Augustus – More than Just the Nativity Story

Caesar Augustus, well-known in the Nativity story for his proclaimed registration decree, had other impacts in the Gospel accounts long before and after.[1] Little known actions by the Emperor of Rome had further implications to the accounts written about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

MT 2:1 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…”

LK 2:1-3 “…a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.” (NKJV)

Adopted son of Julius Caesar, his birth name of Octavius was officially changed by the Roman Senate in 27 BC to Augustus meaning “the exalted one.” At that time, the Senate granted him full powers as Emperor of Rome reigning as Caesar until his death in 14 AD.[2]

Initially Augustus was one of three triumvirate rulers of Rome along with Marc Antony and Marcus Lepidus. Antony and his lover, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, allied to challenge the rule of Rome ending with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.[3] Augustus triumphed, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and King Herod unexpectedly rose to prominence.[4]

Antony and Cleopatra were backed by Herod in the War of Actium and, being on the wrong side, he expected to be executed by Augustus. Thinking he had nothing to lose, Herod traveled to Rome to present himself to Caesar where he cleverly convinced Augustus to allow him to retain his crown as Judea’s king.[5]

Luke referenced Caesar Augustus and Quirinius governing in Syria while Herod was King at the time Jesus was born. Problematic, Quirinius has not been considered by secular history to be a governor in Syria until years later in 6 AD calling in question the credibility of Luke’s account.[6] Unwittingly, Jewish historian Josephus injected Augustus into the timeline enigma with a clue that had nothing to do with his registration “census” decree.

Wars of the Jews adds a piece to the timeline puzzle by bringing to light an intriguing detail. A letter had been sent by Herod to Augustus asking for official guidance on the sensitive matter of the murder conspiracy trial to kill the King by two of his very own sons. Josephus referenced Caesar’s response:[7]

“With these directions Herod complied and came to Berytus [Beirut] where Caesar had ordered the court to be assembled…The presidents set first, as Caesar’s letters had appointed, who were Saturninus, and Pedanius, and their lieutenants that were with them, with whom was the procurator Volumnius also…after whom sat the principal men of all Syria…”

Caesar Augustus named two Syria province “presidents” and a procurator to be judges – three Roman authorities who had concurrent governing responsibilities in Syria. Conventional wisdom has been that only one president and one procurator governed a Roman province.

Varus succeeded Saturninus, Jesus was born, months later Herod died, and Josephus wrote that Syria president Varus and procurator Coponius rushed to secure Herod’s estate.[8] Assuming Augustus still recognized two presidents and a procurator in Syria, who then was the second president in Syria when Jesus was born – was it Quirinius? 

Many governors of Syria over the course of decades were routinely referred to as “president” by Josephus, including Varus. Curiously the Roman historian of the Jews did not ever refer to Cyrenius aka Quirinius as the “president” of Syria. Had it not been for the letter by Augustus naming Pedanius as another president of Syria, the existence of a second concurrent president of Syria would not otherwise be known.

Commencing with the thirteenth consulship of Augustus on February 5, 2 BC, the Roman Senate celebrated his Silver Anniversary as Emperor.[9]To mark the occasion, Augustus was proclaimed Pater Patriae, the “Father of the Country,” an honor he included in his self-authored “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus” (Res gestae divi Augusti).[10]

Treatment of the Jews under Augustus was to be in moderation. To that end, Augustus had chiseled into a pillar in the Temple of Caesar in Rome his decree granting the Jews certain liberties. Anyone who transgressed the decree was to be severely punished.[11]

After Herod’s death, Augustus decreed the former Judean kingdom to be ruled by the three surviving sons of King Herod – half by Archelaus as ethnarch and the remaining half divided among Philip and Antipas as tetrarchs. Augustus promised Archelaus “the royal dignity hereafter, if he governed his part virtuously.”[12]

Putting to the test Augustus’ decree concerning the Jews, Caesar stood by his word. Ten years later after Archelaus failed to govern Judea with moderation, a complaint was lodged against him by “the principal men of Judea.” Augustus banished Archelaus to Vienne, a punishment which had long-term implications.[13]

Emperor Tiberius adopted the governing philosophies of Augustus including the treatment of the Jews with moderation. This philosophy affected the governing standards of the two Roman Procurators sent to Judea during the 22-year rule of Tiberius, the second of whom was Pilate.[14]

Two years after condemning Jesus to the cross at the behest of the Jews, Pilate himself was subjected to a complaint lodged by Samarians of Judea charging mistreatment. Vitellius, governor of Syria, removed Pilate as procurator of Judea and sent him to Rome to be judged by Tiberius. Before he reached Rome, Tiberius was murdered and tradition says Pilate was banished by Emperor Caligula to Marseilles, in southern France.[15]

Actions taken by Augustus affected Herod, Quirinius, Tiberius and Pilate – all secular historical figures mentioned in the Gospel accounts who had impacts on the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Does this historical information lend credibility to the Gospel accounts about Jesus?

