Sunday, December 21, 2014

Long before Kim: What if King Herod had been able to hack the Gospel narratives of Jesus' birth?

The infamous hack of Sony Pictures, which the U.S. government has concluded was the clandestine
North Korea's ruler casts a dim view on challenges from any quarter.
work of North Korea, just before Christmas, opens up speculation as to how dictators of past eras might have wished for the technology to interfere with stories hostile to them and their family line. The line of kings called Herod began with the post-Maccabee monarch known as Herod the Great, the ruler at the time of Jesus' birth, and included Herod Antipas, one of his sons, who turned the decision over the adult Jesus' fate to the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, a figure also afflicted with indecision bordering on irresponsibility.  Obviously, the Herods are not favorably viewed in the New Testament — the first looking both bloodthirsty and foolish in his futile attempt to wipe out any eventual rival for kingship, the second appearing to truckle to his Roman supervisor.  Neither king quite fits the Kim Jong-un model, since they were absolute rulers who served only at the pleasure of their imperial bosses.

Manuscripts are not hackable, of course, but what if the gospels of Matthew and Luke, written in the first century A.D., had been gathered up by royal order and drastically rewritten so as to represent the Nativity from a Herodian point of view?

Here is the sort of text that might have been produced, rendered in a modern translation (Merry Christmas!):

1 The presumptive usurper Jesus was born in Bethlehem, an undistinguished village in Judaea, under the benevolent rule of King Herod, rebuilder of the Temple and the preserver and defender of the Jewish people under the imperial control of glorious Rome.

2  His parents were from Nazareth, and had taken the risk of travel to Bethlehem, despite the woman's condition, in the mistaken belief the journey was officially required for census registration and taxes.

3  Fortunately for them, the long road was smooth, thanks to Roman engineering, among the gifts afforded to the people by the loyalty of Herod the Great to his imperial masters.

4  The trip was unnecessary at any rate, but the couple had been told by some scholar or other that their son's descent from King David would be more unassailable if a Bethlehem birth could be arranged.

5  Oh, the trouble the undeserving will go to to lay claim to a glory that can never be theirs.

6  And so it was done, an affront to the good order of Judaea. But it was at length a manifest failure, as demonstrated by the lamentable career of Jesus of Nazareth.

7  In Bethlehem, a star is said to have moved into place over a stable, of all places, and attracted the attention of some nearby shepherds, prompted by some sort of vision.

8  These normally loyal subjects had been misled by what they recalled as angelic authority, and are not to be blamed for their credulousness.

Who led gullible shepherds to this scene of insurrection?
9  "Let's go into Bethlehem," they said to one another. "For this keeping watch over our flocks by night is exceedingly tedious."

10  "What's happening in Bethlehem?" some of the others wondered doubtfully. "Why go there anyway? It's no more interesting a place than here."

11 "There's supposed to be a great king for us newly born there, an angel told me. Great things are promised on his behalf — Messiah-level stuff.

12  "I've got directions and everything: He's lying in a manger in a stable behind the inn."

13  "Do tell! A likely birthplace for a king!" said one of their number, known for his skepticism.

14  "Besides, we've already got a king," another shepherd pointed out, "and all told he seems a pretty decent fellow."

15  The others were quick to agree. "What trouble! We Jews are always looking for the Next Big Thing," complained a wise shepherd far along in years. "It's an old, old story. It's as tiresome as taking care of sheep. Let's stay put."

16  But the seekers after novelty held sway, so the shepherds left their sheep and acted like sheep themselves, making haste into Bethlehem.

17  When they got there, they discovered three rich astrologers who had come from a long way off, having stopped with their entourage at the stable behind the overcrowded inn.

18  A miraculously bright star, now overhead, had guided them to this very spot, they said. Word of their search had reached the ears of King Herod, and he was reputed to be wanting to pay homage. Yes, even he. Worship seemed to be the order of the day, so the shepherds knelt, too.

19  Wealthy, exotic foreigners of dubious authority can be depended upon to gain the trust of the people from time to time, and it was no different here. The shepherds were impressed, good Jews forgetting that only the heathen pay attention to the meaning of the stars and how they move.

20  It's a source of idol worship, and draws the attention of pious people away from their duties to their rulers and to their religion. The danger of idolatry is extensively covered in the Scriptures, to which the faithful are urged to repair after absorbing the lessons of this true account of Jesus' birth and infancy.

21  This great offense against the authority of Herod the Great caused him to fear for himself as well as for the likely response of his benevolent Roman overlords to a potential power shift in the kingdom. So when he had summoned the astrologers, he thanked them for their efforts.

22   "Tell me more," he implored them. "This birth sounds like a real game-changer, and I'd love to be in on the celebration."

23  The foreigners had every reason to suppose that a ruler duty-bound to suppress all rivals would somehow make an exception for the infant Jesus. Their star-worship had deluded them, and they may have had designs against the security of the state as well. In any event, they vanished after visiting the stable and could not be traced, a certain indication that their motives were evil.

24  Knowing the ancient prophecy of Bethlehem's greatness, Herod had no recourse. Part of paying the cost to be the boss is making difficult decisions. Fortunately, Bethlehem is a small place.

Measures to secure the state must sometimes be drastic.
25   So when the King issued orders to slaughter all male children under two years of age, he was playing it safe, while limiting the damage to one tiny, unlucky community.

26  "We had to destroy that village in order to save...all of us," he told his people. "If you've seen one Messiah pretender, you've seen them all.

27 "Who wants to risk breaking the Covenant — and, even worse, offending the Romans — by letting every little upstart flourish and cause no end of trouble?

28   "In time, the grieving mothers of Bethlehem will surely understand, secure in the knowledge that no one will ever hear of this so-called King of the Jews again, and everyone will be spared the devastation he is certain to have caused. Now, as you were, everybody."

29  So the stable was put back in order and the innkeeper closed it to human guests from that time forth.

30  The shepherds, grumbling but chastened, went back to their sheep-covered hillsides and told each other stories, as shepherds have forever done in their pastoral idleness.

31  The three deceitful foreigners probably went to their graves wondering what benefit puzzling over the heavens had ever brought them.

32  Herod the Great died before he could realize that Jesus had absconded with his parents to safety in Egypt, no doubt forewarned by enemies of the state. The family returned to Galilee only after the king's deplorable death, and Jesus came to maturity in Nazareth as an indifferent carpenter but a disturbingly ambitious preacher and healer.

33  The shrewd Herod's  illustrious royal son, Herod Antipas, dealt with the result handily just over three decades later. It's all recorded later in this narrative, demonstrating, as all true accounts do, the futility of proclaiming an end to things as they are.

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