THE WORLD OF JESUSCHAPTER ONEBETHLEHEM, JUDEA
MARCH, 5 B.C.
The child with thirty-six years to live is being hunted.
Heavily armed soldiers from the capital city of Jerusalem are marching to this small town, intent on finding and killing the baby boy. They are a mixed-race group of foreign mercenaries from Greece, Gaul, and Syria. The child’s name, unknown to them, is Jesus, and his only crime is that some believe he will be the next king of the Jewish people. The current monarch, a dying half-Jewish, half-Arab despot named Herod, is so intent on ensuring the baby’s death that his army has been ordered to murder every male child under the age of two years in Bethlehem.* None of the soldiers knows what the child’s mother and father look like, or the precise location of his home, thus the need to kill every baby boy in the small town and surrounding area. This alone will guarantee the extermination of the potential king.
It is springtime in Judea, the peak of lambing season. The rolling dirt road takes the army past thick groves of olive trees and shepherds tending their flocks. The soldiers’ feet are clad in sandals, their legs are bare, and they wear the skirtlike pteruges to cover their loins. The young men sweat profusely beneath the plates of armor on their chests and the tinned bronze attic helmets that cover the tops of their heads and the sides of their faces.
The soldiers are well aware of Herod’s notorious cruelty and his penchant for killing anyone who would try to threaten his throne. But there is no moral debate about the right or wrong of slaughtering infants.† Nor do the soldiers question whether they will have the nerve to rip a screaming child from his mother’s arms and carry out the execution. When the time comes, they will follow orders and do their jobs—or risk being immediately killed for insubordination.
The sword’s blade is how they plan to dispatch the babies. All soldiers are armed with the Judean version of the razor-sharp pugio and gladius preferred by the Roman legions, and they wear their weapons attached to the waist. Their method of murder, however, will not be restricted to the dagger or sword. Should they wish, Herod’s soldiers can also use a skull-crushing stone, hurl the baby boys off a cliff en masse, or just wrap their fists around the infants’ windpipes and strangle them.
The cause of death is not important. What matters most is one simple fact: king of the Jews or not, the infant must die.
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Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, King Herod gazes out a palace window toward Bethlehem, anxiously awaiting confirmation of the slaughter. In the cobbled streets below him, the Roman-appointed king sees the crowded bazaars, where vendors sell everything from water and dates to tourist trinkets and roast lamb. The walled city of some eighty thousand residents packed into less than a single square mile is a crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean. With one sweep of his eyes, Herod can see visiting Galilean peasants, brightly dressed Syrian women, and the foreign soldiers he pays to wage his battles. These men fight extremely well but are not Jews and don’t speak a word of the Hebrew language.
Herod sighs. Back in his youth, he would never have stood in a window and worried about the future. A great king and warrior such as he would have ordered that a bridle be thrown over his favorite white charger so that he might gallop to Bethlehem and murder the child himself. But Herod is now a man of sixty-nine. His massive girth and incessant medical problems make it physically impossible for him to leave his palace, let alone mount a horse. His bloated face is wreathed in a beard that extends from the bottom of his chin to just below his Adam’s apple. On this day, he wears a royal purple Roman-style mantle over a short-sleeved white silk tunic. Normally Herod prefers soft leather leggings that have been stained purple. But today even the gentlest bristle of fabric against his inflamed big toe is enough to make him cry out in pain. So it is that Herod, the most powerful man in Judea, hobbles through the palace barefoot.
But gout is the least of Herod’s ailments. The king of the Jews, as this nonpracticing convert to the religion likes to be known, is also suffering from lung disease, kidney problems, worms, a heart condition, sexually transmitted diseases, and a horrible version of gangrene that has caused his genitals to rot, turn black, and become infested with maggots—thus the inability to sit astride, let alone ride, a horse.
