Tag Archives: Herod the Great

Matthew 2: 1-12 Magi, the Creation and Scriptures Point to Jesus

James Tissot, The Magi Journeying (Between 1886 and 1894)

Matthew 2:1-12

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I am a person who loves to read fantasy novels and to play games set within worlds filled with magic and yet I know that for most of the history of both Christianity and Judaism people who were looked upon as magic users were viewed as dangers to the faithful, at a minimum, and sometimes enemies of the faith aligned with demonic powers. It may be tempting to mock conservative Christians who forbid their children to read the Harry Potter novels, for example, but to understand the scandal of the story of the wise men we need to begin with the beliefs of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus about those who used things like astrology as a tool to understand their world. The advisors to Pharaoh who attempted to replicate the signs and wonders God did through Moses, Balaam who was called upon to curse Israel in Numbers 22-24 and the medium that Saul employs to talk to Samuel are all viewed as cautionary tales that warn against putting one’s trust in those who employ the magical arts. Numerous places in the law prohibit various types of magical practices, for example:

9 When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10 No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12 For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the LORD your God is driving them out before you. 13 You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God. 14 Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the LORD your God does not permit you to do so. (Deuteronomy 18: 9-14, see also Exodus 22: 18 and Leviticus 20:27)

Contrary to our world where we assume magic belongs to the realm of fantasy, a part of the disenchanted worldview that we live in; in the ancient world magic was viewed as a real and dangerous thing. For the Jewish people it was viewed as a temptation which often lured people away from their faith in the God of Israel (and given the number of kings of Israel which would embrace the very practices that Deuteronomy prohibited they must have been a persuasive alternative). Even within the New Testament we hear the story of Simon the Magician in Acts 8 who views the gift of the Holy Spirit in terms of magical power and is condemned by Peter and John and responds by asking for their prayers. Simon, we learn, believed and was baptized and seems to have given up his former magical practices seeing the evidence of the Spirit’s power in the apostles. Likewise, in Acts 19 several former practitioners of magic burn their magical texts as a part of their acceptance of the faith of Christ. Yet, these wise men would not have been looked upon by most Jewish people as simply foreigners, but they would be both foreigners and people whose practices would be viewed, in Deuteronomy’s language, as abhorrent.

The magi were likely Zoroastrians from the Parthian Empire (also known as Persia, modern day Iran) who were known for their practices of discerning events from the stars. The description of the wise men as being from the East also lends support to the idea that these magi were coming from Parthia. Parthia also represented, for the people of the Roman empire, the external threat—they were people from beyond the boundaries of the empire and that in the century before Christ’s birth had harassed and humiliated the Romans and even briefly driven Herod the Great into hiding at Masada (until Rome would regain control of the region).  The star was seen beyond the beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire and those who came searching to pay tribute to the King of the Jews may have also been potential collaborators with a foreign empire. The magi were not kings themselves, but they were practitioners of a strange religion from a hostile empire. Yet, in line with the scriptures, the God of Israel frequently uses foreigners and even the movement of empires to be a part of God’s working in the world.

Another theme that will occur in Matthew is the way that creation itself reacts to the presence of Jesus. Even though the Jewish people may not have been looking to the heavens for a sign in the stars to let them know that the long-awaited Messiah has come, the creation shows signs that those who know how to see can observe. Many solutions for the start that the magi follow have been proposed, an interesting one is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn three times in 7 BCE. Jupiter was known as the “royal” planet and Saturn was thought to represent the Jews, (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 27) but ultimately we will likely never prove exactly what the magi observed. Yet, for those able to see, the creation provides multiple witnesses to who Jesus is and this will be highlighted in the crucifixion scene where Matthew includes not only darkness but also an earthquake which opens the tombs and the resurrection of many who are dead. For Matthew the presence of Jesus, the Emmanuel (God with us), provokes a reaction from the earth and stars as they respond to the presence of their creator.

When I was growing up, I imagined this scene as literally following a star that was in motion like a comet, but likely the magi observed the signs in the heavens and moved to where they anticipated the observed phenomenon occurring. This may be the reason they end up in Jerusalem, in looking for the one born King of the Jews it is only natural to look at the center of power, both religious and spiritual, of the Jewish people. Bethlehem, while it was the birthplace of David, was a seemingly inconsequential place compared to Jerusalem with the temple and with King Herod’s palace. The magi come to the center of power looking for a king who is to be born and probably assume that the king is affiliated with he current king reigning in Jerusalem.

