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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Remember, one of the purposes of Matthew’s advent narrative was to subvert the Roman imperialism subjugating the Jewish people. His story includes Rome’s international enemies, and they, as they were for Cyrus, are present at this little liberator’s birth. Matthew’s audience would have recognized their presence as a sign that this baby was allied with Rome’s enemies. The baby’s overthrow of Roman oppression would have been good news (gospel) to Rome’s enemies as well. Matthew’s story takes political sides against Rome by including the Magi.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-4)
Three elements of this section will help us understand Matthew’s story more clearly.
- The phrase, “King of the Jews”; and
- The disturbance of “all Jerusalem”
As we discussed last week, Herod was Rome’s client king for the Jewish people. Herod economically crushed the Jewish common people, piling on to the already oppressive Roman tax burden people faced in his area and threatening violence from a large, heavily armed militia if they resisted. Herod extracted heavy tributes for extensive building projects aimed to pay homage to Caesar. And he was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies. He slaughtered people extensively, and life under him meant exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod economically bled his people and country dry, and the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from helpless and hopeless poverty. For many, Herod was synonymous with Roman oppression.
The phrase King of the Jews, used in reference to Jesus, has had a long and very harmful anti-Semitic history in Christianity, just as the term Messiah has.
Originally, Jewish liberation movements used the phrase “king of the Jews.” Jewish people didn’t then have a standardized or generally held expectation of a “messiah,” as the term is understood by Christians today. Messiah means “the one who is anointed.” Just like David was anointed by Samuel the prophet, “the anointed one” was anointed to become a king. At the time of Matthew’s story, a common hope among the many and varied Jewish liberation movements was that a king, like David of old, would rise up and liberate the Jewish people from their suffering under Rome. It was simply an expression of the broader hope of the people to be liberated from foreign rule.
This is the only context I believe helpful for understanding why the gospels use the phrase “king of the Jews” in reference to Jesus in the gospels. The community of the gospels was yet another oppressed Jewish community hoping for concrete liberation. For the gospels to call Jesus messiah, king of the Jews, or anointed one is to simply refer to their Jesus as a liberator from oppression just as every other liberation movement of this time had their king, anointed one, or liberator. But we must leave these phrases in their own social context if we are to avoid Christianizing them into the harmful antisemitic beliefs and practices of supersessionism, the belief that the Christian church has replaced Jewish people and Judaism.
Why might “all Jerusalem” have been disturbed by the Magi’s declaration?
We’ll discuss that next.