The Magi’s Provocation of King Herod

Arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi had been traveling on a month’s long quest to find a newborn King of the Jews.[1] All they knew, he was expected to be somewhere in Judea. It made perfect sense to start in Jerusalem with the King of Judea – Herod.

Immediately the Magi gained direct access to the King, their reputation as Magi making that possible. First words spoken by the Magi to Herod in Matthew’s Nativity account set the stage in the palace:

MT 2:2Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?(NASB, NKJV)

No doubt, it was shocking news to the reigning king who knew nothing about this royal birth. After all, this child certainly was not Herod’s son. The question assumes two facts – the child is predestined to be the King of the Jews and he has already been born. Qualifying their revelation, the Magi explained how they knew this to be true saying:

MT 2:2For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship him.(NKJV)

Now the second shock wave – not the star; no, it was the fact that they came to worship this newborn King of the Jews! No one worshiped the great Herod, yet these Magi traveled hundreds of miles from a foreign land emphasizing their personal conviction – what child would be worthy of such worship? The Magi left the palace without getting an answer.

Stirring the pot tends to cause people to act in peculiar ways. The Magi certainly shook things up with their declaration which undoubtedly also got the attention of everyone else in the palace.  Herod and all of Jerusalem were “troubled” by the news, translated from Matthew’s Greek text word tarasso meaning “to stir or agitate (roil water).”[2]

Throughout history palaces of kings and queens have been notoriously unable to hold their secrets. Servants came from among the general population where they still had family and friends. Many times it was the royal family members who could not keep things to themselves – good gossip is just too hard to keep a secret. Herod’s family was scandalously known for their loose lips.[3]

A newborn king of the Jews – who was the father if not from the House of Herod?  A child worthy of worship by Magi?! Now this was newsworthy! It must have been the hottest topic of conversation in Jerusalem.

Herod was widely hated so the news undoubtedly raised hopes, yet at the same time, it was just as troubling – would the new king be worse than Herod or hopefully a good king? Either way, it would be years before he would begin his reign.

For any king, especially with the personality profile of Herod this whole affair, true or not, would be an embarrassment and no king should ever be embarrassed. As the story unfolds, the King came to quickly view this child’s birth as a threat that must be dealt with such as Herod had done many times before using whatever means necessary.[4]

Processing in his mind the Magi’s alarming news, after they left the palace the King immediately assembled “all the chief priests and scribes of the people.”[5] Not just a select few, but all of the Jewish religious experts – the King was leaving no stone unturned as was his reputation.

Herod made it clear he believed the Magi’s proclamation by asking the chief priests and scribes to determine “where the Christ (Messiah) was to be born.”[6] The King specifically asked “where” – not ifChristos was to be born using the specific Greek word for Messiah. Their consensus response: “In Bethlehem of Judea” citing the prophecy of Micah 5:2.[7]

Up to this point, the actual appearance of the star witnessed by the Magi astronomers had been only incidental information. Had the star been the most attention-getting news from the Magi, a cynical Herod would have been expected to question it, even scoff at it – he didn’t. It was a detail; however, that did not pass his attention.

Matthew’s account does not say Herod was unaware of the star event – it can only be said that he did not know the exact date. Events in the sky would likely have been a relatively petty matter to the King prior the Magi’s visit, especially considering his bigger political problems in the kingdom, with Rome, and his scheming family affairs.

Upon hearing of Micah’s prophecy from the Jewish religious experts, his focus changed. No star was mentioned in Micah’s prophecy nor recorded in the response by the chief priests and scribes although as religious experts they were likely fully aware of Balaam’s prophecy of a star coming forth from Jacob signifying a ruler of Israel.[8] Maybe they mentioned this to Herod, maybe not.

One thing is for certain, Herod had a new fixation:  when did this star appear? There could be only one reason why it was now important – knowing when the star appeared would establish a timeline.

Summoning the Magi back to the palace, Herod wanted this second meeting to be in secret. Since the word was out all over Jerusalem about the Magi’s initial visit to the palace, why did Herod want their next meeting to be secret? It strongly suggests the King had something to hide.

Herod now possessed two details of interest to the Magi – Micah’s prophecy corroborating the birth of a Jewish ruler and the general location of Bethlehem where he could be found. This information would serve as leverage to learn when the star had appeared.

One other thing… Herod wanted the Magi to report back to him with the exact location of the child under the pretense that he, too, of course could worship him. But Herod worshiped no one or thing.

