a Star (Kingdoms and Rulers)
Star in the Sky: The Elephant in the Room at Jesus' Birth
Most people have heard the Christmas story many times. We commonly
filter the Bible account by our western mind-set and even by the
artworks and storybooks we've read over the years.
fairy tale Christmas card images feature lots of non-biblical
imagery, including the mosque in this one (which didn't exist in
Bible times as Islam wasn't started until over 600 years later) End
In this retelling I want to help you to think about this pivotal
event in first century terms. What would first century Roman
world people be thinking when they heard the historical accounts Luke
and Matthew wrote?
These biblical writers included significant key details. Their
included specifics enable us to consider this history from an
archaeological perspective and draw on recorded history outside
Scriptures. We have more historical records from the Roman
world that perhaps any other empire in ancient history.
Luke 2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar
Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the
first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all
went to be registered, each to his own town.
Luke, in the previous chapter, had already introduced another ruler...
Luke 1:5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea...
In those days, the people of Israel had two rulers. Commoners
would have privately spoken both names with great contempt. I
say privately, because there was no toleration of public dissent and
punishments were severe.
Following a three-year war, in 37 BC King Herod came to power in
Judea End Note 11. An Idumean by
birth (an Edomite descendant, from Esau's line), he claimed to be
Jewish. He sought Roman support to preserve his authority over
Israel. This they granted on condition that he support the
interests of the Roman Empire. The Roman "Senate and the
people of Rome (SPQR in Latin abbreviation)" granted him the
title "King of the Jews." Yes, the Roman people and
their elected representatives were kingmakers.
The Senate and People of Rome created gods as easily as kings.
Consider events only a few years before they made Herod King of the
Jews. A group of rebellious senators, led by Decimus Junius Brutus,
infamously assassinated Julius Caesar, one of the members of this
Senate, in 44 BC (March 15).
Adoption in Roman days, especially among the rich and powerful, was
commonly of adults or teens and not children. If childless, the
goal was to appoint someone to be your heir, to inherit your estate
and belongings at your death. Julius Caesar's will appointed
his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius as his adopted son and heir.
The 18-year-old Octavius becoming Julius Caesar's legal heir didn't
mean he would automatically inherit any political power. In
fact, his young age and inexperience meant it was unlikely he would
rule in any fashion. Further, a powerful general under Julius
Caesar, Mark Antony, sought to be Caesar's political successor.
His influence and military success positioned him well for this advancement.
But something major happened four months later that changed
everything End Note 1. Octavius,
flush with cash from his great inheritance, decided to host public
games in honor of his deceased patron. As his multiday Julius
Caesar games were just beginning, unexpectedly "a comet shone
for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour End
Note 2." This rare comet was bright enough to
be visible midday and remained so for seven days.
People in the Roman world treated comets, or moving stars, as signs
or omens. One writer called them "terrifying apparitions End
Note 3." He believed the location, time of
appearance, and even tail direction all related to specific circumstances.
This comet appeared both in the birth month of Julius Caesar and at
the onset of games in his honor. The people "believed (the
comet) to be the soul of Caesar" taken up into heaven
(Suetonius). Octavius capitalized on this belief, or perhaps I
should say, he encouraged this understanding of this event (some say
he was the source of this interpretation). He immediately set up a
statute of Julius Caesar in the temple of Venus and adorned its head
with a star. Through Octavian's continuing efforts, within two
years the Roman Senate and the People formally declared Julius Caesar
was a god (or had become [apotheosis] a god). The government
issued coins commemorating this event. Octavian soon began
construction on the Temple of the Divine Julius Caesar in the heart
of Rome, at the Roman Forum (also called the Temple of the Comet
Star. A comet in those days included any nonstandard star
Octavian also began to attach the star to his own helmet.
Why? He was the adopted son of this god.
