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Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Years Post for 2010

The New Year of 2010 is almost here. I look eagerly to the new year, wondering what might happen. So much has changed over the last 365 days. I went from a middle school teacher who had not started work on a Masters degree to an unemployed man who has completed three graduate school courses. It has been a stressful year, but one which opened the door to great promises and new hopes. The start of a new year provides me the chance to make myself a better man and a better Catholic.

January 1 is not merely the start of the new year. For Catholics it is the Feast of Mary Mother of God. It is the greatest title given to Our Lady, one which she deeply deserves. In honor of this great Marian feast, i am posting below my paper for my Patristics class. It examines St. Jerome's work defending the perpetual virginity of Mary against a heretic named Helvidius. The work itself is a good read. This precis, however, might not be as well written as Jerome's treatise, but it is shorter, and if you don't get the chance to read the actual document, at least skip my summary.


Few Church Fathers had the personality and genius that are the trademarks of St. Jerome. Jerome was a man of great learning, educated in the best classical and theological education of the time. He could read and speak several languages, including Hebrew, and was renowned for his faith in Christ and His Church and his cynicism against his fellow man. He was a defender of orthodoxy, and he used all of his intellect against the Church’s enemies. Nowhere is this clearer than in his treatise against Helvidius, where he defends not only Mary’s perpetual virginity and the merit of virginity as a state in life.

Jerome wrote Against Helvidius on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary around the year 383, while Jerome was the secretary of Pope Damasus. It was written against a certain layman named Helvidius, who had written a tract in response to a monk named Carterius. Carterius had tried to defend monastic virginity, holding the Virgin Mary as the supreme example of holy virginity. Helvidius attacked Carterius’ work, insisting that not only did Mary loose her virginity to Joseph after the birth of Christ, but also that all the praise given to virginity as a higher calling in life compared to marriage was false. Both vocations, Helvidius held, were equal. Helvidius cited Scripture in defense of both points, and caused a spiritual scandal among the Christians. Jerome initially ignored Helvidius’ work, but the cry for help from his friends in Rome inspired him to draw is pen against Helvidius.[1] The result is Against Helvidius, which captures the style and themes of the rest of Jerome’s writings, and truly demonstrates the genius of Jerome.

Jerome divides his work into four main parts. The first two parts examine passages from the Gospels that discuss Mary and Joseph’s married life. First, Jerome attacks the argument of Helvidius that the phrase “before they came together” in the gospels means Mary conceived before they had sexual relations, although they did have relations later. The second part discusses the phrase “he knew her not till she had brought forth a son,” which Helvidius held meant Mary had sexual relations with Joseph immediately after the birth of Jesus. The third part deals with a related issue, that of the “brethren” of Jesus mentioned throughout the Gospels, which Helvidius claimed was again evidence that Mary did not remain a virgin after Christ’s birth. The last section defends the theological superiority of holy virginity as a way of life over that of marriage. Jerome uses wit and wisdom throughout the work. He begins his argument with the Gospel passages cited by Helvidius, but then proceeds to argue his points from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as earlier Christian theologians.

Jerome begins by explaining why he is writing, offering to some extent a thesis statement for the work as a whole. He hardly writes two sentences before he notes that the reason he has delayed writing a document against Helvidius is “not because it is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning, but because I was afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating.”[2] He attacks the intellect of Helvidius, and then invokes the Trinity to aid him in his defense. It reminds one of a classical Greek or Roman poet invoking the muses for support. For Jerome, though, the prayer is more than a matter of style. It is a prayer that God might defend His mother’s dignity through Jerome’s words.

The first statement Jerome cites from Helvidius looks at the Gospel According to Matthew. Helvidius notes that Matthew says Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph, not “entrusted,” as if Mary was to become Joseph’s wife later. He references the phrase “before they came together” to show that Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit before she and Joseph “came together” in sexual intercourse, but they did “come together” afterwards (3). Jerome attacks this philological claim by showing other instances where similar words do not imply immediate action. He gives the example of a man who says “Before dining in harbour I sailed to Africa” (4). “His words could not hold good,” Jerome explains, “unless he were compelled some day to dine in harbour” (Ibid.). Jerome also uses the example of St. Paul, who “before he went to Spain was put in fetters at Rome” (Ibid.). Paul, Jerome rightfully says, is not forced to travel to Spain upon release. Jerome summarizes the thought by saying “Must we not rather understand that the preposition before, although it frequently denotes order in time, yet sometimes refers only to order in thought?” (Ibid.). Jerome also notes that it is common to call a betrothed woman a “wife”, and he cites several examples from Deuteronomy as proof. He also explains why Mary conceived after she was betrothed, not before. Three reasons are given:

First, that by the genealogy of Joseph, whose kinswoman Mary was, Mary's origin might also be shown. Secondly, that she might not in accordance with the law of Moses be stoned as an adulteress. Thirdly, that in her flight to Egypt she might have some solace, though it was that of a guardian rather than a husband. For who at that time would have believed the Virgin's word that she had conceived of the Holy Ghost, and that the angel Gabriel had come and announced the purpose of God? (Ibid.)

These same reasons, Jerome explains, are why Joseph is called Jesus’ father, even though Christ’s patrimony is from the Father. It was to protect Mary and Jesus, which Joseph rightfully saw as his sacred duty.

Jerome next attacks Helvidius’ argument that Joseph did not know Mary “till she had brought forth a son” (Mt. 1:25), meaning that Joseph had intercourse with Mary after Jesus was born. “Till” for Helvidius implied a “fixed and definite time, and when that is fulfilled, he says the event takes place which previously did not take place” (5). Jerome counters by stating that “till” and “knew” often have multiple meanings in Scripture, and “till” in particular often means “time without limitation” (6). Jerome cites seven different occurrences from both the Old and New Testaments where the word “till” could not mean a “fixed and definite time.” Each one seems laughably obvious, but they hit the heart of Helvidius’ argument. For example, Jerome cites Isaiah 46:4 where God says “Even to [till] old age I am he.” Jerome, following Helvidius’ logic, asks “Will He cease to be God when they have grown old?” (Ibid.). The answer is obviously no, and this reductio ad absurdum, along with Jerome’s other Scriptural proofs, show the major flaws in Helvidius’ arguments.

Jerome takes Helvidius’ argument a step further, asking, if he wanted to have intercourse with Mary “why Joseph refrained until the day of her delivery” before knowing her. Jerome answers by referring to the holiness of Joseph, who would not dare defile Mary, nor even touch her out of sexual desire, since she was the God-bearer. If Helvidius is true to his arguments, Jerome continues, Joseph would have had intercourse with Mary immediately after she delivered Christ, since his lust could not wait the forty day purification period required by the Mosaic Law. Jerome cites the law in full, and maintains that the Joseph Helvidius depicts is a man who would leave the newborn child with midwives to “clasp his exhausted wife,” (10), not the just man depicted in the gospels. It could not happen that way, Jerome maintains, even if Joseph wanted it, since a midwife was not there at Christ’s birth. It was only Mary and Joseph at the manger.

Satisfied with his attack on Helvidius’ first two arguments, Jerome turns to his third point, that Christ had brothers, which are referenced in the gospels as Christ’s “brethren.” Jerome first examines the claim that Christ had younger siblings because he is called the “first born” of his parents, not the “only begotten,” the latter phrase more commonly used to denote an only son. Jerome points out, however, that a son does not need to have siblings to be the first son born. If one follows the logic of Helvidius, Jerome argues, a child could not be declared the “first born” until his mother births another child. A child is declared a first born not by his birth but by that of his siblings. It is illogical, and Jerome points it out as such. If the “only begotten” and the “first born” could not overlap, Jerome continues, then God was wrong when he killed “only begotten” children as well as “first born” in Egypt. Again, Jerome cites examples from the Old Testament to explain the New, and again Helvidius’ points fall before Jerome’s logic.