 

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REFERENCES

[1] “Augustus.”  Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2014.  <http://www.livius.org/person/augustus>  Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. 14 AD. Internet Classic Archive. 2009. <http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.html>
[2] Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius).  The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. n.d.  <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/home.html>  “Augustus Comes to Power.”  UNRV History |The Roman Empire.  United Nations of Roma Victrix. 2020. <http://www.unrv.com/fall-republic/augustus.php> “Augustus.” Livius.org.
[3] “Second Triumvirate.” Livius.org. 2015. <http://www.livius.org/articles/concept/triumvir/second-triumvirate>
[4] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews.  Book XIV, Chapter 14; Book XV, Chapters V-VI. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Book XV, Chapter VI.1, 5-7. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book I, Chapter 20.1-3. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Mark Antony.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mark-Antony-Roman-triumvir/Alliance-with-Cleopatra>
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapter VI.5-6.
[vi] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter I.1. Schurer, Emil.  A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Volume 1. 1890. pp 350-351. <http://books.google.com/books?id=BRynO3W9FPcC&pg=PP1#v=snippet&q=Tiberius&f=falseThe New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Volume 9. p 375.  Doig, Kenneth F.  New Testament Chronology. Chapter 5. 1990. <https://books.google.com/books?id=pZJAAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA375&lpg=PA375&dq=Sentius+Saturninus+bio+encyclopedia&source=bl&ots=Yr6hey_Yyt&sig=ACfU3U3_QfHNQxSi3nMAhiiAZdTJqMNr_Q&hl=en&ppis=_e&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwikl7O2j5_nAhURXM0KHToTC2oQ6AEwA3oECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Sentius%20Saturninus%20bio%20encyclopedia&f=false>  No Woe Zone. <http://nowoezone.com/NTC05.htm> “Syria.” Regnal Chronologies. 2014. <http://web.raex.com/~obsidian/Syria.html#Syria>
[7] Josephus, Flavius. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVII.2.  Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter XI.
[8] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapters V.2,   VII.1. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters XXXI.5, XXXII.1, 5, XXXIII.7-8. Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the death of Herod.” 2015. Academia.edu. 2014. <http://www.academia.edu/2518046/Dating_the_death_of_Herod>  Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Chapter 11. A.S.K. (Associates for Scriptural Knowledge. 2003. <http://web.archive.org/web/20190620081117/http://www.askelm.com/star
[9]Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” Augustus. The Deeds of the Devine Augustus. “pater patriae.”  Nova Roma.  “pater patriae.” Encyclopædia Britannica.  Mosley, John.  “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.”
[10] Augustus, Caesar. The Deeds of the Devine Augustus (Res gestae divi Augusti). <http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html>  “pater patriae.” Nova Roma. 2007. <www.novaroma.org/nr/Pater_Patriae_(Nova_Roma)>  Martin. The Star of Bethlehem. Chapter 13. Mosley, John. “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.” Third Quarter 1981, International Planetarium Society, Inc. n.d. <http://www.ips-planetarium.org/?page=a_mosley1981>
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter VI.2, 8.
[12] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII. Chapter XI.4; Book XVII. Chapter XII.2.
[13] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII. Chapter XIII.2; Book XVIII, Chapter I.1.
[14] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter II.2; VI.5 “Valerius Gratus.” Encyclopedia.com. 2019. <https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/valerius-gratusdeg>
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter XIII. 2, 5.

Pilate – Why Did He Condemn Jesus To Be Crucified?

Pilate will be forever known as the Roman Procurator who condemned Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified.[1] Why he made this judgement defies logic considering Pilate himself and Herod the Tetrarch, son of King Herod, both found Jesus guiltless of any crime.