What do this so-called god and, specifically, this self-declared
son-of-a-god have to do with our Bible account? It took
Octavian almost a decade, but he successfully rode this "son of
a god" theme to become the first emperor of Rome in 27 BC, now
as Caesar Augustus. We know him better under this assumed name,
the name the Bible uses. Caesar was in honor of his
predecessor; Augustus means "majestic" or
"venerable." The Senate and People of Rome became
devout followers of this son-of-a-god. Augustus marked the
star's appearance as his rise and the birth of an empire. For
the next two and half decades the comet's star symbol would appear on
minted by Augustus commemorating "Divine Julius"
King Herod also hitched his future, as King of the Jews, to this
son-of-a-god. This was public knowledge. The largest
denomination coin Herod issued, in year three of his reign, features
a helmet with long cheek pieces, all topped by a star flanked by two palm-branches.
coins under a star
In those days the entire Roman world, including Israel, would have
known of Augustus' claim to be a son of god with his empire born
under a star and Herod's attachment to him. This provides
setting for Luke's next verses...
Luke 2:4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of
Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered
with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were
there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to
her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in
a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Most people imagine Christmas nativity scenes and Christmas-card
illustrations as we read these three verses. This "little
town of Bethlehem" was unquestionably little. Based on
archaeological and ancient literary evidences, in modern terms we
would hardly call Bethlehem a town. All archaeological
estimates place its total population as being under 1000 people, most
well under. We are more likely to call Bethlehem a village.
Mary and Joseph could easily arrive at their ancestral hometown and
have no place to stay when you consider what was taking place.
This ordered registration would have had many people, perhaps several
hundred, returning to Bethlehem from their current hometowns. In
those days, hotels or motels as we know them were rare; rather there
were a few inns. These occasionally existed along major trade
routes where entrepreneurs could profit from regular travelers.
Luke notes one of these ("pandocheion") on the
well-traveled road between Jericho and Jerusalem (run by an
innkeeper, a "pandocheus") End Note 4.
Bethlehem's location wouldn't have supported such a business.
A Bethlehem stay would compare to visiting any other smaller
community in Israel. You'd have to lodge with a local resident or
camp in the nearby countryside. Residents of greater means
would have a guestroom as part of their home, perhaps an upper level.
Poorer homes, as Mary and Joseph were familiar with back in Nazareth,
typically had everyone sheltering in one main room with the farm
animals adjoining on a slightly lower level. The floor was
stone or mud. All the home's occupants slept together, typically
lying on the floor; a baby might have a suspended hammock. Even
well-to-do homes had their animal enclosures attached to their
homes. People commonly used a natural or hand-carved cave as
part of the home, especially for this animal enclosure.
Esteemed guests would have filled the few guestrooms first, including
those of influence, especially the wealthy and closest
relatives. As Mary and Joseph arrived, we have no hint they had
any close relatives in this village End Note 5.
And they certainly weren't part of the elite and wealthy - people
knew Nazareth for being the poor of the poor. Everyone believed
nothing good came from Nazareth (John 1:46). And yet,
hospitality was part of the Jewish culture End
Note 6. Some Bethlehemite, perhaps a distant
relative, invited Mary and Joseph in. Their home was already
full and yet they still invited Mary and Joseph to share what they
had available - the adjoining animal enclosure. Ancient
tradition says this was a cave and that's a reasonable claim.
So stop thinking about the nativity taking place in a little wooden
barn far from the owner's house. Stop thinking Jesus' birth
happened far away from other people, with only Joseph and Mary
present. And, forget the cute wooden basket commonly portraying
the manger where Mary laid Jesus. Wood was scarce in
Israel. The most common trees were date-palm and olive.
Neither makes great building material. When used, a home might
have wood supporting a roof or occasionally a doorway. Stone
and mud with straw were the common building materials. No one
would waste scarce wood on building a manager for animals. The
ordinary manager was a trough or basin carved from stone, either as a
separate item or carved directly into the floor. Swaddling cloths on
a manger's hay was a ready-made crib absent a suspended hammock.
By now, you understand. Stop thinking there was no room at the local
Motel 6 or Bed and Breakfast. There's not even an ancient inn.
Luke doesn't use the Greek word for inn here. English Bible
translations using the word "inn" do so only because of
relatively modern traditions End Note 7.
Every other time Luke's chosen Greek word
("kataluma") appears in the New Testament, translators
rightly use "guestroom." If Luke intended one of those rare
formal inns he would have used the specific Greek word,
"pandocheion," he uses a few chapters later. Mary and
Joseph had the best hospitality available to them as poor distant
relatives in an already overstuffed village.
