Good news for all the people

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

The theme of a restricted, national salvation is evidenced in the angelic announcement to the shepherds. The child is born for their benefit (‘unto you’), because the renewal of Israel would begin at the margins, amongst the poor, disreputable, and even the villainous. The news will be a source of great joy not to the whole world but to ‘all the people’ of Israel - the same ‘people’ (laos) to which Zechariah refers when he prophesies about the redemption of Israel (1:68, 77).

The doxology of verse 14 has in view the ‘peace’ of Israel rather than of the whole world if, as is likely, the phrase ‘people of favour (eudokias)’ (‘those with whom he is pleased’ in ESV) connotes God’s elect people to whom he has extended favour at a time of crisis. The thought is found, for example, in Psalm 106, which is echoed at several points in Zechariah’s prophecy (Luke 1:68-79): ‘Remember me, O LORD, when you show favour (eudokia) to your people; help me when you save them…’ (Ps. 106:4 = 105:4 LXX).

It is likely that this announcement of good news was intended to clash with the Augustan mythology concerning the birth of one who would be a saviour, lord and bringer of the pax Romana. The famous Priene Calendar inscription reads:

Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it (Providence) filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a Savior (sōter), has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and whereas, having become visible, Caesar has fulfilled the hopes of all earlier times… not only in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him but also in leaving to his successors no hope of surpassing him; and whereas, finally, that the birthday of the god (i.e. Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euangelion) concerning him, therefore, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth, and let his birthday mark the beginning of the new year.

At this stage in the narrative, however, the focus is on the salvation and restoration of the people of YHWH. In the reign of Caesar Augustus, who has the power to enforce a census in remote Palestine, when Quirinius is governor of Syria, a child is born who will deliver the people from spiritual and political oppression and become king over them. The question that later arises is: What will happen when this renewed people moves out into the Greek-Roman world to bear witness to the fact that this child has been given the name which is above every name?