How Christmas Trumped Realpolitik--Part I

(Note: In light of the Christmas season, I am taking a break from our Jesus Trail adventures. Today we head south for a visit to Bethlehem. We will return to the Trail in January. Merry Christmas to all our readers!)

View to the Upper Palace of the Herodyon (Arab, Jabal al-Fourdis). This complex, carrying the name of Herod himself, was constructed atop a natural mount (on right), made still higher by artificial fill. Nesting on the summit is a circular fortress offering spectacular views in all directions. Excavations on the north slope (facing the camera) have recently revealed the final resting place of this infamous king from the Christmas story.

I hold Josephus by the hand and squint into the wind.

Our view is good, but Herod’s was better. I sit with students on the stump of a tower (or “keep”) estimated to have been 120 feet tall. Herod could climb the stairs of this structure (now tumbled downslope) and scan the horizon from a lofty perch. Looking north along the Judean backbone, he could pick out the Mount of Olives. It cast a shadow over Jerusalem every morning. Looking south, he could see, or almost feel, really, the opening up of a vast desert. Spice caravans crossed this expanse, shouldering taxable cargo. Looking west, he could see Bethlehem (less than four miles away) squatting on the ridge. It was a rustic village of no account, like so many others in his fist. And looking east, directly into the sunrise, was his raison d’être, at least from a Roman perspective. Beyond what any eye could capture or western mind could fathom, lay a powerful empire. It was equal to, if not greater than Rome itself.

Reading a little Josephus, imagining a little geography, and thinking a little Christmasy with students where the east tower of the Herodyon once stood.

As the king stood atop his tower, squinting into the wind, he was keenly aware that his eyes were not his own. They were on loan from Caesar Augustus. They had to be stern. And they had to look east. Judea was stretched taut, quivering with tension. It was a tripwire between empires. And Herod’s job was to maintain it.

I flip a small rock over the edge of the wall. It bounces several times downslope and disappears. The sound continues to ricochet.

Jesus was born in the middle of a cold war. Two heavyweights eyed each other from opposite corners of the ring. The more familiar of the two superpowers was the Roman Empire. It sprouted in the vineyards of the Italian Peninsula and draped itself across the Mediterranean basin. Its caricature is portrayed by the image of the disciplined infantryman, helmet on his head, greaves on his shins, short sword in his hand.

The less familiar heavyweight (to us, anyway) was the Parthian Empire. It grew out of the Iranian highlands and spread from the Mesopotamian plain to Central Asia. Its caricature is portrayed by the image of the light cavalry-man, twisting in his saddle, knees pressed against the galloping flanks of a mount. He fires a deadly shot with a bow.

The meeting place of superpowers. 1st c. BC. Judea, the birthplace of Jesus and the domain of Herod, guarded Rome’s southeast flank. This map is a modified image from Google Earth.

To more fully grasp the historical context of the Christmas story, three movements from this first century (BC) cold war must be kept in mind.

First, in the decade of the 60’s, a Roman general by the name of Pompey pressed the limits of Roman control eastward. He liquidated several small kingdoms in route, including Judea (63 BC). By this sweep he completed the butchering of the Seleucid carcass. He also brought the Roman empire into direct contact with the western edges of Parthian power. Some skirmishes between the Roman army and Parthian outposts took place in the area of Armenia. The Parthians recognized Roman intensions and made preparations for war. In the meantime an uneasy treaty of peace was cut.

A second movement from this cold war is associated with another Roman general. He would not be so successful. Crassus, a man of great wealth and ego, also fixed his eyes on the East. He ignored all previous agreements and arrogantly advanced seven legions of the Roman army to the banks of the Euphrates River. There, the first serious exchange of blows between these superpowers took place. The year was 53 BC. The place was Carrhae, biblical Harran.

The battle of Carrhae was fought in the region of biblical Harran. This area is located on the modern border between Turkey and Syria. Image from here.

At Carrhae, the Roman infantry was lured into open country, then annihilated. The Roman standards were captured and Crassus’s own head was carried away as trophy. Carrhae would go down as one of the greatest debacles in Roman military history. Back on the banks of the Tiber, Julius Caesar could do nothing but fume. He planned an eastern invasion of his own, but would not live long enough to bring it about.

The Parthians followed up their victory of 53 BC with a number of raids to the Mediterranean. Mark Anthony, the Roman representative in Egypt, countered these shots with punches and treaties of his own. Despite his best efforts, though, another Parthian incursion was launched in 40 BC. The Heartland was overrun.

This leads to the third and final movement of this first century story.

A handsome young aristocrat from the Heartland approached the Roman senate with an offer. If they would make him “King of the Jews” and support his bid to retake Judea, he promised to rule the state as a loyal Roman client. This aristocrat would be remembered (much later) as Herod “the Great,” the founder of a dynasty. Ironically, he was born of Arab nobility, Jewish only by virtue of his father’s conversion. This point would not be lost on his subjects, Jews by birth.

What followed was a bloody affair. But in the course of just three years, Herod succeeded. He carved out a corner of the Parthian flank. This accomplishment was made possible by no less than two dynamics: Roman assistance and Parthian indecision.

Roman assistance was a dangerous steroid. In this case, it was offered in the throes of imperial adolescence, a story for another day. Parthian indecision, on the other hand, is of interest to the interpreter of the Christmas story. Internal quarreling among the leading Parthian families pulled on the joints of this Eastern giant. The paralysis that followed extended beyond the fussing families to include an old but powerful political class. They were the maguš in Old Persian, or mágoi, as they are remembered in the New Testament. These enchanter-scientists had a long tradition of “king-making” and “king-advising.”

Decades of détente between East and West passed. Herod grew old, but by a combination of ruthless control and wise negotiation, managed to hold it together. His was a tiny state carefully balanced between empires. One slip, everything would collapse.

As we sit on the lower stones of the fortress keep, I imagine Herod as an old man. He struggles up the stairs (we know he suffered from arthritis) to the top of his mountain perch somewhere overhead. He scans the east horizon and feels the cool wind against his sweating skin. Nothing could have prepared him for the news he has just received. A delegation of Parthian mágoi have crossed his border.

James Tissot, “Journey of the Magi” (1894). Image from here.