Jerome next deals with the problem of Jesus’ “brethren,” evidence, Helvidius says, that Mary and Joseph had later progeny. Again, Jerome examines the exact words used in the Scripture, in this case the word “brethren” and “sisters.” Jerome does concede that there are many apparent references to “brethren” of Jesus throughout the New Testament, but at the same time he states they are not really blood relations of Jesus. Otherwise, why would Christ entrust Mary to John the Beloved if he had several brothers and sisters? Could they not take care of their mother? Also, it seems that the mother of one of the “brethren” of Jesus was at the Cross, another Mary, but not Mary the mother of Jesus. Jerome also points out that there were four types of brethren in Scripture: by nature, race, kindred, and love (16). Brethren by nature are blood brothers, like Jacob and Esau. Brethren by race are the Israelites, and Jerome quotes Deuteronomy and St. Paul in reference to their mention of fellow Israelites as “brethren.” Brethren by kindred are not necessarily blood brothers like Jacob and Esau, but they are from the same family. Abram and his nephew Lot are given as examples for these brethren. Finally, brethren by love are divided into two groups, one spiritual (in that all Christians are brethren of each other) and one of “the general relationship,” as Jerome says, which refers to the general patrimony of God as mankind’s Father (17).

Which of these four, Jerome asks, applies to the “brethren” of Jesus? It is not by nature, since the Scriptures disagree with that belief, as discussed above. It is not by race, because any and all of the Jews would be called brethren, but that is not the case. It is not by spiritual or general relationship, because if that were the case there would not be the special reference to the brethren, since all of Christ’s followers are brethren by spirit and all men are brethren as children of God. Jerome determines they are brethren by kindred, brothers of Jesus in the same way that Joseph is Jesus’ father. The same idea is captured by the word “cousin.” They are “brethren in point of kinship not by nature” (19). As a final point in his argument, Jerome cites earlier Church Fathers from the Eastern and Western parts of the Church in support of his exegesis.

In the final section of the document, Jerome attacks with particular ferocity Helvidius’ claim that consecrated virginity and marriage are theologically equal. He takes particular care in this section, for as he says, “when we are dealing with saints we must not judge rashly” (21). Sacred virginity, Jerome argues, is a sacrifice to God. It is a way that Christians can separate themselves from the distractions of the world and give themselves fully to God. Jerome points out the problems with marriages and how a married person runs the risk of putting his or her spouse and what the spouse wants before God. Those married people who live exemplary lives are those whose married state closest resembles the life of a virgin. Jerome turns back to the example of Joseph and Mary, presenting the theory that Joseph remained a virgin during his life with Mary, since he was the husband of a virgin and the foster father of one too. If a couple does not remember God and imitate the holy virgins, their marriage will be a disaster. Likewise, if a virgin does not follow her vow, it is not holy virginity’s fault. The woman at that point cannot call herself a virgin. Jerome summarizes this by saying, “I maintain that she who is engaged in huckstering, though for anything I know she may be a virgin in body, is no longer one in spirit” (23). Consecrating oneself to God is crucial for Jerome, and none of those who downplay such a gift, be it Helvidius or the woman who rejects her vowed virginity, can escape Jerome’s wrath. With that, he ends the treatise.

Against Helvidius is an important work for several reasons. It gives the reader a glimpse into Jerome’s ascetical beliefs. The discussion of the importance of virginity is a reflection of Jerome’s own spiritual experience and his journey away from the sins typically found in a city like Rome. The work also references other Fathers of the Church, showing that even in the fourth century respect for Tradition flourished. As far as Jerome’s exegetical skills are concerned, the treatise shows that Jerome “is equally at home in the Old and the New Testament.”[3] It also provides a glimpse into the philological exactitude Jerome possessed, even with his non-native languages.

Against Helvidius is the quintessential work of St. Jerome. It demonstrates most of the qualities found in his other works, and it incorporates important aspects from his own life. It shows his knack for witty insults, which have become synonymous with Jerome’s name. More importantly, however, it shows that Jerome was a man of deep faith and stirring genius, a combination which is unparalleled in today’s world, and might never be matched again. He truly was a great defender of the Church he loved so much.

[1]Jean Steinmann, Saint Jerome and His Times, trans. Ronald Matthews (Notre Dame, Indiana: Fides Publishers, 1959), 118.

[2]Jerome, Against Helvidius on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary (handout). All further citations of Against Helvidius are from this copy and are henceforth be cited parenthetically by paragraph number.

