Matthew’s Nativity – An Investigative Breakdown

 

Easy to forget, the Christmas Nativity story didn’t happen in a single night – it is a time-lapsed compilation of what took place over many weeks, if not months. Two Gospels, Luke and Matthew, are the sources of the Nativity story.[1]

Luke’s account starts just before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ending when he was about a month old. Matthew’s account starts later, “Now after Jesus was born…”[2] No longer in a stable, “when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother.”[3]

Setting the scene in Matthew, King Herod of Judea was in his Jerusalem palace rather than one of his three other palaces in Herodium, Jericho and Caesarea.[4] Soon he would move to Jericho to live out his final days with a most miserable health condition…but not yet.[5]

As strange as it may seem, purveyors of mysticism were in the Jewish Nativity story of Jesus when Matthew writes, “Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,” translated as “Magi” in some Bibles.[6] According to the Talmud, Magi were from Persia, also known as “fire worshippers” and “Guebers.”[7] Magi had a long history of persecuting the Jews making them well-known, feared and disliked.[8]

Calling upon Herod at his palace, the Magi were promptly welcomed. After all, Magi were not only highly regarded in the former Persian and Greek Empires for their mysterious abilities, according to Plato, they were also known as “king makers.” Further, Herod was not of Jewish heritage – his father was Idumean and his mother was Arabian.[9]

Greek Hellenism accepted all religions, especially Zoroastrianism with its magian priests who had a reputation for their ability to read the stars and make accurate predictions.[10] Herod openly embraced Hellenism, such as incorporating Greek inscriptions and architectural features in the enhanced Jewish Temple, causing great consternation with the Jewish leadership.[11]

These Wise Men had said and asked something most alarming, shocking to King Herod. The Magi announced the reason for their visit and asked:

MT 2:2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”(NKJV)

Any king, especially Herod, would be distressed when these king-maker Magi said they were looking for a newborn “King of the Jews.” And, they didn’t use future tense; rather present tense – he was already a king. More disconcerting, the Magi said they had “come to worship Him” and it probably seemed very likely the people might want to do the same.

MT 2:9-10 “When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”(NKJV)

A second appearance of the “star” is a definitive clue that opens the door for the science of astronomy to plausibly explain the “star.” In one scenario, an extremely rare series of conjunctions occurred in the cosmos during an 18-month period in 3-2 BC centered around Jupiter.

June 17, 2 BC, about nine months after the first Jupiter-Venus very close conjunction, Jupiter, known as the king star, came into an occultation conjunction (overlapping/fused) with Venus, known as the Queen or mother star. The two brightest stars in the sky formed a much brighter star.[12]

Word leaked out to the people of Jerusalem of what the Magi had said. Not surprisingly, they were also “troubled.” At the very least, the rumor mill presented an air of uncertainty which always tends to worry a populace. If the child was the foretold Messiah, such speculation certainly stirred the pot even more.

Herod’s next action clearly demonstrates he believed the Magi when he “gathered all the chief priests and scribes together asking them where the Christ was to be born.”[13] A difference in language is of special note. The Magi inquired about the birth of a “King of the Jews” while Herod’s quote uses the Greek word Christos meaning Messiah.

Whether this difference in language is attributable to the author of Matthew or if Herod concluded the King of the Jews meant the Messiah, it didn’t make any difference. The chief priests and scribes understood what Herod was asking as evidenced by their specific answer.

MT 2:5-6 “…So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.”’”(NKJV)

Jewish chief priests and scribes – members of the Jewish leadership – reported to Herod that a Ruler was prophesied to be born “In Bethlehem of Judea.” Unambiguous, their answer included the quote from the prophecy of Micah 5:1/2.

Reaction by Herod in the remainder of the account was telling. For this ruthless King with a reputation of murdering anyone who threatened him, there was only one course of action – eliminate the threat. Every step taken from that point forward focused on that outcome.

