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How Herod and the People of Jerusalem Missed Out

  • Colin R. Nicholl
  • Updated Dec 10, 2015
How Herod and the People of Jerusalem Missed Out

Herod and the People of Jerusalem 

The Magi clearly expected the people of Jerusalem, or at least some of them, to know that the Messiah had been born, and where he was now. However, in this and in their trust of Herod later in the story, the Magi were mistaken: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born” (Matt. 2:3–4).

Herod the Great. The repetition of Herod’s title “the king” here stands in sharp tension with the Magi’s claim in verse 2 that the King of the Jews has just been born.

Historical backdrop. Herod had been endowed with the title King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. As the reigning king in his final years, Herod was utterly obsessed with securing his dynasty by choosing from his sons a worthy successor or successors.

Herod had ten wives and many sons. His most important children as regards the succession were Alexander and Aristobulus (sons of Mariamne I); Antipater (son of Doris); Archelaus and Antipas (sons of Malthrace); Philip I (son of Mariamne II); and Philip II (son of Cleopatra of Jerusalem).

When Alexander and Aristobulus returned from Rome to Judea in 17 BC, Herod let his favorable sentiment toward them be known. However, Herod’s sister Salome spread the rumor that these sons were conspiring against him. As a result, Herod turned his favor upon his eldest son and the child of his first marriage, Antipater, appointing him the sole heir. As for Alexander and Aristobulus, he decided to make charges against them before the Roman emperor. However, Herod in due course changed his mind about Alexander and Aristobulus and was reconciled with them. Thereafter, in 12 BC he incorporated them back into his will, so that each of them would be a ruler over a part of the territory. Unfortunately for Herod, this ideal state of affairs did not last for long. In 7 BC new rumors began to circulate to the effect that Alexander and Aristobulus were plotting to assassinate Herod; whether these rumors had a basis in fact or were merely manufactured by Antipater we do not know. Certainly Herod believed them, and he responded with fury and had the two siblings tried and executed. The king decided that Antipater should be the sole king, although now he specified that Philip I would be Antipater’s successor. Then, in 6 BC, Philip I was removed from the will, because Herod suspected that his mother was guilty of conspiracy against him, leaving Antipater as the sole specified heir.

It is around this time, in 6 or 5 BC, when Herod was acutely paranoid and focused on the succession, and perhaps thinking that he had finally sorted out the whole messy business, that the Magi entered Jerusalem asking where the newborn King of the Jews was and declaring that they had seen his star in the eastern sky.

In fact, Herod’s paranoia and dynastic woes continued until his death. Early in 5 BC the king discovered that Antipater, before de- parting for Rome in 6 BC, had been conspiring to poison him. When Antipater returned to Judea late in 5 BC, Herod had him imprisoned and reported the crime to the emperor. He then named his youngest son, Antipas, sole heir. However, just prior to his death in the spring of 4 BC, Herod had yet another change of heart and divided up his kingdom between Antipas, Archelaus, and Philip II. Five days before Herod died, Antipater, his firstborn son, was executed.

Herod’s Response to the Magi. Herod was “troubled” by the announcement of the Magi concerning the birth of the newborn King of the Jews. The historical context helps us make sense of this. As we have seen, during the last four years of Herod’s life he was extremely paranoid, and with some justification. He had already killed two of his sons and 300 military officers supposedly conspiring with them in 7 BC and, within a few years, would have cause to have another son tried for conspiracy and executed. Consequently, Herod was unlikely to take kindly to any threat to his dynasty. In addition, Richardson suggests that Herod may have been strongly hostile to messianic movements generally.

At the same time, Herod clearly believed that the one who had just been born was the actual Messiah. Later, Matthew tells us of how Herod assembled the chief priests and scribes to determine where the Messiah had been born, based on the Hebrew Scriptures, and passed this information on to the Magi, anticipating that they would find the new- born King of the Jews there (Matt. 2:4–8). So convinced was Herod that the Messiah had been born that he slaughtered every baby boy in the region of Bethlehem in their first or second year of life in a desperate attempt to assassinate him (v. 16). His fear therefore probably reflects his belief that the prophesied Messiah would pose a formidable threat to his dynasty.

Herod was part Jewish and has been generously described by one biographer as a man of “piety” who adhered to “simple and uncluttered” Judaism.Certainly he was, at the very time when the Magi visited, overseeing the reconstruction and beautification of the Jerusalem temple. And yet Herod, though persuaded by the Magi that the Messiah had been born, did not rejoice, but recoiled with horror, because this momentous event did not accord with his succession plans.