In Bethlehem, the Magi found Jesus and worshiped him offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Duped by the Magi who went back to their homes by avoiding Jerusalem, the enraged and paranoid King believed he still had a threat that must be eliminated. Herod ordered all the children 2 years and younger to be killed in the district of Bethlehem based on the timing of the star’s first appearance learned from the Magi.

Hard to believe anyone could be this evil?  This is the same King who, among many murders, killed a chief priest, his second wife, her grandfather and her two sons who were strangled, and would soon execute his firstborn son by his first wife.[9] Moreover, from his death bed he would summon all the principal men of his kingdom to Jericho, lock them in the hippodrome, and give orders to have them killed so as to deny them the opportunity to gloat over his death.[10]

Does Herod’s provocation by the Magi’s declaration ring true that the Messiah, King of the Jews, had been born in Bethlehem?


[1] “Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia.” 2000. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.  <>  “Major Trade Routes of 2nd Century BCE – 1st Century CE.” Smithsonian. Map.  n.d. 2016. <>  
[2] Matthew 2:2 Greek text. <> Strong, James, LL.D., S.T.D.  The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. “tarasso <5015>”  Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1990.
[3] Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XV, Ch.VII-VIII; Book XVI, Ch. VIII, XI, IX, XIII, XVI. Book XVII, Ch. I, V. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XVIII, XXII, XXIV, XXXI, XXXIII. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <
[4] Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Ch. 1; Book XV, Ch. 1, 3, 6, 7; Book XVI, Ch.VII, VIII, X; Book XVII, Ch. IV, VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XXVI, XXII, XXIV, XXVI, XXX, XXXI. “Herod the Great.” 2017. <
[5] Matthew 2:4. NRSV, NKJV, NASB.
[7] Matthew 2:5. NET, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NKJV.
[8] Maimonides, Moses. Mishneh Torah. “The Law Concerning Moshiach.” n.d. <>   Rich, Tracey R.  “Mashiach: The Messiah.” Judaism101. 2011. <
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Ch. III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI; Book XVI, Ch. XI; Book XVII, Ch. IX.
Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII, XXVII, XXXIII.
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Ch. VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XXXIII.

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Turn of Events – a Resurrection?

In a matter of moments, the Roman-Jewish legally imposed chain of custody over the body of Jesus of Nazareth was broken. What happened? For the more than 2000 years, the incident that occurred at dawn on Sunday, the third day of Passover, has been debated countless times. Believers say it was a Resurrection; skeptics have proposed many Resurrection conspiracy theories to explain how the body simply vanished.

Anyone trying to steal the body would encounter an armed Roman-Jewish military squad, the koustodia. Further, the tomb was sealed in the presence of the Roman authorities and the Jewish leadership to ensure that didn’t happen.

The case of the Resurrection on or about sunrise of Nissan 17 enters the final phase in the sequence of events preceded by the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus of Nazareth. Mark attributes a significant number of eight verses and Matthew seven verses to describe the first series of events. Luke paraphrased it this way:

LK 24:1  “Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.” (NKJV)

Predawn finds Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jose, Salome, and Joanna fretting about who would roll away the stone set in place on Friday evening by Joseph of Arimathea. Three conclusions can be drawn:  the women expected to find the dead body of Jesus; they were not accompanied by either Joseph or Nicodemus nor any of the Disciples, and they were unaware of the koustodia guarding the sealed tomb.

At this juncture, there are now two named Jewish council members, four named women from Galilee, the Jewish leadership declaration to Pilate, his Roman government decision, and the koustodia guards – all were witnesses to the fact that the body of Jesus was in the tomb leading up to dawn of Sunday morning.

Calm and quiet quickly took a dramatic turn when Matthew describes that a great earthquake struck. At this moment the four women and the koustodia saw the stone being rolled away from the entrance to the tomb:

MT 28:2-4 “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.” (NKJV)

Witness accounts gathered by the authors of Matthew and Mark describe the individual responsible for opening the tomb as an “angel” or a young man wearing a wrap-around, brilliant white robe. Shortly thereafter, Luke’s report describes two husband-aged men in dazzling apparel.[i]These two angelic beings point out to the witnesses that the tomb is empty.

Seasoned Roman-Jewish military soldiers and the women of Galilee were paralyzed with fear by the traumatic sequence of a great earthquake, the angelic being who rolled away the stone and his extraordinary announcement. Incapacitated, they watched and listened as the events at the tomb unfolded.

Some may ask how it can be known the koustodia witnessed the event? Simply by their actions and their own report. Reactions of witnesses to a traumatic event are indications of what was going through their minds. The hardcore military squad reacted in the same manner as the four women.

