The world into which Jesus was born was not an easy one for women or the poor. Herod the Great ruled an area almost as large as the Kingdom of David and Solomon had been in Israel’s glory days. But Herod had to resist the attempts by Cleopatra of Egypt to carve out the wealthy cities of his kingdom, and it was only the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony by Octavian that stabilised his rule. Octavian, now called Augustus Caesar, relied on Herod to keep order in that part of the Roman Empire, and this he did for thirty-three years, until his death in 4 B.C.
To rule for so long required ruthlessness and ability, and Herod had a great deal of both. The story that Matthew tells in his Gospel of the slaughter of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem, when Herod tried, unsuccessfully, to kill the “King of the Jews” the Magi had told him about, was not out of character at all. Herod also killed a wife, a mother-in-law, and three of his own sons, the last one just a few days before his own death. This was the political world into which Jesus was born.
Judaism had developed into a number of opposing groups since the days of Moses. Decades of exile in Babylon, and the increasing influence of Greek culture, had reduced the zeal of many Israelites, and inspired a revival of zeal in others. One group, which has a large role in the Gospels, was the Pharisees, a minority among the Jews at the time, who had inherited and treasured a body of laws and rules based on interpretations of the Ten Commandments. This “tradition of the elders” consisted of literally thousands of rules, dealing with every conceivable aspect of life. For example, if the Law said the Sabbath was to be kept holy, this meant no work should be done on that day. But what constituted “work”? The laws defined how far one could walk, how much one could carry, how seriously ill someone had to be in order to be treated, and many other regulations.
One result of this dependence on traditions and regulations, which, for many, make up “religion”, was a lowering of the status of both women and the poor and needy in the eyes of the established religious order. Women were kept in subjection: they were not allowed to study, to be taught, to have any legal position. They were considered incapable of understanding intellectually, and could not own property. A man could divorce his wife simply by telling her he was doing so; a woman could not divorce her husband. Women could not talk to man in public, and would never dare to touch one. A couple caught in adultery faced separate fates. The man was considered blameless and the woman was executed. The testimony of a woman was not admissible in a court, she was a non-person.
The poor and needy were considered cursed by God for some unknown sin: obviously, if blind, diseased, homeless, or poor, it was because they had incurred the wrath of God for some reason. Wealth and health, on the other hand, was considered a sign of God’s blessing. It is a sad fact that many of these attitudes can be found wherever religion is reduced to rules and tradition, and where the “Prosperity Gospel” has contaminated Christian churches.
This was the society into which the first Christmas story took place, and only by understanding this background can the force of the revolution to which the birth of Jesus led be really appreciated. The transition between what we call the Old Testament and the New is seen in an almost profound way in the first three chapters of Luke’s first book. The events leading up to the birth of John the Baptist are interspersed with those dealing with the birth of Jesus, but the contrast between them is remarkable.
Gabriel appears to John’s father, Zechariah, in the Temple in Jerusalem, the centre of the religious life. He is a priest, one of the religious elite in Judaism, ministering in the Holy Place for possibly the only time in his life. It is a most solemn and sacred moment for him. He is told of John’s coming birth and how he will be raised and used by God. The baby is named John only after Zechariah confirms his wife’s announcement to the people gathered for the naming ceremony.
The announcement of the coming of Jesus is very different: a revolutionary difference. Mary is a young woman, engaged (as we would say) to be married, but still living at home. Gabriel comes to her with the news that she would bear the Messiah, the Promised One, and she expresses her amazement that someone as low in society as she would be granted this gift. Her fiancé, Joseph, is not involved at this point. When Mary visits her cousin, who will be the mother of John the Baptist, she is inspired to declare the coming revolution:
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” [Luke 1:51-53] The Revolution starts here.