by Dr. Jeffrey Lant.
Author’s note: I have held this story privily unto myself for over four decades now. Not a day goes by, not an hour, that I have failed to examine this manuscript, touch it, venerate it, until I have come to know each sentence, every word, indeed every smudge and discoloration.
Since the very day this story begins, so many years ago, this document has determined the course of my life. Instead of merely discovering perhaps the most important of historical documents — the apologia pro vita sua of Herod, King of the Jews, archetype of majesty, I have found a master… for whatever role I have played in this matter, it has always been Herod who has called all the shots, just as he called them every day of his life, as much a King in death as he was most assuredly King in life.
This papyrus clearly marked with the royal seal of Herod, King has held me in thrall. I have wondered, indeed dwelt on the matter with near manic intensity, whether I was right to withhold notifying my dissertation advisor of a find I knew almost instantly was a matter of the first importance, a certain wonder to the world, significant to people everywhere.
I was, however, just a second-year graduate student at the time and was as such unsure of my way; of no consequence or standing whatsoever. I decided then, and have lived with the consequences of this decision ever since, that when I was “ready” I would release the fateful document I have always known would make my career, guarantee a plum academic appointment, respect and admiration my certain portion…
… along, of course, with the jealous denunciations, painful abuses, and hurtful execrations of those who were determined to bring low anyone who threatens, as I and this seminal document would most certainly threaten, the version of events they had propounded and rested their careers, well being and reputations upon.
I was convinced then that I was not ready to withstand such abuse, which I knew was certain and so made the far-reaching decision to be silent and maintain this silence. Each time thereafter I determined I was at last “ready” for the world to know and take my rightful place amongst today’s Sadducees, I paused knowing the first query I would be universally subjected to was “why?”…. why had I waited even a single minute for revelation, the fateful query which even I recognized would undercut my case and make its acceptance even more difficult than I knew it would be.
Thus from the moment I determined I would not inform my advisor, would not inform anyone, my fate was sealed. Herod gained a loyal servant… I gained a boot on my neck, for I lived no longer my life; I lived only the life Herod, King permitted me. Here’s how it all began…
In Widener’s stacks, a bomb shell.
I was, I admit, a diligent, more plodding than brilliant student for all that Fair Harvard selected me. As such I was guaranteed a “good” job, at a “respectable” university… secured sustenance, but not one scintilla of the glory, fame and fanfare I yearned for. To avoid this fate, one known by most graduate students and the average Academician, I needed a dissertation that was at once meal ticket and masterpiece. And for that I needed just the right topic.
After discussion, I was given permission to write on the role of the “Slaughter of the Innocents” in the development of Christian theology, iconography, hagiography, and belief… and as such was immediately introduced to Herod, King, the designated villain of the matter.
Herod, scoundrel, murderer, infanticide, scourge of every decency, infamous traducer of every humane value, King.
The point of a dissertation, a doctoral thesis, is for the designated educational authorities to determine if you, aspirant to the Academy, can advance the cause of truth (“Veritas” as they simply say at Harvard) and, having advanced your point of view, defend it against all comers, and so enrich humanity.
It is the noblest occupation of all, the process through which assertions, however audacious and astonishing, shine out not as opinions but as Truth… thereby taking the place of mere arguments once regarded as important, now instead to be regarded as untenable propositions; no longer regarded as anything but the quaint beliefs of earlier, less enlightened times. All true scholars participate in this crucial work, indeed it is the major reason for the very existence of the Academy, where all work hard for wages ample but not excessive, shaping society, enriching society, advancing society word by careful word, idea by new idea.
I was proud to walk this road, honored, humble before such a great goal, determined to be worthy of the name Scholar. And so I opened my research on Herod (born 73/74 BCE, died 4 BCE aged 70); his reign (37-4 BCE), his wives (10), his children (at least 10), his vast achievements (particularly the construction of the Second Temple of Judaism and the astonishing engineering feat that was Caesarea Maritima and its breathtaking port, the envy of every governor and autocrat necessitous of tax revenues and wishing new ways to tap into the never ending bounty that was the trade of the Orient. Herod was the envy and inspiration of all, even unto the reigning Roman emperor himself.
The dark, sinister, paranoid, sleepless, fearful ruler, murder always at the ready to ease his uneasy spirit.
Then there was the “other” Herod, the one whose violent deeds continue to shock, disquiet, and disgust. This was a man of dark thoughts and darker deeds, a man whose penchant for murder as statecraft still reeks two millennia later. This was the man who killed his second wife Queen Mariamne, likely the only woman he ever loved; who then roamed the corridors of his many palaces calling her name, summoning her back to the life he had summarily ended.
He likewise killed his three sons by this queen as well as unnumbered officials, soldiers, priests, subjects, and nobles. Such a man well knew there would be jubilation at his death and so ordained that the leading men of every family, tribe, and section should die with him, thereby producing distress, lamentation and grief suitable for his stature and majesty.
