Does it seem strange to you that Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, entered the world as a helpless infant? What are we to make of this? John Ortberg reflects on the crucial differences between Jesus and his contemporary, King Herod, in this excerpt from Who Is This Man. -Adam Forrest
The friend of Romans and the friend of sinners
He entered the world with no dignity.
He would have been known as a mamzer, a child whose parents were not married. All languages have a word for mamzer, and all of them are ugly. His cradle was a feeding trough. His nursery mates had four legs. He was wrapped in rags. He was born in a cave, targeted for death, raised on the run.
He would die with even less dignity: convicted, beaten, bleeding, abandoned, naked, shamed. He had no status. Dignity on the level of a king is the last word you would associate with Jesus. There is a king in the story, though. Jesus was born “during the time of King Herod.”
To an ancient reader, Herod — not Jesus — would have been the picture of greatness. Born of noble birth, leader of armies, Herod was so highly regarded by the Roman Senate that they gave him the title “King of the Jews” when he was only thirty-three years old. He was so politically skilled that he held on to his throne for forty years, even persuading Caesar Augustus to retain him after he had backed Caesar’s mortal enemy, Mark Antony. He was the greatest builder of his day. “No one in Herod’s period built so extensively with projects that shed such a bright light on that world.” The massive stones of the temple he built are visible two thousand years later.
Jesus was a builder. A carpenter. He likely did construction in a town called Sepphoris for one of Herod’s sons. Nothing he built is known to endure.
In the ancient world, all sympathies would have rested with Herod. He was nearer to the gods, guardian of the Pax Romana, adviser to Caesar. The definitive biography of him is called: Herod: King of the Jews, Friend of the Romans. The two phrases are connected: if Herod were not a friend of the Romans, he would not be king of the Jews.
Jesus would be called “friend of sinners.” It was not a compliment. He would be arrested as an enemy of the Romans.