Ancient History, History, Reading

Luke Slighting the Rulers of His Day

Luke slights rulers he does not care for. He does it a lot actually. As I have been reading and researching through Luke, I have noticed this tendency.

It is especially evident in chapter 3 of Luke’s gospel when he is describing the rulers of John the Baptist and Jesus’ day.

1. Luke always refer to the Herodian kings as Herod (except Philip, the tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis). This causes all kinds of confusion in history since Luke was our primary source for anything about the Herodians and the reason we even call them Herodians in the first place. Although the Herod who ruled Galilee in Jesus’ time was called Antipater by everyone, including his subjects, Luke calls him Herod. It is almost like some of the aristocrats of Victorian British society who always referred to their butler as Joseph, no matter what his real name was. It saved them the trouble of having to learn the name of the new guy.

So, if you’re Herod the Great or Herod Antipas or Herod Archelaus, it doesn’t matter to Luke. To Luke, they’re all interchangeable as the male lead in a long-running soap opera is today.

2. He refers to whoever the ruler of Abilene was at the time of John the Baptist’s ministry as Lysanias. The actual Lysanias died before Jesus was born, and the last known ruler of the area was his son Zenodorus. After Zenodorus’ death in 20 BCE, the region was placed under the rule of the Herodians. Luke seems to be mocking the ruler by calling him by his greater ancestor’s name.

Of course, this might have actually been the guy’s name, but to even list him seems a slight since he couldn’t have actually ruled anything. Luke heaps indignity on the Herodians and Lysanian rulers alike. After all, their insignificant principalities had no place being mentioned in the same breath as Tiberius Caesar.

3. Then there are the Jewish high priests. Luke adamantly refuses to write the name Joseph b. Caiaphas (Yosef b. Kayaffa in Hebrew) correctly. Instead he refers to him by his father’s name Caiaphas and always – always groups him with his father-in-law Annas.

According to Josephus, Caiaphas is something of a puppet in Annas’ hands. He does his father-in-law’s bidding. While he appears in Matthew and John’s gospels as one of many involved in Jesus’ trial. Luke does not even give him that much of a mention. Caiaphas is just a way marker for dating Jesus’ story.

The insult couldn’t be greater. Luke basically says, “There was this yokel ruler who thought he was something but couldn’t even live up to his dad’s reputation. He was just his father-in-law’s yes man.”

4. And in chapter 2, Luke writes of Quirinius being governor of Syria when Jesus was born, but Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was not the titular governor (legatus) of the province at the time. Although Quirinius would assume the post in 6 CE, at the time of Jesus’ birth the governor was Publius Quinctilius Varus – a bumbling politician who would later get himself and three Roman legions killed at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.

This is actually a slight on Varus, not Quirinius; but the principle still applies. Luke ignores Varus entirely, which is exactly what Caesar wished he could have done. At the time, Quirinius was governor of Dalmatia but Caesar sent him to Syria to find out why it was taking nine years for Varus to complete a census only done once every ten years. So, Luke insults Varus. Not that it mattered to Varus. He had died decades before, but you get the idea.

(I know. I know. I like Latin names. I can’t help it.)

Luke intentionally slights these men. He holds them in contempt. Of course, one could certainly understand it. They aren’t exactly a bumper crop of geniuses and dignitaries. These people are epic failures of leaders.

Not surprisingly however Luke is very careful to give Tiberius Caesar his proper title, and the same applies with Pontius Pilate. These were men held in high regard, for the most part, by the Romans. Tiberius was a successful, acclaimed commander and leader, even if he was something of a mediocre emperor; and Pilate was something of a brute (he massacred people on at least two occasions) but he was respected.

I can’t even tell you how awesome it is when you find something like this hidden among all the overly-religious interpretations you have endured all your life. It is endlessly humorous when you strip away all the pomp and circumstance we heap on the Scriptures and see the humanity beneath.

That is all.

2 thoughts on “Luke Slighting the Rulers of His Day”

  1. Was Herod’s real name Antipater? Interesting. If my Latin serves me well it would appear to be: Anti Pater or “Against (The) Father.” Your thoughts?

    1. It is Greek: αντί (like) + πατρος (father).

      Antipatros was the name of one of Alexander the Great’s generals who took over Macedonia when Alexander died.

      Herod the Great had several sons. He killed his two oldest sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, in 7 BCE and when he died in 4 BCE, the Roman Senate divided his domain among three of his remaining sons:

      Antipater became tetrarch of Galilee
      Archelaus became ethnarch of Samaria and Judea
      Philip became tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis

      All of his sons were named after Greek leaders of the previous period, which was probably not wildly popular with his Jewish subjects (especially since Alexander and Aristobulus were the sons of his first wife Mariamne, the last Hasmonean).

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