[3]Steinmann, 119.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Historical Milieu of Christ's Birth (part 2)

Part 2 - Other Pagan Preparations for Christ

It is a central tenant of the Christian Faith that Christ came to redeem the entire world. It is essential to 2000 years of Christology, from the earliest Christian writings to today’s parish homilies. The universality of the Redemption was apparent, as mentioned in the first part of this series, in the preparations for Christ found in the great civilization of Rome. The Romans were pagan, and were therefore separate from the Hebrews in Palestine. The Romans worshiped a pantheon of gods, ranging from the personal household gods to the great master gods of Jupiter and Apollo. The Hebrews on the other hand worshiped the one true God, seemingly unique in their monotheism.

Fortunately, this was not the case. There were several instances throughout the ancient world of monotheism, although these occasions more often than not were sparse and sporadic, not systematic and continuous, as found in Israel. In Ancient Egypt, for example, a pharaoh named Akenaten attempted a theological revolution by forcing the belief in one god, Aten, over other Egyptian gods. This occurred between 1375 – 1350 BC. Akenaten wrote a beautiful song to Aten, which bears a striking resemblance to Psalm 104. The monotheism of Pharaoh Akenaten, unfortunately, died out with the king.

Farther to the east of Palestine, though, there was another group of monotheists whose beliefs developed into a national religion. The land was Persia, now modern-day Iran. The religious leader was a man named Zarathustra (more commonly called Zoroaster), and his religion was named Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism, like Judaism, held to the belief in one true God. The God of Zoroaster was a personal one, who would redeem his people. The historical connection between Zoroastrianism and the Hebrew people is fascinating, though sometimes tenuous. It is believed by some historians (including Catholic historian Warren H. Carroll) that exiled Israelites, particularly those mentioned in the Book of Tobit, inspired Zoroaster to follow the one true God. Whether or not Zoroaster actually met the biblical Tobit is not important. What is important is that Zoroaster must have met and discussed with exiled Jews, for his spiritual descendents would travel very far to see the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption.

After Zoroaster managed to convert the king of Bactria around 588 BC, his form of Eastern monotheism spread throughout the eastern half of the Middle East. Cyrus of Persia may have followed Zoroastrianism, and he did have in Persia magi, who were priests of Zoroastrianism. These magi are the same “wise men from the East” (Matt. 2:1) that came to give Christ gifts by following a “star” (we’ll discuss the Star of Bethlehem in a later post). Cyrus of Persia is the same Cyrus mentioned in the books of Daniel and Ezra in the Old Testament, the king of Persia that allowed the Israelites to return home and worship the Lord. A later king, Darius, would also deal with the Jews, as recounted in the book of Daniel, before spreading out the arm of the Persian Empire throughout the world. Darius was the Persian king that attacked Greece and fought the famous 300 Spartans. Likewise he reached out to the East and made contact with the strange civilization of India.

In India, an odd religion existed. The adherents to the religion followed a charismatic man named Siddhartha, who is known today as Buddha. This religion held that the soul is in a cycle of rebirth, which upon completion led the soul to a sort of enlightenment. It was a near impossible task, which led to debates and doubt over the existence of the final stage of enlightenment, and even over the existence of the world itself. Another teacher in India, Mahavira, taught that the soul eventually reached a state of “self-subsistence,” literally becoming God; not like God, in that the soul reaches a higher existence, but somehow becomes the cause of its own existence.

Despite all these metaphysical impossibilities, these strange theological philosophers still stressed the goodness of the human person. All should be treated with respect, a morality closely resembling the teachings of Israel more than some other pagan nations. Could it have been a glimmer of Heaven shining through the darkness of Hell?

In China, even farther east, there was a sort of agnostic society, which held there was a deity of some sort somewhere, but the more important matters of life concerned interaction between people. This was found in the great Chinese philosophers, such as Lao Tzu (founder of Taoism) and Confucius, who urged morality and ethics. This ethical teaching had a rebirth almost 300 years before Christ’s birth in the teaching of Mo Ti.

Around the time of King Cyrus, Buddha, and Confucius, Greece saw the rise of her earliest philosophers. These early philosophers tried to make sense of the material world, eventually tackling the problem of matter and essence. Thales, for example, held that matter was entirely made up of water. Others followed suit, but it wasn’t until Parmenides, who lived during the same generation as Cyrus, Buddha, and Confucius, that Greek philosophy examined the question of existence. Parmenides actual realized there must be being, that there must be something that is pure existence. It was this early realization of metaphysics that allowed the later great Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, to develop their own understanding of existence. This thought they taught to their disciples.

