Herod Antipater's Defense Before the Roman Senate in Regard To His Conduct at Bethlehem
On a scroll in the library of the Vatican I find the following record, marked "Herod Antipater's Defense":
"Noble Romans: In the case whereof I am accused, these Jews are of all people the most superstitious, and no more to be trusted than the Hindus. They have taught themselves to believe in but one God, who dwells in another world, so they can neither see nor hear Him, nor in any way approach Him by their senses. They believe that He is unchangeable and unapproachable; that He can only manifest Himself through some angel or spirit, or some light, or the thunder, or any strange and uncommon phenomenon. Hence, they are so superstitious that they can be made to believe anything.
"In order that you may know what kind of people I have to deal with, I will give you some of their maxims: (1) When the sun shines they say their God smiles; (2) when it is cloudy they say He frowns; (3) when it thunders they say He is angry, and they hide themselves; (4) when it rains they say He weeps, and many other similar sayings. Now, my lords, you can see at once how far this people might be led, if they could be made to believe this strange God was at their head, and took up their cause.
"Now, as a foundation for all this foolishness, they have a book, and a set of men, called priests, who read and expound this book to them, and they will believe anything these priests tell them. To show how far they may be led, these priests tell them that some thousands of years ago one Moses died, and went to where this strange God dwelt. He was gone forty days, and when he came back he brought this book, which was written by their God for their government. Now, to prove the whole thing is a forgery, the book is wholly for the benefit of the priest. The poor have to work and toil continually, and pay half what they make, and sometimes almost starve to support the lazy priests and furnish them and their women with plenty of fine garments, and wine, and the best of food. The priests tell these poor Jews that this God requires them to bring the best calf, the best lamb, and the best flour and oil to the temple, to offer in sacrifice; and the priests and their party get all this for themselves. I often tell them, when they object to the Roman taxation, that they could keep up a thousand Caesar's for much less than it costs to keep up their God and His priests.
"The leaders are always quarreling and fighting among themselves, and dividing off in different sects. Miracles, are as common as poor physicians. The Essenes are noted for both. They prophesy, work miracles, see visions, and have dreams, and stand in reputation as quack doctors. They pretend to know all about angels, ghosts, and spirits; they profess the art of managing ethereal citizens of trans-atmospheric regions. They live together in colonies, some of them are cenobitic and some are celibate communities. They maintain that all of them are priests and high priests; therefore their daily baptisms, as the priests on duty. They wear the Levitical garments. Their tables are their altars, and their meals their only sacrifices. With this sanctimonious misanthropy, which is their highest virtue, they use the allegorical method of expounding the Scriptures. While we think, and reason, and reflect, and use our faculties to obtain our ideas of duty, they shut their eyes and fold their hands, waiting to be endued with power from their God; and when they get it, it proves to be all to their own advantage and interest, to the ruin of their fellow-citizens.
The Sadducees are another party, equally absurd. They get their doctrine from Antigonus Sochaeus, who was President of the Sanhedrim. They reject all the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees, Then we find the sopher, or scribe, They are the writers and expounders of the law. The Pharisees (derived from Pharash, to separate) separate from all men on account of their sanctity. But it is useless to name all these sects, with their peculiar views, each differing from the other. They are all strict monotheists, yet they differ from each other more than the polytheists do.
"I have given this detailed description of the people and their various sects that the Senate may have an idea of the situation I am in. But if you could be here and see and associate with them as I do to see them with all their sanctity of life, and then behold their treachery to each other; see how they lie and steal the one from the other; and then see how low and base are their priests-you would be much better qualified to judge of my actions.
"As to this great excitement at Bethlehem, three strange, fantastic-looking men called on my guards at the gate, and asked them where was the babe born that was to be the King of the Jews. My guards told me of it, and I ordered the men to be brought into court. I asked them who they were, One of them said he was from Egypt. I asked what was their business. He said they were in search of the babe that was born to rule the Jews. I told them that I ruled the Jews under Augustus Caesar. But he said this babe would rule when I was gone. I told him not unless he was born under the purple. I asked him he knew of this babe,, He said they had all had a dream the same night about it. I told them that the devil played with our brains when we were asleep. He drew a parchment roll from his bosom, and read in the Hebrew language: "Thou, Bethlehem, least among the kingdoms of the world, out of thee shall come a man that should rule all people.' I asked him who wrote that. He said the God of heaven, I asked him where he got that parchment. He said it was the law of the covenant of the Jews. He also said a star had traveled before them all the way to Jerusalem. I told him his God was mistaken; that Bethlehem was not a kingdom, neither was it the least in the kingdom of Judea. I told them that they were superstitious fanatics, and ordered them out of my presence.
"But the excitement grew until it became intense. I found nothing could control it. I called the Hillel court, which was the most learned body of talent in Jerusalem. They read out of their laws that Jesus was to be born of a virgin in Bethlehem; that he was to rule all nations, and all the kingdoms of the world were to be subject to him; and that his Kingdom should never end, but his appointees should continue this rule forever. I found this court just as sanguine as those strangers, and, in fact'. it was in everybody's mouth; I thought I could discover already a sort of deriding and mocking spirit among the lower classes in regard to the Roman authority. Now, it is my opinion that the scene that occurred at Bethlehem was nothing more than a meteor traveling through the air, or the rising vapor from the foot of the mountains out of the low, marshy ground, as is often the case, And as to the noise heard by Melker and those shepherd-boys, it was only the echo of the shepherds on the other side of the mountain calling the night-watch, or scaring away the wolves from their flocks.
"But although this was nothing but a phenomenon of nature, and the whole thing a delusion, it did not better the condition I was in. A man will contend for a false faith stronger than he will for a true one, from the fact that the truth defends itself, but a falsehood must be defended by its adherents:first, to prove it to themselves, and secondly, that they may appear right in the estimation of their friends. But the fact is, this case is about as follows: The Roman taxation was cutting off the support of the priests, and they were smarting under it. Again, the double taxing-that is, the tithes to the priests and the tax to the Romans was bearing heavily on the common people, so that they could not stand it, and the priests saw that one of them would have to go unpaid; and, as they saw the Romans were the stronger, they wrote these things in the Tosephta, and read it daily in all their synagogues and temples, that the Jewish mind might be prepared for the event, knowing that they could magnify a mote into a mountain, when it came to anything outside of the common laws of nature, and knowing that if they could get the common people to believe in the things there would be no end to their fighting. And from all appearances the excitement was fast driving the people that way. It had already become a by-word with the children of Bethlehem and Jerusalem that the Jews had a new king, that neither Caesar nor Herod would reign any more, that they would have to pay no more taxes to keep up the Roman government. Such talk and sayings were common among the poorer classes of society.
"So I saw an insurrection brewing fast, and nothing but a most bloody war as the consequence. Now, under these circumstances, what was I to do? In my honest judgment it was best to pluck the undeveloped flower in its bud, lest it should grow and strengthen, and finally burst, and shed its deadly poison over both nations, and impoverish and ruin them forever. My enemies can see I could have no malice toward the infants of Bethlehem. I took no delight in listening to the cries of innocent mothers. May all the gods forbid! No; I saw nothing but an insurrection and a bloody war were our doom, and in this the overthrow and downfall, to some extent, of our nation.
"These are the grounds of my action in this matter. I am satisfied I did the best that could be done under the circumstances, As my motive was purely to do the best I could for my whole country, I hope you will so consider it, and I submit this statement for your consideration, promising faithfulness and submission to your judgment.