The story of the wise man and their visit to Bethlehem is ingrained in our Christmas memories. We’ve heard that tale so many times that for many it has become like Christmas wallpaper. We read through the first few chapters of Matthew’s gospel and don’t even notice its significance anymore. But I wonder what it would have been like had we lived in that time and read of those events. What might we have understood from the story, knowing how religion and socioeconomics played such a huge part in it. In other words, would our understanding change with a little knowledge of the background to the story?
When we read the second chapter of Matthew we see that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, “in the days of Herod the king” (2:1). Right away, our first readers would have well-remembered this ruler in Israel. History remembers him as “Herod the Great,” but he preferred to be called “king of the Jews.” He ruled at the favor of the Roman emperors for almost four decades, sponsoring massive building projects which culminated in the building of the temple complex in Jerusalem. But beyond his public works program he was known for his ruthlessness. By the time of Jesus’ birth between 6 and 4 B.C., he had put to death his wife, several sons and most of his rivals. He had come to the end of his reign, an old man paranoid of any threat to power. No wonder all Jerusalem shared his troubled spirit when these “Magi” from the east came looking for one “born king of the Jews” (2:2-3). How was this madman going to respond to such news?
Of course, you probably know the rest of the story. Herod summoned the chief priests and scribes to find out what they knew. Most of the chief priests came from the Sadducees, a sect of Judaism that consisted of mostly wealthy aristocrats. They held a lot of the religious power, which they wielded in support of Herod’s administration. For their part, the scribes not only produced copies of Scripture but they were expert teachers of it. Many of them belonged to the Pharisees, devoted to obeying Scripture and all of the laws attached to it. Yet, with all of their combined knowledge and training, the priests and scribes failed to respond to the clues that their long-awaited messiah had been born. Herod exerted great influence on both the political and religious leaders of his day.
He then gathered the magi in secret in order to get information about the whereabouts of this young child. Of course, after the magi visited Jesus they didn’t go back through Jerusalem. When Herod found out about their trickery the full force of his vicious rule was exerted on the town and vicinity of Bethlehem, only a few miles from Jerusalem. This king would stop at nothing to ensure that any potential rival was destroyed. He dispatched soldiers, possibly from the fortress of Herodium, near Bethlehem, to kill every male child there under two years old. Those who knew Herod best would not have been surprised at this account.
And what about these “magi”? Who were they? Wise men? Three kings? All Matthew tells us is that they came from “the east” (2:1). Yet, “magi” were pagan astrologers who were well-known for their ability to tell the future from the stars. They probably came to the bustling trade center which was Jerusalem knowing that in this place, the capital of Judea, they would be most likely to find out about the birth of a royal child. Of course, their search would ultimately bring them to the humble village that lay in the shadows of Jerusalem. It’s also obvious that these magi were from out-of-town. They seem oblivious to any sort of paranoid threat from Herod that would have resonated with someone “in the know.” They even had to be warned in a dream—which their craft inclined them to follow—not to go back to Jerusalem. To get home they would have had to take back roads all the way to the coast of the Mediterranean in order to find a road that could take them north, then back east. A first century reader may have understood the trouble these foreigners took just to worship a child God had revealed to them even through pagan means.
There is one other thread in the story worth following, as well. An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and warned him of the threat from Herod. He was told to “flee to Egypt” (2:13). Why Egypt? Well, Matthew clearly intends to show how Jesus early life fulfilled the prophecy from Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt. 2:15). But in addition to that is the fact that their were thousands of Jews living in Egypt at that time. And not only in that place, since over the previous centuries Jews had settled in every region of the Roman empire. Could it be that Joseph found refuge with a family in Alexandria, a city known for its large Jewish population and home to the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint? It is easy to see how God may have used the history of his people to both fulfill prophecy and protect his Son.
When Joseph got the green light to return to the land of Israel it seems as if he intended to return to the city of his ancestors, Bethlehem, but something prevented him. One of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, was in power in Judea. While he ruled that region, his brothers ruled in the north. Unfortunately, he shared the same ruthless flaws as his father, but he was a terrible ruler. He didn’t rule long until he was deposed and sent to Gaul. In the meantime, Joseph chose to move north to the region of Galilee, to a small town called Nazareth. The region of Galilee was now ruled by Antipas, a relatively stable ruler who reigned throughout the life of Jesus. Clearly, the political circumstances effected Jesus’ life as well as fulfilled prophecy.
See, the Christmas story contains a deeper meaning which the traditional telling often lacks. We see the contrast between the tyrannical rule of Herod the Great and the humble beginnings of the King of kings. We see the failure of the religious system to acknowledge the culmination of everything it stood for. We see the providential working of God through the rule of tyrants and the out working of Israel’s history. We see the story in The Story, how God did all of this in “the fullness of time” to redeem us and make us his children.
Next, we’ll look at how background can affect how we read the ministry of John the Baptist.