The Nativity of Jesus: An Untold/Overlooked Military and Political History

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Herod Public Domain

Ventidius’ mission to Judea was simple and lucrative: rid the province of any remaining Parthians and the anti-Roman King Antigonus and restore Herod to the throne. However, Ventidius did neither. Instead, he bypassed Herod’s royal family who were besieged by the troops of Antigonus on the top of Masada and went straight to Jerusalem, where he camped outside the walls. Ventidius was playing psychological warfare with Antigonus by making him think that he was going to take Jerusalem. However, it was a ruse. Ventidius decided to use fear and trickery, promising not to attack Jerusalem unless he received vast amounts of wealth from the king. Antigonus capitulated to the demands of Ventidius. Ventidius was still going to support Herod and place him on the throne, but while Herod was still far away and his brother besieged, he might as well make some money while they wait. After Ventidius’ coffers were filled, he took the bulk of his forces and headed back to Syria, leaving Silo in charge to deal with the Jewish problem. However, Antigonus would come up with a ploy; he would bribe Silo multiple times. Antigonus’ reason was to buy time and hope that the Parthians would come to his assistance while he kept the Romans at bay. However, this would not happen. The Roman General Ventidius left Herod high and dry around 38 BCE. Ventidius, who besieged Jerusalem, continued to make threats towards Antigonus that if he did not pay up, he would attack Jerusalem and place it in the hands of Herod. Antigonus paid up, of course, and when Ventidius felt his coffers were abundant enough, he left with the bulk of his forces to deal with the Parthians in the north, leaving Silo in charge to await the arrival of Herod.1

When Herod landed in Judea, his forces were minute, but as the days passed, his ranks began to swell with supporters. Herod now had enough troops, and with the aid of Silo, he had to make a decision: where to attack first. Herod decided on Joppa. When Silo heard the news, he broke the siege at Jerusalem to aid Herod. While Silo was on his way, the Jews decided to attack. However, Herod caught wind of the attack and sent a small force to aid the Romans. Together they defeated the supporters of Antigonus. Once Joppa had been captured, Herod went straight for Masada and captured it as well. With no enemy behind him, he could now focus on Jerusalem. While Herod prepared for the capture of Jerusalem, Antony sent Ventidius’ replacement to assist him: Gaius Sosius, the governor of Syria and Cilicia. Herod and Sosius would capture Jerusalem and Antigonus would surrender to Sosius, who then sent him to Rome to Antony to take part in a triumphal procession. Herod feared that once Antigonus was in Rome, he might be able to obtain the ear of the senate to hear his cause, which could shift the balance of power back to Antigonus. In order to prevent Antigonus’ possible return, Herod paid Antony a great deal of money to have him executed. Antony accepted the money and Antigonus was beheaded in Antioch.2

Even though Herod was placed on the throne for being anti-Parthian and thus useful to Rome, he still feared that the Parthians would return and place Hyrcanus on the throne. Herod showed his pro-Parthian sympathies when Orodes II had died. Once Phraates IV took the throne, he decided to reopen diplomatic relations with the Parthians. Herod therefore wrote a letter, handed it to Saramallas, his ambassador, and sent him to the court of Phraates roughly around 36 BCE. Once at the Parthian court, Saramallas handed Phraates the letter, along with many presents, in hope of freeing Hyrcanus and bringing him back to Jerusalem. Phraates agreed and Hyrcanus was sent back to Judea. Herod now had two insurance policies he could rely on in case one or the other found him unfavorable.
When Antony died in 30 BCE, Herod became concerned. Herod was Antony’s ally, and with Antony dead, he was left naked. Herod had no clue if Octavian would accept him or dispose of him. His position among the Romans remained uncertain. Therefore, Herod broke his ties with the Parthians and limited Octavian’s possible choice of replacing Herod with Hyrcanus, the last surviving Hasmonean heir, by executing Hyrcanus on the grounds that he was plotting against him.3

The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c. 565, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (restored during the 18th century). As here Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes, and Phrygian caps. CC BY-SA 2.5

Herod was able to keep his throne by showing his loyalty to Rome. As the decades passed, the Parthians decided to intervene politically into the Jews’ affairs, thus causing a bit of political upheaval within Judea. However, it started with “wise men from the east.”
Sometime around 3 or 2 BCE Jesus was born to the Joseph and Mary. Back in the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, the Parthian priests, known as Magi, noticed a star in the sky and saw it as a sign that a king was born.

Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. . . .4

The above passage is familiar as it comes from the New Testament, Matthew 2:1-2. So what brought the Magi to Jesus, was it really a star? Whatever the star was is not of importance, but it is true that Magi were professional astrologers. However, one has to wonder if the star passage was later added into the book of Matthew because Numbers 24:17 states, “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.” This verse is said to be a prophecy pointing to the birth of Jesus.5 The question now is, did the Magi recognize the verse of Numbers 24:17 and understand it? It is possible that they did since a large Jewish community still resided in Babylon at the time and I am sure both Jewish and Magi priests did interact and share ideas. However, I doubt that verse brought the Magi to Jesus. Rather, it may have come down to Jesus’ genealogy instead.