Now, imagine their host's shock as a band of shepherds show up at the
door later that evening.
Luke 2:8 And in the same region there were shepherds out
in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel
of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around
them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to
them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in
the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will
be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths
and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel
a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
Luke 2:14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth
peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
Luke 2:15 When the angels went away from them into
heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to
Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has
made known to us." 16 And they went with haste and found Mary
and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it,
they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this
child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told
them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in
her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
God's son appeared with an announcement straight from God. He
heralded the kingdom of the Son using messengers directly from
Him. No group of senators and people had to declare Jesus the
Son of God; God himself made clear who Jesus was. And this
announcement wasn't midday, at some regal games, or in the capital
city. Even as God's Son made His entrance in lowly estate, born
to poor peasants from a low-class backwoods village, God chose to
announce His coming to similar societal outcasts.
Shepherds were common throughout Israel and especially in the areas
surrounding Jerusalem as their animals were necessary for the
sacrifices of temple worship. Being common, or necessary, didn't
endear them to the power brokers of society, who considered shepherds
unclean and uncouth and less than trustworthy. Ancient Jewish
writings record them as people forbidden to give testimony in court.
And yet, they were part of God's people waiting for the prophesied
Messiah; they were some of the blessed poor to whom Jesus came (Luke
6:20). They heard and saw and then came and worshiped.
And they certainly spread God's message of the birth of His Son; the
King of the Jews had come.
Speaking of the King of the Jews; remember that other guy the Senate
and People of Rome previously declared King of the Jews?
Matthew speaks of him as he picks up the history following Jesus' birth:
Matt. 2:1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea
in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to
Jerusalem, 2 saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the
Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship
him." 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all
Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and
scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be
born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is
written by the prophet:
Matt. 2:6 "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of
Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you
shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'"
Matthew noting Herod's concern is an understatement. Herod's
paranoia was legendary. He built outstanding fortresses within
his kingdom (including Machaerus and Masada). These weren't for
defense from those outside his kingdom rather from fear that his own
subjects might rise against him. Hearing word of another
"King of the Jews" would have pierced his paranoid
heart. Also, learning of Jesus' birth star, Herod would have
immediately thought of another star... The star Augustus rode
to proclaim himself son of a god, the comet star the Senate and
People of Rome declared was Julius Caesar ascending to heaven as a
god. Whether Herod believed that star was Caesar is irrelevant;
he knew the propaganda of its appearance propelled his benefactor,
Caesar Augustus, to become emperor of the Roman world. This
present star was a bad omen for his claim to be "King of the Jews."
Unlike the nativity scenes popular each Christmas, the wise men
didn't arrive while Jesus was still lying in a manger. They
didn't have to jostle with the shepherds for space to view the
newborn. Scriptures provide two solid clues showing that some
time had elapsed before this foreign visit. First. Luke
notes (2:22-24) that Mary presented Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem
and offered the prescribed sacrifice following Jesus' birth. By
the Mosaic Law this was 40 days following his birth (Leviticus 12:8).
The law had two levels of sacrifice, the standard and a lesser
offering for the poor. If Mary had already received the
expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, from the wise men,
she would have been able to afford a lamb. Yet Luke clearly notes she
presented the poor sacrifice, a pair of birds (turtledoves or
pigeons). Clearly, the wise men visited at least 40 days after
Jesus' birth. Second, Herod inquires when the star first
appeared and used that information to decide the age of the children
he would later slaughter (Matthew 2:7, 16). By selecting those two
years and younger, it implies that perhaps a year and a half had
passed since Jesus' birth. Jesus was no longer an infant in
arms and more likely a small toddler when the wise men arrived.
Bethlehem was like modern Franklin (in the USA), multiple regions
included one End Note 8. But the chief
priests and scribes knew exactly which Bethlehem the Old Testament
prophecies pointed to, directly citing Micah 5:2 as referring to
Bethlehem in Judah. Using first century roads, this Bethlehem
was a five-and-a-half mile walk south of Jerusalem - about two hours away.
2:7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and
ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent
them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the
child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may
come and worship him." 9 After listening to the king, they went
on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose
went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child
was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great
joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his
mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their
treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed
to their own country by another way.
Herod's questioning, the wise men would have left Jerusalem to await
nightfall, to again look for the star. This divinely appointed
star wasn't normal. It's not claimed to be a comet star in the
Greek wording. Matthew's wording implies it was a normal
nighttime star and a unique star moving in a fashion they could
follow. Unlike a comet, that is naturally brief in its
appearance, this star stayed visible for months. These wise men
or magi came from the east, mostly likely from within the ancient
Babylonian or succeeding Medo-Persian Empire. Due to Daniel's
influence, or other Jews in captivity, the Magi would have known of
prophecies of a long-awaited Messiah coming to the Jewish
people. And, though they embraced pagan religions, such as
Zoroastrianism, they still were looking for the prophesied sign
heralding the Jewish king's birth.
shepherds were unlikely recipients for an announcement from God, here
too these pagan Gentile stargazers were equally unlikely. Yet God
enabled them to see this special sign, understand it, and believe
strongly enough to head off on a costly, dangerous, many-month
journey to a foreign land. (Marco Polo, who traveled from 1271
to 1295, recorded the tombs of the wise men were visible in Iran
during his journey).
2:13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the
Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the
child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I
tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy
him." 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod.
This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out
of Egypt I called my son."
and Joseph went on a long road trip with a young toddler.
Anyone having traveled with a toddler can easily image what Mary and
Joseph experienced on their Egypt journey. Yet, God provided
the funds necessary for this journey through the wise men's gifts.
2:16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by
the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male
children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old
or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise
men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
2:18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud
lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be
comforted, because they are no more."
history doesn't record a slaughter of small toddlers and infants in
Bethlehem under King Herod. First century historian Josephus did
record many of King Herod's actions and yet failed to mention the
biblical event at Bethlehem. Many consider this event myth
and yet it's fully characteristic of what we know of King Herod.
Herod's well-known paranoia had revealed itself many times in his
life. Every time he heard rumor that someone was going to kill
him and take over his throne, he would preemptively have that person
killed - especially relatives including his sons End
Note 9. Those were some of his isolated killings, but
Herod wasn't above large-scale massacres as well. On one occasion he
executed 300 hundred of his own military leaders End
Note 10. Another slaughter - this of many Pharisees
- followed one of them predicting that God would take away Herod's
throne. By Josephus we know Herod's paranoia increased in the years
immediately before his death in 4 BC. During these final
years Herod burned alive two leading rabbis and executed forty of
their students, all for expressing opposition over his decision to
display a Roman eagle at the temple's gate.
before Herod dies, he realizes that nobody in Israel would mourn for
him at his death; not a surprising realization for someone as
sadistically cruel as he was. Rather than try to make amends,
Herod creates a scheme that he believes will have everyone mourning
at his death. Herod orders all the prominent Jews throughout
his kingdom to come to him at Jericho under penalty of death.
There he places them in Jericho's hippodrome (or public horse-racing
arena) and orders his soldiers to kill them all when he dies.
His twisted thinking was that if the public wouldn't mourn for him,
at least they would be mourning. Fortunately, after Herod's
death, his sister Salome revoked this order and released the Jewish
leaders. Ironically, Herod died during an annual feast, a feast
of celebration, the Feast of Purim. His death was a celebration!
was within Herod's character to slaughter innocents at Bethlehem out
of his fear for his throne! First century historian Josephus
recorded the primary records of this era. He had probable
motives to omit this specific event. All historians select the
most significant events to highlight. When writing of events
not witnessed firsthand they must rely on third-party sources, each
with their own biases. A primary source of Josephus was a
friend of Herod the Great (Nicolas of Damascus). He might have
considered this slaughter such a terrible deed, skipping it to not
excessively blacken his friends' already tarnished reputation.
While possible, there's probably a better reason for Josephus to omit
the size of modern cities or towns today, many believe that Herod
would have killed thousands of infants and small toddlers - a crime
so horrible no historian would ever fail to note it. This is an
old idea; the 4th century Gnostic book called "The Martyrdom of
Matthew," written by someone unfamiliar with first century
Israel, claimed a slaughter of 3,000 babies. Later, the
Byzantine liturgy turns this into 14,000 infants and Syrian tradition
moved it up to a monstrous 64,000 innocent children killed.
