The year 4 BC was a tinderbox for Palestine. Generally believed to be the year closest to Christ’s birth, it was the actual year of Herod the Great’s death. But, while Christ’s obscure nativity is still universally equated with ‘peace on earth’, the monarch’s infamous death sparked severe local conflicts that history barely notices, says Philip Jenkins, Professor of History at Baylor University, Texas.
In a December 2015 article for the Australian Broadcasting Company, Jenkins notes that Herod’s reign was, itself, “bloody and paranoid”. Citing Jewish Antiquities—the work of first-century Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus—Jenkins reports that, over the years, Herod killed several members of the royal family and anyone else suspected to have designs on his throne.
Herod was a Jew, and king through Roman appointment. For this and his other crimes, he was hated by several extremist, but warring, Jewish factions. His violent nature forced an uneasy peace among those groups, one that began to crack at eagerly spread rumours of his death.
As soon as the news was made public, two activists promptly toppled an imperial eagle that Herod had erected at the entrance to the temple, perhaps signalling the coming liberation of a long-stifled Hebrew identity. But, the rumours were precisely that. The living madman burned them alive and executed their accomplices, reports Jenkins.
Retaliatory skirmishes broke out all over the city, continuing after Herod’s actual death. Groups and their leaders rose and fell. The Zealots was one of the few groups that survived; they would torment the Romans well into Jesus’ adulthood. The people applied pressure to Herod’s teenaged successor, Archelaus, to execute Herod’s favourites, re-assign the post of high priest, and reduce their taxes.
Following bold attacks on his soldiers, Archelaus saw that open revolt was imminent, his fears growing as he contemplated the hundreds of Jews due to shortly converge on Jerusalem for the Passover festival.
His action was decisive and swift.
During the time of worship, his forces converged on the temple and surrounded it, trapping and executing the political agitators inside—3,000 persons, Josephus says, including those who attempted escape. While reluctant to trust the reported figure, scholars generally agree that the carnage was substantial. Archelaus’ action sparked skirmishes all over the city that soon spread far outside of Jerusalem.
In fact, there were reports of rebels hiding in the town of Sepphoris, 90 miles north of Jerusalem. They were caught and killed, the entire town razed to the ground as a message to any who would aid others.
Four miles away, the terrified villagers of Nazareth could see the smoke of Sepphoris rising, including, perhaps a young carpenter and his pregnant betrothed, preparing for a perilous journey to Bethlehem.
Laura Ann Phillips is a writer, former missionary and a lover of the Word of God. A past Vision editor, she has been a Catholic News contributor for over 20 years.