It being Christmastime, naturally, thoughts turn to King Herod, one of the great villains of history. Without Herod — the erstwhile King of Judea — there would have been no mandated Census forcing Mary and Joseph’s journey to register in Bethlehem. And without that Census, the Baby Jesus would never have wound up in some manger surrounded by barnyard animals. And without that, the whole Nativity scene never happens and a crèche industry plummets.
Given our current president’s penchant for tough-guy, gangster dictators, I was half expecting to read he’d issued Herod a posthumous pardon. After all, there’s some scholarly evidence suggesting that maybe Herod got a bad rap. Maybe he, too, has been the subject of a vast witch hunt. Short of an outright pardon, I would have expected a shout-out — from one historical world leader who knows you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few legs to another.
It’s worth noting that any such parallels did not escape the notice of Pope Francis, capo di tutti i capi of the world’s oldest and biggest religious bureaucracy. During a speech in Thailand earlier this month, the Pontiff decried the treatment of refugees throughout the world. Getting a little personal when it comes to Trump, Pope Francis noted, “In other parts, there are walls that even separate children from parents.” After a brief pause, the Pontiff added, “Herod comes to mind.”
For all you Heathens out there, King Herod ruled a sizable chunk of real estate in the Middle East from 36 BCE until his death shortly after the birth of Christ. Admittedly, Herod was a toady for Imperial Rome; it was the Roman Senate that voted him King of the Jews.
Like Trump, Herod would have been nowhere without his father, a man of vast wealth and political connections. Herod’s father and Julius Caesar were thicker than thieves. When the Romans needed someone to keep the trade ways open, Herod was their man. And Herod was not without chops of his own, skillfully navigating treacherous allegiances with Cleopatra and Mark Antony after their nasty breakup from Rome.
Ethnically, Herod was an Arab; religiously, he was a practicing Jew. What Herod liked to do was build stuff. Big, impressive stuff. Expensive stuff. Aqueducts. Temples. Vast baths. Fortresses. His engineers pioneered new forms of underwater construction. He was unabashedly gaudy; everything looked better with an immense golden eagle adorning it. Historians say he spent extravagantly, strip-mining his subjects for every last dime they might have sequestered in their sock drawers.
Like Trump, Herod understood the power of spectacle, bailing out the Olympic Games when the Greeks couldn’t keep them financially afloat. Also like Trump, Herod was certifiably paranoid. He sent out secret police to spy on possible malcontents, bust up protests, and silence critics. But it wasn’t until the birth of Jesus that Herod distinguished himself from all the garden-variety despots then ruling the world. When Herod heard the Three Wise Men were traipsing hither, thither, and yon in search of a baby boy they described as the “King of the Jews,” he got his hackles up. That, after all, was his moniker. When Herod’s first efforts to locate said Baby Jesus failed — sending Mary and Joseph fleeing for safer ground — Herod found himself forced to adopt Plan B. That involved rounding up all the usual suspects, which in this case were all male babies two years old and younger. Just to be on the safe side, Herod ordered all the suspects thus rounded up terminated with extreme prejudice. As to the number of babies thus dispatched, estimates range all over the place. Regardless of the actual number, this slaughter has gone down in the books as “The Massacre of the Innocents.”
We allegedly know about this because it was written up by the Apostle Matthew in one of his many Gospels. And no truth is truer than the Gospel Truth, right? It turns out many historians now believe Matthew may have made it all up. They cite a conspicuous lack of corroborating evidence from other accounts written at that time. They also point out that Herod actually ordered no Census during his lifetime. To complicate matters further, he may have already been dead by the time the Baby Jesus arrived on the scene.
Does this mean Herod got a bad rap? Not necessarily. It turns out he had his wife, Mariamne, murdered even though historians agree he loved her madly. He worried that she might be with another man after he died and arranged for her to be killed. Mariamne got wind of this and made plans accordingly. When Herod found out, he accelerated matters and had her deep-sixed. But it broke his heart. Along the way, he also offed three of his sons. Maybe a mother-in-law, too. Herod worried excessively that no tears would be shed when he died. To make sure they were, he made plans to have a large number of popular community leaders collectively executed at his funeral service. Even if people weren’t weeping for him, tears would be falling.
For what it’s worth, Herod died so agonizing a death that forensic medical historians have been trying to figure out what did him in ever since. He suffered intense itching, convulsions of every limb, painful bowels, and trouble breathing. He tried to stab himself to death but failed. The latest theory is Herod was done in by chronic kidney infection coupled with gangrenous genitalia.
Last I checked, there’s no pardon for gangrenous genitalia. Impeach that.
But have a Merry Christmas.