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December 13, 2015 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 813-835-0129

The Grinch who stole Christmas has nothing on Herod the Great who ruled Israel between 40 and 1 BC.  Herod tried to kill Christmas before it ever got started.  You will find the story in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.  You will also find it symbolically presented in Revelation 12:1-6 where the protagonist is not seen as Herod but the spiritual power behind Herod.

Herod had gained his throne following an eighty year reign by the Hasmonean dynasty of the Maccabees.  The Maccabees were Jewish and Herod was not.  He was an Arab or Nabataean.  He sought to legitimize his rule by marrying a Maccabean princess by the name of Mariamne.  He also had four other wives, but Mariamne was his Jewish princess.  It was precisely this fact that threatened Herod’s drive to be the father of his own Herodian dynasty.  Mariamne’s claim to the throne, along with her sons Alexander and Aristobulus, was independent of Herod’s Nabataean ancestry.  Eventually he murdered both Mariamne and her sons.  However Mariamne’s son Aristobulus had two sons before he was killed, Agrippa and Aristobulus.  We meet Agrippa, Herod’s grandson in Acts 12.

From this brief sketch of Herod’s drive for power and legacy we can understand Matthew, chapter two, in its context.  Under the Romans Herod’s official title was King of the Jews.  Suddenly, around 2 BC, a contingent of Persian scholars and astrologers arrive at his court asking about the birth of the promised ruler of Israel from the line of David.  They had seen signs in the heavens of the birth of the longed for Anointed of God, the one who is to rule Israel, the King of the Jews.  These Magi were from the Persian scholar cast.  They had doubtless inherited the writings of Daniel who was leader of this group, first under the Babylonians and then under the Persians.  The astrological sign they had observed is recorded by John in Revelation 12:1.  John would have been familiar with the details of the encounter of the Magi with Herod since he was a cousin of Jesus and the custodian of Mary, mother of Jesus, in Jerusalem for some thirty years.

Jesus was about two years old when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem.  After visiting Nazareth following Jesus’ circumcision and Mary’s ritual cleansing at the Temple the family had returned to Bethlehem intending to make their home there.  The change of plans possibly had to do with the conviction that Bethlehem was an appropriate place to raise Messiah, Son of David.  Or, it may have just been easier to get away from Nazareth, where the awkwardness of Mary’s pregnancy was well known.

Herod would never have shown his anger and rage at this threat to his power to the Magi.  They were a greatly esteemed class of scholars.  He consulted his own scholars to determine the place of Messiah’s birth and discovered that Micha clearly indicates Bethlehem.  Herod requests the Magi to report back to him the location of the family so he can do appropriate homage.  For Herod “appropriate homage” would be to eliminate the threat to his reign.

The family of Joseph escapes Herod’s massacre by God’s grace, but Bethlehem suffers the rage of a psychotic king.  In the words of John’s vision in the Revelation, the dragon was unable to swallow up the new born king.  The dragon’s wrath is now directed toward those who “hold the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 12:17).”  It seems the spirit of Herod is not yet dead.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at  END-whs