Herod the Great, the ruler of Judea was a shrewd political leader who could be merciless even on his own family. Herod was now Jewish, he was born in Idumea which is south of Judea, but he was raised religiously as Jewish by his father. Herod would reign as the King of Judea for roughly thirty-six years, dying in 4 BCE (shortly after the events narrated in these chapters) and his domain would be divided between his remaining sons. Even though Herod was granted the title ‘King of Judea’ by the Roman Senate his reign was dependent upon the favor of those in power in Rome, his ability to maintain the flow of tax revenue from his region and his ability to navigate the numerous internal threats to his reign. From a modern perspective we may view Herod as paranoid and power hungry, but the world he lived in was much more ruthless than our own and those who held power. Herod’s reaction is foreshadowed by the words that ‘Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;”

The chief priests and scribes of the people are called upon to unravel the mystery of this child whose birth is written in the heavens and who these magi come seeking. In Matthew’s gospel the ability to read what is going on in the heavens only takes the magi so far, to complete their journey they need the gift of what is written in scripture. The chief priests and the scribes, who along with the ruling authorities like the Herods and the Romans will find themselves frequently at odds with Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, are now called upon to interpret the voice of scriptures. The chief priests and the scribes can, from the scriptures, pull the correct answer. The words in Matthew are closest to Micah 5:2

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

As Stanley Hauerwas can remark Herod, the chief priest and the scribes may ultimately oppose Jesus, but they have a role play in the narrative of the life of Jesus. As he states, “without Herod the wise men might not have found the one they sought. The enemies of the kingdom often serve the movement begun in Jesus.” (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 40)

Throughout the gospel Matthew will use scripture to begin to illuminate who Jesus is and what he means. Just as in the genealogy we are linked back to the line of David and the promise of a new David that would lead the people. In the two explicit references to scripture at this point we have heard that Jesus is ‘’God with us” and “the ruler who is to shepherd Israel” (a role that in both Jeremiah and Ezekiel is claimed by God in opposition to the current shepherds). The scriptural claim about a new ruler from an ancient line who is to shepherd the people of Israel also undercuts Herod’s tenuous claim as king of the Judeans due to his political alliance with Rome and his political maneuverings in Judea.

Herod meets with the magi in secret, again this points out the scandal of the magi in a Jewish worldview. King Herod, ever attentive to threats to his power, passes on the information the magi need to complete their search by giving them the location where the scriptures reveal the child is to be born, Bethlehem. With this final piece of information, the search is completed, the heavens align, and these Gentiles can find the new king of the Jews that the chief priests, the scribes, and even King Herod had not. God uses foreigners who are not in possession of the law to be a part of the revelation of God’s story. Just like the genealogy with Gentiles are singled out as a critical part of the story of God’s chosen people and Matthew foreshadows that this gospel, although a Jewish gospel, will be open in the most expansive prophetic hope to the Gentiles who will come to be a part of what God is doing in Israel.

The magi bring their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. There are three gifts, but there are not necessarily three magi. Later tradition would attribute the names Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar with the magi of this story, but in Matthew they are unnumbered and unnamed. Unlike the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” they were probably not kings and probably not three. Yet, these Gentile magi come from outside the empire and outside the Jewish faith based on how they see the stars move to pay tribute to this one born as a king.

Within the gospel there is an openness to the faith of the outsider and some of the greatest witnesses of faith will be non-Jewish in Matthew’s gospel. These magi are outsiders and yet they too show great faithfulness in coming in search of Jesus, bringing their gifts and paying him homage. They also, like Joseph, will be attentive to the way God will speak to them in dreams and in obedience to the vision they have in the night they leave the country without returning to Herod to report on Jesus and his family.

A Brief Introduction to Herod the Great

Herod the Great

The World Around Judea in the Time Before Herod

After the Maccabean Revolt in 167-160 BCE the Judean people had a time of independence and were ruled by Hasmonean kings who were descendants of the Maccabees who are credited with, in tradition, of leading the revolt that would grant them independence from the collapsing Seleucid Empire (the northern half of the former Greek empire).

The Macedonian Empire and the Kingodm of the Diadochi in 301 BC and 200 BC Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911 courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin, Seleucid Empire shown in yellow on map

The Hasmoneans ruled Judea autonomously from 140-63 BCE when Pompey conquered Judea. The Hasmoneans retained their titles once Rome established Judea as a client state, but they no longer had the autonomy they once did. The Hasmoneans continued to vie for power, and it was during the power struggle between two brothers (Hyrcanus and Aristobolos) that Antipater (Herod the Great’s father) was able to attain the position of Chief minister of Judea with the responsibility of collecting taxes for Rome.

The assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE brought instability throughout the Roman empire and while Marc Anthony and Octavian battled for dominance and the Parthian empire pushed against the divided Roman forces. Antipater would be assassinated by a rival, Malchus, in 43 BCE but Herod and his brothers, Antipater’s son would avenge their father’s death.

Herod the King of Judea

In either 40 or 39 BCE Herod is appointed King of Judea by the Imperial Senate at Anthony’s request. Because of the ongoing civil war between Anthony and Octavian and the continued Parthian incursions Herod was left with autonomy to deal with both civil unrest, particularly in Galilee, as well as internal threats from his own family.

There are times where Herod’s reign sounds like something out of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, where the intrigue between family members is often lethal. The Hasmoneans still had influence in both the political and religious spheres when Herod assumed power and Herod has married Mariamne I, the daughter of the Hasmoneans Alexander and Alexandra. To attempt to regain some of their lost power Herod’s mother-in-law, Alexandra, appealed to Cleopatra, now married to Marc Anthony, to help place her son, Aristobolus III, as high priest for Jerusalem.  While Herod did grant Aristobolus III the office of high priest he ensured that both Alexandra and Aristobolus III were kept under tight surveillance. In 36 BCE Herod would have Aristobolus III killed. In 29 BCE he would have his wife Mariamne I executed for adultery, and his mother-in-law Alexandra is executed after she declares Herod unfit to rule and attempts to assume the crown for herself. In 28 BCE he executes his brother-in-law Kostobar for conspiracy. In 27 BCE an assassination attempt on Herod’s life was foiled. Towards the end of his reign his sons became the threats to his power with his two sons from Mariamne I executed in 7 BCE, and his first born son, Antipater, who had been his heir was executed in 4 BCE while Herod was dying a painful death to an unknown illness.

In addition to navigating the internal threats Herod also had to navigate the tricky relationship with Rome during an unsettled time. In the civil war between Anthony and Octavian Herod had sided with Marc Anthony. When Octavian (who later assumed the title Augustus) defeated Marc Anthony’s forces in 31 BCE Herod had to demonstrate that he could be a loyal client king of the new Roman emperor. Herod was able to make the argument that his continued reign in Judea would help retain Rome’s access to the resources of both Egypt and Syria. Herod’s efficient administration of Judea, in Roman eyes, and his ability to keep local revolutionaries contained meant that Rome granted Herod a large amount of authority in relation to the people of Judea.

Herod rule would be viewed as despotic in modern terms and it is impossible to judge the reaction of the average person in Judea to his reign. Herod did use secret police to monitor and report on the population and that he had a large personal guard which was composed of both Jewish and mercenary forces. Herod’s building projects, including the rebuilding of the temple, harbors, fortresses and several cities for non-Jewish portions of the population in Judea placed a great tax burden on the people in addition to the taxes that Herod would send to Rome and to other dominions.

Herod, because of his Idumean background and in contrast to the Hasmoneans who came before him, had to maintain his identity as a monarch of the Jewish people. Yet, he also continually had to play the role of a client king of the Roman empire. Herod, even though he was brought up Jewish, sometimes displayed a poor judgment of Jewish sensitivities (or perhaps at times didn’t care). Herod’s most famous blunder was erecting a golden eagle at the gate of the temple which many Jewish religious leaders felt was idolatrous. Herod managed to stay in power for roughly thirty-six years facing both internal and external threats and was probably both efficient and ruthless. Herod did not tolerate threats to his continued reign and as the Roman writer Macrobius (c. 400 CE) would report that Emperor Augustus, on hearing that Herod has ordered the death of his own sons, said, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son” Herod, attempting to maintain a Jewish identity, would never slaughter a pig to eat, but Herod did put to death several of his sons and other relations.

Josephus in his two major works the Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities gives several details of Herod the Great’s reign roughly seventy years after his death. There is a lot of scholarly work on Herod the Great and his role in both Jewish and Christian narratives. His life can be confusing to attempt to follow because it occurs at the intersection of many large historical events. After Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE his reign is divided among four of his remaining sons, the map below shows the reach of Herod the Great’s reign.