Matthew reports the chaotic scene where people were scattering in three directions. Mark reports the petrified and dumbstruck women didn’t say a word and ran from the tomb. Luke said they were “terrified.”[ii]

Headed for the location of the disciples were the women while the koustodia split up, some diverting to go tell the Jewish chief priests what they had seen, the others to destinations unknown. Unbecoming behavior by the koustodia is telling – what could have happened that would cause professional soldiers to abandon their posts? 

Whether Roman soldiers or Temple Guards, both were fierce, experienced warriors. In Wars, Josephus described Jews in hand-to-hand combat defending the Temple against the Romans, each side at times taking heavy casualties.[iii] In a few battles, the Jewish defenders actually won the day.  Reputation of Roman soldier discipline is legendary. Temple Guards were especially trained to stay awake all night – falling asleep on-duty could result in being set on fire by superiors.[iv]

Direct reports from the koustodia rang true with the chief priests based on their own reaction to the information. It posed an unexpected turn of events for the chief priests who quickly assembled the elders of the Jewish council (likely including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) to deal with their new problem.

Irony of ironies. The Jewish leadership who had implored Pilate to secure the tomb is the very same group who was now compelled to find a way to explain an inexplicable breach in their own Roman-Jewish security measures…something they had witnessed being put in place less than 24 hours earlier. Matthew describes what they decided to do:

MT 28:1? “You are to say, ‘His disciples came at night and stole his body while we were asleep.’

If this matter is heard before the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story is told among the Jews to this day.”(NET)

Bribes are only used to cover up an undesirable truth or to promote a deception. The council even promised to appease Pilate if the koustodia’s dereliction of duty became an issue confirming the guards were ultimately under the Roman authority of Pilate.

Meanwhile, the women of Galilee arrived at the location of some of the disciples. John’s eyewitness Gospel joins the description of events at this point with Mary Magdalene’s excited announcement to the disciples. He quotes Mary Magdalene blurting it out:

JN 20:2 “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (NET) 

Mary’s excited utterance is truth telling. An “excited utterance” is such a compelling statement of truth, it is considered under United States Federal Law to be an exception to the legal hearsay rule. Because the “excited utterance” is made spontaneously under the influence of a startling event before the witness has had an opportunity for reflection; it is, therefore, considered to be a truthful exclamation.[v] 

Both the koustodia and the women reported the same event to two different parties how the chain of custody over the body of Jesus was broken. Each party reacted differently to the information, but neither party called the reports false.

One group chose to investigate the empty tomb and found more evidence inside. The Jewish council had the basis for a legal complaint to Rome to challenge the broken chain of custody, but instead chose a cover-up option. Pilate was silent, too, and took no action. Why?  The turn of events – a Resurrection?


NET = NET Bible translation; NKJV = New King James Version translation.

Gospel Resurrection account: Matthew 28, Mark 16; Luke 24, John 20.

 [i] Greek text. Matthew 28:2, aggelos and katabaino. Mark 16:5, neaniskos, periballo, and stole. Luke 24:4, astrapto and esthesis.
[iii] Josephus. Wars of the Jews. Book VI, Chapter IV.4-6; Book VI, Chapter I.1. “Temple, Administration and Service of.” JewishEncylcopedia.com> 
[iv] Talmud Mishna Middot. The Sefaria Library. < “The Temple Guards and Their Mystical Meaning.” <>
[v] “Excited Utterance.”  Cornell University Law School. <>  and “Federal Rules of Evidence Article VIII.  Rule 803.  Exceptions to the Rule Against Hearsay.”  <

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Chain of Custody – Could the Body of Jesus Have Been Stolen?

Oldest of the challenges against the Resurrection is the charge that the crucified body of Jesus of Nazareth was stolen from the tomb. Standing in strong opposition is the chain of custody over the evidence jointly established by the Roman government and the Jewish council.

Procurator Pilate granted the mutilated body to Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Jewish council. He along with Nicodemus, another prominent Jewish council member, took it to Joseph’s own unused tomb for burial.

The pair quickly prepared the body for burial witnessed by women from Galilee, two identified by name – Mary the mother of Joseph or Jose and Mary Magdalene.[ii] Joseph then rolled a stone in front of the tomb entrance – confirmation by the two Jewish Council members that Jesus was dead.

What did or didn’t happen between the time Jesus was laid in the tomb at dusk on Friday, Nissan 15, until the following Sabbath morning, Nissan 16, is a complete gap in the timeline of the Gospels. It offers an opening for skeptics to say the body was stolen from the tomb that first night, although not the same alleged theft in the timeline described by Matthew before sunrise Sunday morning.