Previous mention by the Magi of observing “his star” was initially not an attention-getting detail. Herod accepted their declaration that they had seen “his star,” but this detail had been overshadowed by the bombshell announcement there was another King of the Jews.

Undoubtedly, the Magi saw something in the night sky compelling them to travel hundreds of miles “from the East;” however, they didn’t say when they had seen “his star.”  Herod realized these details were important – the time of the star’s appearance would determine the child’s age.

Wanting this single detail, Herod “secretly called the wise men” to another meeting – to “determine from them what time the star appeared.”[14] The Magi, who still had not yet received an answer to their own question, agreed to meet with Herod again.

Information from the alleged secret meeting served to be useful to both parties. Herod “sent them to Bethlehem” thereby answering the original question of the Magi regarding the location of the child. In return, Herod was able to determine when the Magi saw “his star” and thus the age of the child.[15]

Cunningly, Herod told the Magi, “when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” Herod worshiped no one or thing – the trap was set.

Finding the child in Bethlehem was probably not difficult – in a small town, everyone knows what’s what, just ask. Finding Jesus, the Magi “fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented expensive gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”[16]

It becomes clearer why Herod wanted to determine the age of the child. The King, who had obviously believed the Magi, realized they had deceived him whereupon he commanded that all the children 2 years old and younger in the districts of Bethlehem to be killed. It was dramatic, merciless action to eliminate the threat to his kingdom. True to the reputation of Herod’s ruthless, cruel profile, the 2-year range was intended to leave no room for error.

MT 2:16 “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.”(NKJV)

More than capable of such evil deeds, there were no bounds for Herod’s diabolical behavior. He had tortured people for mere suspicions and killed countless Jews, not to mention killing his brother, three sons, a former Jewish High Priest, and plotted to have all the “principal men” of Judea killed upon his own death.[17]

King Herod’s drastic action confirmed five points the King believed:  the Magi’s declaration; the Jewish religious experts, the Micah prophecy; Christos had been born…and in Bethlehem. Herod died a few months later and oft overlooked is a key critical detail provided by Matthew:  Archelaus, King Herod’s son, became his successor, a fact consistent with secular history.[18]

At least 20 specific details are laid out in a logical sequence in 22 verses, much that is corroborated by history and science. Does this strengthen the credibility to Matthew’s Gospel account about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Updated December 4, 2022.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

All Bible quotes are from the New King James Version.

