In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, scholars from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Judeans? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was disquieted—and all Jerusalem with him—and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you will come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod secretly called for the scholars and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out, and there ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
‘Matthew’ has just introduced a second king into the story, but it’s not Jesus. While never expressly identifying Jesus as royalty, until 2:2, chapter 1 uses two phrases to connote as much: ‘son of David’ and ‘Messiah’ (or ‘Christ’), which cannot be isolated from their political connotations. ‘Son of David’ is a fairly unequivocal claim to the inheritance of David’s rule over the kingdom of Israel (2 Samuel 7), but we should remember that this ‘forever’ rule of David’s lineage was cut off with Judah’s fall and deportation, and even after Israel returned from exile and rebuilt Jerusalem, even insofar they became self-governing again, there was no son of David on the throne. Under the conviction that Yhwh is actually faithful to such promises, then, one expectation of Israel’s assured redemption from the political subjection of other peoples is that it will see the Davidic line restored to the throne (Is 9:7, 16:5, 22:22; Jer 33:19-22; Ez 34:23-24; etc.). This is the Messiah (‘anointed one’; Greek, ‘Christos‘) insofar as he has the anointing of David to rule a restored and politically independent Jerusalem. There were also expectations that a Messiah might (also) be a priest figure in the line of Aaron, but this too presupposes a politically independent temple state, such as was disputed in Jesus’ time; the Sadducee party saw the Temple as restored because rebuilt, whereas the Pharisee and Essene parties saw it as corrupt because of its dealings with the Roman occupiers. To posit a Jewish Messiah into this landscape, then, is politically controversial just to the extent that it rivals the legitimacy claims of anyone else ruling in Jerusalem, yet ‘Matthew’ almost inverts this by putting ‘Jesus the Messiah, the son of David,’ first in the story and Herod subsequently, ‘after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea’ (Mt 2:1).
There is something absurd and certainly affronting about the magi’s question to Herod, ‘Where is the child born king of the Judeans?’ Herod the First had himself taken the hard-won title king of Judea and held it with Rome’s backing, having already come in and out of power once before failing to maneuver his way back to rule and finally conquering the city alongside Roman forces. Add to this the mention that the child is ‘born king,’ and the facts of Herod’s shameful non-Jewish heritage and second-son status only underline how all of his power and achievement had had to come through struggle, never through such a natural right.
Lest the magi’s interest be mistaken for inter-religious curiosity, they declare their intent in terms of what they may or may well have not done for Herod. The magi’s desire to proskuneō can be rendered ‘worship,’ but we shouldn’t lose sight of that word’s wide use in context of human society. Proskuneō, like ‘revere,’ speaks as much about the honoring of those of higher social stations (like kings) as it does about honoring gods, especially keeping in mind here that it follows the magi’s identification of Jesus as ‘king of the Judeans’ rather than ‘god of the Judeans.’
If by underlining the political implications we’re misunderstanding the main thrust of Jesus’ birth, so is Herod and, for that matter, everyone else. According to v. 3, Herod is consequently etarachthā—agitated, disquieted—but not the rivaled king only: also ‘all Jerusalem.’ Now, Herod stands to lose a lot if he has yet another eye on his palace, especially if a true-born Israelite finds better popular support than an outsider-tyrant, but why is everyone else stirred up by this? There are two answers I’d offer. The first understands that Jerusalem is here, as at many times in history, a powder keg, and any upset to the balance of power could prove disastrous to everyday life, if not a whole way of life should the hammer of Rome be finally drawn onto the city. If this is a fear that the people of Jerusalem have, it’s confirmed less than ten years later when a Galilean named Judas (no relation) led an unsuccessful revolt, the reprisals for which included the city of Sepphoris’ burning and the enslavement of its people (Myers, Binding the Strongman, 57). The worst of these fears were of course realized in AD 70 when an uprising resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem. An alternative explanation, which we can test later in ‘Matthew,’ is that ‘Jerusalem’ is a metonym not for the city’s people (as ‘Cleveland’ for Clevelanders) but for the people’s leaders (as ‘Washington’ for members of the U.S. government). The agitation inspired in Herod would be struck as well in anyone else in power by extension, at the possibility of regime change. After all, when the U.S. overthrows its government every four years, even the deputy communications director needs to look for a new job. If a new king comes to power and kicks out Rome, Roman-backed Temple leaders need watch out. We’ll later see how a number of Matthean parables, often mistaken as being about Jews and Gentiles, serve to confirm this very fear.
