When our Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, he came into a world dominated by a power known to subsequent ages as the Roman Empire. In the years following Jesus’s birth, this Empire would reach its furthest expanse, stretching from the moors of Scotland and forests of Germany, to the sands of the Sahara and waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. Within this vast Empire, the small territory of Palestine had been a troubled region for many years. It was incorporated into the larger province of Syria, directly under the control of the Roman Emperor. The Emperor’s official representative resided in Antioch. This historical context is crucial when delving into the famous Christmas story found in Luke 2.
In Luke 2:1-3, we find a convergence of several historical figures: Caesar Augustus, the Emperor who ruled Rome from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:2), and Herod, the king (or governor) of Judea as referred to in Luke 1:5. The chain of command was clear: Herod reported to Quirinius, and Quirinius reported to Caesar Augustus. This historical context of the Eastern Greco-Roman World and, more specifically, the Judaism that existed within it forms the cultural cradle in which the Christian Church was born. This is because 1) Jesus was Jewish; 2) Most of the earliest converts to Christianity were Jewish; 3) Practically all the early leaders of the Christian church were Jewish; 4) The Old Testament was considered scripture for early Christians; and 5) Early church worship was inspired by synagogue practices. In simple terms, the foundation of the Christian church can be seen as growing from the soil of Judaism as it existed in Greco-Roman times.
The Gospels were mainly written to show how Jesus connected with Israel’s earlier history and that Jesus was the promised Messiah. For example, Matthew highlights how Jesus fulfilled the promises made for the Messiah. Luke’s gospel shows how Jesus followed the essence of Jewish law. In Acts, after Pentecost morning, Peter preached to a Jewish audience and used the Old Testament to demonstrate that Jesus was the promised Messiah. In John, it is explained that the divine revelation to Abraham reached its culmination in Jesus. John records Jesus as saying: “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). Hence, even before the Council of Nicaea in 325, the early church firmly held on to the in the idea that Jesus was the Messiah and existed before His incarnation. To put it more colloquially, the early church believed that Jesus existed even before the “first Christmas.”
This idea, however, faced a challenge from a presbyter in Alexandria named Arius (250-336). Arius is famous for saying, “There was a time when He was not” or “There was a time when the Son did not exist.” According to Arius, Christ wasn’t fully God or fully man but something in between—a third thing. This view gained popularity, especially in Alexandria where Gnostic ideas were widespread. People there believed in various half-gods, and the Gnostics had a whole lineup of descending deities that existed between the true god and the material world. So, the concept of a half-god, something between god and man, made sense to them and became quite widespread.
Marcion (85-160) is infamous for rejecting the “Old Testament” and omitting many parts of the “New.” Like the Gnostics, Marcion depicted Christ as a docetic being. Docetism was an early heresy that taught Christ did not have a real or natural body during his life on earth but only an apparent one. When Marcion created his own version of the Gospel of Luke, which he considered the only authentic Gospel, he combined Luke 3:1 with 4:31. His version began with the words: “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Jesus came down [from heaven] to Capernaum,” omitting details about the virgin birth found in Luke 2:1-20. This alteration reflected the Gnostic and docetic perspective of Jesus as existing without either an actual human birth or an authentic material body.
In the early church a vast range of ideas circulated about the exact nature of the birth of Jesus. Many Christians were unsure how best to express their faith. There were some groups who claimed to be Christian, who did not follow either traditional Jewish or pagan beliefs, producing radically differing versions of Christianity. It was a confusing time, but also a time of productive reflection because heresies such as Arianism, Gnosticism, Docetism, and Marcionism, among others, necessitated the calling together and formation of four great ecumenical councils. The Council of Nicaea (325) unequivocally affirmed the deity of Christ; the Council of Constantinople (381) clarified the nature of the Holy Spirit; the Council of Ephesus (431) spoke to the nature of Christ’s personhood; and the Council of Chalcedon (451) gave attention to the relationship of the human and divine natures, known as the “hypostatic union,” in the one person of Christ.
How did the church figure out what was acceptable and what was not? In his Confessions, Augustine said, “The rejection of heretics brings into relief what your Church holds and what sound doctrine maintains.” While Augustine saw heresies as harmful, he also thought they had a role in God’s providential plan for the church. The church holds the truth, but sometimes not very clearly or explicitly, until heresies attack. Then the church is forced to uncover the truth, and express more clearly what it already believes. Early Christians always knew that Jesus was both God and man, but they hadn’t fully grasped the depth of what was involved in that confession. In other words, they didn’t completely understand how Jesus could be both God and man. Their understanding started to deepen because of heresies that arose. These heretical teachings forced the church to think deeply about what it already believed. In response to these challenges, “orthodoxy” (right belief) became more highlighted, adequately defined, and fully explained.
In 2013, Steve Holmes, a British Baptist theologian, delivered a lecture at what was then the Golden Gate Seminary campus in Mill Valley, California. This was before the seminary moved to Ontario with the new name, Gateway Seminary. During Holmes’s lecture on the Trinity and Christology, a student asked him if we could change these creeds from the fourth century. Holmes paused and then replied, “I suppose it is possible, but it would take the church another 400 years to decide whether or not we could.” This was an ideal Baptist response. As Baptists, we aren’t strictly tied to creeds per se, yet it is important for us to pay proper respect and careful attention to the best of our Christian traditions.
This advent season, when we read Luke 2:1-20 and see Jesus as the Messiah, let us remember that we are not interpreting this passage in a historical vacuum. With a tradition spanning over 2000 years behind us, when we express the meaning of the incarnation today, we find ourselves standing on the shoulders of other Christians who have come before us. Together, they help us give faithful expression to our confession that in Jesus, the Eternal Son has entered creation and, without ceasing to be God, shared our human life, not only pay the penalty for our sin, but to cover us in righteousness that allows us to live in fellowship with the Christ of Christmas.