The Magi asked, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” Joseph’s genealogy is documented in both the books of Matthew and Luke. His line does show a connection to the kings of Judah and Israel. Mary’s genealogy is not mentioned in the New Testament. Yes, some will say that it can be found in Luke, but when one begins to read the list, it reads like Joseph’s genealogy, with some exceptions. It is possible that Mary and Joseph both are related to the same line of people. But the fact that her line is not documented does raise an eyebrow. Therefore, how did the Magi know Jesus was truly a king and how did they determine that? The answer might lay in Mary’s undocumented genealogy.

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

According to the book of Luke, Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, was Kohen. If Elizabeth comes from the Kohen line, then so does Mary. Both are descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron. Therefore, both women come from the priestly tribe of Levi. In Mary’s supposed genealogy according to Luke, a name of interest pops up: Matthat. Is it possible that this Matthat is none other than Antigonus II Mattathias, the same man the Parthians placed on the throne of Judah back in 40 BCE? Another name in Mary’s line of interest is Jannai. This could be none other than King Alexander Jannaeus. Therefore, and with speculation, Antigonus II Mattathias would have been Mary’s grandfather and Alexander Jannaeus her 3rd great-grandfather. Now, it is true, confirmed by the Jewish historian Josephus, that Herod executed the family of Antigonus II Mattathias. However, Josephus mentions 33 years later that Herod’s son Antipater married a daughter of Antigonus. Therefore, what happened was that Herod killed all the males leaving the females alive.6

Another interesting aspect from the passage of Matthew 2:1-2 is when Herod became concerned when the Magi asked about where they could find this king, for “When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…” If there were just three Magi, what concern or threat could they have caused? It’s just three men, right? The answer is no. The Bible does not state that there were three wise men. No number is mentioned. How many Magi came to visit the child is unknown, but what is known is that they did not come alone.

The Magi who traveled to Jerusalem were high officials, for according to Strabo, “the council of the Parthians is composed of two classes, one of relatives (of the royal family) and another of wise men and magi, by both of which kings are chosen.”7 The Magi seeking Jesus were loaded down with riches and escorted by an armed entourage, like Surena, who traveled with an entourage of 10,000.8 Depending on the Magi’s status, the higher ranking Magi probably traveled with such numbers. Why else would Herod tremble in fear along with the citizens of Jerusalem? It must have looked as if the Parthians were invading, that war between Rome and Parthia were about to get underway again, with Judah being ground zero.

Parthian horseman, now on display at the Palazzo Madama, Turin. CC BY-SA 3.0

According to Matthew, when the Magi found Jesus, he was a “young child” in a house, possibly two years old.9 They did not visit Jesus when he was a baby lying in a manger. Luke’s gospel makes no mention of the Magi being present when Jesus was born.10 Once it was confirmed that the boy was in fact Jesus, they “fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.”11 Gifts and expensive commodities in the ancient world fit for a king, and the first people to worship Jesus were not the Jews, but the Parthians.

Therefore, a question remains. Why did the Magi pick Jesus and what is the significance? The Magi possibly picked Jesus because he was a direct descendent of Antigonus II Mattathias. The significant part for his coronation was that his second great-grandfather Antigonus was pro-Parthian. Therefore it is obvious from a political perspective that King Phraataces of Parthia wanted to undermine the Romans regarding the treaty that was established around the same time of Jesus birth, wherein Phraataces agreed to relinquish control over Armenia. Because of this, Phraataces wanted some payback and sought out the Jews for information on the whereabouts of Antigonus’ descendants. But why would the Jewish scribes agree to such a search? The reason could be that they disliked Herod in Babylon as much as they did in Judea. Therefore, if they could replace Herod or any of his future line with someone who was anti-Roman, they would be free from the influential Roman yoke, thus allowing them a greater degree of autonomy, not only politically, but also culturally.

However, this is all mere speculation, for the answer is uncertain. But given the fact that the Magi visited Jesus, one wonders, why? What are the connections and what is the reason for the interaction? The answer will remain doubtful at best, but it should not be ignored.

By Cam Rea

 

Notes

1. Joseph, BJ, 1.15.2-3.
2. Joseph, AJ, 14.16.1-4; 15.1-2; BJ, 15.3-6.
3. Ibid., AJ, 15.2.3; BJ, 1.22.1; Jason M. Schlude, “Herod the Great: Friend of the Romans and Parthians?” 03 29, 2013, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/herod-the-great-friend-of-the-romans-and-parthians/.
4. Matthew 2:1-2 (KJV).
5. Numbers 24:17
6. Joseph Raymond, Herodian Messiah: Case for Jesus As Grandson of Herod (St. Louis, MO: Tower Grove, Publishing 2010), 31-34; Joseph, AJ, 16.5.2.
7. Strabo, 11.9.3.
8. Plutarch, Crassus, 21.
9. Matt 2:11.
10. Luke 2:8-20.
11. Matt 2:11.

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