And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
Luke 2:1, King James Version
While ‘all the world’ that Caesar Augustus had in mind was all the Roman world, this story is about the birth of a child, Jesus, who would change all the expansive Western world, and indirectly much of the rest of the world.
Back in 1611 when the King James Version of the Bible was published, ‘all the world’ was bigger than the Roman world, but not as big as ours. Today’s translators qualify the extent of Caesar’s decree:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (New International Version).
They’ve defined the ‘world’ as Roman, and the decree as a census, a population registration, through which Caesar would be able to tax everyone. The records would also be used for military service, though Jews were exempt.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder back in 1566 made it easy for us to imagine Mary and Joseph trudging through the December snow to register their names in Bethlehem (though he painted a Flemish village…). His painting of the census is amazingly detailed. A high-resolution version on a large screen is the best way to see all the activities. There’s Mary on a donkey with Joseph heading towards the tax office where a group is already waiting to register and pay, women are preparing food, people are carrying heavy loads over a frozen lake, there are children playing and people bent and laboring, and even some castle ruins. An image I’d like to see on a Christmas card.
And now it’s Christmas Eve, and time for bed. Tomorrow my family and I will celebrate the birth of Jesus with feasting and gifts and pleasure. And freedom.
There would be no Christmas stories without Christmas, and there would be no Christmas without Christ. So for this last and bonus post about middle lines, I’ve enjoyed searching for the turning point in the story of Christ’s birth.
We know how the story begins: an angel announces a virgin birth to come. But what happens in the middle?
For my journey to the centre of the story in search of great lines that draw me on into the second half, or that throw up a problem that seems unresolvable, I’d have to choose Matthew, chapter 2, verse 8, the King James version for the poetry of it. Here, Herod is speaking to the wise men, the Magi, telling them to go to Bethlehem. We know his intentions can’t be good because of all his earlier expressed fear of being dethroned.
Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
Such a liar! Fortunately, the wise men were ‘warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod’. And fortunately, an angel warned Joseph to take Jesus and Mary and flee into Egypt. And so the Christmas story ends well for Jesus (and badly for other boys, but that’s another story).
Merry Christmas to all of you out there who’ve read my writing this year. I wish you many literary surprises in 2014!