There are some very interesting details in the Gospel accounts about events behind the Real Christmas. You may be so familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth that you haven’t noticed, but if you dive into those events, you’ll gain a new perspective on the nativity, and find some Christmas treasure worth seeking.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him…” (Matthew 2:1-3, NIV)
So, Why Were People Disturbed?
The Magi, who studied the heavens and knew something about the arrival of a new king of the Jews, came “from the east” to find out about this new-born king… Naturally they went first to the current king in Jerusalem, Herod the Great. He was a king who had an impressive resume as an architect and builder. But he was a cruel man who was known for levying high taxes and pushing to complete his projects. He built a fabulous temple (in addition fortresses, the Port of Caesarea, and many other impressive architectural achievements). When the Magi arrived, Herod was in perhaps the last year of his reign, dying from gonorrhea and possibly cancer.
Herod may have been ill, but he was still a powerful man who guarded his throne with ruthless determination. He is known for his impressive accomplishments as a builder, and his engineering and architectural accomplishments can still be seen today at Caesarea, Masada, and Jerusalem. They are why he still known as “Herod the Great”.
He had a long, tumultuous reign filled with treachery and murder. Herod not only executed his wife, Miriamne, but her mother Alexandra as well. He had two of his brothers-in-law killed, and also executed his own sons Alexander and Aristobulus for treason. He was so jealous of his throne that at one point it prompted Augustus to say, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son” (a reference to the play on words between “pig” and “son” and the fact that the pig had a better chance for survival than a son, since Herod’s household didn’t eat pork).
Matthew’s description of Herod’s reaction to the Magi is intriguing. While there is much to explore about the Magi, it is also interesting to take a closer look at Herod’s role in the nativity. After all, he was at least partly responsible for sending them to Jesus. “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Matthew 2:7-8)
Herod is a somewhat forgotten part of this nativity, but he certainly played a significant role in the birth and early life of Jesus. Matthew says in verse 3 that when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, “Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” It might make sense that Herod was troubled—he guarded his throne zealously, and certainly did not enjoy having other aspiring kings around. But why was all Jerusalem troubled with him?
More Than Meets the Eye
Dr. Duane Edward Spencer taught that Herod was a cruel ruler who was not exactly beloved in Jerusalem. He was indeed a great builder, but along with the glorious temple, his port city of Caesarea, and his fortresses came slave labor and high taxes. The fact that the city was disturbed along with him at the approach of these men suggested a somewhat larger and more capable party than three men on camels. More likely it was a troop of famed Persian cavalry. It makes sense, since a few men carrying valuable gifts would have been easy prey for robbers. Besides, three guys on camels probably wouldn’t make a city tremble.
This is a real story about real people. It makes sense that men of this stature would not travel without protection. It is also reasonable that Herod and people in Jerusalem would all have their own interpretation of events. Herod tried to twist the Magi to his own ends, asking them to go find this newborn king so he could “worship him”. Like many real politicians before and since, Herod was lying about his true intent. He was a paranoid ruler who was constantly involved in intrigue and questionable choices. (And, if you look at his devious and murderous intentions here, a Herod played a role in both Jesus’ birth and in his death.)
More Than One Herod
Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas, carried on the family tradition of making poor choices by marrying his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. She was the one whose daughter danced provocatively for him and then demanded the head of John the Baptist. Definitely soap opera material… Herod Antipas is the same guy who wanted Jesus to perform for him, and who sent him back to Pilate after a very cursory “trial”. But, back at the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great sent the Magi to Bethlehem to find Jesus and report back to him. When they didn’t bring him a report, he reacted by doing something that followed his reputation down the corridors of time.
He killed all the male children in the area around Bethlehem two years of age and under. While he missed Jesus, his cruelty touched many other lives. His action has always been known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” While scholars have not found a direct reference to this act outside of the Bible, it is certainly in keeping with Herod’s character. He was a man so jealous of his throne that he killed his own mother-in-law, two sons, and his wife Miriamne, just to mention a few.
Critics say there is no historical reference to the “Slaughter of the Innocents”, although it was mentioned by pagan writer Macrobius in 400 AD. Perhaps killing little boys affected so few people in such an obscure village that historians did not find it newsworthy at the time. Or, they may have edited that action out of Herod’s biography to make him look a little better. Suffice it to say that executing a few little boys would not have bothered Herod in the least, and it was certainly consistent with his character.
As far as we know, Herod didn’t live long after he tried to erase Jesus as a threat, which was a good thing. A jealous, paranoid ruler like Herod had a long memory, and would have certainly reacted to terminate Jesus’ ministry faster than his son Antipas did. Herod’s demise allowed time for Jesus to establish his ministry, call his disciples, and execute his plan. And a of Herod’s paranoia, jealousy and intrigue did not prevent the Son of God from doing what he came to do when the time was right. Real people. Real events. Know your history: Jesus was really actually part of it.
Real History. Real Talk.
The Holidays are twinkling lights
And carolers on snowy nights,
Our Christmas movies on TV and presents underneath the tree.
We think of things we love so much–
The Christmas tree, the gifts and such,
And little children’s shining eyes with every Santa Claus surprise!
But don’t forget, when both your stockings and your hearts are filled,
The boys in Bethlehem, and the evil king who had them killed.
Traditions are nice, and so are the things we feel–
But don’t forget. Yeah, Christmas just got real.
To buy my book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread