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Why 4 BCE?

Sermon - 5/29/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 1:1-7

It's always interesting to come back after being gone so long, to see if I still remember how to do this :).

There are a few thoughts and pictures that I want to share with you from our World of Paul Pilgrimage that we just completed, as I reflect on what it all meant.

But first, I want to share with you the introduction to Paul's letter to the Romans. Many scholars think it's likely the last letter he wrote, certainly the most important. Writing to that community in anticipation of his visit, he says:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

7 To all Godís beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There's a line from the final song in that great musical of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar, in which Judas, looking back from the perspective of the present time, asks: "Why did you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?".

It's actually a very good question, and a question that we don't reflect on very often. I want to suggest this morning that it is a question that is actually very central to a complete, full understanding of the gospel.

John Dominic Crossan says: "If you don't get your history right, you won't get your theology right". That is, our understanding of how God is active in history. And indeed, one of the reasons that Harold Camping, the now discredited prophet of the May 21st "non-Judgement" day, has so badly mis-read his Bible is because he has so badly mis-read God's involvement in history.

As I indicated, my daughter graduated on Judgement Day (May 21st), and I told a number of folk that if Jesus came back before she graduated, I was going to be really ticked off :).

So, why was Jesus born in the time in which he was born?

First, I have to take note, that in that song it says something about 'why did you choose 4 B.C.?', in a time when there was no mass-communication. And hence my title, 4 BCE, depends on your naming convention -- B.C. for Before Christ, or BCE for Before the Common Era. The point being, that is the commonly accepted year as the most probable for the birth of Jesus, given what we now know about the history of that time period. But still, it's an educated guess at best, we can't be absolutely certain of the precise year.

To answer that question then, of why that year, why that time, I need to take you to three countries, with the help of some pictures. Those three countries would be: Turkey, Greece, and Italy.

What do you know, those are the three countries we just visited! How 'bout that :)

First of all, let's start in Turkey, and more specifically in Priene, an archeological site from the world of Paul that is seldom visited. Just look at that road:

In which you will find few tourists other than the bovine type:


Makes walking through there very interesting :) And while Paul, unlike these cows, never set foot in Priene, it's still very to our understanding of that time period, for two reasons. First of all, there is the Temple of Athena:

Very typical of the Roman period, built by the people of that community, and according to this beam that lies there in the ground (that originally was overhead at the entrance of the Temple), it was dedicated to "the world-conqueror Caesar, Son of God, the God Augustus" (if you could read the Greek).

I told the group when I visited that site for the first time in 2003, that that was the beginning of my conversion to a new understand of, and appreciation for, the Apostle Paul. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, who led that tour in 2003, told us to take a picture of this beam, of this site, bring it back and show it to our congregations, which I did at the time. But then I decided I wanted to go a step further and bring my congregation to that site (at least a sub-group). And the group will tell ya, I got a little choked up talking about that, and that they all chose to go on this trip with me.

The second reason Priene is important for our understanding of the world of Paul, is another inscription that was found on a tablet discovered right there in that site. The tablet now resides in a museum in Berlin:

It describes a proposal made by the Roman Governor of Asia Minor, one Paulus Fabius Maximus, to honor "the most divine Caesar", and the day, he said, we might "justly set on par with the beginning of everything" (being his birth). He goes on to say on that tablet: "Since the Providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal, and has brought to life the most perfect good in August, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing upon us and our descendents as a Savior, he who put an end to war and ordered peace. And since the birthday of the God first brought to the world the good tidings [and the word for good tidings is "evanggelion", which you should recognize as the Greek for 'good news' or 'gospel' -- it's the word Paul uses here in the beginning of his letter to the Romans, this is the gospel, the good news, the "evanggelion". That's the word this Governor uses to describe the birth of Caesar -- the good news delivered to the world]. For that reason, for good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the new year in all cities should begin on the 23rd day of September, the birthday of Augustus".

So please note, 4 centuries before Pope Gregory decided that time should begin with the birth of Jesus (and hence the re-numbering of our years beginning at that point), this Roman Governor decided that time should begin with the birth of Augustus.

In other words, what Christians decreed in the designation "BC" (Before Christ), AD (in the year of our Lord), and about Jesus as the "Son of God", this Paulus Maximus decreed about Caesar as Son of God. That he was Lord not just of Empire and Earth, but also Calendar and Time.

