Luke 2:11 reads, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Whenever someone asks me about the nature of this word Saviour I reach for the book mainline clergy consult more than any other on topics of the Christmas story, The Birth of the Messiah by Raymond Brown. Brown is THE scholar on all questions related to the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. In particular Brown understands the nature of both the Jewish and gentile experience at that time and what this story said to each. The word, the title, the name, Saviour would mean different things to different people.
To begin Jesus is defined as “he who saves”. Matthew 1:21 21 “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” But saved from what and by what means? It seems to me these are the central questions raised by using this title Saviour.
Raymond Brown begins with the Jewish understanding of whom would come as Messiah. The book of Isaiah is filled with such imagery. Isaiah 42:6 says, “I have called you…I have kept you, I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” Isaiah 49:6 says, “It is not enough for you to be called my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I shall give you a light to the nations so that my salvation will reach the end of the earth.” The clear message here is that this servant, whom God will send, will be a light to the nations, a manifestation of who God is, embodied in the nation of Israel. Also, there is an assumption that these other nations live in a state of “darkness” and need some kind of light to shine and expose a different and better way.
Specifically the nation of Israel expected one to come among them who would be an heir to the throne of David and thus the royal titles follow in Isaiah 9, “Wonderful Counselor, Divine Hero, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.” But here is where the author of Luke-Acts begins to broaden the audience for this gospel, to include gentiles as well. So in Luke added to these titles comes three unique to the gentiles, “Saviour, Christ and Lord.” As Brown points out these titles would be understood by the gentiles as connected to the Hellenistic rules of their time. Roman rules would absorb for themselves Divine names, they were not just head of state but also a deity and citizens of Rome were to worship them as if they were a god.
Raymond Brown believes the term Saviour for the baby Jesus would have been heard by gentiles as a contrast to another kind of Savior, the Roman Emperor. “This text is a counterclaim to the imperial propaganda associated with the celebration of Augustus’ (the Emperor) birth.” In other words while Israel expected a Messiah who be a light to other nations caught in darkness the gentiles already had a firm notion of what a Saviour looked like, how he lived and how he saved and this infant in a manger was none of the above. To gentiles the Saviour was powerful, he commanded armies that kept the peace through force and he lived in a palace.
For those who hear this story today it begs the question what Saviour means to us, what we need to be saved from and how. To the nation of Israel this story was a reminder of what light they could shine on a world full of sin. To the gentiles this story was a reminder of what a leader and a movement could be, how peace could come without the power, force and privilege of an Emperor. What do we need to be saved from and how?