He entered the world with no dignity. He would have been known as a child whose parents were not married. 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.
Herod ruled in a time when only the ruthless survived. He cowered before no one. He had ten or eleven wives. He suspected the ambitions of the only one he ever truly loved, so he had her executed. He also had his mother-in-law, two of his brothers-in-law, and two of his own sons by his favorite wife executed. When his old barber tried to stick up for his sons, he had his barber executed. Caesar remarked that (given the Jewish refusal to eat pork) it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son. Herod rewarded his friends and punished his enemies, the sign of a great-souled man in his day. Jesus, when he was a man, would be nearly as silent and passive before Herod’s successor as he was when he was a baby before Herod.
Herod clung to his title to the end. While he was dying, he had a group of protestors arrested, the ringleaders burned alive, and the rest executed. Five days before his death, he had another son executed for trying to grab power prematurely. His will instructed scores of prominent Israelites be executed on the day he died so there would be weeping in Israel. Herod was considered by Rome the most effective ruler over Israel the empire ever had. No one would bear that title “King of the Jews” again, except for a crucifixion victim impaled for a few hours one Friday afternoon.
We are used to thinking of Herod as the cardboard villain of the Christmas pageant, but he would have been considered great by many in his day, especially those whose opinion would have mattered most. How greatness came to look different to the world is part of what this story is about. No one knew it yet, but an ancient system of Dignity was about to collapse. Human dignity itself would descend from its Herod-protecting perch and go universal.
The lives of Herod and Jesus intersected when magi from the East asked where they could find the one born (notice the title) “king of the Jews.” Herod claimed to follow the religion of Israel, but it was the pagan magi who sought truth with respect and humility. There is something about this Jesus, even on his first day, that had a way of forcing people to declare where they stand.
“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed” (major understatement here), “… and all Jerusalem with him.” Now it’s clear why. Herod “was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under … Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’”
I grew up in a church that did Christmas pageants every year. We would dress up in bathrobes and pretend to be Joseph and Mary and the shepherds and the wise men. Somehow that Herodian part of the story never made it into those pageants. It became known as the slaughter of the innocents. This is not the kind of story you would write songs about. The night Jesus is born, all is not calm, all is not bright. That little baby does not “sleep in heavenly peace.”
Herod sends soldiers to Bethlehem into the homes of peasant families who are powerless to stop them. They break in, and when they find an infant boy, they take out a sword and plunge it into that baby’s body. Then they leave. Someone wrote a song centuries later: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” Bethlehem was not still when Herod came for Jesus.
Matthew underlined the pain of the gap between peasant and king: “Rachel weeping for her children.” The rabbis said that centuries earlier, the Jewish matriarch Rachel had been buried in Bethlehem near the major road leading out of Israel so that she could weep for the helpless exiles leaving their home. Soon some more people would leave. Jesus’ parents would flee to Egypt. Meanwhile, Jesus lay helpless and unaware. Herod, who built cities and ruled armies, was called Herod the Great.
No one called Jesus “the Great.” Jesus is repeatedly given a different title by Matthew: “‘Go and search carefully for the child’ … the place where the child was … they saw the child with his mother … ‘take the child … and escape to Egypt’ … ‘take the child … and go to the land of Israel’ … so he got up, took the child.” The title “child,” especially in that day, would be a vivid contrast with “king” or “great.” In the ancient, status-ordered world, children were at the bottom of the ladder. In both Greek and Latin, the words for children meant “not speaking’; children lacked the dignity of reason.
Plato wrote about the “mob of motley appetites pains and pleasures” one would find in children, along with slaves and women. Children were noted for fear, weakness, and helplessness. “None among all the animals is so prone to tears,” wrote Pliny the Elder. To be a child was to be dependent, defenseless, fragile, vulnerable, at risk.
Those were not qualities associated with heroism in the ancient world. A hero was someone who made things happen. A child was someone things happened to. In old stories about Hercules, he grabbed two poisonous snakes while he was still in the cradle and killed them with his bare, chubby little hands. By the second and third century AD, people made up stories about Jesus having great power as a child: in one of them he makes clay birds come alive; in another he magically causes the death of a child. But they are the kind of stories the Greeks made up to give their heroes dignity as children. The four Gospels have no stories like this about Jesus as a child.