From the west coast of Turkey, we went to the west coast of Greece, to Nicopolis, an ancient city established by Augustus Caesar, where we went to see the Monument of Augustus, only to arrive and discover that due to the economic crisis in Greece, they did not have sufficient staff to keep the site open, because it was so rarely visited by anyone, it is such a 'minor' site. But it was the whole reason we went on this particular route!

There were a number of sites we had already passed up, such as the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, which would have required an 8-hour bus-ride, and I decided that was more than the group could tolerate. And places like the tombs in Hierapolis:

. . . that I mentioned in the sermon before we left, and the Theater in Miletus:

An incredible site, both of which we had to just drive by and look out the windows because we didn't have time to get off the bus and explore. And then there was the island of Delos that is an archeological site unto itself--the entire island is an archeological dig, from the first century before the common era (BCE), was abandoned shortly before the birth of Jesus. The only way to get there is from another island, Mykenos, only when we got to Mykenos, the winds were so great, the seas were too high, for the small ferry that takes you to Delos. So this was as close as we got to Delos, flying over it:

Oddly enough, the group didn't seem to mind :) Not visiting a desolate archeological dig with no modern conveniences, and being stranded at this resort in Mykenos :)

I don't understand their lack of disappointment :)

In any event, when we learned that the Augustan Monument was closed, I was not to be denied. So I took us up this back road behind the monument where we could look down upon it:

This is the site where Caesar Augustus camped, this is where he had his tent, overlooking the sea battle that took place on September 2nd, in the year 31 before our common era (31 BCE). It was called the battle of Actium, in which he defeated the forces of Anthony and Cleopatra, that ended nearly a century of civil war in the Roman Empire, making him the undisputed head of a united empire, and hence the beginning of what we call "Pax Romana", the peace of Rome, the golden era of prosperity (at least as far as the Romans were concerned). I think the subjugated people who experienced the military might of Rome would say otherwise.

But anyway, to commemorate that victory, Augustus built this monument:

Adorned with the battle rams from the ships of Cleopatra. And along the front side of the monument (unfortunately we couldn't see it on our trip because we would have had to jump over a fence to get there), there is this inscription, now only partially visible, which Crossan calls the second most important inscription in all of antiquity, for understanding the imperial theology which was the glue that held together the Roman empire. And that inscription says:

That quote succinctly sums up the Roman program under Augustus. First comes religion -- consecrating this to the Gods Mars and Neptune. Then comes war. Then comes victory. And then comes peace.

In other words, peace through victory. But victory at what cost?

And for that, we go to Rome. Where one can see the grand-daddy of all the war spoils, the Colosseum:

Built with the spoils of the war on Jerusalem, including 7,000 Jewish (and likely a few Christian) slaves, brought to Rome to build this Colosseum. And it is commemorated in the Arch of Titus:

The conquering general who would soon become Emperor, in other words, the path to lord-ship, divinity, comes through war. Peace through victory. And inside of that Arch of Titus, you see the spoils of war being carried off by the Roman soldiers:

There's the menorah, being taken out of the Temple in Jerusalem, brought to Rome, presumably melted down to help pay for the Colosseum.

The last stop of our tour, two weeks ago, and also today, was yet again a place relatively few people visit (those are the places I love the most), the Ara Pacis of Augustus, or the Altar of Peace of Augustus:

It was built by the Roman Senate to commemorate Augustus' victory over Spain and France in the year 14 BCE, for annual sacrifices to the Gods. It was re-built, interestingly enough, the pieces were re-assembled under Mussolini (think about the meaning of that). And it portrays a very pious royal family:

That's Frank Reitz, and if that's the picture of piety, then you are all toast :)

It portrays the pious royal family engaged in their religious duty, making in this procession towards the sacrifice:

And it provides a graphic image of what the world of peace looks like, thanks to the military victories given by the Gods.

Outside of the Altar of Peace, facing the Mausoleum of Augustus (where he was buried), you can find a modern copy of that most important inscription from antiquity, for understanding Roman Imperial Theology, and that is the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, or Acts of the Divine Augustus:

His autobiography that he wrote, and directed that it be spread throughout the Empire. You can find it in its original setting in that Temple of Augustus in Ankara. But here the entire thing is displayed, and it begins:

"The Acts of the Divine Augustus, by which he gave the whole world to the Roman people".