The Herodian Tetrarchy as establish by Augustus in 4 BCE until 6 CE when Herod Archelaus is ousted and Judea is annexed by Rome shared under creative commons attribution-share alike 4.0

The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 5: A New Crisis of Collapse in Judaism and a Summary of Authority to this Point

Detail of the Arch of Titus Showing the Sack of Jerusalem

Judea and Galilee have had the seeds of revolt planted in the popular memory of the Maccabees and in the practices that have held their identity as a Jewish people after the exile.  The memories of the Exodus and exile, the memories of past greatness and the desire for a new Davidic king, in addition to the very real burden of taxation felt by many of the people (and the consolidation of land/wealth by the elite) provided a volatile environment by the beginning of the Common Era.  Even a ruthless, yet effective, ruler like Herod the Great who is able to rule through force, fear and political intrigue only delays the coming firestorm. Herod may rebuild the temple in glorious fashion and may want to occupy the role of a Davidic king in the people’s imagination but there are two major factors against him and his offspring. First he is not of Jewish decent, he may be a practicing Jew, but he is not of a Jewish much less Davidic bloodline and second he is aligned with Rome. After Herod dies in 6 CE his reign divides between his sons (many also named Herod) and none of them, or the people Rome replaces them with are able to exercise the type of power of Herod the Great. In 66 CE the region explodes into revolt against the Romans, first in Galilee and spreading quickly to Judea.  The Romans respond quickly and decisively destroying the temple in 70 CE and performing mop-up operations for a couple of years.  When the Judean Jews revolted again in 132 CE, the Roman response was even harsher attempting to crush any hope of another uprising.  Judaism did not die, but it did transform-it would no longer be tied to a temple, there would no longer be a concentrated Jewish homeland, the hope for a messiah would remain but in the meantime the people got on with their lives and being Jewish became portable.  Rabbinic Judaism becomes the dominant expression of Jewish identity. Rabbinic Judaism is centered in the exposition of the Jewish Scriptures and oral traditions. Gathering in local tabernacles became the place where identity was formed.  In addition to the scriptures and tabernacle, the Jewish people continued to practice the actions and festivals that made them distinctively Jewish. The loss of a central authority did not destroy their identity, but rather finding themselves dispersed throughout the Roman Empire they evolved to become a community centered on scripture, tradition and practice.

Throughout this part of our journey we have seen authority rest in families, in king and temple, in narrative and practice.  With authority comes the access to wealth, military might, and most centrally to people of this time land. The people give up some of their autonomy (or at least the autonomy of their family, clan or tribe) for the greater security of monarchy-and yet even security has its limits. As we can see from the incident of Rehoboam the tribes and families may choose to go a different direction (as they did at the splitting between Israel and Judah). Even with the temple and monarchy at its strongest there is still a prophetic critique of both, and yet in the memory of the people as the monarchy goes (or the monarchy and the temple) so goes the people. The loss of power, land and military might leads to a process of re-evaluation, a process that draws on the prophetic imagination. The Hebrew people center in on their stories and practices and as much as possible attempt to remain true to their identity without assimilating into the dominant culture.  In trying to remain distinct there is a conflict between purity and assimilation the seeds of revolt are sewn.  Yet throughout a millennia of conflict, crisis, exile and return, revolt and repercussions Judaism adapts and evolves, it is never so dependent on one place of authority that it cannot re-center itself on what it means to be the chosen people in a new time and place.

One of my discoveries in re-reading in what lies before is the role of fear in the transfer of authority. The fear of the nations around them allows tribes and families to cede their authority to a centralized monarchy and temple.  Yet, too much consolidation of power (and wealth) by the monarchy leads many of these tribal leaders and families to rethink their authority and to appoint a king they find more favorable to their desires.  When monarch, land, temple and wealth are destroyed and the people find themselves in exile they fear assimilation and they bring together the stories and practices that allow them to maintain their identity in a world they perceive is hostile to their identity.  Even in the return to Judea there is a fear of the outsider, the gentiles, and purity becomes an overriding concern. Now certainly there are other issues that contribute to these transformations and yet where we place authority depend on a desire for security and stability in the midst of the chaos, real or perceived, a group of people find themselves within.

This is where we will leave one journey behind, Rabbinic Judaism continues across the world and has adapted to any number of challenges that have come its way.  The Romans were not the last to try to oppress them, force them to relocate, or even try to wipe them out.  That journey continues, but I am not the one to tell that story.  Instead we will begin the other story that emerges in this point out of the Jewish story…the story of Christianity and its own struggle to locate authority.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com