Herod the Great made things happen. Things happened to the child Jesus. There is a reversal going on in this story. The next season of Jesus’ life is introduced with the phrase “After Herod died….” In fact, three times in chapter 2 alone, Matthew mentions the fact that Herod is dead. Matthew wants the reader to know: Herod the Great, with all his wealth, glory, power, and crown, is now Herod the Dead. Herod died. This is a subtle reminder of a great leveler. Who else is going to die?
A new time had come with Jesus, a time when thinking about kings and children would begin to shift. You might say there was an idea lying there in the manger along with a baby. An idea that had mostly been confined to a little country called Israel, but which was waiting for the right time to crawl out into the wider world—an idea which that wider world would be unable to wholly resist.
All peoples in the ancient world had gods. Their gods had different names, but what they shared was a hierarchal way of ordering life. At the top of creation were the gods; under them was the king. Under the king were members of the court and the priests, who reported to the king. Below them were artisans, merchants, and craftspeople, and below them was a large group of peasants and slaves—the dregs of humanity.
The king was divine, or semi-divine. The king was understood to be made in the image of the god who created him. Only the king was made in the image of the god. This was a dividing line between the king and the rest of the human race. Peasants and slaves were not made in the image of the god; they were created by inferior gods.
This is the Dignity Gap. The farther down the ladder, the wider the gap. But that gap was challenged by an idea that lay there in the manger, an idea that had been guarded by Israel for centuries: There is one God. He is good. And every human being has been made in his image. Because God is Creator of all, the earth is full of creatures. But human beings reflect the image of God in a way no other creature can, with the capacity to reason, choose, communicate, and invent.
Imagine what it did to the hearts of the dregs of humanity to be told that not just the king but they too were created in the image of the one great God. Male and female, slaves and peasants, made in God’s image. God said that these human beings are to exercise “dominion.” That’s a royal word. But it is no longer reserved for the few. Every human being has royal dignity. When Jesus looked at people, he saw the image of God. He saw this in everyone. It caused him to treat each person with dignity. This was the idea to which that little baby in a manger was heir, which had been given to Israel, which would be clarified and incarnated in his life in a way not seen before.
The belief that all people are made in God’s image has woven its way into our world in a manner we often do not see. The United States’ Declaration of Independence begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
There is a raft of ideas here: that people are created, not accidents; that their Creator gives them certain endowments and confers worth on them. This worth means that they come with certain rights that ought to be respected for a society to be considered good. This is true for all human beings—all are created equal.
The idea of the equality of all human beings was not “self-evident” to the ancient world. Aristotle did not think all men were created equal. He wrote that inequality—masters and slavery—was the natural order of things: “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”
Who came in between Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson to change this? Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff observes that throughout world history, human beings by nature tend to be tribal. We don’t think of “outsiders” as having the same worth or rights. What accounts for the emergence of this moral subculture that says every human being has rights?
Wolterstorff gives an amazing answer: the teaching of the Scriptures, clarified and made available to all the world through Jesus, that every human being is made in the image of God, and loved by God. There are gradations of talent, strength, intelligence, and beauty. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There are no gradations of the image of God.”
The reason every person has great worth, for Jesus, is that every person is loved by God. Each person has what might be called “bestowed worth.” The ancient world did not teach this. Ordinary children did not share the king’s image. They were not created by the same god. And so they grew up in a different world.
In the Roman Empire, some babies grew up to be women, who were generally shut off from education and public life. Some grew up to be slaves, who were needed for their labor but regarded as inferior to those who were free.
Many babies did not grow up at all. In the ancient world, unwanted children were often simply left to die, a practice called “exposure.” The head of the household had the legal right to decide the life or death of other members of the family. This decision was usually made during the first eight or so days of life. (Plutarch wrote that until that time the child was “more like a plant than a human being.”)
The most common reasons to expose a child would be if the family lived in poverty, or if a wealthy family did not want the estate divided up, or if the child was the wrong gender or if the child were illegitimate. The Jews were opposed to exposure because of their faith. Since Jesus was regarded as a mamzer—the descendant of a forbidden relationship between two Jews—he would likely not have survived had Joseph been Roman. Abandoned children were often left on a dump or a dung hill. They most often died; sometimes they were rescued, but usually this was to become enslaved. This happened often enough that hundreds of ancient names are variations of the word kopros, which was Greek for “dung.”
Babies that were disabled or appeared weak were often disposed of by drowning. An ancient Roman law said that a boy who was “strikingly deformed” had to be disposed of quickly. One archaeological dig found “a gruesome discovery,” the bones of “nearly 100 little babies apparently murdered and thrown into the sewer.” Ancient parents could be as tender and loving as moderns. But children had value to the extent that they could serve the state. And the state was embodied by Herod. In themselves, children were disposable.