Politics often discard logic, even common sense. In the case of Pilate and Jesus, the politics were much deeper than conveyed in the Gospel accounts which primarily focused on the political pressures from the Jewish leadership.[2] Roman influences were just as much, if not more, a significant factor.[3]

Roman Empire politics were no different than they are today except perhaps the deadly end game objective with total elimination of the opponent, often by death – including Caesars.[4] Each government level official had to try to avoid the pitfalls that come with authority, quite commonly from blood relatives and spouses.[5]

Only two Procurators were sent to Judea by Tiberius Caesar during his 22-year reign. Gratus was first to be sent to Jerusalem where he served as Procurator for 11 years. One of his last actions was to appoint Joseph Caiaphas as High Priest. Pontius Pilate followed as the second Procurator sent to Judea by Tiberius and served 10 years.[6]

Knowing the thinking and behaviors of Tiberius Caesar – what was or not important to him, how he viewed the Empire, his temperament, how he reacted to various scenarios – is key to understanding what drove the actions and behaviors of Pilate.

Tiberius highly regarded the policies and decrees of his predecessor, Caesar Augustus, for ruling the Empire saying, “I who respect as law all his actions and sayings.”[7] Highlighting his regard for his predecessor, Tiberius was once observed sacrificing to the Divine Augustus.[8]

Jews were to be treated with moderation.[9] A decree by Augustus was chiseled into a pillar in the Temple of Caesar in Rome granting the Jews certain liberties – anyone who transgressed the decree was to be severely punished:[10]

“Cesar Augustus, High Priest, and Tribune of the people ordains thus: …the Jews have liberty to make use of their own customs, according to the law of their fathers, as they made use of them under Hyrcanus the High Priest of Almighty God; and that their sacred money be not touched, but be sent to Jerusalem; and that it be committed to the care of the receivers at Jerusalem; and that they be not obliged to go before any judge on the Sabbath-day, nor on the day of the preparation to it, after the ninth hour… And if any one transgress any part of what is above decreed, he shall be severely punished.”

Augustus indeed took such action after a complaint by the Jews against Ethnarch Archelaus, another son of King Herod. Augustus banished Archelaus to Vienna and took away his wealth for treating the Jews harshly against his command.[11] This had to be in the back of the mind of Pilate who knew Tiberius desired to follow the governing examples of Augustus.

As time went on, Tiberius became a ruthless ruler with the level of his depravity and cruelty on full display.[12] Tacitus called it a “cruel temper” surmising absolute power perverted the actions of Tiberius.[13] Josephus described Tiberius as having an “intractable” temper, a “tyrant.”[14]

Religious beliefs of the Jews were considered “superstitions” by Tiberius, banned from the city of Rome. Jews in military service were assigned “to provinces of a less healthy environment.”[15]

Walking a fine line, Pilate had to separate the superstition religion of Judaism from the treatment of the people of Judea. The risk – if a report got back to Caesar that Pilate had mistreated the people, bad things could happen to him. Thus was the profile of the ruler Pilate served.

Adhering to the view that Judaism was a superstition, Pilate treated the Jews accordingly. First, he provoked the Jews by moving his Roman troops from Caesarea to Jerusalem “to abolish the Jewish laws.” During the night, Roman ensigns with effigies of Caesar were brought into the city violating Jewish law prohibiting the images.[16]

A rebellion ensued among thousands of Jews who petitioned Pilate to remove the images.  In front of Pilate, Jewish zealots prostrated themselves on the ground pulling back their hair to expose their necks for the sword. Taken aback, Pilate removed the ensigns.

Next transgression, Pilate announced the construction of a Jerusalem aqueduct to be paid using the “sacred money” of the Jews. Triggering a protest by tens of thousands of Jews, they cast insults at the crier who made the announcement. Pilate himself took offense and had his Roman soldiers dress in disguise, mingle in the crowd and wait for his signal.[17]

Addressing the crowd himself, more aspersions were now hurled at Pilate. Giving the signal, the soldiers pulled out daggers wounding and killing and many of the unarmed protesters, exceeding Pilate’s instructions.

In the next sequence of incidents with the Jews, Josephus wrote, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man…” He goes on to write “…Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross…”[18]

With Pilate in Judea during the famed ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, it set the two on an inevitable collision course. After holding their own trial for blasphemy, the Jewish leadership brought Jesus to Pilate for judgement under the accusation of insurrection and tax evasion. As the Roman authority in Judea, the Procurator had little choice but to deal with the situation.[19]

According to Luke 3:1, Jesus began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius meaning that Pilate was entering his fifth year as Procurator when the ministry of Jesus began. After a 3-year ministry, it reckons that Pilate was about in his 8th year as Procurator when Jesus was delivered to him to be judged.