Herod has learned how to live with his aches and pains, but these warnings about a new king in Bethlehem are scaring him. Since the Romans first installed him as ruler of Judea more than thirty years ago, Herod has foiled countless plots and waged many wars to remain king. He has murdered anyone who would try to steal his throne—and even executed those only suspected of plotting against him. His power over the locals is absolute. No one in Judea is safe from Herod’s executions. He has ordered deaths by hanging, stoning, strangulation, fire, the sword, live animals, serpents, beating, and a type of public suicide in which victims are forced to hurl themselves off tall buildings. The lone form of execution in which he has not engaged is crucifixion, that most slow and humiliating of deaths, where a man is flogged and then nailed naked upon a wooden cross in plain sight of the city walls. The Romans are the masters of this brutal art, and they almost exclusively practice it. Herod would not dream of enraging his superiors in Rome by appropriating their favorite form of murder.
Herod has ten wives—or had, before he executed the fiery Mariamme for allegedly plotting against him. For good measure, he also ordered the deaths of her mother and of his sons Alexander and Aristobulus. Within a year, he will murder a third male offspring. Small wonder that the great Roman emperor Caesar Augustus was rumored to have openly commented, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than to be his son.”
But this newest threat, though it comes from a mere infant, is the most dangerous of all. For centuries, Jewish prophets have predicted the coming of a new king to rule their people.‡ They have prophesied five specific occurrences that will take place to confirm the new Messiah’s birth.
The first is that a great star will rise.
The second is that the baby will be born in Bethlehem, the small town where the great King David was born a thousand years before.
The third prophecy is that the child must also be a direct descendant of David, a fact that can easily be proven by the temple’s meticulous genealogical records.
Fourth, powerful men will travel from afar to worship him.
Finally, the child’s mother must be a virgin.§
What troubles Herod most deeply is that he knows the first two of these to be true.
He might be even more distressed to learn that all five have come to pass. The child is from the line of David; powerful men have traveled from afar to worship him; and his teenage mother, Mary, swears that she is still a virgin, despite her pregnancy.
He also does not know that the child’s name is Yeshua ben Joseph—or Jesus, meaning “the Lord is salvation.”
Herod first learns about Jesus from the travelers who have come to worship the baby. These men are called Magi, and they stop at his castle to pay their respects en route to paying homage to Jesus. They are astronomers, diviners, and wise men who also study the world’s great religious texts. Among these books is the Tanakh,¶ a collection of history, prophecy, poetry, and songs telling the story of the Jewish people. The wealthy foreigners travel almost a thousand miles over rugged desert, following an extraordinarily bright star that shines in the sky each morning before dawn. “Where is the one who has been born the king of the Jews?” they demand to know upon their arrival in Herod’s court. “We see his star in the east and have come to worship him.” **
Amazingly, the Magi carry treasure chests filled with gold and the sweet-smelling tree resins myrrh and frankincense. These priests are learned, studious men. Theirs is a life of analysis and reason. Herod can conclude only that either the Magi are out of their minds for risking the theft of such a great fortune in the vast and lawless Parthian desert or they truly believe this child to be the new king.
A furious Herod summons his religious advisers. As a secular man, he knows little about Jewish prophecies. Herod insists that these high priests and teachers of religious law tell him exactly where to find the new king.
The answer comes immediately: “In Bethlehem, in Judea.”
The teachers whom Herod is interrogating are humble men. They wear simple white linen caps and robes. But the bearded Temple priests are a far different story. They dress elaborately, in white-and-blue linen caps with a gold band on the brow, and blue robes adorned in bright tassels and bells. Over their robes they wear capes and purses adorned in gold and precious stones. On a normal day their garb distinguishes them from the people of Jerusalem. But even in his dissipated state, King Herod is the most regal man in the room by far. He continues to hector the teachers and priests. “Where is this so-called king of the Jews?”
“Bethlehem, in the land of Judah.” They quote verbatim from the words of the prophet Micah, some seven centuries earlier. “Out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”
Herod sends the Magi on their way. His parting royal decree is that they locate the infant, then return to Jerusalem and tell Herod the child’s precise location so that he can venture forth to worship this new king himself.
The Magi see through this deceit. They never come back.