Herod and the Jerusalem anxiety are contrasted with an over-emphatic ‘rejoiced with exceedingly great joy’ on the part of the Magi. Under either of the above interpretations, the same point can be drawn: the Messiah’s birth evokes trepidation from those near to it and celebration from those far away. Fans of the Weather Channel know that the same can be said of a tornado or a hurricane, or militaria-buffs about war. Precisely because the magi were from the East they are the ones who could pay Jesus homage. They could be in wonder about the great event they had studied in Persia and, exactly when their insulation from the political heat burned through and they could no longer expect safe passage as an envoy to Herod, return home to their own government. Jerusalem would be left to the fallout as the political drama would play out around them. Those who are able to enjoy a distance from the Messiah will always be able to exist by another route
Bringing it Home
I proposed two explanations for the upset that the news of Jesus’ birth caused for Jerusalem, based on two principles: (a) that the possibility of regime change is bad for those who hold power and those who benefit the present order of power and (b) that regime change causes turbulence for those nearby. If these are true at the outset of Jesus’ ascension to power, it does not cease to be true in its continuation. At once the Messiah is presently in power, both in ‘Matthew’s terms and in orthodox confession, and is coming into power. ‘Matthew’ will tell the story of Jesus’ coming into Messiahship (the ‘coming-into-being of Jesus the Messiah,’ according to 1:1), but in our own experience we know that Jesus ascends to power in our own lives as well. Perhaps another way to think of it, the reach of his kingdom extends into the territory of our lives, whereas like the Eastern scholars we were once conveniently removed from its real implications.
This is not to say that Jesus becomes Messiah in our lives when we take the initial step of Christian faith (call it ‘receiving/accepting Jesus/salvation,’ whatever), just as Jesus is not fully Messiah in ‘Matthew’ just by virtue of being born to Joseph in Bethlehem; more remains of the story. If we believe that his reign is so simply accomplished as that, we exempt ourselves from the implications of his kingship, just as the magi, who could call him king without a cost to themselves as long as they did not have him as king over them. Neither is it just to say that Jesus becomes Messiah when that fact challenges and subverts the powers in our own life, though this is not without truth: if Jesus is king, pornography cannot be governor. It is at least as much to say that very order of power in and around our lives is called into question, is rivaled, by the tending of Jesus to the throne. Indeed, as we shall see in ‘Matthew’ the very orientation of reality is called into question in light of Jesus’ upstart government. Kings are cast down, taken-for-granted laws are rewritten, even the very notion of power is questioned. As for Jerusalem, the whole order of life is threatened by Jesus’ pretensions to authority.
The magi could admit two kings because one was an academic curiosity, but Herod knew that there could be only one, Jerusalem with him, that there could only be one power in Israel. Do we? Do we share the realization that if Jesus is in power, our share in the balance of power is subject to his government? The little rulers of the city in our minds, who love our having control and authority and to pay homage to systems of the present order that benefit us, are they disquieted at the notion of Jesus’ Messiahship? Or are they content to lay a few tokens at his crib and leave for the protection of their own kings? The answer might betray how far Jesus’ campaign to power has really progressed in our lives.
What are the powers installed in your life that Jesus’ kingship threatens? More difficult still, in what ways do you benefit from the current order of power in this world, and how might a Messianic revolution threaten these systems?