Why Was Joseph Afraid of Archelaus?

In the last post, I explained where the Massacre of the Innocents is actually recorded in well-accepted history. It wasn’t obvious, but it is definitely there. Before that, I explained how the Census of Quirinius worked, and why it is not a contradiction or historical flub on Luke’s part at all. In fact, this is sort of becoming a series. I suppose I should make a group page for it.

This post answers a second question that most people do not even know is an issue. Why was Joseph afraid to live in Bethlehem under Archelaus? How does this fit in with the rest of the assurances that the angel gave Joseph?

There is an answer, but it is WAY crazier than you probably thought.

Why Was Joseph Afraid of Archelaus?

After the visit of the Magi, the flight to Egypt, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the death of Herod, we get the following events in the second chapter of Matthew:

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:19-23)

There is something confusing here, and it shouldn’t be brushed over. Joseph has already trusted an angel in a dream not to divorce his betrothed, Mary, even though she was prego-with-not-his-baby. He has already trusted an angel in a dream to leave Bethlehem and go to Egypt. Finally, an angel told him that “those who sought the child’s life are dead,” and he went back to Israel.

But for some reason:

“when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.”

But why? Didn’t we get assurance in the second dream? Are we supposed to think that the angel returned in a third dream, saying:

“Oh wait! Nevermind! There is one more guy who was seeking the child’s life, and he’s still alive! His name is Archelaus! Sorry bro, I forgot about him. Don’t tell my boss.”

Even stranger, this is not the only son of Herod who is ruling. As we read in Josephus:

When Cæsar had heard these pleadings, he dissolved the assembly; but a few days afterwards he appointed Archelaus, not indeed to be king of the whole country, but ethnarch of the one half of that which had been subject to Herod, and promised to give him the royal dignity hereafter, if he governed his part virtuously. But as for the other half, he divided it into two parts, and gave it to two other of Herod’s sons, to Philip and to Antipas, that Antipas who disputed with Archelaus for the whole kingdom. Now to him it was that Peres and Galilee paid their tribute, which amounted annually to two hundred talents, while Batanea, with Trachonitis, as well as Auranitis, with a certain part of what was called the House of Zenodorus, paid the tribute of one hundred talents to Philip; but Idumea, and Judea, and the country of Samaria paid tribute to Archelaus, but had now a fourth part of that tribute taken off by the order of Cæsar, who decreed them that mitigation, because they did not join in this revolt with the rest of the multitude. There were also certain of the cities which paid tribute to Archelaus: Strato’s Tower and Sebaste, with Joppa and Jerusalem; for as to Gaza, and Gadara, and Hippos, they were Grecian cities, which Cæsar separated from his government, and added them to the province of Syria. Now the tribute-money that came to Archelaus every year from his own dominions amounted to six hundred talents. (Josephus, Antiquities, 17.11.4)

So here’s the puzzle: Joseph is afraid of Archelaus who is ruling in Jerusalem in the place of his father Herod, but Joseph is NOT afraid of Herod Antipas who is ruling in Galilee in the place of his father Herod. Additionally, an angel assured Joseph that everything was fine, and that’s why he could return to Israel. But, regardless, in another dream, the angel warns Joseph to go to Nazareth.

As we’ve already described in a previous post, Joseph is originally from Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Only Mary is from Nazareth. And that Greek word for “go” in the phrase “he was afraid to go there” is ἀπελθεῖν (apelthein), which means not only “to go” but also “to come or go away from, depart, return, arrive, go after, follow.” So, while the translation isn’t wrong, the real thing that is going on is that Joseph was afraid to return to his ordinary life in Bethlehem, settling down like nothing had happened. It doesn’t mean that he was afraid to set foot in the city limits of Bethlehem, and just by-passed the town after being warned in a dream on the road back.

But here’s the real issue: WHY!?

The Crazy Events At the “End of Herod”

There is an answer. As we described earlier, there were LOTS of things going on in Judea around the time of the Death of Herod:

Now at this time there were ten thousand other disorders in Judea, which were like tumults, because a great number put themselves into a warlike posture, either out of hopes of gain to themselves, or out of enmity to the Jews. (Josephus, Antiquities, 17.10.4)

One of those “tumults” was the Massacre of the Innocents. But there is a different event that explains why Joseph moved from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Josephus describes many people who raised seditions, tried to become king, tried to steal Herod’s money, and randomly robbed in the countryside. But one even sticks out from the rest:

But because Athronges, a person neither eminent by the dignity of his progenitors, nor for any great wealth he was possessed of, but one that had in all respects been a shepherd only, and was not known by any body; yet because he was a tall man, and excelled others in the strength of his hands, he was so bold as to set up for king. This man thought it so sweet a thing to do more than ordinary injuries to others, that although he should be killed, he did not much care if he lost his life in so great a design. He had also four brethren, who were tall men themselves, and were believed to be superior to others in the strength of their hands, and thereby were encouraged to aim at great things, and thought that strength of theirs would support them in retaining the kingdom. Each of these ruled over a band of men of their own; for those that got together to them were very numerous. They were every one of them also commanders; but when they came to fight, they were subordinate to him, and fought for him, while he put a diadem about his head, and assembled a council to debate about what things should be done, and all things were done according to his pleasure. And this man retained his power a great while; he was also called king, and had nothing to hinder him from doing what he pleased. He also, as well as his brethren, slew a great many both of the Romans and of the king’s forces, and managed matters with the like hatred to each of them. The king’s forces they fell upon, because of the licentious conduct they had been allowed under Herod’s government; and they fell upon the Romans, because of the injuries they had so lately received from them. But in process of time they grew more cruel to all sorts of men, nor could any one escape from one or other of these seditions, since they slew some out of the hopes of gain, and others from a mere custom of slaying men. They once attacked a company of Romans at Emmaus, who were bringing corn and weapons to the army, and fell upon Arius, the centurion, who commanded the company, and shot forty of the best of his foot soldiers; but the rest of them were affrighted at their slaughter, and left their dead behind them, but saved themselves by the means of Gratus, who came with the king’s troops that were about him to their assistance. Now these four brethren continued the war a long while by such sort of expeditions, and much grieved the Romans; but did their own nation also a great deal of mischief. Yet were they afterwards subdued; one of them in a fight with Gratus, another with Ptolemy; Archelaus also took the eldest of them prisoner; while the last of them was so dejected at the other’s misfortune, and saw so plainly that he had no way now left to save himself, his army being worn away with sickness and continual labors, that he also delivered himself up to Archelaus, upon his promise and oath to God [to preserve his life.] But these things came to pass a good while afterward. (Josephus, Antiquities, 17.10.7)

We get a parallel description of this event in The Wars of the Jews:

At this time it was that a certain shepherd ventured to set himself up for a king; he was called Athrongeus. It was his strength of body that made him expect such a dignity, as well as his soul, which despised death; and besides these qualifications, he had four brethren like himself. He put a troop of armed men under each of these his brethren, and made use of them as his generals and commanders, when he made his incursions, while he did himself act like a king, and meddled only with the more important affairs; and at this time he put a diadem about his head, and continued after that to overrun the country for no little time with his brethren, and became their leader in killing both the Romans and those of the king’s party; nor did any Jew escape him, if any gain could accrue to him thereby. He once ventured to encompass a whole troop of Romans at Emmaus, who were carrying corn and weapons to their legion; his men therefore shot their arrows and darts, and thereby slew their centurion Arius, and forty of the stoutest of his men, while the rest of them, who were in danger of the same fate, upon the coming of Gratus, with those of Sebaste, to their assistance, escaped. And when these men had thus served both their own countrymen and foreigners, and that through this whole war, three of them were, after some time, subdued; the eldest by Archelaus, the two next by falling into the hands of Gratus and Ptolemeus; but the fourth delivered himself up to Archelaus, upon his giving him his right hand for his security. However, this their end was not till afterward, while at present they filled all Judea with a piratic war. (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 2.4.3)

From these passages, we see that a shepherd was able to get a large troop of men around him, with other shepherd-brothers acting like commanders.

We also learn that this Athronges guy “despised death,” which actually doesn’t mean he “hated” death or “tried to avoid it.” Instead, the Greek word is καταφρονέω, which means “to think slightly” or to “disregard” it. In other words, the idea of dying did not scare him.

We can also notice the strange detail we get in Josephus’s account of this piratic war the shepherds engaged in:

The king’s forces they fell upon, because of the licentious conduct they had been allowed under Herod’s government; and they fell upon the Romans, because of the injuries they had so lately received from them.

“Licentious conduct”? What does that mean? Well, when you read Josephus, you can see that there was a strong religious objection to the actions of Herod the Great. He did not give proper respect to the Jewish law in his rule. Therefore, we can deduce a strange fact about this war of the shepherds: It was a RELIGIOUS war.

In light of this, the shepherds attacked both Romans and Jews. In fact, this event at Emmaus also explains what was covered in the last post. Josephus says that the Roman general Varus did the following:

Emmaus was also burnt by Varus’s order, after its inhabitants had deserted it, that he might avenge those that had there been destroyed. (Josephus, Antiquities, 17.10.9)

We can see the location of Emmaus and these incidents in the following map. Depending on which of the two towns called “Emmaus” Josephus is referring to, this town is either 7.5 miles or 19 miles from Jerusalem.:

In other words, this shepherd guy is causing a big problem. We also read that this man had a long-running “piratic” war. They were eventually defeated, but not until a long time after these other events at “the end of Herod.”

This means, it would have still been happening when Joseph returned from Egypt.

The Confusing Context of These Passages

There is something quite confusing about this whole incident. At this time, Herod the Great had been reigning in Judea for over 30 years. He had just died, and one of his sons was probably going to be king.


For SOME REASON, a RANDOM SHEPHERD decides: Nope. He’s not the king.

For SOME REASON, this shepherd is able to convince a bunch of other random shepherds: Nope. That family that has been ruling for decades and has the backing of Roman legions? Nope. We can take ’em.

So, let me ask you a very leading question. Is there anything in the Bible concerning SHEPHERDS AROUND JERUSALEM that would put the following idea in their head:

“Herod is dead, but that Archelaus guy? He’s not the king. We do not recognize him as the rightful king. We have a religious war to make to make sure he is not the king.”

