Rector’s Weekly Letter to the Congregation for Sunday, December 29, 2019
After Jesus Was Born
So Jesus is born in Bethlehem. The Bible tells us that Mary is betrothed to Joseph, but the final step in the Jewish marriage protocol hasn’t been performed yet. It is scandalous that Mary got pregnant out of wedlock. Fingers were being pointed at Joseph too. As a godly man of renown in the community, he shouldn’t have been with his future wife before the bona fide wedding took place. Yet he was not responsible for the pregnancy. But the public did not know that. If Joseph had divorced Mary, the public would exonerate him. But he did not. In fact, he was accepting the baby as a responsible dad would. He must be the biological father and this is unacceptable. Rumors were everywhere. Joseph took it all and did not waver. He had been informed in a dream that Mary’s story was correct. It was not another man who was responsible for her pregnancy, but the Holy Spirit, the source of all life, had formed the baby in her womb. Joseph accepted Mary’s pregnancy and subsequent baby with determined resolve.
Then the Magi come from the East to see the baby born to be king of the Jews. The Bible doesn’t state which country the Magi came from. They could have come from the Far East, say India, or from the Near East, say, Arabia. Anyway, they came, that’s the most important fact. Herod is half Jew and half Arab. Herod’s father was Edomite. His mother an Arab. He converted to Judaism which he did not practice. He is disturbed by the news delivered by the Magi. The inhabitants of Jerusalem are disturbed too. They know Herod too well and his penchant for eliminating any real or perceived threat to his throne. In 29 BC he had killed his wife Mariamne I (Some authorities spell her name as Mariamme) after she was falsely accused of plotting to have him killed. Yet after her execution, he mourned for her for many months because he loved her. He had four children with her, two girls and two boys. Later in 7 BC, Herod murdered the two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus IV, and another son, by another wife, Antipater II in 4 BC suspecting them of wanting to kill him to take his throne. He also killed his wife Mariamne I’s mother and grandfather for the same reason.
On hearing the birth of a baby born to be king, Herod calculated the time of birth as per the Magi’s testimony and ordered the murder of all boys two years and under in the entire Bethlehem region. Characteristic of modern scholarship’s tendency and eagerness to dismiss the Bible as the Word of God and as accurate history, many scholars question Matthew’s tale of the death of the innocents. But the story is not out of Herod’s character. Moreover, Bethlehem was not a large city. The babies two years and younger would not be perhaps more than twenty or less. Such a number of babies being murdered in a small remote part of the Roman Empire was not news to be concerned about and nothing to include in official Roman government records. And also we should not create the picture in our minds of thousands or even hundreds of babies being murdered. Nevertheless, the number does not diminish the awfulness of the act. The method of murder itself was grotesque. It was one of three, all indescribably horrific.
In support of the historicity of the massacre of babies by Herod as reported by Matthew, New Testament scholar Brown quotes a Roman pagan writer named Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius who in about 400 AD wrote in his book Saturnalia that “When it was heard that, as part of the slaughter of boys up to two years old, Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered his own son to be killed, he [the Emperor Augustus] remarked, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son’” (The Birth of the Messiah by Raymond Brown, 1993). This was a play on the Greek words hus for pig and huios for son.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod was a sick, dying man. He suffered from a multiplicity of diseases. He is said to have had a “lung disease, kidney problems, worms, a heart condition, sexually transmitted diseases, and a horrible version of gangrene that caused his [private parts] to rot, turn black, and become infested with maggots—thus the inability to sit astride, let alone ride, a horse” (Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, 2013:12, 13). That was the health of the man who attempted to kill the savior of the world. His year of death is disputed. It has been variously put anywhere from 4BC to 1 BC depending on which source one consults. Jesus was born in 4 BC.
If Herod the Great died in the same year Jesus was born, then the Magi visited baby Jesus before he was a year old. Herod killed his son Antipater just five days before his own death. Antipater complained loudly that his father was taking too long to die, that he himself would be an old man when he became king. Then news came that Herod had died and Antipater burst out in joy. But Herod hadn’t died. Herod got wind of his son’s sentiments and summarily killed him. He would have been the successor to his father and baby Jesus would have been still in grave danger.
When Herod the Great died, the Romans divided his kingdom into three parts and allocated each to one of his three sons but abolished the title of king and called them tetrarchs. Herod Antipas became the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea which was the east bank of the Jordan River. Herod Philip became tetrarch of the Golan Heights, and Herod Archelaus tetrarch of Judea and Samaria. Archelaus ruled for two years only and was deposed by the Roman emperor for inefficiency, and Rome exercised direct rule of the area appointing Roman procurators like Pontius Pilate. Archelaus is the Herod that Joseph did not want to bring baby Jesus back to in Matthew 2:19:23, and Herod Antipas is the one who killed John the Baptist, was called a fox by Jesus in Luke13:31, 32, and tried Jesus (Luke 23:6-12).