[1] Matthew 2; Luke 2.  McLeay, Simon. StPeters. “The Nativity According to Matthew.” image. 2018. <https://www.stpeters.org.nz/media/_home_slide_image/th-18-12-02-the-nativity-matthew.jpg
[2] Matthew 2:1.
[3] Matthew 2:11.
[4] Burrell, Barbara; Gleason, Kathryn L.; Netzer, Ehud. “Uncovering Herod’s Seaside Palace. BAS Library. 1993. <https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/19/3/7>  Geva, Hillel.  “Archaeology in Israel:  Jericho – the Winter Palace of King Herod.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2019. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jericho-the-winter-palace-of-king-herod>  “Herodium-King Herod-s Palace-Fortress.” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2000. < https://mfa.gov.il/mfa/israelexperience/history/pages/herodium%20-%20king%20herod-s%20palace-fortress.aspx>  Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews.  Trans. William Whitson. Book XV, Chapter XI. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Trans. William Whitson. Book I, Chapter XXI.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  “Herod.” Jewish Virtual Library. n.d. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/herod>
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.
[6] Matthew 2:1. Netbible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=1>
[7] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. The Soncino Press. 1935-1948. Sanhedrin 98a.  <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_98.html#98a_22> Sanhedrin 74b. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_74.html>  “Babylonia.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10263-magi>  Cicero, M. Tullius. Divination. 44 BC. 1.46. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2007.01.0043%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D46> Cicero. Divinations. 1.2.
[8] Segal, Eliezer. “The Menorah and the Magi.” Sources. 1997. <https://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/971219_MagiMenorah.html> Missler, Chuck. “Who Were the Magi?” Idolphin.org.1999. <http://www.ldolphin.org/magi.html>
[9] Plato. Alcibiades 1. Trans. W.R.M. Lamb. c. 390 AD. 1 121e-1232. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0176%3Atext%3DAlc.%201%3Asection%3D122a>  “Herodotus. The Histories.  Book 3, Chapters 30, 60-79.  Missler. “Who Were the Magi?” Plato. Republic. Trans.Paul Shorey. 9.572e. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D9%3Asection%3D572e>   Herodotus. The Histories. Book 1, Chapters 107-122. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0239%3Abook%3D1>  Polybius. Histories. Book 34, Chapter 2. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0234:book=34:chapter=2&highlight=magi> Herodotus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herodotus-Greek-historian> Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Idumaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624> “Herod the Great Biography.” TheFamousPeople. image. n.d. <https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/herod-the-great-37596.php> Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. 8.1; 9/7. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0258:book=9:chapter=7&highlight=Magians%2C> “Pythagoras.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pythagoras>  “Cyrus takes Babylon.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/sources/content/herodotus/cyrus-takes-babylon> “Democritus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Democritus> Diogenes. Lives. 9.7.
[10] “Zoroastrianism.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/15283-zoroastrianism>
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter VIII; Book XVI, Chapter V; Book XVII, Chapters VI; VIII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Hellenism” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism>
[12] Phillips, Tony.  “A Christmas Star for SOHO.”  NASA Science | Science New. 16 May 2000.  <http://web.archive.org/web/20170516003444/https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2000/ast16may_1>  “Venus And Jupiter Will Pass 42 Arc seconds Apart On May 17.” Press Release – Marshall Space Flight Center. SpaceRef.com. 2000. <http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=1819>  Carroll, Susan S. “The Star of Bethlehem:  An Astronomical and Historical Perspective.”1997. Twin Cities Creation Science Association. n.d. <http://www.tccsa.tc/articles/star_susan_carroll.pdf>
Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Associates for Scriptural Knowledge. 2003. Chapter 4.  Larson, Frederick A. The Star of Bethlehem. 2014. <http://www.bethlehemstar.net/setting-the-stage/why-are-we-hearing-this-now>  Haley, A. S. “The Star of Bethlehem and the Nativity.” Anglican Curmudgeon. 2009.   <http://web.archive.org/web/20171016111146/http://www.newmanlib.ibri.org/Papers/StarofBethlehem/75starbethlehem.htm> Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Jupiter.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[13] Matthew 2:4. Greek text. NetBible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=4>
[14] Matthew 2:7.
[15] Matthew 2:8, 16.
[16] Matthew 2:11. NKJV.
[17] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI; Book XVI, Chapter XI; Book XVII, Chapters VI, IX.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters X, XXVII, XXXIII.
[18] Matthew 2:22.

The Magi’s Provocation of King Herod

 

Arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi had been traveling on a month’s long quest to find the newborn King of the Jews.[1] They knew to start searching somewhere in Judea and 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. The first words spoken by the Magi to Herod in Matthew’s Nativity account set the stage in the palace:

MT 2:2 “Where 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. Qualifying their revelation, the Magi explained how they knew conclusion were true saying:

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

Now the second shock wave – 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 of what they had observed – what child would be worthy of such worship? The Magi left the palace without getting an answer.

All of Jerusalem was “troubled” by the news, translated from Matthew’s Greek text word tarasso meaning “to stir or agitate (roil water).”[2] Stirring the pot tends to cause people to act in peculiar ways.

News from the Magi certainly shook things up undoubtedly getting the attention of everyone in the palace. Servants came from among the general population where they still had family and friends. Maybe, too, it was their unusual arrival by a conspicuous caravan of camels; their foreign grandiose attire; or they were regarded as kings from Persia.[3]

Throughout history palaces of kings and queens notoriously have been unable to hold their secrets. Herod’s family was no exception, scandalously known for their loose lips.

