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Collision of two kingdoms

31 December 2021

Gregory K. Cameron continues his series, exploring the scriptural background to, and history and tradition that have grown up around, a character associated with Christmas. It is illustrated by the author’s adaptation of a work of art

Gregory K. Cameron

I Scripture

HEROD appears in Matthew’s Gospel as the King of Judaea, residing in his palace in Jerusalem. Understandably, the Magi, believing that the appearance of the star heralds the birth of a new king, go first to Herod. This causes suspicions to arise in his mind, and, although he directs the Magi to go to Bethlehem, he is already plotting how to rid himself of a new threat to his throne. The Magi avoid returning to Jerusalem; so, in brutal expediency, Herod orders the murder of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two.


II History

BETWEEN the Old Testament and the New, much changed in the Holy Land. By the end of the period covered by the Old Testament, the line of David no longer ruled over Israel. Instead, a series of governors and high priests held authority through a difficult period, as political fortunes in the Middle East waxed and waned.

Eventually, the people of Judaea rebelled against their recently acquired Syrian masters, the Seleucid emperors, and the leader of the rebellion, Judas Maccabeus, founded a line of kings known as the Hasmoneans. The Hasmoneans fell prey in turn to the emerging Roman Empire, and the Romans installed a local mobster, Antipater, from Idumea, as ruler of the area. His son was Herod, who married into the Hasmonean family, and negotiated his appointment as King of Judaea with Rome.

Historically, Herod was a huge success, rebuilding the Temple, such that he was nicknamed “the Great”, and he was the first of four Herods — and one Philip from the same family — to rule through the period covered by the New Testament. Herod Archelaus, his son, ruled immediately after him from Jerusalem, but was denied the crown.

Another son, Herod Antipas, ruled as Tetrarch in Galilee and the surrounding district. This is the Herod who killed John the Baptist, and participated eventually in the trial of Jesus. Finally, Herod the Great’s grandson, Herod Agrippa, succeeded to the throne, and it is he who sat in judgement on the Apostle Paul. None of them gets a good press from the authors of the Bible.


III Tradition

THE reputation of Herod the Great in history — as the consolidator of the Kingdom of Judaea, as a grandiose builder who restored the Temple and built many fine palaces and fortresses, and as a consummate politician — is a disconcerting picture for those who know him only from the pages of the Bible.

What scripture and history do agree on, though, is Herod’s brutal nature: he was not averse to “removing” members of his family who got in his way. Although there is no historical evidence for the massacre of the innocents — the children of Bethlehem — apart from Matthew’s Gospel, it nevertheless fits the depiction of the jealous and dangerous king that history records.

The picture that I have offered for Herod is based on the mosaics of St Mark’s Basilica, in Venice, which were completed in the 14th century. They give Herod an almost pantomime appearance, dressing him in the ornate and contemporary jewelled robes of a Byzantine emperor, and putting a crown on his head that would put any court jester to shame.

It is almost as if the craftsmen who created the mosaics 600 years ago wanted to emphasise the cartoonish nature of his power, dependent on Roman good will, and given to bouts of suspicion and tyranny.


IV Faith

I BELIEVE that Matthew, in his Gospel, has also chosen to portray a tyrant by creating a deliberate contrast between the worldly image of a kingdom, which is about dominion, power, and paranoia; and the Kingdom of Peace, that the newborn child has come to inaugurate. At every point in his life, Jesus will avoid the panoply of greatness, emphasising that his Kingdom is one based on service and love, on sacrifice, and on the well-being and wholeness of all those who become subject to God’s rule.

Earthly power is, according to the Gospels, inherently unstable and unsatisfying; only the person prepared to lose their life for God’s sake, who is prepared to take up their cross daily and to follow Jesus, can discover fullness of life. “My kingdom”, Jesus replied to Pilate at his trial, “does not belong to this world” (John 18.36).

Even in our lives, we can fall into the trap of believing that if only we had more money, more control, more privilege, then we should be truly happy. The way of Jesus is very different, however: it makes a priority of loving God and loving our neighbour. The one who would find their life must be prepared to give up control, to give their life away, for — as a prayer of St Augustine says — we aim to follow Christ “whose service is perfect freedom”.

Let us reflect on the nature of power and on the powerful; for the lesson of scripture is that dominion seduces, but does not satisfy. How can we prioritise love in our lives?

Lord God, your son came to us as an infant, vulnerable to the schemes and desires of others. Help us to see where true life can be found, not in being served, but in serving others. Amen.

The Rt Revd Gregory K. Cameron is the Bishop of St Asaph.

This is an extract from Bishop Cameron’s An Advent Book of Days: Meeting the char­acters of Christmas, pub­lished by Canter­bury Press at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78622-268-8.

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