Then the child born in Bethlehem grew up. He began to say things about children no one else thought of. One day Jesus was asked the question, “Who … is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Matthew wrote, “He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. [Maybe a child named Kopros.] And he said: ‘… Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’”
Jesus said it wasn’t the child’s job to become like Herod. It was Herod’s job to become like the child. Greatness comes to people who die to appearing great. No one else in the ancient world—not even the rabbis—used children as an example of conversion. Then Jesus said the kind of thing that would literally never enter the mind of another human being to say: “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Kopros has a new name.
There were many clubs and associations in the ancient world. None of the qualities associated with children — weakness, helplessness, lowliness—qualified one to join any of them. There were no clubs for children. Until Jesus. Another time Jesus acted out a little parable of this teaching. Children “were brought” to Jesus. The language says they could not even come themselves: passive, dependent. The disciples rebuked the parents. Jesus rebuked the disciples. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
A kingdom for children. Before Walt Disney. And the little children came. As the movement that Jesus started spread, it created an alternative community for children. Early instructions among his followers, such as the Didache in the second century, prohibit the widespread practices of abortion, exposure, and infanticide.
There is an old joke that the most basic of the Ten Commandments for parents is “Thou shalt not kill.” In some ways, that is a new joke; in the ancient world it was the basis of a revolution. Exposure was forbidden—not because the state needed more workers (Caesar Augustus would try to limit it on this basis), but because as the Shepherd of Hermas put it, “All babies are glorious before God.” Saint Ambrose of Milan said that the church must care not only for babies, but also for the poor, because poverty often destroys their ability to care for children.
Homer did not say that Zeus or Apollo or Pan valued all human beings equally. G. K. Chesterton wrote that the elevation of the dignity of childhood would have made no sense to the ancients. It came into the world through Jesus, and even where belief in him has eroded the elevation of childhood, Jesus’ thought remains: “The pagan world, as such, would not have understood any such thing as a serious suggestion that a child is higher or holier than a man.
By the late fourth century, a Christian emperor outlawed the practice of exposure for the entire empire. Over time, instead of leaving unwanted babies on a dung hill, people began to leave them outside a monastic community or a church. The beginnings of what would be known as orphanages began to rise, usually associated with monasteries or cathedrals.
Merely claiming a religious label is no more a guarantee of family health now than it was for Adam and Eve. But those who live in a culture truly touched and changed by Christianity view individuals differently because of Jesus, whatever they might think of him. The ordinary and the lowly have great dignity. All children should live. All human beings are created equal.
The Greeks loved physical excellence and perfection, the nobility of striving. They gave us the Olympics, through which mortals strove to be like the gods of Olympus. They gave us the marathon, the ultimate test of human will and strength. They did not give us the story of a marathon being run by a man carrying his crippled son.
I recently read an article that speaks of a “theology of disability,” which explores how the divine is present in limitation and suffering and handicap. It is a phrase that would have been senseless in Rome. The child in Bethlehem would grow up to be a friend of sinners, not a friend of Rome. He would spend his life with the ordinary and the unimpressive. He would pay deep attention to lepers and cripples, to the blind and the beggar, to prostitutes and fishermen, to women and children. He would announce the availability of a kingdom different from Herod’s, a kingdom where blessing—of full value and worth with God—was now conferred on the poor in spirit and the meek and the persecuted.
People would not understand what all this meant. We still do not. But a revolution was starting—a slow, quiet movement that began at the bottom of society and would undermine the pretensions of the Herods. It was a movement that was largely underground, like a cave around Bethlehem where a dangerous baby might be born and hidden from a king.
Since that birth, babies and kings and everybody else look different to us now—as in the poignant list of David Bentley Hart: “the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child … the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates.” These were viewed by our ancient ancestors as burdens to be discarded. To see them instead as bearers of divine glory who can touch our conscience and still our selfishness—this is what Jesus saw that Herod could not see.
Strange reversal. Men who wear purple robes and glittering crowns and gaudy titles begin to look ridiculous—(when is the last time a politician attached “the Great” to his name?) — and yet the figure of the child born in a manger seems only to grow in stature. “We see the glory of God in a crucified slave, and [consequently] … we see the forsaken of the earth as the very children of heaven.” He came into the world with no dignity.
Adapted form John Ortberg: Who is This Man?