So here's my point: the reason for going to see the world of Paul, is so that we may get history right in order to get theology right.

To cite John Dominic Crossan:

"Before Jesus the Christ ever existed, and even if he had never existed, these were the titles of Caesar the Augustus: Divine, Son of God, God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World.

When those titles were taken from him, the Roman Emperor, and given to a Jewish peasant, it was a case of either low lampoon, or high treason. Since the Roman authorities did not roll over in their toga's laughing, we may presume that Pilate, acting for them, got it precisely correct: he publicly, officially, and legally executed Jesus for non-violent revolution against their imperial power".

This, then, is my contention and my conviction: the birth of Jesus, son of God, Lord and Savior of the World, was God's necessary response to the proclamation of and by Caesar, son of God, Lord and Savior of the World.

The message of Jesus about the Kingdom of God is the counterpoint to the message of the Kingdom of Rome.

The message of Paul about lordship of Christ is the counterpoint to the message of the lordship of Caesar.

I chose this introduction to Paul's letter to the Romans because of its ambassadorial tone, in which Paul writes as if he is representing a new Empire. And in the text that we used in the class that I taught right before we left for our pilgrimage, the authors of the text, citing this introduction to Paul's letter, say:

"This is what the ancients considered a polished style. The letter to the Romans has entered into competition with the elegant sounds of the Empire. Such formality of speech would represent an intention to demonstrate that the subject matter of the discourse was on equal or greater footing with Imperial claims. In these opening words, Paul is establishing himself as an envoy in a new and alternate regime, and his rhetoric matches his mission, offering to the Roman communities the opportunity to become co-conspirators with Paul in acknowledging that a regime change had occurred, and that they proclaiming the true ruler of the universe".

In sum, Jesus and Paul come precisely when they did not in spite of the Roman Empire, but because of it. More specifically, because of that claim by and of the Emperor echoed throughout the Empire, that this is what the son of God looks like. This is what it means to be divine. This is how God intends the world to be -- peace through victory, on earth as in heaven.

The question for us, of course, is not just about then, but what about now? What do we believe about what it means to be divine? And how God intends the world to be?

Do we believe in peace that comes not through judgment, war, and victory, but through compassion, non-violence, and justice?

It all depends on how we read history, and God's involvement in it. If there's any truth in the claims that I have made, then I hope for the sake of God, and for the sake of all of us and the earth, we get it right.

[Applause from the congregation]

[At the close of this sermon, one of the World of Paul pilgrims, Leitha Meneget, read the following poem:]

The sound of a holy hush descends on the bus for morning prayer.  Outside the bus window, olive trees dot green fields scattered with red poppies swaying in the sun.

The poppies follow us even inside ancient ruins.  At Ephesus we pass under stone arches where Paul walked to the marketplace to preach.

A few miles away we celebrate communion and do it again a second time in Corinth.  We feel the presence of all those who have gone before-- celebrating this same ritual in these same places. 

Something special happens.  Dan has brought his flock across the world to see the site of his Paul conversion experience:  a huge fallen marble beam that dedicated the temple to ďThe World Conquer Caesar, the Son of God, the God Augustus.Ē   Danís tears make ours flow.

Ginny sweetly struts down the aisle of the bus as she models her 50th wedding anniversary present, a new leather coat.  Applause, whistles, cat calls! 

In such near memory our treasured child, Kelly, now grown to youthful bloom, keeps us in tune with her ukulele and pure voice.

Tears flow . . . sometimes in awe:

We marvel-- a Catholic High Mass wedding upstairs, a Russian Orthodox worship service downstairs, simultaneously taking place in the same church.

Our rich, full acappella Alleluia fills the domed chapel in the ancient catacombs. Once again we feel the presence of those whoíve gone before, singing this same sacred word in this same room. Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place, we sing, as we exit each country.

Day after day weíve experienced over and over what St. Paul was up against:  emperor worship, oracles, idol worship, a world pre-occupied with pagan rituals.  Yet Paul with his rag-tag groupings of people changed the course of history.  His voice rings out:  Gentile and Jew, servant or free, woman or man, no more.  Peace through Justice.  The Body of Christ, he calls the Church.  Itís not something you attend.  Itís something in which you participate, he says.

We end our pilgrimage with this song.  St. Paul, we learned to love you, as we traveled on this journey.


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