Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
— Matthew 2:1—3
The above passage of Scripture will be read countless times to the faithful over the next week as Christians celebrate the ultimate miracle of the coming of God made man, but no doubt the great majority of listeners will not give this passage even a cursory hearing. However, the wisdom contained therein proves salutary for even those not of the Christian faith. The subtext of the passage show how fundamentally radical the very concept of the Christ is and how one of the shrewdest of ancient political minds, Herod, understood this before the person of Jesus had ever uttered a word.
The historian James Henry Breasted (America’s first Egyptologist) wrote a useful textbook of ancient history in the early part of the 20th century. Breasted’s basic premise is that every culture of the East eventually had a ruler who assumed the mantle of the divine, a man-made-god. With the divine ruler came an oppressive bureaucracy (because the "man-god" king knew best how to run everyone’s life) which eventually sabotaged the cultural and economic advantages which the civilization had struggled to gain. The democracy of the Greek city-states was the alternative model (Greek culture’s fall eventually coming at the hands of a Macedonian "man-god," Alexander). In Breasted’s historical survey, "The East" is synonymous with a culture of absolute despotism, be it Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian or Persian. Only in the West did the idea of the worth of the individual take root.
How disheartening it must have been for Herod, the non-Jewish usurper of the throne at Jerusalem and puppet of the empire of Rome, to learn that men who knew about god-making where not looking for him but an infant. Years of crafty political maneuvers, skillfully applied terror, and an immense pork barrel public works program must have seemed all for naught. Herod, who seemed well on his way to achieving the status of a "man-god" king, had lost out not to a rival politico or foreign power but a child. The fact that it was a child, who had done nothing to achieve notoriety or aggrandize himself with worldly power, is precisely what must have had him "troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." An infant worthy of worship was not one who had won the title of "man-god" but was one who was a God-man, ruling by his very nature.
Such a concept "troubled" not only Herod but the entire establishment of political hangers-on. They realized all too well the consequences of the coming of a God-man — the legitimacy of "divine" kings could no longer even be feigned. Naturally, such an innovation in the minds of men had to be stopped and the slaughter of all male children under the age of two seemed a reasonable enough price to the power-drunk. (A few short decades later Caiaphas gave counsel that it was expedient that one man be executed in what he hoped was a political powerplay.)
For the Christian, the coming of the Christ child had a myriad of eternal spiritual repercussions. Quite simply, all has changed. One of those changes, perhaps incidental in the eyes of believers, is that "man-god" kings are obsolete. Since God has condescended to become a man, it is preposterous (and sinful) for a man to set himself up as a god. It is in the light of this radical change that we are to interpret what it is that belongs to God and what to Caesar.
The Caesars continued down the path of deifying themselves. Breasted notes in his history that by the time of Diocletian, three centuries after the radical message of Christmas had been delivered, the counter-Christmas political program was complete.
The emperor thus became for the whole Roman world what he had been in Egypt — an absolute monarch with none to limit his power. The State had been completely militarized and orientalized. With the unlimited power of the oriental despot the emperor now assumed its outward symbols . . . all who came into his presence must bow down to the dust.
As a divinity, the emperor had now become the oriental Sun-god and he was officially called the "Invincible Sun." His birthday was the twenty-fifth of December . . . The inhabitants of each province might revere their particular gods, undisturbed by the government, but all were obliged as good citizens to join in the official sacrifices to the head of State as a god. With the incoming of this oriental attitude toward the emperor, the long struggle for democracy, which we have traced through so many centuries of the history of early man, ended in the triumph of oriental despotism.
The Church’s establishment the feast of the Nativity on December 25th was an outright subversion of Caesar’s claims as to who was worthy of worship. (If this truth gets out, you can forget about any more crèche scenes in public.) My prayer for all who all who hold the Christian faith this Christmas season is that they may recover the radical truth that terrified the tyrants of antiquity and that people of all faiths may join to oppose any leader who would make himself a god.
C.T. Rossi [send him mail] is an attorney who lives in Washington, D.C.