.  Besides, the odds were good that Jesus was born in August.  Historically, more people are born in August than any other month.  Just think back nine months when it’s cold, encouraging a lot of huddling together under blankets.

I think Jesus and Augustus have a lot more in common than a month.  In my book, The Gospel Truth, I researched where the Gospel writers might have gotten their information from.  They agree on little, so they must have had separate sources.  Without a doubt, they got at least some of their information from the life of Augustus.

To his constituency, the emperor was a god.  Titles attributed to him included “Divine Son of God, God from God, Lord and Redeemer, and Liberator and Savior of the world.” 

Sound familiar?

In Augustus’ day, predictions were rife that a great man would rise from the East, both in Jewish circles and as a result of forged oracles attributed to the Sybil.  According to the seer, the future emperor was born in humble circumstances and that a lightning bolt had blasted the city wall of Velitre, his hometown, just prior to his birth.  Supposedly, the Roman Senate, fearing a prediction that a future ruler of the world was due, then ordered the death of all male children.  Only the timely intervention of his mother saved baby Octavian, the story recounts.  His mother’s pregnancy was ascribed to a god, and the young Octavian was described as being surrounded by golden solar flames.  Eventually, he was called the son of God.  His worship became part of everyday life.

Gee, that could be someone else, too.

As one inscription to Augustus noted: “This day has given the world an entirely new aspect.  … From no other day does the individual or the community receive such benefits as from this natal day, full of blessing to all.  The Providence which rules over all has blessed this man with such gifts for the salvation of the world as will designate him a savior for us and for coming generations; of wars he will make an end, and establish all things worthily.  By his appearance are the hopes of our forefathers fulfilled; not only has he surpassed the good deeds of earlier times, but it is impossible that one greater than him with ever appear.  The birthday of God has brought to the world glad tidings that are bound up in him.  From his birthday a new era begins.”

That would not be out of place in any Christian religious service.

There were other gods, like Mithra and Dionysus, that the Gospel authors had to overcome, as well as other heretical sects, such as Gnostics.  There were also pagan faiths, other messianic figures like John the Baptist and Jewish concepts that had to be countered.  However, without much debate, Gospel authors were far more interested in the man than in the month when they molded their biographies of Jesus.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  The Gospel Truth was published in January 2011.  Many of his essays are also posted at www.williamplazarus@blogspot.com

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