Sixty-four thousand would only be possible if Bethlehem was a city of
over 2.7 million people. As I stated earlier, archaeological
evidence places first-century Bethlehem as a village under the size
of a 1,000 people. Renowned archaeologist William F. Albright
estimated Bethlehem at a mere 300 people. Albright's estimate
would make infants, age two and under, about six or seven individuals
at most. Murder of a half-dozen infants would be appalling; yet
on Herod's atrocity scale it's hardly a footnote - a non-newsworthy
event in the broader Roman world. This callous assessment
doesn't remove what Scriptures tell us; Bethlehem's mothers would
have been devastated.
What do we
learn from the history behind Augustus, Herod, and the birth of Jesus?
These events are true and reasonable history.
Governments of the people, such as the Senate and People of Rome, can
misinterpret natural signs and arrogantly set up gods and kings for
themselves, but these so-called gods and kings amount to nothing.
God of Creation, the God who knows the past and present and future,
planned His Son's appearance with a supernatural sign. Hundreds
of years in advance God put in place the circumstances that would
allow the Wise Men to recognize it. God used a star knowing what it
would mean to the Roman world and Herod in those days. Jesus'
nativity wasn't the birth of some son-of-a-god; this was the birth of
God's eternal Son. Jesus' coming wasn't the birth of an earthly
empire under a star; it was the birth of an eternal kingdom that will
never end. Jesus' Jewish birth wasn't the people declaring for
themselves a King of the Jews. This was the rightful King of the Jews
coming to His people even though they did not recognize Him.
two choices - follow the religion and rulers of man, the gods of this
age, or follow the one true God. The choice given the first
century witnesses and listeners is the same today. Which will
In July - Julius Caesar's birth month, now named after him.
Noted by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly known as Suetonius,
who lived circa 69-122 AD.
Pliny, Natural History 2.23-24
See Luke 10:34
Mary did have relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah, further south in
Hebron. See Luke 1:5, 39.
See Leviticus 19:18, 33; 25:35.
The Latin Vulgate translation of Scriptures likely contributed to
inn being used in English. In Luke 2:7 it uses "diversorio
(diversorium)." This Latin word means hotel, inn, lodging
house, or accommodation. In the account of the Good Samaritan
in Luke 10:34, where diversorium would have been appropriate, they
choose to use a different word, "stabulum," which means
stable, inn, stall, or brothel. Latin even has a third word
available that wasn't used, "taberna," meaning tavern,
cottage, inn or hut. Any of these three words could be
translated "inn" though they were ostensibly chosen for
other meanings. Without specific context, "inn" was an
acceptable understanding that certainly showed up in period artworks.
Bethlehem meant "house of bread." Since bread was a common
everyday staple it would be similar to calling a place Riverton
(Rivertown) or Lakeville.
This included the second of his ten wives (Mariamme, professedly his
most beloved wife) and three of his sons (Alexander and Aristobulus,
sons of Mariamme, and Antipater, only five days before his own
death). Showing no one was immune from his savagery, the list
continues: his brother-in-law (the high priest Aristobulus) and even
his mother-in-law (Alexandra, Mariamme's mother).
Roman historian mocked Herod using a comment from Caesar Augustus
(Macrobius, lived c. 390-430 AD, in his book Saturnalia). His
observation rightly contrasted Herod's claim to be a Jew with his
cruel actions. "It's better to be Herod's pig than his
son." Of course, as a publicly kosher Jew, Herod would
never slaughter and eat a pig. Yet this tyrant was very willing
to kill his own offspring.
This was about 3 years before this event in Matthew.
Key people and events in Herod the Great's family (Biblical
Archaeological Society, BAR 09/25/2017):
Christmas card artwork errors are equaled or surpassed in popular
cartoons, including this year's...
turn historical Bible events into fairy tales, it shouldn't surprise
us when so many abandon the Bible claiming it's nothing but a bunch
of fairy tales.
Article by Brent
MacDonald, (c) 2017
Ministries (a division of Cottage Cove's Discipleship Training Institute)