Good gossip is just too hard to keep a secret. A newborn king of the Jews – who was his father if it wasn’t Herod? A child worthy of worship by the reputed king-makers? Could he even be the promised Messiah? Now this was newsworthy!

News about a new king 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? Regardless, it would still be years before this new king would begin his reign.

For any king, especially with the personality profile of Herod, this whole affair, whether 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 real 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 the Magi 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.

Making it clear he believed the Magi’s proclamation, he asked the  Jewish religious experts, chief priests and scribes, to determine “where the Christ was to be born.”[6] It was not a question of if … it was a 2-fold conclusion – where he was to be born and Herod used the Greek word, Christos, translated as Christ, the Messiah. Their consensus response: “In Bethlehem of Judea” citing the prophecy of Micah.[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 does not say Herod was unaware of the star event – it can only be said that he did not know when it had occurred. 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, his focus changed. No star was mentioned in Micah’s prophecy nor recorded by Matthew in the response from the chief priests and scribes. 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? This one detail was now important – this information would establish a timeline.

Summoning the Magi back to the palace, Herod wanted this second meeting to be in secret. Since word was all over Jerusalem about the Magi’s initial visit to the palace, the secrecy of the second meeting 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. He could use this information as leverage to learn when the star had appeared. During this second meeting, Herod got the information he wanted and the Magi got the information they were seeking.

One other thing Herod wanted… the Magi were asked to report back to him with the exact location of the child under the pretense that he, too, of course could worship the new king. It was a well-known fact, Herod worshiped no one or thing.

In Bethlehem, the Magi found Jesus and worshiped him offering expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Magi may have intended to inform Herod of the child’s whereabouts until they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.

Returning home by another route the Magi avoided Jerusalem. Herod soon realized he had been duped and became enraged, then 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 ascertained from the Magi.

King Herod was more than capable of such cruelty. Among many murders, he had killed a chief priest, his second wife, her grandfather, her two sons and would soon execute his firstborn son by his first wife.[9] His cruelty extended even to his death bed when he summoned all the principal men of Judea to Jericho, locked them in the hippodrome, and gave orders to have them killed just to deny them the opportunity to gloat over his death.[10]

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

 

Updated December 12, 2022.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] “Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia.” 2000. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/silk/hd_silk.htm>  “Trade Routes.” Smithsonian|The National Museum of American History. n.d. <http://web.archive.org /web/20160618154742/http://americanhistory.si.edu/numismatics/parthia/frames/pamaec.htm>  “46178 -wisemen-magi-jesusbirth.” KFAX AM 1100. photo. n.d. <https://media.swncdn.com/cms/CW/46178-wisemen-magi-jesusbirth.1200w.tn.jpg>
[2] Net.bible.org. Matthew 2:2 Greek text. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=2> 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. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Strabo. Geography. Chapters II-III. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0239:book=1:chapter=2&highlight=magi> <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0239:book=15:chapter=3&highlight=magi>  Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0258:book=1:chapter=prologue&highlight=magi>  Stillwell, Richard et. al. “Gaza Israel.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=gaza&highlight=caravan>
[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. Livius.org. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great
[5] Matthew 2:4. NRSV, NKJV, NASB.
[6] NET, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NKJV.
[7] Matthew 2:5. NET, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NKJV.
[8] Maimonides, Moses. Mishneh Torah. “The Law Concerning Moshiach.”  Kesser.org. n.d. <http://www.kesser.org/moshiach/rambam.html#SIE>   Rich, Tracey R. “Mashiach: The Messiah.” Judaism101. 2011. <http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm
[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.

Herod – Profile of a Cruel & Cunning King

 

Infamous as King of Judea in the Gospel’s Nativity story, Herod was a threat to the lives of the Magi, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Was King Herod really such a villain?

