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Characters of Advent - Herod

Friday, December 18, 2009
Two Herods appear in the gospels, Herod the Great who was King of Judea at the time of Jesus' birth, and his son, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, who executed John the Baptist and was involved in the condemnation of Jesus. We can call Herod the Great our 'Christmas Herod' and Herod Antipas our 'Easter Herod'. Herod the Great (74BC-4BC) was a ruthless king famous for eliminating his rivals even when these were members of his own family. He was a skillful politician, making shrewd alliances with the Romans to ensure his complete domination of Judea. He is renowned also for his building projects, the port city of Caesarea Maritima for example, but most importantly his re-construction on a grand scale of the Second Temple at Jerusalem.

Matthew's gospel tells us about Herod's interest in the birth of Jesus, a fact of which he becomes aware when the Magi visit him in Jerusalem. Ironically, he is the one who tells them that Bethlehem is the likely place of the child's birth and encourages them to go, find him, and return so that he too can come and worship this new king. We all know that this is not his real intention and that the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem is his real response to the birth of Jesus. Although the New Testament is the only historical witness to this event it is not unlikely considering the brutality and paranoia of Herod. He had, after all, been declared 'King of the Jews' by the Roman Senate about forty years before the birth of Jesus. Anybody who might even vaguely represent a threat to his position would therefore be ruthlessly eliminated.

The renowned Irish biblical scholar Jerome Murphy-O'Connor OP, writes as follows about the threat of Herod and the flight into Egypt:

... it would be extraordinary if Herod had not taken very seriously the prophecy of a warrior king who would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:1) ... An opponent could recruit forces much more easily if he claimed to be the promised Messiah from Bethlehem. As God’s Chosen One he was guaranteed success; he could not lose. It would be extremely naive to imagine that Herod’s secret police were not all over Bethlehem just waiting for someone to step out of line. Since Herod was prepared to execute his own sons on mere suspicion, one did not have to be a genius to realize that he would have no compunction about wiping out a whole village just to give himself peace of mind. ... Given what everyone knew about Herod’s character and temperament, it would be incredible if those who were free to leave Bethlehem and seek safety outside Herod’s jurisdiction did not avail of the opportunity. Egypt was the traditional place of refuge for those in danger in Judea (1 Kgs 11:40; 2 Kgs 25:25-26; Jer 26:20-21), and it was not very far away. ... Joseph’s skill as an artisan gave him mobility. He could find work anywhere. He was not tied to land as were the farmers and shepherds. There can be no doubt about the historicity of the flight into Egypt of Jesus and his family. In fact, I would be extremely surprised if they were the only ones to flee from Bethlehem ('Jesus and Paul: Child Refugees', in Vivian Boland OP, editor, Watchmen Raise Their Voices, Dublin 2006, pp.64-65).


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