What could convince not only one person, but four of his shepherd brothers, and a host of other followers to fight NOT ONLY the Romans, but also the Jews?

I’m so glad you asked….

The Connection to the Birth of Christ

Turn in your Bibles to Luke 2:

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
(Luke 2:8-20)

If the shepherds shared the information of their encounter with the angels, it is conceivable that Mary would have also shared what she heard from the angel Gabriel:

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
(Luke 1:30-33)

How’s that for “motivation” to think lightly of death, to start a religious war, to believe that the Archelaus guy ruling in his father’s place in Jerusalem “ain’t the real king ’round here.”

Who is the real king ’round here? They believed it was Jesus. It is possible they even saw him wrapped in swaddling clothes with his mother in Bethlehem. Undoubtedly, at least someone they knew had done so. After all, we are told:

And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. (Luke 2:18)

That Greek word “wondered” is actually ἐθαύμασαν (ethaumasan). It means not only to “wonder” but to “marvel” and even to “admire.” Perhaps this is a parallel description of what Josephus is describing with Athronges.

It also correlates to a different attitude we read about with Mary:

But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

The shepherds were “admired,” and perhaps even used this admiration to fight and bring the kingdom that had been promised by the angel into existence. Meanwhile, Mary’s reaction is introduced with the word “But” which is Greek conjunction δέ (de). It means “on the other hand.”

While the shepherds went out to enact the message they had heard with their own hands, their own strength, and their own actions. Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

That’s a sobering difference, and an example to keep in mind.

Why Joseph Went to Nazareth

As we explained earlier, Joseph lived in Bethlehem. At the end of the second chapter of Matthew, he has returned from Egypt, back to his hometown of Bethlehem, which is only 5 miles from Jerusalem, where Archelaus is now reigning.

Was Archelaus trying to kill Jesus according to his father’s order? No. He was not, and the angel was not wrong.


Unlike “those who sought the child’s life” according to the order of Herod, this worry was different. Joseph and his family were the origin of a RELIGIOUS WAR against ARCHELAUS in Jeruslaem, who ruled ONLY FIVE MILES from Bethlehem in Jerusalem.

If Archelaus were to capture one of these shepherds (which he did), then he could question him. Archelaus could ask the shepherd who — if not him — was the “actual” king in Jerusalem. And that shepherd — if he were to tell the truth, could lead Archelaus right up to the doorstep of Joseph and Mary in the town of Bethlehem, where the shepherds visited on the night of the nativity.

And so, as we read, Joseph was warned in a dream to depart to Nazareth. What this dream told him, I do not know. Perhaps there was nothing specific, saying “Go to Nazareth now.” Perhaps it was very specific, saying “Athronges will not succeed, and you are in danger, go to Nazareth now.” Perhaps it was WILDLY specific, saying “One of the commanders of Athronges’s fighters is about to give himself up to Archelaus. Seeking to preserve his life, and he will direct Archelaus to your doorstep if you do not flee now.” Regardless, Joseph got the message and left town.

Joseph was not afraid to live under the different son of Herod, because that son was a rival of Archelaus, who wanted Archelaus’s pending throne. Herod Antipas in Galilee also wasn’t fighting the shepherds, so that religious war was none of his concern. Since Mary was from Nazareth (see Luke 1:26), Joseph had at least SOME family to lean on.

And that is why Joseph was afraid to live under Archelaus, and moved to Nazareth.

Conclusion and Request for Help

Just like my last post, this information is merely a fun side-project. I am confident that no one has noticed it before, because I looked, and there was nothing there. I was able to find it because I was able to create a solid chronology of the infancy narratives, and this detail just clicked.

The REAL discovery that I have found is the Magi’s Star, both as the “Star in the East” and “Star of Bethlehem.” I know what “the Star” is. I know when it appeared. I know what it meant to the Magi. I know how it moved. I know how it “went before” the Magi. I know how it “came and stood” over the place where the child was. I know how it brought the Magi to a particular house in Bethlehem. I even have compelling proof of its existence in recorded history. I have an entire chronology of events like the ones in the last two posts to support the plausibility of the explanation.

But I need help. I am only a (very good looking and) moderately talented lawyer. I am not an academic. I have no clout in the academic biblical-studies field. I need help getting published or getting attention in the Biblical studies department. If you’d like to see the full scope of my research and help bring it to a larger audience, please contact me at mrcalebjones at gmail dot com. Let me know who you are and how you can help (or if you’d like me to come present at your church or gathering) and I’d be happy to show you what I’ve got.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Linda J Cornelison says:

    This is Wonderful information from the Bible, But, I Feel you Can Leave Out The “Bro” Junk! That is of The “Old You!” And you Are a New Creature In Our Christ! Okay? So, Please Clean up the thinking you gotta “Be Cool in Explaining it!” You Don’t have to God says. Amen.

    1. The Jones says:

      Yes, I confess, I write like I speak. But in my defense, I’m not trying to be cool when I explain things, Linda.

      I AM cool when I explain things. 😉

      Glad you enjoyed the explanation!

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