By now, Tiberius was a seasoned Caesar in his 18th year of rule when his cruelties were well-known. Pilate had a long track record to consider and ponder the risks that came with working for a ruler considered a tyrant feared by even the Roman citizens.

Directly asking Jesus if he is a king, Jesus admitted to Pilate he is a King, but not of this world. Perplexed, Pilate sent Jesus to be judged by Galilee Tetrarch Herod Antipas, who just happened to be in Jerusalem at that time. No fault was found by Herod Antipas who sent Jesus back to Pilate.[20]

Neither Tetrarch Herod nor Procurator Pilate found any guilt in Jesus for insurrection or incensus in spite of Jesus admitting to Pilate that he is a King. Pilate’s judgment decision in front of the Jewish crowd, who were shouting for Jesus to be crucified, compelled him to wash his hands of the contrivance saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”[21]

Was Pilate’s illogical legal decision to crucify Jesus the result of political fears of the Jews and Tiberius Caesar as the Gospel of John alluded; or was it part of a divine Messiah plan where an innocent man was to be crucified – or both?[22]

Indeed, Procurator Pilate also became a victim of politics. About two years later, the Samarians lodged a complaint to Vitellius, Roman provincial governor of Syria, against Pilate for his abuses of them. Vitellius removed Pilate as Procurator sending him to Rome to be judged by Tiberius, but the Caesar was murdered while he was enroute.[23] Tradition holds Pilate, like Archelaus, was banished to Vienna by Caius, better known as Caligula.[24]

 

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REFERENCES:

[1] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews.  Trans. and commentary, William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Book XVIII, Chapter III.3. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. 109 AD. Books XV.44. <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Tacitus/Annals/15B*.html> Lucian of Samosata.  “The Death of Peregrine.” The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Volume IV. 1905. p 82. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl4/wl420.htm>
[2] Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18.
[3] John 19:12. CR Luke 23:24. Smith, Murray J. “The Political Context of the Gospels.” Academia. 2010.  pp 98-100. <file:///C:/Users/KIM_VO~1/AppData/Local/Temp/The_Political_Context_of_the_Gospels.pdf
[4] Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. Books I, VI.  “Julius Caesar.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020.
<https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julius-Caesar-Roman-ruler> “Tiberius.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tiberius/Reign-as-emperor>
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter XIII. 2, 5; Book XVIII, Chapter VI.6-7, 10. Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter 9.5  Tacitus. Annals. Books II, XV. Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius).  Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius). The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Tiberius, #50, 51, 52.< http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/home.html>
[6] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter II.2; VI.5 “Valerius Gratus.” Encyclopedia.com. 2019. <https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/valerius-gratusdeg>
[7] Tacitus. Annals. Book IV.  Strabo. Geography. 6.4. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0198:book=6:chapter=4&highlight=tiberius>
[8] Tacitus. Annals. Book IV.
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter XIII. 2.
[10] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVI, Chapter VI.2. n.d <https://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=Augustus&f=false>
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter XIII. 2, 5.
[12] Suetonius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Tiberius, #49, 50, 55, 59, 61, 62, 66, 67.
[13] Tacitus. Annals. Book VI.
[14] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters II.4, VI.5.
[15]  Suetonius. “Tiberius.” #36.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter III.1.  Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter IX.3.  Calmet, Augustin. Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible. Pilate. 1813. <https://books.google.com/books?id=FgM2AQAAMAAJ&pg=PP305&lpg=PP305&dq=Pilate+banished,+Vienne&source=bl&ots=fIZ2ZHY3xl&sig=ACfU3U101WIrN_RVsnslwXcQIHIdEdILGw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiJxYrQpYbnAhUJOisKHZ5HB1gQ6AEwEHoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Pilate%20banished%2C%20Vienne&f=false>
[17] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters III.2.  Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter IX.4.  Calmet, Augustin. Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible. Pilate.
[18] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters III.3.
[19] Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18.
[20] Luke 26:6-12.
[21] Matthew 27:24-26; Mark 15:11-15; Luke 23:20-25; John 19:4-15.
[22] John 19:12. Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters III.1.
[23] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters III.3, IV.2.
[24] “Caius Caesar Germanicus.” Memidex. 2013. <http://www.memidex.com/caius-caesar-germanicus>  “Caius Caesar Agustus Caligula.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2008. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/caius-caesar-agustus-caligula>