By John R. Fink
The climate among the Jews when Jesus was born was definitely anti-government. Even though the last of the Hasmonean kings and high priests had been so bad (see my previous articles), the people still wanted their independence. They particularly remembered that Herod executed 45 of the 71 members of the Sanhedrin after he became king because they had opposed him.
The Jews also resented the fact that, under Herod (and it would continue under his successors), the high priest was appointed and dismissed by the king or the Roman governor. The high priests were puppets of the ruler, and the people knew it. The Romans even kept the high priests’ vestments sealed in the Antonia Fortress. Before each festival the Jewish authorities had to go to the Antonia to get them.
Such was the atmosphere when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Since he was born while Herod was still alive, and since we know that Herod died in 4 B.C., historians believe Jesus was born in either 6 B.C. or 7 B.C. Since he died in the year 30, he was actually 36 or 37 years old rather than 33 when he died.
Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels both report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They disagree, though, about what happened after his birth, since they obviously were writing from different sources. Luke reported that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth after Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation in the Temple 40 days after his birth. But Matthew wrote about the appearance of the Magi followed their flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s soldiers, who massacred the Holy Innocents.
Before Herod died, he left a will dividing his kingdom among his sons Antipas, Archelaus and Philip. Archelaus was given Judea, Samaria and Idumea, Herod Antipas received Galilee and Perea, and Philip the area to the north and east of Galilee—the Golan Heights.
In Jerusalem, Archelaus immediately got into trouble with the Jews. After his father’s elaborate funeral, the people were expressing their anger at the dead king and, with Passover approaching, thousands of Jews were pouring into the city. Archelaus sent troops out to control the crowds. The Jews threw stones at the soldiers. Archelaus called out the rest of his army and 3,000 people were massacred.
In Matthew’s Gospel we’re told that, after Herod’s death, an angel told Joseph that he could return from Egypt. But, Matthew says, “when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there” (Matt 2:22). He apparently heard about the massacre. Therefore, he took Jesus and Mary to Nazareth, in Galilee.
Archelaus ruled in Judea for 10 years, continuing to anger the people. Then the Jews and Samaritans sent a delegation to Rome to complain about him. Caesar Augustus stripped Archelaus of his title and banished him. Judea then came under direct Roman rule, governed by a Roman prefect who lived most of the time in Caesarea. Pontius Pilate would become one of them.
Today Nazareth is a large city with a population of 150,000. In Jesus’ time, though, it was a tiny village, populated by no more than 120 to 150 people. The original town is now beneath the Church of the Annunciation, its school, and the Church of St. Joseph. Nazareth was so insignificant that it is not mention among the 12 cities in the tribe of Zebulun, among the 46 cities in Galilee mentioned by Josephus, nor among the 83 cities in Galilee in the Mishnah. That’s why Nathanael responded when Philip told him they had found the Messiah, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Nathanael, after all, was from Cana, a city of 10,000 to 15,000 people.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, like any other Jewish boy of that time. Boys went to school from age 5 to age 13, when they legally became men. (Girls had no formal education.) Boys’ education was entirely religious and they were taught to read mainly so they could learn the Jewish Scriptures. At 13, the boys would start to learn their father’s trade or business. Since Joseph was a carpenter, it is assumed that Jesus learned that trade. Actually, Joseph was more than a carpenter; he was atekton in Greek—a master builder, somebody who worked on the various materials needed for construction work, including timber and iron, but mainly stone. Since there is an abundance of stone in the Holy Land, most buildings are built of stone.
To be continued…
By John R. Fink