So it is that time passes and Herod realizes he must take action. From the windows of his fortress palace, he can see all of Jerusalem. To his left rises the great Temple, the most important and sacred building in all Judea. Perched atop a massive stone platform that gives it the appearance of a citadel rather than a simple place of worship, the Temple is a physical embodiment of the Jewish people and their ancient faith. The Temple was first built by Solomon in the tenth century B.C. It was leveled by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., and then the Second Temple was built by Zerubbabel and others under the Persians nearly seventy years later. Herod recently renovated the entire complex and expanded the Temple’s size to epic proportions, making it far larger than that of Solomon’s. The Temple and its courts are now a symbol not just of Judaism but of the evil king himself.
So it is ironic, as Herod frets and gazes toward Bethlehem, that Jesus and his parents have already traveled to Jerusalem twice and paid visits to that great stone fortress, built atop the site where the Jewish patriarch Abraham nearly sacrificed his own son, Isaac. The first visit came eight days after Jesus’s birth,†† so that he might be circumcised. There the child was formally named Jesus, in keeping with the prophecy. The second visit came when he was forty days old. The baby Jesus was brought to the Temple and formally presented to God, in keeping with the laws of the Jewish faith. His father, Joseph, a carpenter, dutifully purchased a pair of young turtledoves to be sacrificed in honor of this momentous occasion.
Something very strange and mystical occurred as Jesus and his parents entered the Temple on that day—something that hinted that Jesus might truly be a very special child. Two complete strangers, an old man and an old woman—neither of whom knew anything about this baby called Jesus or his fulfillment of prophecy—saw him from across the crowded place of worship and went to him.
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were traveling in complete anonymity, avoiding anything that would draw attention to them. The old man’s name was Simeon, and he was of the belief that he would not die until he laid eyes upon the new king of the Jews. Simeon asked if he might hold the newborn. Mary and Joseph agreed. As Simeon took Jesus into his arms, he offered a prayer to God, thanking him for the chance to see this new king with his own eyes. Then Simeon handed Jesus back to Mary with these words: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
At that very moment, a woman named Anna‡‡ also approached. She was an eighty-four-year-old widowed prophetess who spent all her waking hours in the Temple, fasting and praying. Simeon’s words were still ringing in Mary’s and Joseph’s ears when Anna stepped forth and also praised Jesus. She loudly thanked God for bringing this very special baby boy into the world. Then she made a most unusual claim, predicting to Mary and Joseph that their son would free Jerusalem from Roman rule.
Mary and Joseph marveled at Simeon’s and Anna’s words, flattered for the attention as all new parents would be, but also unsure what all this talk about swords and redemption truly meant. They finished their business and departed from the Temple into the bustling city of Jerusalem, both elated and fearful for the life their son might be destined to lead.
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If only Herod had known that Jesus had been so close—literally, less than six hundred yards from his throne room—his torment could have been relieved. But Jesus and his parents were just three more bodies making their way through the noisy bazaars and narrow, twisting streets en route to the Temple that day.
It is a temple that will stand forever as a monument to Herod’s greatness—or so he believes. Ironically, he is barely welcome inside its walls, thanks to his utter lack of devotion or faith and his ruthlessness in subjugating the Jewish people.
Beyond the Temple, on the far side of the Kidron Valley, rises the steep Mount of Olives, where shepherds tend their flocks on the grasses of the limestone-flecked hillsides. Soon will come the Passover feast, bringing with it tens of thousands of Hebrew pilgrims from all around Herod’s kingdom, eager to pay good money to purchase those sheep for a sacrificial slaughter in the great Temple.
In many ways, the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem is no different. They are being sacrificed for the good of Herod’s rule—which is the same as saying they are being murdered in the name of the Roman Empire. Herod is nothing without Rome, a puppet who owes his kingdom completely to that brutal and all-powerful republic. It is his right and duty to propagate its oppressive ways. For Herod’s kingdom is different from any other under Rome’s iron fist. The Jewish people are an ancient civilization founded upon a belief system that is at odds with Rome’s, which worships many pagan deities instead of the one solitary Jewish god.
