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Echoes of History

On false gods, false kings, and broken orders.

Interview of the Magi and King Herod
Vintage engraving of interview of the Magi and King Herod, by J. James Tissot. (DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images)
When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.…

Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them; And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him. (Mark 2:1-3,7-8)

If the mountain won't come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain. And if the wise men won’t come to Herod, then Herod must go to the wise men.

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The analogy is a bad one, but the point is worthwhile. Another analogy might fit better: before returning to the subject of the Nativity, we might consider Volodymyr Zelensky’s Christmastime trip to the imperial capital in light of an earlier episode in the life of Judea’s infamous client king.

Pompey the Great—Republican Rome’s Ronald Reagan, for the sake of the analogy—had conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C., bringing Judea under Rome’s dominion. Herod, the second son of the Judean courtier Antipater, was not yet ten at the time.

In the early years of vassalage, Herod received the appointments fitting of a respected man’s younger son in a newly conquered territory. Which is to say, he spent his young adulthood facilitating tribute for his Roman overlords and trying to set straight a remarkably crooked house in Galilee. He had plenty of success in the former, and just a bit in the latter.

He rose quickly through the ranks, especially as his father became a favorite ally of Pompey’s in the region. By the time he had turned 30, Herod seemed on track to rule a small tract of a remote province until the end of his days. He likely would have been content to do so; the life of a tetrarch was not a bad one.

Everything changed in 40 B.C. It was then that Hyrcanus II, a weak and aging king whose strings had once been pulled by Herod’s father, was dethroned and banished by his nephew Antigonus.

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Antigonus had not taken the crown alone. The Parthian Empire, then at the peak of a civilizational conflict with Rome, had backed the usurper as part of a broader push into the Roman-controlled Levant. The pro-Roman and pro-Hyrcanus factions found themselves locked in brutal conflict with a fierce Parthian army.

The Romans and their allies in Judea seemed in dire straits. Herod’s brother was killed on the battlefield. In desperation, Herod set out for Rome himself to seek aid for the war.

He passed through Egypt, where Cleopatra received him with open arms. From there, with difficulty, he made his way to Italy, where he met a warm welcome from his old friend Mark Antony. (The chronology doesn’t work, but in principle this is Bill Clinton.)

Herod was poor by this point—he had practically begged his way to Rome. He asked only for some small part of Rome’s fortune, so he could go back and push on in the war against the invaders.

Antony had bigger things in mind. Rome had allied with Hyrcanus because he was easily controlled, but his weakness had proven a liability one too many times. What Rome needed in the region was a replacement, not a restoration.

Caesar Octavian agreed. He thought highly of Herod, and shared Antony’s interest in securing the eastern territories. Who better than a war-tested friend of the Western powers to take control in the east? The Senate was convened, and easily convinced: Rome must throw its weight behind Herod, lest the Parthians secure their grip on Judea and the Roman sphere shrink just a little smaller.

Flanked on each side by Antony and Octavian—two of the most powerful men in all Rome’s history—Herod emerged from the Senate a king, as the rulers of what had by then long been an empire trailed behind him. He went first to a grand feast at Antony’s house, then back off to the east for a long and bitter campaign.

Twelve years later, the Republic was no more.

We can’t blame Herod for that, of course. All this was merely the progression of a course made irreversible years before by Julius Caesar (contrary to popular opinion, America’s Caesar was George W. Bush) and set into motion decades before that.

Herod was a bit player in that story, much as Zelensky will be a bit player in the history books of the American Republic. But the story cannot be told in full without him. While the poor of Rome starve in the streets and the northern borders come under siege, the city’s coffers are emptied to prop up a friendly but fatally flawed regime halfway across the world.

On every side of that story, men have fallen out of place—lost the sense of their proper loyalties, their proper duties, their proper ends. The ambition of Pompey, the cunning of Antipater, the frailty of Hyrcanus; the conquest of Rome and the apostasy of Israel; the plotting of Antony and the pride of Herod all converge on the fateful moment when the two-bit ruler of a distant province sets himself against the Word Incarnate.

Here the matter of false gods and the matter of false kings become entirely intertwined. These are the material conditions of the Incarnation. The man who first sought our Lord’s death seems to flash in and out of the Gospel in an instant. But he lived, in flesh and blood, and he played a part in history that echoes through today. 

On the verge of a new year, in a season when we expect that all may be made new, we can hope with caution for greater wisdom: for men who set false gods, false kings, and broken orders back into their place; who decide, before it is too late, that enough has been rendered unto Caesar and his minions.

And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country. (Mark 2:11-12)

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