Christian Living

BibleArcheology 12/14/10

Three Wise Men, Two Herods, and a Citadel

In Israel, it's rare to find a place that figures in both the Christmas and Easter stories. I can only think of one, but if you know of any others, you can write and let me know. The place I'm thinking of is on the southwestern side of Jerusalem's Old City: a 470-year-old fortress known as the Citadel, or the Tower of David.

The second name stems from the fact that King David's fortress was originally built on this site; however, nothing of it remains today. The current building, the Citadel, was built in the 16th century by the Muslim Ottomans, who, oddly enough, were the ones who started calling it the "Tower of David," in honor of the city's Jewish founder-king.

Today, the fortress holds a museum, as well as a musical light show
depicting the history of Jerusalem. Inside, it's the size of a football field, full of winding paths, olive trees and remnants of stone walls built before Jesus was born. You can get an idea of what it looks like by taking a look at the photo gallery included with this blog.


So, what does this Ottoman fortress have to do with Christmas and Easter? It's not about the fortress itself as much as what's under it: the foundations of the palace of Herod the Great, which the historian Josephus described as "wondrous beyond words."

This is the place where the magi visited King Herod to inquire about the new King of the Jews, whose star they had followed to Jerusalem. As you walk through the Citadel, you can imagine the elaborate, yet suspicious reception Herod would have given them. You can almost see the Jewish priests and scholars, summoned by Herod and huddled together over a set of scrolls, trying to find the prophecy that revealed where the Messiah would be born.

The magi, known as the "king-makers" of the East, were very likely from Persia. They chose their rulers based on what they read in the stars. The Persians were the rivals of the Romans, who controlled Judea, so when the magi arrived with news of a new Jewish king, Herod no doubt feared that he was about to be deposed. This is a man who was already so paranoid that he had his wife and three of his sons executed, always believing that someone was about to steal his throne.

Matthew 2:3 says that "Herod was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him." This part always makes me wonder: In a time and place before The Drudge Report, The National Enquirer or Wikileaks, how did news spread so quickly from the palace? Was the arrival of the magi so conspicuous that the whole city took notice? Did the priests gossip about what they had heard in the palace, or brag that they had figured out the prophecy?

Imagine Herod pacing the palace, more paranoid than ever after hearing the prophecy about Jesus' birth, and later ordering the slaughter of male children in Bethlehem. The elderly king, who would be dead within the next few years, had no way of knowing that the baby he sought to kill would be sentenced to death in that very palace three decades later... and that one of the players in that drama would be his son, Herod Antipas.

After Herod's death in 4 BC, his kingdom was divided among his surviving sons. His youngest, Herod Antipas, was named the tetrarch, or ruler, of Galilee. It was Herod Antipas who stole his brother's wife and put John the Baptist to death-- the wily ruler whom Jesus had once described as a "fox."

The year that Jesus was crucified, Herod Antipas traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, and he stayed in his family's royal palace. Also visiting the palace was Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea. The Gospels record that during his trial, Jesus was taken from Pilate to Herod, then back to Pilate. The truth is, that trip was really just a walk across the courtyard, as Pilate and Herod were staying in different sections of the same palace complex.

Today, you can walk through the middle of the Citadel and imagine the scene: Jesus beaten and bloody, dressed in a scarlet robe, Roman soldiers mocking, spitting and striking him. Imagine Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas, longtime enemies now suddenly friends, united by their passive condemnation of Jesus.

The place where news of the Messiah's birth first reached Jerusalem through the wise men was now the same place where He would be condemned to death. And once again, all Jerusalem was disturbed.

All of this goes through my mind when I walk through the Citadel. I've been inside countless times, attending concerts, shooting stories, wandering in my free time, or-- when the curators weren't looking-- trying unsuccessfully to climb an olive tree on a dare. Today, the Citadel is a sunny, peaceful, green playground, so beautiful that it's difficult to imagine all of the drama that took place there.

Still... I like to imagine it anyway, because this is where Jesus started the last walk before his death... a walk that would end at the cross.

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