Pinpointing Messiah’s birthplace.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 December 2022

Matthew 2.3-6.

Because the magi brought Jesus three gifts, Mt 2.11 people presume there were only three magi. We’ve no evidence of that. It seems way more likely there were a lot more magi than three. Three rich foreigners in Jerusalem would’ve caused a minor stir, ’cause rich people came to Jerusalem every day to go to temple. People therefore assume these guys came with massive entourages—dozens of camels per guy, hundreds of servants, as befit an oriental sultan. But again, these weren’t kings; they were magi seeking a king.

The actual king, Herod bar Antipater, wanted to know what this was all about, so he consulted his own wise men—the leaders of the Judean senate. This’d be the head priest, whom he appointed personally: Either Simon bar Boethus, Herod’s brother-in-law, who died that year; or Matthias bar Theophilus, who only served a year before Herod replaced him with Simon’s brother Joazar. The priests, whose field of expertise was the temple, not the Law, brought scribes with them.

Matthew 2.3-6 KWL
3 Hearing this agitates King Herod,
and all Jerusalem with him.
4 Gathering all the people’s head priests and scribes,
Herod is asking them, “Where’s Messiah born?”
5 They tell Herod, “In Bethlehem, Judea,
for this was written by the prophet:
6 ‘You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are in no way the least of Judah’s rulers.
For a leader will come from you
who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” Mi 5.2

For centuries, Pharisees had been collecting bible passages which they considered Messianic prophecies, which they believed foretold a great king who’d take over Israel, conquer the world, and inaugurate God’s kingdom. True, some of these “prophecies” were great big stretches. This one, which comes from Micah, isn’t really a stretch. Yeah, there are gonna be people who insist Micah was really talking about King David ben Jesse, who was also born in Bethlehem; that was the leader—a literal shepherd!—who eventually shepherded Israel. But no, Micah wasn’t speaking of David. He was speaking of a king like David, who’d rule till the end of the world. Mc 5.4 A much greater king.

Pharisees believed in a coming Messiah, but Sadducees didn’t—and the head priest, his family, and the chief priests who worked under him, were almost entirely Sadducee. But they weren’t unaware of what Pharisees believed, so when Herod asked ’em about Messiah, they could easily tell him what the Pharisees claimed: “Oh, he’s gonna be born in the next town over. In Bethlehem.”

Why’d they give Messiah up so easily?

People who read this story occasionally balk: Why on earth did these priests and scribes tell Herod exactly where Messiah would be born? Didn’t they realize the homicidal Herod was only interested in eliminating the competition? Didn’t they know he was gonna send his bodyguards to murder any potential Messiahs?

Probably. Herod had ruled Judea for nearly 30 years. They were used to living under a murderous tyrant. And because they had prominent positions in Herod’s government, no doubt they were used to compromising themselves and their religion for the sake of staying in power… and staying alive. Christians who live in free societies might tell ourselves, “I would never sell out Christ Jesus for any such thing,” and hopefully that’s true and we won’t! But that also means we’re likely to get martyred right away. These priests and scribes who worked for Herod?—betcha they sold out long before this, and it was too late for any of ’em to grow a spine now.

And for Sadducees, it wouldn’t even be necessary: They didn’t believe in any coming Messiah. There was no one to defend. Messiah is a Pharisee idea! One which turned out to be absolutely true… though Messiah didn’t look at all like they expected, and consequently a lot of them missed Jesus completely. But Sadducees weren’t even looking for him at all. To their minds he was a Pharisee fantasy, and nothing more.

Asking a Sadducee where Messiah might be born, is kinda like asking me about Xenu. I don’t believe in Xenu. I’m not Scientologist! Unlike Scientologists who really don’t wanna talk about him for various reasons, I don’t mind telling you everything I know about him. Same deal with the Sadducees: They had no qualms about spilling the beans. They believed there was no Messiah, and would never be any Messiah; they were ratting out no one.

Whereas Pharisees definitely believed in Messiah. But if there were any in the room at that time… remember what I said about compromise? They’d likely given up on their principles and beliefs long before Herod ever asked ’em about Messiah, and might even give him up too. But some of that is because a lot of Pharisees were determinist. In other words, they believed since God determined Messiah would be born, grow up, take over Israel, and conquer the world, he absolutely would. Who was gonna stop him?—God had decreed all this stuff would happen, and would use his almighty power to make sure it did. What could Herod do to successfully deter God? Absolutely nothing! So what would it matter if Pharisees told Herod exactly where Messiah was?—there was no way Herod, even with all the might of the Roman Empire behind him, even with all the might in the universe behind him, could stop God from doing as he decreed. Messiah would come. Done deal.

So to Sadducees, there was no Messiah to compromise; to Pharisees, there was no way Messiah could be compromised. Either way, they could freely tell Herod all about him. You wanna know where he’s born? Bethlehem.

Of course Herod’s advisers clearly didn’t consider the fact Herod was gonna kill somebody. Even if he believed there is no Messiah, same as his Sadducees, there are still gonna be people, still gonna be Pharisees, who absolutely think Messiah’s real… and will rally around any kid they think is Messiah, and someday back him in a revolution, Messiah or not. Someday Herod’d have to fight him. Easier to just kill him now.

One of the many reasons you don’t compromise with murderous people.