A tyrant loses moral authority


Several steps of the palace of Herod the Great peak through the lawn immediately to the right of the lad jumping off the low wall. Herod’s palace, which rivaled the Temple itself, filled the entire area from these steps to the distant slender tower.

On the west side of Old Jerusalem, outside the city wall, lads from a Yeshiva school visit with their teacher and play. They gather among scant ruins of what probably was the western entrance to Herod the Great’s palace at the time Jesus was born.

Matthew reports that wise men from the East, presumably Gentiles, came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have come to pay him homage.” When Herod heard this, “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3).

Tyrants fear competition, and people of Judea had reason to fear what an erratic ruler such as Herod would do next. The king summoned chief priests and scribes, who cited Micah 5 to confirm that scripture called for a messianic ruler to come from the nearby village: “O Bethlehem . . . one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” He will “feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” and “shall be the one of peace” (Micah 5:1-5).

But peace was not on Herod’s mind when he heard about the birth of a new king. Lying to cover his murderous design, Herod fed deceit into the communication network. He told the wise men to “go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

Instead of joining in worship, Herod sent troops to slaughter all baby boys of Bethlehem in hopes of killing Jesus. Joseph and Mary with the newborn Christ already had fled to Egypt.

Herod was not the nurturing shepherd that Micah portrayed as the ideal ruler! But when angels came to fields near Bethlehem to announce news of Jesus’ birth, they came to real shepherds. The angels brought a healing message in contrast to Herod’s cruelty: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace” (Luke 2).

Shepherds in ancient Palestine were not the despised, untrustworthy persons some interpreters make them out to be. But they held a humble place in the social order, matching the lowly status of Jesus’ servant-girl mother. Shepherds came to the stable to worship the ruler who Micah said would feed his flock. The wise men, probably well-to-do astrologers, came from a distant culture to offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

There is no indication that shepherds and wise men visited at the same time. But, taken as a whole, the Gospels depict all of humanity bowing to the Christ child: rich and poor, marginal and elite, Jew and Gentile, domestic and foreign.

Herod seethed in his palace, a luxurious structure one thousand feet long that featured multiple baths, banquet halls, and gardens. The king had real estate and weapons, but also so many enemies that he had to build safe houses at various places in his realm where he could retreat if his people rebelled.

Tyrants eventually lose moral authority. Revolts that erupted in Galilee and Jerusalem before and immediately after Herod died failed. But his kingdom fragmented over the next generation, and the Herod dynasty was gone. Two millennia later, the kingdom that began with the child in a stable at Bethlehem counts citizens on every continent, wherever people call Jesus Lord and accept the angel’s message, “glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace.”

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ******************************************IMG_0410 (4)

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Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Note that this tour cannot be a large group, and we are near capacity for registration. Contact TourMagination promptly if you wish to join!   See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/

Jesus and state-sponsored terror.

Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Heb 13:12-14

Jesus did not die “on a green hill far away.” He was victim of a crude instrument of state torture along a busy road where passersby saw him close up. Like most political terror, from suicide bombing to lethal injection, crucifixion was meant to exact revenge and traumatize the public into conformity. Roman theatrics of terror forced Jesus to carry the crossbeam for his own crucifixion through streets of Jerusalem to a small quarry outside the city wall, to a rocky prominence called Golgotha that apparently looked like a skull.

Via Dolorosa picture

The traditional route of the Via Dolorosa, marked in green, goes from Antonia Fortress at the Temple to Golgotha. More likely Jesus carried his cross along the red route, starting at the Palace of Herod (today called the “Citadel” or “Tower of David”).  Golgotha, the small quarry where Jesus died, today is within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the first century Golgotha was outside the city wall; the city had not yet expanded to include that area.

Christian pilgrims since medieval times have thought that the trial of Jesus took place at Antonia Fortress, a Roman facility adjacent to the Temple complex on the east side of old Jerusalem. But that building–a surveillance tower and military barracks that no longer exists–was not the praetorium or governor’s palace where the Gospel of John says the trial, flogging, and mockery of Jesus took place (John 18:28).

The praetorium, rather, was what today we call the Citadel or “Tower of David” on the west side of old Jerusalem. The Via Dolorosa (“route of suffering”) along which Jesus carried his crossbeam, started here. Phasael Tower, so named by Herod the Great for his deceased brother, guarded the north end of the palace. It still stands.

Archeologists have worked underneath areas adjacent to Phasael Tower for decades, and at last this year have opened what they found to the public. Astonishingly, one now can visit a large room that plausibly is where Jesus stood before Pilate.

Tower of David

The lower two sections of the massive structure on the right are what remain of Phasael Tower built by Herod the Great.

Jesus’ death by state-sponsored terror had the spiritual effect of sanctifying (setting apart for holy purpose) all who confess Jesus as Lord. His death had the political effect of pointing believers to citizenship in a “city which is to come” rather than in structures of empire and nationalism (Heb 13:12, 13). That city is the New Jerusalem–not simply where we go when we die, but a new political and economic order already taking shape on earth wherever believers abandon idolatry and violence and give allegiance to the Lamb (Rev. 22).

© 2015 J. Nelson Kraybill ***************************************IMG_0425

I invite you to enter your email address in the designated box at the edge of this webpage (if you have not already subscribed), and click Follow. You’ll get a notice every three weeks when I put up a new blog post.

Join me for the following tour this fall, when I expect to get my first look at the praetorium of Herod. See: Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015

For an article about the recent opening of Herod’s palace to the public, see: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-places/herods-jerusalem-palace-trial-of-jesus/?mqsc=E3786284&utm_source=WhatCountsEmail&utm_medium=BHD+Daily%20Newsletter&utm_campaign=E5B109