Herod is the intermediary in this precarious relationship. The Romans will hold him accountable for any problems caused by an alleged new king of the Jews. They will not tolerate a ruler they have not themselves chosen. And if the followers of this new “king” foment revolution, it is certain that the Romans will immediately step in to brutally crush this voice of dissent. Better that Herod handle it himself.
Herod cannot see Bethlehem from his palace, but it is roughly six miles away, on the far side of some low green hills. He cannot see the blood flowing in its streets right now, nor hear the wails of the terrified children and their parents. As Herod gazes out from his palace, he does so with a clean conscience. Let others condemn him for murdering more than a dozen infants. He will sleep well tonight, knowing that the killings are for the good of his reign, the good of Judea, and the good of Rome. If Caesar Augustus hears of this slaughter, he will surely understand: Herod is doing what must be done.
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Jesus and his family barely get out of Bethlehem alive. Joseph awakes from a terrifying dream and has a vision of what is to come. He rouses Mary and Jesus in the dead of night and they escape. Herod’s soldiers arrive too late. They butcher the babies in vain, fulfilling a prophecy made five hundred years earlier by the contrarian prophet Jeremiah.§§
There are many more prophecies about the life of Jesus outlined in Scripture. Slowly but surely, as this child grows to manhood, those predictions will also come true. Jesus’s behavior will see him branded as a revolutionary, known throughout Judea for his startling speeches and offbeat teachings. He will be adored by the Jewish people but will become a threat to those who profit from the populace: the high priests, the scribes, the elders, the puppet rulers of Judea, and, most of all, the Roman Empire.
And Rome does not tolerate a threat. Thanks to the examples of empires such as those of the Macedonians, Greeks, and Persians that came before them, the Romans have learned and mastered the arts of torture and persecution. Revolutionaries and troublemakers are dealt with in harsh and horrific fashion, in order that others won’t be tempted to copy their ways.
So it will be with Jesus. This, too, will fulfill prophecy.
All of that is to come. For now, Jesus is still an infant, cared for and loved by Mary and Joseph. He was born in a stable, visited by the Magi, presented with their lavish gifts, and is now on the run from Herod and the Roman Empire.¶¶
* There were actually two cities named Bethlehem, and both can make a claim for being the true site of the Nativity. The city of King David’s birth is located just a few miles from Jerusalem. Archaeological investigations have shown that it was either a very small village or relatively uninhabited at the time of Jesus’s birth. The second location is in Galilee, four miles from Nazareth. Supporters of that site believe that Mary’s full-term pregnancy would have made it very difficult for her to walk a hundred miles to the other location. Supporters of the traditional site point to the biblical prophecy that Jesus would be born in the City of David, which is the Bethlehem located near Jerusalem. The fact that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem eight days after his birth, and then again on the fortieth day, would seem to tip the scales in favor of the traditional site.
† Genocide was replete throughout the Classical world. “He slits the wombs of pregnant women; he blinds the infants,” goes an ancient Assyrian poem. Genocide often was considered ethically justifiable if the killing was done to inflict revenge or thwart an aggressor.
‡ The Jewish homeland was first known as Israel, a “promised land” that God offered to his followers. The northern portion of this kingdom fell in 722 B.C. to the Philistines, while the Babylonians later conquered the southern half. The Roman conquest in 63 B.C. led to the area around Jerusalem being referred to as Judea. The whole region, including Galilee, was administratively part of the Roman province of Syria, and the terms Israel and Palestine were not used in Jesus’s time. Israel was once again put into use when the independent Jewish state was founded on May 14, 1948—almost four thousand years after the first Jews crossed into the Promised Land.
§ In order, the prophecies are Numbers 24:17, Micah 5:2–5, Jeremiah 23:5 and Isaiah 9:7, Psalms 72:10–11, and Isaiah 7:13–14.
