Advent of the (Rival) King: Part 5

My last essay on the Astrologers/Magi who visited Christ was done with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek (in case you were wondering). Despite the humor, what I hope the post did get across was the peril this visit of the Magi represented. Their lives would have been in jeopardy due to their desire to “worship” the new King of the Judeans. Such a goal would have been a highly treasonous act on three fronts. It would have represented a marked disloyalty to their countries of origin. It would have been a dangerously personal affront to the reigning king of Jerusalem. It would have ignored the edicts and policies of Rome itself.

Director Franco Zeffirelli tried to capture that element of danger in his 1977 feature, Jesus of Nazareth when he put these words into the mouth of Herod the Great:

Oh, the prophets! It’s the sun that breeds them. Many of these are harmless. They preach religion. We let them go. But some of them preach rebellion because “it is written!” (Altogether literacy has had a disastrous effect on this country.) And those we eliminate. Rome has taught us that although this may be indifferent theology, it is very good government.

Though I love Herod’s speech, it does have one major historical inaccuracy. The prophets in the first century could not have preached religion without also preaching politics. Though in this century, the topics of religion and politics are regarded as volatile, we do manage to separate them. It was not so in the time and culture of Jesus.

In the world of the New Testament only two institutions existed: kinship and politics. Neither religion nor economics had a separate institutional existence or was conceived of as a system on its own.

…Religion likewise had no separate, institutional existence in the modern sense. It was rather an overarching system of meaning that unified political and kinship systems (including their economic aspects) into an ideological whole. It served to legitimate and articulate (or delegitimate and criticize) the patterns of both politics and family…Religion was also “embedded,” in that religious goals, behavior, roles, employment, organization, and systems of worship were governed by political and kinship considerations, not “religious” ones. (Malina and Rohrbaugh; Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels; pg. 396. Emphasis added)

The fact that the Magi came to “worship” the new King of the Judeans would not have been viewed as a purely religious activity. There was no such thing as a “purely religious” activity. It would have been viewed as an activity with unavoidable ramifications in the political and familial spheres. It would have been viewed as treasonous to both. It was to claim a loyalty beyond kin and king. It was to give allegiance beyond of the boundaries of tribe and tongue.

We can see some hints of this meaning in the word here translated as “worship.” According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,

The principal New Testament word [for worship]… is proskuneo, “kiss (the hand or the ground) toward,” hence, often in the oriental fashion bowing prostrate upon the ground; accordingly, Septuagint uses it for the Hithpael or shachah (hishtachawah), “prostrate oneself.”

Hence, “worship” is almost synonymous with the posture of bowing down or prostrating oneself. This action is always the duty of a subordinate to a superior. It is an action of allegiance of the most extreme sort. The fact that the Magi wanted to “worship,” “bow down” or “prostrate” themselves before the King of the Judeans was a radical statement of their submission and obedience to this same ruler and this same government.

In their own countries this could only have been viewed as treason! It is only in our culture that has somehow radically separated worship from politics, that this conclusion is not obvious. In the first century, as noted above, religion served to reinforce political and kinship ties. (Marx was right, though almost 2000 years too late.) The fact that the Magi chose to give such an explicit act of allegiance to a king outside of their own countries—a ruler they openly identified as the “king of the Judeans”—would have earned them the displeasure of their local leaders and families. Such displeasure in the oriental kingdoms usually earned public dishonor, banishment, and even execution. To do so in such an open fashion was to invite such a response.

Nor would the Magi have found safe haven in the country to which they traveled. Herod would not have taken too kindly to being asked to his face where the new King of the Judeans resided. As the slaughter of the innocents later illustrated, giving allegiance to a King other than the one currently on the throne was a dangerous, treasonous act. Had the Magi not left Herod’s borders secretly, it is not doubtful they would have met a similar fate as the children of Bethlehem.

Finally, the allegiance of the Magi to a King both outside their territories and not appointed by the Emperor would have put them under the interdict of Caesar himself. The Caesars knew the function of religion in the first century; it was to reinforce the rule of the elite and pacify a diverse set of ethnic groups into a single obedient whole subservient to Rome. It was not for naught that the emperors were given divine honors during their lives and were officially divinized at their deaths. All gods would be recognized as long as Caesar and his Empire were the highest and most consistently honored of them. The ultimate allegiance had to be to Rome. When religion did not suffice, the force of the Roman army made up the difference.

So the actions of the kings were dangerous and treasonous. Despite the humor of my last post, I think they fully realized the danger their desire to worship the new King of the Judeans put them in. Yet they still came. They may have been treasonous to their own home countries, to Herod, and to Caesar, yet they were patriots to the Age that was to come. Their ultimate loyalty, citizenship, and “worship” were to the Kingdom of God and His Christ. For this they were ready to lay down “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.”

May we be able to be so bold.

(also posted at


~ by heretic on December 22, 2005.

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