The Christmas Story Part 1: Setting the scene and Herod
We find that the gospels are quite specific about who was ruling at the time of Jesus’ birth. The Roman Empire had come out of its era as a Republic about half a century before following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Caesar’s adopted son was Caesar Augustus mentioned in the opening chapter of the gospel of Luke. He was the first emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty that lasted until the death of Nero in 68AD.
The Romans exerted significant control over their Empire. A decree from Augustus concerning a census, given 1,500 miles away in Rome, was obeyed by Joseph living in the very insignificant town of Nazareth even though it involved taking his heavily pregnant wife on a 100 mile journey on a donkey.
Quirinius, a Roman, is mentioned as ruling over Syria. Syria was a frontier province of the Roman Empire. As a province, Syria was directly ruled by Rome. Just to the east, outside of Rome’s control, were the troublesome Parthians - always harassing, always threatening to invade into Syria and Judea. Three Roman legions were stationed in Syria. The Roman governor was able to rapidly dispatch forces to deal with any problems to the east or further south towards Judea.
Although also a frontier land, Judea was a client kingdom ruled by the Herods. They were given some local autonomy but at all times were expected to obey Augustus and to keep the peace. The Roman soldiers were the enforcers that the hated tax collectors relied on. So we can imagine Quirinius, who ended up being a long-serving Roman ruler in Syria, being very closely involved supporting the publicans in harvesting the tax revenues.
So Jesus was born in a time period of peace, enforced by the military might of Rome. In the years leading up to Jesus’ birth all the way to the Jewish revolt in AD66 there was relative security in Judea and in the Mediterranean world in general.
The Romans loved a peaceful Empire. Not that they were peaceful but because peace meant steady food supplies and economic wealth flowing back to Rome. The Romans were brutal in putting down any threat to the food supply or tax revenues. It was this “Pax Augustus”, or Peace created by Augustus, that made it possible for Jesus to walk the length and breadth of Galilee and Judea, preaching and teaching, and for the apostles to go into all the world and preach the gospel. It is remarkable, and surely by God’s design, that Jesus was born at this time in history.
The Bible tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king. What do we know about the Herods, because there were more than one of them? Who were they and how did they come to be in power? And how did these Herodian kings contribute to the environment in which Jesus grew up? Well, the short answer is they were agents of Rome and they actively pursued a policy of Hellenisation, which means turning everything Greek.
Going back a few hundred years… after the Babylonian captivity, many Jews did not return to Judea. Large centres of Jews sprang up all over the Mediterranean. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, many of these foreign Jews became Greek-speaking and were heavily influenced by Greek culture. Those captives who did return to Judea lived in a land occupied by a foreign power - first the Persians and then the Greeks. Around 329BC, Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire brought him into Judea. He was warmly welcomed by the Jewish leaders who agreed to his proposal to be incorporated into his Empire and to pay taxes, in exchange for keeping their system of government.
Many foreigners came to live in Judea. There’s a reason why the temple in Jerusalem had a Court of the Gentiles. To the north, in Samaria and Galilee, there were whole cities that were mainly Gentile. Every synagogue had a partition to separate the Gentiles from the Jews.
A significant number of Jews spoke Greek, thought like Greeks and even behaved like Greeks, not to mention the Greek-style buildings and theatres that had sprung up. The Greek rulers worked hard at making sure Greek culture, thinking and religion were assimilated into the local population. The use by Jesus of the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew scriptures is a mark of how far Greek culture had influenced Jewish society in Judea and Galilee.
Greek influence was a daily struggle for the conservative Jews. The situation reached a crisis point when Antiochus, a Seleucid king, forced the worship of Zeus onto the Jews. The Jews revolted, led by four brothers surnamed Maccabee. They were part of a priestly family called the Hasmoneans. This revolt began around 167BC, and after a long struggle the Seleucids, in 129BC, recognised Judea as an independent kingdom.
Although the Maccabean revolt started as a fundamentalist reaction to Greek idolatry, the Hasmoneans over time also became very Hellenised. The Hasmoneans were aggressive rulers and when they brought both Idumea to the south and Galilee to the north into their domain, both areas became mostly Jewish in religion.