Those who most certainly would not have wanted to be corroborating witnesses became just that. The Jewish leadership declared to the Roman government that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb Saturday morning, Nissan 15… 

MT 27:62-64 The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give orders to secure the tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples may come and steal his body and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.”(NET)

Top level Jewish leadership approached Rome’s jurisdictional authority of Judea – Pilate – to state their concern implying it could also be a problem for him. As a Roman Procurator whose governing capacity included serving as a judge, Pilate had to weigh the truthfulness of their claim as well as the potential political consequences.

First was the declaration that the corpse of Jesus was lying in a tomb that Saturday morning. Unusual from a Roman perspective, not one of the Jews. Rome had little regard for crucified victims according toJosephus; however, Rome did allow the Jews’ custom to bury their crucified dead:[iii]

“Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified , and buried them before the going down of the sun.”[iv]

Pilate most likely considered other factors, too. False witness in the Roman Empire was a capital offense so how likely was it they would risk lying? [v]What if the corpse had already been stolen and then it turned up later? That would be the last thing the Jewish leaders would want to have happen making the validity of their declaration even stronger.

Weighing the credibility and truthfulness of their testimony and concluding they were telling the truth that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb, an irritated Pilate issued a terse decision:

MT 27:65-66 “Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.” And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.”(NASB) 

Pilate issued what was, in essence, a Roman court order to station koustodia, a company of guards, at the tomb and secure it they best way they knew how. Together, the chief priests, Pharisees and the koustodia placed a seal on the tomb as an additional security measure.

Pilate’s Roman authority was required to deploy the koustodia making them accountable to him; however, because some of the guards later ran to the chief priests after the events at the tomb on Sunday morning, it suggests at least some koustodia also had a form of accountability to the Jewish council. Was there such a thing as a Roman-Jewish military squad?

Josephus described a “seal” process involving a combined Jewish-Roman military style squad led by a “Roman captain of the temple guards.” The Roman captain, who resided in the Tower of Antonia adjacent to the Temple, was assigned to a contingent of armed Temple guards.[vi]

It was this Roman captain’s role to match his seal ring with a matching seal ring possessed by the Temple leadership to verify the integrity of the seal, in this case, used to secure the Chief Priest’s vestments worn at the Jewish festal sacrifices. This seal process was temporarily in place only from the death of King Herod until Vitellius became  president of Syria in 35 AD – the period of years virtually coinciding with the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth.[vii]

Placed at the scene of the tomb holding the body of Jesus or Nazareth that Sabbath morning are the contingent of chief priests and Pharisees (probably including stealth followers, Joseph and Nicodemus) to witness the seal being placed on the tomb and the posting of the koustodia. Jewish leadership left with full confidence the sealed tomb would remain secure for three days following his crucifixion alleviating their anxiety that someone might steal the body of Jesus.[viii]

Archenemies of Jesus obtained a Roman judgement confirming that the chain of custody over the body of Jesus was legally in tact from the Roman crucifixion, to his burial, until the incredible events at the tomb at sunrise Sunday morning. With an unbroken chain of custody over the body of Jesus, what is the possibility his body was stolen?


NET = NetBible translation; NASB = New American Standard Bible translation
Gospel references: Matthew 27-28, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19.

[i] Pearce, Jonathan MS. “Matthew and the guards at the tomb.” 2012. < rel=”nofollow”> “Gospel Disproof #38: The guards at the tomb.” 2014. < rel=”nofollow”>
[ii]  Edersheim, Alfred.  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book V. 1883. n.d. <>
[iii] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book IV, Chapter VIII;
Google Books. n.d. <
[iv] Josephus.  Wars. Book IV, Chapter V.
[v] Jahnige, Joan. “The Roman Legal System.” KET Distance Learning. 2017.>  Adams, John Paul. “The Twelve Tables.” 2009. California State University – Northridge. <>
[vi] Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI; Book XX, Chapter I.  Wars.  Book II, Chapter XVII; Book V, Chapter VI.
[vii] Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI; Book XX, Chapter I.  Smith William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 1857. “L. Vitellius” (#5); “C. Cassius Longinus” (#18), and “L. Cassius Longinus” (#19). n.d. <>  Smith, Mahlon H.  “Lucius Vitellius.” 2008.   <>  “Lucius Vitellius.” Ed. Jona Lendering.  20John Simkin14.  <>
[viii] “koustodia”, G2892l (Strong) “#2892 κουστωδία koustodia;” “strategos <4755> and “speira <4686>” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible.  n.d.  <>

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