Herod and the Slaughter of the Innocents

Of the four gospel accounts only Matthew writes of the magi, eastern astrologers who had interpreted the appearance of a new star to mean that a ruler was to be born among the Jews. According to Matthew's account (2.1-12), when the magi (commonly called the Three Wise Men) arrived in Jerusalem and asked King Herod where the new king of the Jews would be born, he convened his scribes and chief priests to consult with them on the matter. They advised him of the prophecy that a ruler would come from Bethlehem to shepherd the people of Israel, and so it was to Bethlehem that Herod directed the magi. He then asked the magi to return to Jerusalem after paying homage to the new king, to tell him exactly where he could find the child and pay homage himself. In reality, according to the gospel account, Herod intended to learn exactly where the child was so that he could have him killed.

The magi did not return to Herod because they had been warned of his malevolence in a dream. Their inquiry, however, had unnerved him; he was deeply mired in rivalries, murders, and intrigues concerning his succession. Despite the failure of the magi to give him any news, rumors abounded about the birth of the Messiah, and King Herod became avid in his search for the baby. Upon hearing news that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem, King Herod dispatched his troops there with orders to kill every male child they found under the age of two years. This event, called the Slaughter of the Innocents, is known only from the account in Matthew 2.16 and is a vivid depiction of Herod's distraction and paranoia.

Jesus was not killed in the slaughter ordered by Herod because an angel again had visited Joseph, this time to urge him to flee to Egypt where he and his family lived safely until Herod's death. When he learned of Herod's death, Joseph eventually resettled his family in Nazareth in the area of Galilee, north of Judea. Jesus' youth in Galilee must have put him in touch with the revolutionary tradition for which it is famous: Judas the Galilean had led revolts against Herod and also against the Romans; he claimed that the Jews owed allegiance only to God and that they should not be forced to pay taxes to the Romans.

For the first thirty years of his life Jesus lived quietly in Nazareth with one exception. When he was about twelve, Mary discovered that Jesus was missing from the group of travelers who had returned to Nazareth from Jerusalem after celebrating the Feast of Passover (Lk 2.41-49). She searched for him for three days before she found him in the Temple in Jerusalem, astounding the priests and rabbis there with his knowledge. When she chided him for causing her and Joseph such anxiety, Jesus cryptically remarked, "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"

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