The annexation of Idumea was to have fairly disastrous consequences for the Jews. A politically astute Idumean called Antipater, a Jewish convert, came to Jerusalem as an advisor to the last Hasmonean king. It is likely that Antipater was descended from the Edomites who had infiltrated the Jewish temple community following the Babylonian exile. Antipater was clearly very capable and arrived on the scene just before the perfect storm - civil war in Judea and civil war in the Roman Empire. Antipater sided with Caesar and was rewarded with the position of chief minister of Judea. In 37BC, his son Herod the Great overthrew the Hasmonean king, had him executed and was then established by the Romans as King of Judea - an Edomite, nominally Jewish, but an Edomite nevertheless.
Herod the Great is the Herod we read about early in the gospel of Matthew. He was always more concerned about his relationship with Rome then with the welfare of his subjects. Herod hated the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Council) who at the start of his reign seem to have been made up of mostly good people. The Sanhedrin tried unsuccessfully to bring Herod to trial for overthrowing the Hasmoneans. The result was that in the early part of his reign Herod executed 13,000 opponents, mostly Jewish priests who resisted him.
The political reality was that Judea was a client kingdom of Rome, so Herod was a king but in service to Rome. He enjoyed the privileges and local power of a monarch but was expected to completely follow Rome’s instructions and to keep the peace. So the news from the wise men of a king being born and potentially upsetting the status quo filled him and the ruling elite in Jerusalem with some dread. The last thing they needed was Roman legions marching on Jerusalem.
At this point Herod was nearing the end of his life. He was racked with pain due to a really bad disease and fretting over who would succeed him. Not pleasant circumstances for a man who by all accounts was a murderous and probably mad tyrant. He executed three of his sons to protect his position, and one wife due to jealousy. So, the threat of Herod towards the wise men and to Jesus was real, and we can see why Joseph was told to take his family and flee to Egypt, returning after a year or two when Jesus was around 4 years old.
Joseph’s initial intention was to return to Judea. It may have been that Mary and Joseph had settled back into Judea after Jesus was born. We know that Zacharias and Elizabeth were in the same area. If you remember when Mary was pregnant, she spent three months at the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth who lived in a city of Judea.
But Herod Archelaus was ruling Judea in the place of his father Herod the Great. He was worse than his father. Even before he’d officially received the kingship, he murdered 3,000 Jews in Jerusalem, so the angel moved Joseph and his family back to the little town of Nazareth. Herod’s other son, Herod Antipas, was ruling over Galilee - he was less of a lunatic than Archelaus. Where Archelaus was fairly quickly exiled by the Romans due to his excessive cruelty, Antipas reigned in Galilee for over 40 years.
So by God’s design, Joseph moved his family to the safety of Nazareth. Nazareth was a great location for an ancient town. It was located in the hills about 12 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee. The surrounding area was very fertile, and the inhabitants were more than likely farmers. Even the limestone bedrock on which the town was built was useful, for underground cisterns and storehouses for grain.
Leading up to the time of Jesus, the area around Galilee had become a very cosmopolitan, Hellenistic region. Yet Nazareth, we’re told, was inhabited by a small group of around 300-400 devout Jews, mostly farmers and their families, who preserved their Jewish identify and resisted Greek influences.
Less than 4 miles to the north west was the city of Sepphoris, Herod’s capital of Galilee. Sepphoris was also very Jewish but the Jews here were rich and Hellenised. They had big houses in Greco-Roman style, many with complex mosaics and bath houses. Sepphoris was also well-connected - being the capital city of Galilee, it was connected to the coast and to the south via paved Roman roads. At this time Sepphoris was going through a major restoration project and it would have been very convenient for Joseph, a skilled artisan, to live in Sepphoris rather than make a 4 mile journey into work every day. Yet Joseph chose Nazareth - a quiet place, only devout Jews as neighbours, the right place to base his family.
When Jesus was in his teens, Herod Antipas built his new capital on the western shore of Galilee and named it Tiberius in honour of the Roman Emperor. And we can imagine Joseph and Jesus working there maybe for weeks at a time, and the young Jesus watching the fishermen going about their business. We can see Jesus mulling this over in his mind, seeing the parallels between throwing a net overboard to somehow catch fish, almost unawares, and to bring them out of the sea. He would have seen the preparation, re-pitching the boats, mending sails and nets and, when the weather turned, the dangers. Maybe he had gotten to know some of the sons of the Galilean fishermen who like him were starting out in their trade and saw in these people characteristics that he wanted in his future disciples.