¶ There are three dominant texts in the Jewish tradition: the Tanakh, the Torah, and the Talmud. The Tanakh constitutes the canonical collection of Jewish Scriptures and appears to have been compiled five hundred years before the birth of Christ. The Tanakh is also known as the Jewish Bible, while Christians refer to it as the Old Testament. The Torah is comprised of the first five books of the Tanakh: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Talmud was written almost six hundred years later, after the fall of the Temple in A.D. 70. Rabbinical teachings, commentaries, and philosophies were compiled so that they might be passed on in written, rather than oral, form.
** In 1991, The Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society (volume 32, pages 389–407) noted that Chinese astronomers had observed a long-tailed, slow-moving comet in their skies during March of 5 B.C. This sui-hsing, or “star,” hung in the Capricorn region for more than seventy days. This same comet would have been visible in the skies over Persia, home of the Magi, in the hours just before dawn. Due to the earth’s orbital motion, the comet’s light would have been directly in front of the Magi during their journey—hence, they would have truly followed the star.
†† The month of March coincides with Gospel descriptions of shepherds tending their flocks on the hillside, as this is also lambing season. December 25, which we now celebrate as the date of Jesus’s birth, was chosen and named Christmas—a shortening of Christ’s Mass, or the mass in honor of Jesus’s birth—by the Romans once their empire became Christian in the fourth century. For the Romans, that date was once the conclusion of an orgiastic pagan holiday known as Saturnalia. Once they set aside their more lascivious ways, it made sense to replace that celebration with a day commemorating the birth of their new savior.
‡‡ Anna is referred to as a “prophetess” in the Gospel of Luke. This makes her the only female in the New Testament so honored. This designation meant she saw things that were hidden from ordinary people. This also means that she held a higher calling than Simeon, who is merely praised by the same author as being “righteous and devout.” Luke also mentions the name of Anna’s tribe, that of Asher, which makes her a rarity among New Testament characters.
§§ The exact number of years that Jesus lived is widely debated, but the conclusion that he was born sometime in the spring of either 6 or 5 B.C. is based on clear historical evidence, as Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. The date of Jesus’s death was on the fourteenth day of Nisan. The annual start of Passover is dependent upon lunar charts, so his death can be pinpointed to have occurred on a Friday in the years a.d. 27–30. History shows that Jesus was executed when Pilate and Caiaphas both ruled in Judea, which occurred A.D. 26–37, making the date of A.D. 30, and his age at the time of death, logical—though still the subject of great discussion.
¶¶ The most insightful facts, quotes, and stories about Jesus that we know come from the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Many today challenge these writings, but thanks to scholarship and archaeology, there is growing acceptance of their overall historicity and authenticity. Many scholars believe that Matthew was written in Greek by the disciple and former tax collector, sometime between A.D. 50 and 70. Mark was written by John Mark, a close friend of Peter’s who most likely learned of Jesus through the preaching of Peter. Matthew and Mark are incredibly similar, leading many to wonder if Matthew used Mark as a reference—or vice versa. Luke was a friend of Paul, the former Pharisee who became a convert to Christianity and preached even more zealously than the disciples. The Gospel of Luke was written for a Gentile audience, with a theme of salvation at its center. John was written by the disciple, and its focus is evangelism. John’s Gospel is written in Greek, and is long believed to have been the last Gospel written. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels, due to the many ways in which they agree with one another. All four Gospels together are known as the Canonical Gospels, as they form the essential canon of the Christian faith. John wrote independently of the other Gospel writers, using his unique eyewitness testimony in the same manner as Matthew. If he did, indeed, write his Gospel last, then John would have had the final say on the life of Jesus—not just confirming what the others had written but adding the definitive chronology and sequence of events. The fact that John not only was there at every pivotal moment in Jesus’s ministry, and thus able to describe many scenes with vivid first-person imagery, but was also Jesus’s closest confidant among the disciples (“the disciple whom Jesus loved,” he boasts in John 20:02, in yet another example of the disciples grappling for prestige and power in the eyes of their leader) only adds to the power of his narrative.
Copyright © 2013 by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard