20 Dec Magi, Murder, and the Star of Bethlehem
There’s a murder mystery lurking behind the story of the Magi, the star from the East and a maniacal puppet king. But there’s also one theory that might solve it.
This year astronomy professor David Weintraub, writing in Weathernetwork.com (12/12/18), argued the scientific case for the “star” mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 2, that heavenly illumination observed by the Wise Men, having occurred in a way consistent with his understanding of current astronomy. In the midst of his article, though, the professor makes an assumption (erroneously I would argue) that raises an unanswered, but intriguing question.
Writing of King Herod, Prof. Weintraub concludes that Herod “asked the wise men when the star had appeared, because he and his court, apparently, were unaware of any such star in the sky.” This implies that the phenomena in the sky may not have been visible to the general population, an implication that I would reject. The difficulty lies in the fact that there are two very different contexts for such a question. For instance, if I were to cross-examine a witness in a trial about a crime of robbery, and the only part of the transcript that remained in existence was my question, “when did a robbery happen?” It could mean two very different things: first, “I’m not certain a robbery even occurred, so tell me what you know about it …” Or else it could mean, “regarding that robbery that occurred, please give me the exact time when it happened.”
In fact the precise question that Herod posed to the Magi supports the second alternative, because it reads this way: “Then Herod secretly called the Magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.” Matthew 2:7 (NAS). Herod was not questioning whether a strange light in the sky had appeared, but rather, when it first appeared.
But this then raises a question: if the phenomenon in the sky was clearly visible to other onlookers, as I believe it was, then why did King Herod feel compelled to ask the question about its exact appearing? There is a dastardly answer to that.
Before Herod’s private conversation with the Magi, word of their arrival in Jerusalem had already reached his palace. As a result, Herod’s hurriedly consulted with the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council, confirming from them the prophecies about a coming Messiah and future King of Israel being born in Bethlehem. That was critical, because it established the first element of his plot – the place of his planned mass homicide.
Having presumed, incorrectly, that the Messiah/King was coming for the purpose of installing Himself in power during that particular epoch and usurping Herod’s current puppet rule as a surrogate of the Roman occupation, Herod’s question to the Magi reveals the very early stage of Herod’s homicidal plot. He intended to literally kill his competition in the cradle. In order to do that, he needed to narrow down the likely date of birth from the corresponding information provided by the Magi regarding when the astronomical sign first appeared. That way, he could pick the right age bracket for the male children he was about to target in Bethlehem, the second necessary element for his grotesque crime.
Herod decided on the age of two years and younger, and gave the assassination order. We all know the awful outcome for that part of the story. John Walvoord, the late Bible scholar, estimates that between 6 and 30 male children were slaughtered as a result, based on the estimated population of Bethlehem at the time. This was business as usual for Herod, a cunning and savage political animal who had his competitor Hyrcanus executed and who had persuaded Octavian and Mark Anthony in Rome to send Legions into Jerusalem to desecrate a pro-Jewish/anti-Roman rebellion, thus insuring his installation as puppet King of Judea.
Herod’s plot failed to eliminate Jesus of course. Herod was up against a transcendent power he could not possibly comprehend. Jesus would eventually die a violent death, but not until decades later and not because of some malevolent plot, despite the cruel injustice of his treatment, but because of his own astounding choice of sacrifice that perfectly intersected with the plan of Divine Providence. Herod’s chief aim – selfish political survival at any cost – could not have been more at odds with Jesus’ other-focused life, his redemptive death, and his miraculous defiance of the grave, all for us.
As for those “Wise Men” journeying to Bethlehem, their tale still has a lesson for us. Why wouldn’t we want to search out the Servant-King whose words and miraculous deeds before eyewitnesses have been preserved in an unparalleled historical record, who guarantees us an eternity and a kingdom where tyrants and murderers have no place and where malicious plots and strategies are banished, and who in the meantime has insured to us a spiritual communion with him until that day finally arrives. How very unwise it would be, I would think, not to undertake a journey in search of such a King.
Craig Parshall is a civil liberties attorney who serves as Special Counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, and a fiction author of 13 suspense novel that often feature themes of law, crime, justice, and faith.