MT 2:1 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…”

MT 2:16 Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” (NKJV)

It is hard to believe anyone, especially the King of Judea, would kill all the boys in a Jewish community aged 2 years and younger just to ensure he killed just one baby – Jesus. One clue might be that Herod was not of Jewish heritage; his father was Idumean and his mother was Arabian.[1]

Herod’s career began as governor of Galilee in 47 BC when he was appointed by his father, an administrator of Judea under Julius Caesar. Josephus noted people quickly saw Herod’s harsh personality:  

“…they saw that he was a violent and bold man, and very desirous of acting tyrannically.”[2]

Killing so many people in violation of Jewish law, as a young ruler the Sanhedrin put Herod on trial for murder. High priest Hyrcanus tipped off the defiant Herod that he was about to be found guilty allowing him to temporarily escape to Damascus.[3]

Bribery and expensive gifts were effective in maintaining Roman relationships. Aligning himself with Roman rulers, they appointed Herod as a military general “for he sold him that post for money.” Marc Antony “by money” named Herod as Tetrarch and such persuasions helped avert a dangerous dalliance with Cleopatra.[4]

With more financial influences, Antony presented Herod to the Roman Senate which voted to make him King of Judea in 40 BC. Authority in Judea had to be taken by force over the course of 3 years with the assistance of Roman Legions provided by Antony.[5]

Politics were a life and death game, one Herod played very adeptly. After Antony’s defeat by Octavius (aka Augustus), Herod believed his days were numbered whereupon he boldly presented himself to Caesar in Rome.

Acknowledging his loyal friendship to Antony, Herod positioned his loyalty as a quality that would likewise be valuable to Caesar if he was allowed to pledge his allegiance. The ploy worked and established a lasting relationship with Augustus for the remainder of Herod’s life.[6]

Allowed more power by Rome than any other king in the provinces, Herod was positioned to acquire great wealth and fame. Revenue was acquired through heavy taxes, from booty of war and at least some was acquired illicitly. Josephus wrote that under cover of night, Herod robbed King David’s sepulcher of gold furniture and precious goods (Hycranus had already robbed the money).[7]

Herod is famed for enhancing the Temple back to the grandeur of Solomon. He also built new cities including Caesarea with a temple dedicated to Caesar as well as Herodium in honor of himself; buildings in honor of his parents and other Roman friends; palaces, temples, theaters, amphitheaters, market places, aqueducts, harbors, and exercise facilities throughout Judea and beyond including Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Greece.[8]

Rome’s Hellenistic culture was valued more by Herod than honoring Jewish laws. The King showcased international games in honor of Caesar with naked competitors and large prizes; Roman-style arena spectacles with wild animals and men; and public displays of trophies of war.

All these things caused great animosity among the Jews. Exacerbating the situation, Herod inserted Greek inscriptions and architectural features in the enhanced Temple. One such sacrilege was placing Rome’s golden eagle insignia over the Temple gate leading to a future atrocity when Herod had 40 insurrectionists burned alive and marked his final days.[9]

Trusting no one, Herod was ruthless in quelling any possible threats.[10] A favored interrogation method was torture on “the rack” with only family members being exempt. Josephus identified palace eunuchs, body guards, maids, friends of family members, soldiers, and anyone else possibly holding secrets who met a fate on the rack.[11]

Perhaps the biggest threat to Herod actually came from within. With 10 wives and children, the palace was constantly in turmoil by family members who bore hatred for one another producing rivalries, slanders, lies, backstabbing, and murder conspiracies.[12]

Executions and murders were standard fare. Herod killed the 17-year old brother of his second wife, Mariamne, because he wanted someone else to be high priest. Herod killed Hyrcanus, Mariamne’s father, former high priest, and old heir to the throne. Mariamne rebuked Herod, his sister Salome and their mother for these murders leading to her own execution under a false murder conspiracy.[13]

Mariamne’s sons were heirs to the throne stirring more jealousies, slanders and conspiracies by Herod’s first wife and their eldest son, Antipater, born before Herod became King. Convinced Mariamne’s sons were guilty of a murder plot to kill him, Herod placed them on trial in absentia and, without any hard evidence, they were still convicted.

