Born Under a Star (Kingdoms and Rulers)
The 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. 

Today's 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 Note 12.

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 including meteors). 

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 Augustan coinage.

Coins 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. 

Herodian 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.

In Israel, 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.

    Matt. 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.

Following 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.

Even as 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).

    Matt. 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."

Yes, Mary 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.

    Matt. 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:

    Matt. 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."

Extra-biblical 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.

Shortly 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!

Yes, it 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 this event.

Based on 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?

First.  These events are true and reasonable history.  

Second. 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.

Third. The 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 stars, 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 you choose?

End Notes

1. In July - Julius Caesar's birth month, now named after him.

2. Noted by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly known as Suetonius, who lived circa 69-122 AD.

3. Pliny, Natural History 2.23-24

4. See Luke 10:34

5. Mary did have relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah, further south in Hebron.  See Luke 1:5, 39.

6. See Leviticus 19:18, 33; 25:35.

7. 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.

8. Bethlehem meant "house of bread." Since bread was a common everyday staple it would be similar to calling a place Riverton (Rivertown) or Lakeville.

9. 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).

One pagan 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.

10. This was about 3 years before this event in Matthew.

11. Key people and events in Herod the Great's family (Biblical Archaeological Society, BAR 09/25/2017):

12. Christmas card artwork errors are equaled or surpassed in popular cartoons, including this year's...

When we 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
Lion Tracks Ministries (a division of Cottage Cove's Discipleship Training Institute)