It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written charge against him read: “The King of the Jews.”
Mark c15 v25-26
We’re entering the Christmas season—the colossus of capitalism and the American way. The season of calories, Fox News, and the Bumpuses’s hounds. Sweaters and iPads, bows and ribbons, socks and pink bunny pajamas . . . all, of course, for Jesus. Surely no time of year provides more steam to power the locomotive of your heaviest cynicism.
Nevertheless, this year I want you to plunge into the Christmas songs. Go all in. Specifically, I want you to notice how many time the word “king” gets used.
Joy to the Earth, the Lord has come; let Earth receive her King.
Hark! The Herald Angels sing, glory to the newborn King.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, born is the King of Israel.
Come and behold Him, born the King of Angels.
You get the idea.
Today, we’re going to talk about that sign they nailed above Jesus. Its inclusion in the Gospel stories was not sentimental. Not poetic. Not metaphor. You’ll find a lot of that in the Bible, but not here. However, this specific verbiage, “King of the Jews”, can seem a bit random without some historical context. Why would Pontius Pilate insist on hanging that sign above Jesus? Why not instead simply write the Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews, as the Jews protested?
Let’s talk about Herod the Great.
Herod’s father, Antipater, supported Julius Caesar in his civil war against the Roman Senate to become Emperor of Rome, and, when Julius ultimately consolidated power, Antipater was appointed Prime Minister of Judea. Antipater’s son, Herod, was subsequently appointed governor of Galilee.
Very early in Herod’s appointment, Herod demonstrated such an inclination to brutality that he was summoned for trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin. The events of this trial proved formative in Governor Herod’s young psyche. He became obsessed by fear of the Jewish people and Judaism’s institutions.
This fear of the Jewish sages drove him to seek the cloak of protection from Italy.
Josephus records that Herod traveled to Rome and, convinced Mark Antony and Octavian to make him the supreme leader of Judaea. Apparently, he made such a great presentation, that Antony personally appealed to the Roman Senate to ratify their decision. When the Senate gave its approval, they gave Herod this title: “King of the Jews.”
Josephus then records Antony and Herod leaving the Senate for a Roman temple, where Herod offered a sacrifice to the Roman gods, Jupiter and Mars. Once he returned to Jerusalem, he undertook massive building and infrastructure projects, while simultaneously maintaining an unswerving loyalty to Rome. This is the subtext of what you are reading when you read about the sign they hung above Jesus: the battle between two competing kings of the Jews.
Here’s a tip. When the early Christian texts strikingly borrow words and phrases that originated in the Roman Empire, it’s because they are mocking the Roman Empire. It’s their way of saying if you want to know what this thing is, let’s start by saying it is not like that thing. If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you should be seeing that by now.
Before the savior of the world had been alive more than a few days, Matthew tells us that Herod felt so threatened by this baby—A BABY!—that he ordered the death of every child younger than two years old in and around Bethlehem. What do you think the gospel writers want you to conclude about supreme military power from the fact that King Herod was threatened by a baby? Do they bless our fear of everyone we as Americans deem threatening? Do they not speak to the tendency of those in power to descend into paranoia? To obsess over threats to our power?
This, by the way, is the Old Testament story of King Solomon. The “wisest” man in the Bible became became so powerful that his reign as king was inflicted with paranoia and treachery.
There has only been one War on Christmas in all of history. It had nothing to do with Starbucks or Target. It had everything to do with competing kingdoms.
King Herod’s War on Christmas reflects the moral arc of the gospels. The gospel writers want you to know that that the King of the Jews who received the blessing of Rome and the King of the Jews who hung on a Roman cross were on a collision course. They weren’t merely coinciding historical figures. Herod capitulated to the Roman military superpower, and the Roman Senate coronated him king. Jesus preached the gospel of peace, and the Roman cross and a crown of thorns coronated him king.
But about that sign…
The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, never took seriously Jesus’s claim to being a king. That is why he tried to use Jesus as a bargaining chip to not have to release Barabbas, a violent revolutionary. However, when it became clear that the release of Jesus would not satisfy the violent Messianic ambitions of the Jewish leaders, Pilate wanted impress upon them that the full weight of Rome would stamp out any serious challenge to the superiority of Rome. That is why, despite the Jewish leader’s protests, Pilate hung the title “King of the Jews” atop the cross, Rome’s most famous symbol of intimidation.
Please tell me you’re beginning to see Mark’s ingenious ways of depicting Jesus as the alternative to the Superpower of Rome and the violent revolution of Israel.
In our day, we should not assume that the mighty United State of America isn’t Rome in this story. Nor should we assume that the church hasn’t become Herod the Great, sacrificing on the alter to Jupiter and Mars. Rome chose as its King of the Jews the one who would be loyal to Rome.
At one point, Pilate asked the Jewish leaders, “Shall I crucify your king?”
When we as Christians give our allegiance to and put our trust in the ways of Jupiter and Mars, as Herod did, we echo what was said in reply: “We have no king but Caesar.”