What we know about the first encounter between the magi and Herod I (or Herod the Great) is described very succinctly in Matthew’s gospel:

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.”

Matthew 2:1-2 (NIV)

Rather than the later embellishments enshrined in some carols, Matthew’s description of them is as priests probably from the then Parthian Empire and likely to be Zoroastrian. Zoroaster (Zarathustra) himself set up an astronomical calendar about 1000 years earlier, and magi were renowned for skills in this regard. Their studies led them to seek a Jewish-born king who was worthy of worship.

The participle τεχθείς functions as an attributive adjective that portrays Jesus as the “born-king” of the Jews. This contrasts with Herod’s kingship, which is merely the result of shrewd political manipulation……

This implies that when Jesus is the object of “worship,” more than mere respect for a superior is meant.

“Matthew”, D. L. Turner, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.

Perhaps naively, they explain this to Herod, who was installed as king by the Roman Senate rather than by birth. It took a three-year long war for him to gain control of Jerusalem and Judea. To be more of a Jewish king he banished his wife and son and married Mariamne, a royal princess; she was later executed. By the time the magi met Herod, he had provided major building works for stakeholders in Judea, for example the port city of Caesarea Maritima for the Romans and the Second Temple in Jerusalem for the Jews.

Hippodrome at Caesaria Maritima ruins

Hippodrome at Caesaria Maritima

Wailing Wall of the Second Temple, Jerusalem

Wailing Wall, Jerusalem






His intrinsic paranoia was a root cause of the construction of fortresses like Masada across the country for the safekeeping of himself and his family. All of this came at a price met by high taxation.

Panorama from the Masada fortress

The Masada fortress

In his later years, such as when the magi visited, he was suffering from what was called Herod’s Evil. Thought to be caused by artheriosclerosis, he was in immense pain and his mind drifted in and out of reality. In the end, Herod gained nothing from his encounter with the magi, apart from an even less enviable reputation.

For the magi, it was a bitter-sweet encounter. They were probably wiser men from encountering Jesus in humble surroundings, and more street-wise from encountering Herod. They may well have left with hope.  But if later they learnt of the killings in Bethlehem, that hope might have had tinged with regret.

In 2020 this looks like the encounter between the well-intentioned with the cynical and worldly-wise. The existence of Herodic self-seeking and character flaws in those who climb the greasy pole is clear to see. Acknowledging the priesthood of all believers, how do we magi cope with the Herods of our time?

One approach can be to follow the Golden Rule:

Love your neighbour as yourself.

Matthew 22:39 (NIV)

As developed by Joseph Fletcher in “Situation Ethics”, love must be pragmatic, and that places demands on our understanding and commitment. The risk of failure is real, but the opportunity through Jesus for repentance and forgiveness is liberating. That can give us the confidence to do something when we encounter the Herodic. The young Jesus, as seen by the magi, enshrined the steadfast hope and love that is the core of this sustainable way of living.

Signpost of Encounters on the way

Encounters on the way

This post is based on the first of a series of services following readings in Matthew, devised by Gareth Hill for Romsey Methodist Church.