One of Aristotle’s disciples in particular, Alexander the Great, would conquer the world, paving the way for the Roman Empire, which had its own secretive preparation for the birth of Christ (mentioned in part 1). Alexander spread Greek culture and the Greek language throughout the world. It was in the Greek of Alexander that the Gospel was written, and it was the Greek rhetorical and philosophic tradition that the Apostles used to spread Christ’s teachings.

To a secular historian, the above mentioned spiritual and philosophical developments of the pagan world might seem distant and unconnected. To the Catholic historian, however, it becomes clear that God was preparing the way for his Incarnation, even through those who were not his Chose People. In our next segment, we will discuss how he prepared the way for his coming in the Scriptures and history of those chosen people.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In defense of 20th Century Popes

I was recently involved in a debate with one of my friends. There wasn't really a conclusion to the debate (I was called an ecclesiastical liberal by the end, and told not to talk to the person anymore), but I spent so much time preparing my response that I felt I should share it with you.

The recent declarations concerning Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II prompted the discussion. For those who have not heard, Benedict XVI recently declared the heroic virtues of the two pontiffs. The person had stated that it was a bad thing that John Paul II had received this distinction, as it puts him a step closer to sainthood. The person stated that it would be a terrible thing if John Paul II became a saint, and that the two (he meant three) popes the person did not like were John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II. In response to this comment, I wrote what follows. Hopefully this will inform those who are interested, and perhaps change the minds of those who agree with this person. I have adjusted the tone of the response to make it more universal, less personal, if that's alright with everyone.

First, I assume you meant three popes instead of two, because you listed Blessed John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II (I assume you skipped John Paul I because he did not reign long enough to do anything offensive). I am saddened that you feel that the day JPII becomes a saint (which may or may not ever happen) will be a bad one. The idea that any day a saint is made is a bad one worries me, since a canonization is an infallible declaration that someone is in heaven, and that we can pray through them so that they can intercede for us. It is one of the most beautiful aspects of our Catholic Faith.

But lets look at these popes which you despise.

John XXIII - became pope in 1958, following the death of Pius XII. He had not expected to become pope, and had actually purchased a return ticked for the train back to Venice, where he was a patriarch of that city. He was supposed to be a filler pope, a little bit older and more likely not to do anything with his pontificate. The hope was that a younger cardinal would be elected after his death. No one expected everything this filler pope brought about.

John was loved by all, famous for his infections personality. He visited prisons, declaring to the inmates, "You could not come to me, so I came to you." He opened Vatican II in October of 1962, after he had made some additions to the Roman Missal (like adding a invocation of St. Joseph in the Canon), what we know of as the 1962 Missal, used in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

The Second Vatican Council, whether you like it or not, is one of the most important events in the history of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century. The primary goal was to pick up where Vatican I had left off (it had been canceled prematurely due to Rome being annexed by Italy, towards the end of the Franco-Prussian War). The hope of this council, John stated, was to open the windows of the Church and let in some fresh air, so to speak. The problems of the council, some more innocent than others, were less the fault of Pope John, who had honorable and holy intentions for the council. His main fault was his faith in humanity. He loved people, and refused to see evil around him. This is clearly seen in his first encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram. He died early on in the council, and apparently his last words were "stop the council." Only on his deathbed had the holy pope realized how he had been used.

He was beatified by John Paul II in 2000.

Paul VI - Pope Paul VI was the logical successor to John XXIII. He had been close to both Pope John and his predecessor Pius XII. He had worked with Pope Pius during World War II, and was made cardinal under Pope John. Paul would make his own mark on the Church. He reopened Vatican II (the council had been suspended with the death of John XXIII) and worked with the cardinals to write the documents, sometimes directly intervening (in Lumen Gentium, for example, Pope Paul had the cardinals attach a chapter about Mary under her new title as Mother of the Church). He wrote commentaries about the documents, and closed the council in 1965.