Both sons of Herod were executed by strangulation and others who condemned the King’s actions were tortured and killed. Days before Herod died, he also executed his son, Antipater.[14]

According to Matthew, Herod believed he had been deceived by the Magi who were compelled to return home by a different route. The King slew children up to 2 years old in the Bethlehem district to ensure the death of the newly born King sought by the Magi, but Joseph and Mary with Jesus escaped to Egypt.

Unusual for rulers of the era, Herod died a natural death, albeit a most miserable one. Disabled by a terrible groin condition, gangrenous bowels protruded out of his body compelling him to attempt a failed suicide.

Knowing death was imminent, the King devised the most dastardly plan of his reign. Feeling sorry for himself, Herod summoned all the principal men throughout Judea under threat of death to travel to his palace in Jericho.[15]

Surmising they would all rejoice at his death rather than mourn, Herod wanted to deprive them of such mockery and locked them inside the hippodrome. Before his death announcement was made public, the soldiers were to kill these principal men so as to place all of Judea in a state of mourning. Further, to ensure deep national mourning, one member of each family in Judea was also to be killed.[16]

Such depravity was even too much for his reputedly wicked sister, Salome. Upon Herod’s death, the plan was aborted and the principal men were released after telling the soldiers that the King had changed his mind at the last moment.[17]

Does the historical profile of a cruel Herod strengthen or diminish the credibility of Matthew Nativity account of killing all male boys 2 years and younger in the Bethlehem area just to ensure he killed baby Jesus?

 

Updated November 30, 2022.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Idumaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624> Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Idumaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624> “Herod the Great Biography.” TheFamousPeople. photo. n.d. <https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/herod-the-great-37596.php
[2] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XIV, Ch. IX.  William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Google Books.  n.d <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews.  Book I, Chapter X. William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  Google Books. n.d. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Herod.”  Jewish Virtual Library. 2017. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/herod>   “Herod the Great – Governor of Galilee (47-37 B.C.).” <https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Idumean> Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Judaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[3] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Ch. IX; Book XV, Chapter II.  Josephus. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter X. “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016.
[4] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapters IV, V, IX, XI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter X.
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapter. XVI, XII-XIV.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters IV, XV – XVII.  “Herod I.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7598-herod-i>
[6] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters VI-VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XIX-XX.  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod the Great.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624&gt > Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Jerusalem.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[7] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters XXI, XXV, XXIV.  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  “Herod the Great.” Livius.org.
[8] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. 1826-1889. Chapter 1. <http://philologos.org/__eb-ttms/default.htm>  Hegg, Tim.  “Separating the Most Holy from the Holy:  The ‘Veil’ in the Tabernacle and First & Second Temples” Torah Resource. <http://www.torahresource.com/EnglishArticles/Veil%20ETS%20Paper.pdf>  “Temple of Jerusalem.”  New World Encyclopedia. 2015. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Temple_of_Jerusalem>  “Herod’s Temple.”  Bible-history.com.  n.d.  <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great/HERODHerods_Temple.htm>   “Herod.”  Jewish Virtual Library.
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter VIII; Book XVI, Chapter V; Book XVII, Chapters VI; VIII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Hellenism” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism>  “Asia Minor.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2010-asia-minor>
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Chapter 1; Book XVI, Ch. VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVI.
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapters VIII, X; Book XVII, Chapter IV. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXX.
[12] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter I.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XII. XXII.  “Herod the Great; Herodias.” Livius.org.
[13] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII.  Bunson. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod the Great.”
[14] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter XI; Book XVII, Chapter IX.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVII. XXXIII.  Bunson. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod the Great.”
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[17] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.