The People of Jerusalem. Surprisingly, “all of Jerusalem” was also “troubled” (v. 3) by the Magi’s announcement. Although some scholars have argued that the city’s religious leaders are in view here,that is too narrow a reading of the phrase. The more natural interpretation is that it refers to the general population of the city. However, we might well wonder why the people of Jerusalem responded so negatively to the Magi’s proclamation. It can hardly be that the Jerusalemites preferred Herod to the Messiah. More likely the people in Jerusalem were troubled because they liked the status quo and were certain that Herod would respond with brutality to any serious threat to his dynasty. They may also have been afraid that Judea could degenerate into civil war. While some degree of fear might be expected, the lack of any positive rejoicing at the news that the long-awaited Messiah has finally been born is disturbing and, within the context of Matthew’s Gospel, anticipates the city’s rejection of Jesus at his trial (Matt. 27:15–26).

Had Herod and the Jerusalemites Seen the Star? The response of Herod and the people of Jerusalem has sometimes been taken to indicate that they had not seen the Star themselves.However, this is most unlikely. It would be very surprising if the people of Judea would have accepted as a celestial sign of the Messiah’s birth any phenomenon capable of being observed only by pagan Gentiles in Babylon and not at all by the Messiah’s own people in Judea. Moreover, the strength of the reaction of the king and people to the arrival of the Magi’s entourage and their query makes better sense if they had seen for themselves and been deeply impressed by the Star but had not perceived its momentous messianic significance.Had they not seen the Star for themselves, they would hardly have been so shaken by the Magi’s enquiry. What was new to the people of Jerusalem was not that there was a Star or even that the Star had done something unusual in connection with its heliacal rising, but rather that the Star had categorically signaled that the Messiah had recently been born. Exposed to that startling and evidently compelling interpretive key by some of the world’s most respected astronomers and astrologers, who were so certain of their interpretation that they had just traveled hundreds of miles to welcome the newborn Messiah, suddenly Herod and the Jerusalemites became disturbed concerning the Star.

Of course, it is possible that not everything the Star did was detected by those in Jerusalem, whether because of inclement weather, a lack of dedicated observation, or an inopportune time of occurrence.

Herod’s Meeting with the Jewish Teachers
Herod’s Ignorance. It is clear that Herod did not know where the Messiah was to be born. Apparently Micah 5:2, with its disclosure of the location of the Messiah’s birth, was not widely known or, at any rate, not widely understood. The Magi, Herod, and the population in Jerusalem as a whole were, it would seem, unaware that this verse held the key to identifying the place of the Messiah’s birth.

The king therefore assembled “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” (Matt. 2:4), which may perhaps mean that he summoned the whole Sanhedrinor simply that he gathered a sizable group of respected Bible scholars (in the Gospels, the Sanhedrin is normally designated “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders,” but the elders are not mentioned here).

The Teachers’ Response. Herod presented the religious experts with his simple question: Where was the Messiah to be born? This half-Jewish king of Judea was clearly intent on assassinating the Messiah while he was still a baby. Completely devoid of any fear of God, he was prepared to use the revelation God had given concerning his plan of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures—to thwart the divine plan! The hard-heartedness and audacity of this man who had made the Second Temple one of the most glorious structures in the ancient world are mind-boggling. So self-deluded is this king of Judea that he actually imagines that he can take on God and win!

According to Matthew 2:5–6, the chief priests and scribes “told [Herod], ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’”

The response of the Jewish religious leader- ship to Herod’s question reveals a lot. Their answer reflects a high view of the Hebrew Scriptures. They regard Micah’s oracle as the word of God channeled through a prophetic agent (“it is written by the prophet”), and they interpret it in a literal and straightforward manner to refer to the Davidic Messiah. The chief priests and scribes manifestly do have a basic grasp of God’s plan of salvation through the Messiah. It is striking that Matthew is content to let these Jewish leaders introduce Micah 5:2 into the narrative concerning the birth of Jesus. Matthew does not explicitly state that the religious leader- ship was aware of the report of the Magi from the east. However, word concerning the Magi had spread like wildfire through the city, so that “all Jerusalem” heard it, and it is hard to justify excluding the Jewish religious leaders from this, particularly because Jerusalem was so oriented around the temple. Accordingly, when they answered Herod’s question concerning the birthplace of the Messiah by appealing to Micah’s prophecy, they were effectively testifying that, if what the Magi had seen was indeed the Messiah’s natal sign, the Messiah was at that very moment a newborn baby in Bethlehem.

Remarkably, however, the Jewish religious leaders, despite having a knowledge of the Word of God considerably greater than that of the Gentile Magi, made no effort to travel the five or six miles south to Bethlehem to see if indeed the Messiah had been born in fulfillment of the Prophets. They evidently despised the report, and perhaps those who brought it, and so they remained in Jerusalem. They were content with the status quo and did not crave the promised salvation of God.

[Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem by Colin R. Nicholl. © 2015 by Colin R. Nicholl. Used by permission of Crossway.]

Colin R. Nicholl (PhD, University of Cambridge) taught at the University of Cambridge and was a professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary before devoting himself to biblical research. His book From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica was published by Cambridge University Press, and his articles have appeared in publications such as The Journal of Theological Studies and The Times (London). 

Publication date: December 9, 2015