By the time Jesus was born, Augustus had already been monarch for a quarter of a century. King of kings, he ruled from Gibraltar to Jerusalem and from Britain to the Black Sea. He had done what no one had done for two hundred years before him: he had brought peace to the wider, Roman world—peace at a price. A price paid in cash by subjects in far-off lands.
Augustus "gave peace, as long as it was consistent with the interests of the Empire and the myth of his own glory," wrote Arnaldo Momigliano. There you have it in a nutshell: the whole ambiguous structure of human empire, a kingdom of absolute power, bringing glory to the man at the top, and peace to those on whom his favor rested.
Yes, says Luke, and watch what happens now. This man, this king, this absolute monarch, lifts his little finger in Rome, and fifteen hundred miles away, in an obscure province, a young couple undertakes a hazardous journey, resulting in the birth of a child in a little town that just happens to be the one mentioned in the ancient Hebrew prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. And it is at this birth that the angels sing of glory and peace. Which is the reality, and which the parody?
Here we have to pause, because the passage from Micah 5, which Luke intends to awaken in our minds, is so well known and so little attended to: "But you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, little among the clans of Judah—from you shall come forth the one who is to rule in Israel" (Micah 5:2). The passage is regularly cut off a verse or two early when read in public. Verse 4 launches a project that ought to make Augustus anxious: "He [the coming King] shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of YHWH, in the majesty of the name of YHWH his God; and they shall ...