Such a man could easily be thought to commit the unthinkable, the one act universally regarded as unmitigated evil, the act known to history as “The Slaughter of the Innocents”, enshrined for all the world to know and judge in The Holy Bible (St Matthew, 3,13-16)
“Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years and older, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.”
This was and has always been the gravamen against this notorious sovereign, a grave charge found no where else. Even so, this heinous deed was accepted by all, historical fact, the very gospel. My diligent researches revealed nothing more… until one unforgettable afternoon in the cool recesses of Widener Library.
There at the bottom of a dusty box, tied in heavy string, marked as a previously unopened, uncataloged bequest of Judaica was destiny in the form of a seal, the kind of official marking on the correspondence of some great man indicating a matter of significance. And so it most assuredly was…
The Gospel according to Herod, King of the Jews.
I would have removed the document from the box in any case. The shear beauty and intricacy of the seal, remarkably intact, assured that. Its design I later identified as an element from the facade of Herod’s masterwork, the Great Temple of the Jews. The document that followed was in Greek, a language Herod knew well from his extensive classical education. Here, too, he had the advantage of me…
But I knew enough to know the salutation was the king’s own. It said “Attend! To Herod, King!” He used the Greek word, “Basileus.”
Soon I was giving every moment that I could enter the stacks to this document; early and late I thought of nothing but its translation. But this was not enough. My poor Greek made for slow progress…. and so I determined to “borrow” this document from the library, promising to return it as soon as I had finished, but of course that day never dawned. I am looking at it now…
Obsession, a secret life, Herod rules my life.
Over the course of the next months, which ultimately turned into long years, my entire attention was focused on the document, which in due time proved to be a death-bed justification of the events of his momentous reign. The drift was always the same, I did such and such a thing because I was King, not saint.
Yes, he killed Queen Mariamne “a tiresome woman who would not keep to her place”. Yes, he murdered her brother the High Priest “an ambitious man with his eye on my crown and the head in it.”
Yes, he murdered his three sons by Mariamne “useless drones with only one interest in life… seeing me dead.”
The document, running some 5,000 words in the most elegant and sophisticated Greek imaginable, was a treasure trove of valuable insights. He made it clear each word was the word of a king, as such sacrosanct; that he would not deign to dissemble even if it were to his interest. And so he produced a document only the ultimate insider could have produced. That is why his remarks about “The Slaughter of the Innocents” disturbed me so…
In whose interest?
Herod, King, so renowned and powerful even on his bier that he could afford to tell the whole truth about himself, was forthright on this matter, too. He never saw any “wise men” (characteristically saying that he had been looking for such men quite unsuccessfully for his entire life); never received them; was never told that they sought the infant “King of the Jews”. If they had he could have directed them to dozens of such people in and around his kingdom, claimants to the throne being “common as dust”.
Moreover, should he have wished to kill the children of Bethlehem as the legend states, he could easily have found methods at once less flamboyant and more effective, starting a pest house there for instance, thereby introducing new plagues and contagions. He then went on to another matter. But before he did, he asked his reader to consider in whose interest such a canard might be. Certainly not his.
Over time the likely answer to Herod’s sharp question emerged. The early Christians lacked credibility and needed as many “miracles” as quickly as possible, to grow and prosper. Casting Herod as the certain cause for one of history’s most tragic and cruel events allowed the early fathers to dazzle by claiming miracles, indeed the very involvement of God Himself on their behalf, never mind it was untrue. Thus instead of this Biblical “truth”, I came to adhere to Herod’s no nonsense conclusion; that the entire matter of this slaughter was fraudulent, a pack of convenient lies composed for their own purposes.
What was I to do? I had by now been expelled from Harvard, not for the theft of one of history’s most important documents; that was child’s play. Rather for neglecting my other work and classes. Thus, I had even less standing than before. And so the matter rested for all these years. Thus, I allowed the selfish beneficiaries of the hoax known as “The Slaughter of the Innocents” to continue their falsehood and deception.
A special message from Dr. Lant.
Three months ago, I found in the lobby of the building where I live a hand-delivered package hand-addressed to me. I noticed at once it had no return address. Per my invariable custom, I opened the box at once, only to find all the documents collected by the ex-Harvard graduate student whose research on the matter has been so meticulous and invaluable. It even contained the headline he once expected to appear upon publication of his discovery.
However while I have used this headline above, I am by no means sure I shall ever publish this article, much less the poor man’s work, acute discoveries and conclusions as he clearly expected me to do. Here’s the rub…
Myths are important, you see, none more so than this one. For, yes, I am fully persuaded King Herod, not the single reference found in The Holy Bible, was right, that the research of our scholar was right. However their conclusions are inconvenient, to say nothing more, to churches and Christians everywhere. They need belief and Herod’s truth would only unsettle them so, especially at Christmas. For the story of Christmas relies on Herod, the three wise men, the dream God gave Joseph to flee into Egypt, and “the slaughter of the Innocents’. You see my dilemma….