In addition to writing these commentaries, Pope Paul VI wrote several encyclicals, including Mysterium Fidei (which defended several Catholic traditions and doctrines concerning the Eucharist), Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (which defended priestly celibacy), Populorum Progressio (a social encyclical, which Pope Benedict XVI cites mostly in his recent social encyclical Caritas in Veritate), and Humanae Vitae (his most famous encyclical, where he defended the Church's position on marriage, abortion, and contraceptives, even against his "advisors"). He also worked on ecumenical relations with non-Catholic Christians, and indeed paved the way for the recent group Anglican conversions (but that's a topic for another day). In 1978, he became very sick while staying at Castle Gandolfo, the summer residence for popes. He died there, and was buried under St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

The controversies surrounding Paul VI are surprising. During Vatican II, he ensured the Council remained not too liberal or conservative. His might be criticized for not coming down as hard as he could on those who dissented from his teachings, particularly that found in Humanae Vitae, although he was not afraid publicly reprimanding, or at least supporting correction of, dissenters. He suffered throughout his pontificate from people on both sides of the liberal/conservative coin pulling and ripping at him. He wanted so much to see the Church become a universal Church, not just one of Europe. In that it is clear he succeeded, because otherwise we would not be having this conversation.

John Paul II - Undeniably the most recognizable pontiff of the last 100 years, John Paul II was elected after the sudden death of Pope John Paul I, who reigned for a mere 33 days. John Paul II was a surprise choice, the first non-Italian pope since Pope Adrian VI. He had been at Vatican II and had worked with Paul VI on several matters. He reigned for almost 27 years, one of the longest pontificates in history. He delt with all sorts of issues, be it moral, dogmatic, liturgical, diplomatic, etc. He was the victim of an assassination attempt at the hands of communist agents in 1981 at an audience in St. Peter's square. He played a great role in the fall of communism, talking with world leaders and inspiring uprisings throughout the world, most notably the Solidarity movement in Poland. He traveled throughout the world, and worked with reuniting other Christian communities with the Catholic Church. He had promulgated under his pontificate a reissue of the Code of Canon Law and a universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. He defended the Church's teachings on moral issues, issuing the first officially moral theology encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, and one that dealt with life issues, Evangelicum Vitae.

His life and work is well known, and yet rarely fully examined. Few people, especially his critics, have read all of his work (there are so many, and they are so long!). He canonized 483 saints and beatified 1340 people (which has also been cited as a slight against him, as if many saints is a bad thing). As with Paul VI, he was criticized by liberals for his conservative views (particularly his firm stance on moral issues and Church doctrine) and ultra-conservatives for his apologies for past Church actions/inactions, his interaction with other religions, and his unwillingness to abandon Vatican II.

He was a very spiritual person, holding a special devotion to Mary and the Passion.

That sums up my summary of the popes you don't like. Do you see my point?

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Historical Milieu of Christ's Birth (part 1)

The Historical Milieu of Christ's Birth

Part 1 - Rome

On December 25, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (the exception being the Russian Orthodox Christians, who celebrate Christmas on January 7). It is a feast that has become riddled with controversy, as men for the last few hundred years have sought to minimize its significance. For the Christian, the birth of the World’s Savior is obviously an event of great significance; for the historian, likewise, the birth of arguably the most important man in history bears more than a little importance. As a Christian historian, therefore, it is almost a requirement that I should examine the history surrounding the birth of Jesus, and see how exactly God prepared the world for his coming.

We begin in Rome. Although Christ’s life took place in Palestine, formally small Italian city of Rome controlled Palestine and the rest of the known world at the time of the Incarnation. In the twilight of the era before Christ, Rome was celebrating her second emperor, Caesar Augustus. Augustus had brought Rome out of the civil war that followed the assassination of his uncle, Julius Caesar. For the first time in centuries, Rome was at peace, no longer involved wars of conquest or internal disputation. It was a time known as the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Augustus made sure the city of Rome, and thereby the entire empire, remembered this period of peace. In particular, he closed the temple of Janus, a Roman god (where we get the name for the month January). This temple was used primarily in praying for peace. Sacrifices were offered in the hope that something like the Pax Romana would occur. When it did happen, as hoped, there was no need for the temple to stay open. Augustus, in a lavish ceremony, placed a Roman military spear across the doors of the temple, officially declaring the Empire in a state of peace. This lasted until after his death. Christ was born before Augustus’s death, and thus the Prince fo Peace was born in a time of universal peace.

