With Christmas nearly upon us, I’m going a little earlier in the timeline than usual to make an observation about Matthew’s Nativity story. This will be obvious to some but perhaps a new angle for others; it’s the sort of thing that leaps off the page if you know just a little more about the political history leading up to the New Testament.
Herod the Great is obviously portrayed as a villain in Matthew 2, a characterization which is largely confirmed by reading a roughly contemporary source such as Josephus. Herod perceives the new “king of the Jews” as a serious threat, which prompts the Massacre of the Innocents and the flight of Jesus’ family to Egypt. But why exactly would Herod (r. 40 BC–4 BC) have felt particularly threatened by this? After all, he had already encountered and dealt with his fair share of dynastic challenges prior to the birth of Jesus. Still, Matthew would imply that Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3) were acutely bothered by this development. Is that historically plausible or do we just have a story-telling device here?
Even were we to stipulate (as no doubt many New Testament scholars would argue) that the whole episode with Herod and the magi was completely fabricated, we would have to admit that this fabricator from the first century AD remembered something quite real about the political dynamics from the first century BC. As many have pointed out, the magi were not just vaguely from “out east”; they were from Parthian Persia. We’re prone to miss this from Western-Civ style surveys of Greco-Roman history, but Parthian Persia (and subsequently Sassanian Persia in the course of late antiquity) represented a major threat to Rome from the Late Republic down to the Muslim conquests of the mid-600s. In geopolitical terms, the Persian frontier was almost always a far greater problem than anything on the northern frontier in Europe, though of course, the latter gets all the publicity for the alleged “Fall” of Rome in the mid-400s. In Herod’s own lifetime, the Parthians had intervened militarily in the Levant during Rome’s ongoing civil wars. Before that, they had crushed a Roman expedition under Marcus Crassus (of the First Triumvirate). Much later, the book of Revelation probably raises the specter of Parthia with the crowned horseman carrying a bow (6:20), which was a standard iconography for the Parthians.
The added piece of information: from Pompey’s eastern reorganization/conquest of the Levant in the late 60s BC, to Crassus’ disastrous invasion of Parthia in 53, down through Herod’s installation in 37 as “ethnarch,” one of the Romans’ overriding policy goals in the area was to handle this rival empire. During Pompey’s campaign (and then on for much of the subsequent centuries), the Romans and Persians repeatedly competed for influence and installed their own client kings in the Transcaucasian regions (e.g. the kingdom of Armenia). This, I think, is something like the dynamic the author of Matthew intends for readers to understand. For these eastern magi to come making claims about a new king of the Jews, it would have sounded suspiciously like a foreign policy gambit by the Parthians—perhaps even a pretext for invasion. And the danger to Herod would not be from the Parthians alone. Back in 20 BC, Augustus had supposedly settled the Parthian issue. As he would boast decades later in the Res Gestae:
The Parthians I forced to return to me the spoils and standards of three Roman armies [lost by Crassus] and to seek as suppliants the friendship of the Roman people.
In other words, diplomatic success with the Parthians counted among Augustus’ important policy achievements. Circa 4 BC, if word made it back to Augustus that the Parthians were making a play on Judaea, then the princeps might have found a new, younger ethnarch who would actually govern his territories effectively pro populo Romano. And then Herod would have found himself very much “cast down from his throne” (to quote Mary’s words in the Magnificat), and probably dead in fairly short order.