This peaceful precedent was not the only preparation for Christ’s coming that involved Caesar Augustus. Augustus became emperor of Rome in 29 BC around the age of 34. As he got older, he became more beloved, and some senators sought to erect a temple to Augustus. Augustus was unsure if he should allow it, so he sought the advice of an oracle. The sibyl there told Augustus that a greater king would come and rule Rome. Augustus went out, and then he saw a vision. The sky opened and a woman holding an infant appeared. The sibyl told Augustus that the infant was to be the divine ruler of the world. Augustus told the senators, who agreed to build a temple at the spot to a virgin goddess. The historical details of the vision are sketchy, and the above story comes more from a medieval manuscript than a life of Augustus. However, there is some archaeological evidence that the story predates the medieval legend (See Paul F. Burke, “Augustus and Christianity in Myth and Legend,” New England Classical Journal 32, No. 3 (2005) 213-220.).

Related to Augustus’s vision is the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil. Virgil, a Latin poet more famous for his epic poem The Aenead, wrote some smaller poems called eclogues. The fourth of these, written around 40 BC, refers to a young boy who will rule Heaven and Earth. The initial prompt for such a poem was probably Augustus’s expected victory (since he had not yet completely squashed his enemies); however, the poem so closely resembles a passage from Isaiah that some scholars believe Virgil was inspired by the prophecies of the prophet concerning the coming Messiah as recorded in the Septuagint, which was popular reading for some Romans. The boy in the poem is linked with Lucina, the goddess “who brings children into light,” a proper association for the Hebraic Messiah. Concerning the boy, Virgil also says,

He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself
Be seen of them, and with his father's worth
Reign o'er a world at peace.

As mentioned above, Augustus was responsible for the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, and could very well be the boy destined to rule the world in peace mentioned in the poem. The similarity to Isaiah, though, is too close to ignore, particularly because Isaiah refers to the Messiah as the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Virgil also notes, interestingly enough, that “The serpent too shall die,” as one of the results of his Messiah’s coming. Did he make the connection between Genesis 3:15 and the coming Jewish Messiah? Virgil was a smart man, and if he had read much of the Septuagint, he might have followed the systematic thought behind the Jewish writers, and he very well might have connected the prophecies from Genesis to those found in Isaiah. The prophetic poem that makes up the Fourth Eclogue is too similar to Hebraic prophecies of Christ to be a coincidence.

One last event in Rome closes this first part of examining the milieu surrounding Christ’s birth. Virgil noted in his above mentioned eclogue that the Earth will erupt with joy for the arrival of the Messiah:

For thee, O boy,
First shall the earth, untilled, pour freely forth
Her childish gifts, the gadding ivy-spray.

This sounds simply like an artistic description of the Earth’s joy in the Messiah. It would indeed be merely a literary device, if something similar had not happened historically. Sometime between 38 and 30 BC, between two and ten years after Virgil composed this poem, an incredible amount of oil flowed up from the ground and spilled into the Tiber River. The oil came from the small suburb of Rome called Trestevere, though the area was at that time called Taberna Meritoria. The story is recounted not only in Christian literature (St. Jerome mentions it in his additions to Eusebius Chronicle of the Church, and another Christian writer named Paulus Orosius draws the connection between the Pax Romana, the oil, and the coming of Christ) but also in a pagan Roman history by Dio Cassius, who wrote in his Roman History (XLVIII, 43), “Now many events of a portentous nature had occurred even before this, such as the spouting of olive oil on the bank of the Tiber, and many also at this time” (The translator makes a note that the word translated as “olive oil” can also mean regular oil). The story is one of history, not merely of Christian legend. Whether it directly predicts the birth of Christ is another matter, but the fact that it is so close chronologically to Virgil’s seemingly prophetic poem makes the connection between the birth of Christ and the bubbling oil seem reasonable. This is not the only instance of physical phenomenon happening in concurrence with Christ’s birth (the more famous example, the Star of Bethlehem, is examined later in this series). It seems all of creation awaited the blessed event of the Incarnation.

We have examined preparations for the Messiah in the capital imperial city of Rome. Next time, we will examine how other parts of the world, particularly to the east of Palestine, prepared for the coming of Christ.