James Taylor, King Herod, and January 6th

James Taylor in Concert (h/t photographer Elizabeth Warren. Yes, that Elizabeth Warren. [CC BY 2.0])

Back in 1988, musical storyteller James Taylor put out an album entitled “Home By Another Way.” “Never Die Young.” The song “Home By Another Way” from that album is one of my favorites, and is built around the story of the Magi, celebrated on the liturgical calendar of the Christian Church on January 6th as the Festival of the Epiphany. As JT properly observes, the story told by Matthew’s gospel is less about the Magi meeting Jesus and more about another meeting they had. Here’s how Matthew put it:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

There is no way that Herod’s words to the Magi were anything but a ruse, and anyone hearing this story back in the day knew it. Herod the Great was a feared figure, having risen to power through his father’s political connections with Julius Caesar. In the time-honored tradition of despots everywhere, he was ruthless to those below him that he viewed as potential threats to his wealth and power (i.e., all the locals), and relentlessly sucked up to those above him (i.e., Rome). This combination led the Senate of Rome to appoint him “King of the Jews” and he held fast to that title for almost four decades by employing domestic spies to sniff our plots against him, a massive bodyguard to protect him, and whatever bloodthirsty tactics he deemed necessary to keep him in power.

Herod the Great was succeeded not by his eldest son, but by his most ruthless son, known as Herod Antipas. Antipas clearly followed in his father’s footsteps, in that he had his two older brothers convicted of treason and executed, thanks to a kangaroo court over which he presided. Antipas went his father one better by ditching his first wife for a second one – his own niece, Herodias. The Herodians were also very big on self-promotion via large, splashy building projects using someone else’s money. There’s much more like this to the Herodian family history, as they all were a real piece of work.

James Taylor understands Herod very well, and offers a warning to the Magi and all who will listen:

Steer clear of royal welcomes
Avoid a big to-do
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for you
He really, really wants those presents
He’ll comb your camel’s fur
Until his boys announce
They’ve found trace amounts
Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh.

Not a nice guy, this Herod fellow.

As Matthew tells the story, the Magi understood this as well, and decided not to go back to Herod after visiting Jesus:

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

In JT’s telling, the Magi “went home by another way.” But Taylor isn’t singing just to retell the story of what happened back then. He’s preaching, in his own way, drawing his listeners into the song and changing us here today:

Well it pleasures me to be here
And to sing this song tonight
They tell me that life is a miracle
And I figure that they’re right
But Herod’s always out there
He’s got our cards on file
It’s a lead pipe cinch
If we give an inch
That Herod likes to take a mile

It’s best to go home by another way
Home by another way
We got this far to a lucky star
But tomorrow is another day
We can make it another way
“Safe home!” as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart up high
And go home another way

Yes, Herod *is* always out there, looking to game the system and rape the system and break the system if that’s what it takes to keep himself in power.

But there is also always another way, a way that leaves Herod and his successors powerless and impotent.

The way of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The way of Ella Baker and John Lewis, of Robert Graetz and Jeannie Graetz.
The way of Ida B. Wells and Upton Sinclair, of Harvey Milk, Del Martin, and Phyllis Lyon
The way of the Flirtations and Sweet Honey in the Rock, of the Weavers and John McCutcheon.

Tomorrow is January 6th, and I’ll read this story from Matthew again in my study first thing in the morning. Then I’ll pull up this song and listen to the wisdom of James Taylor, urging *us* to go home by another way — a way of justice and peace, a way of hope and love.

Brother James, if you’d take the lead, it’s time to sing . . . and you all are invited to sing along.

Updated to correct the album title. Thanks, @RyanCaseyWA, for pointing it out.

25 replies
    • Peterr says:


      As I watched the events of last Jan 6 unfold on television, James Taylor’s old song kept running through my head.

  1. Savage Librarian says:


    When mourning comes to Washington
    we’ll flush what a whitewashing’s done,
    we’ll air old DT’s dirty linen,
    In mourning Washington.

    We’ll rise up early, with who won,
    to clear the mess an orange someone
    is pawning, with his evil tongue,
    in mourning Washington.

    Mourning Washington,
    Time to put stonewaller down,
    Mourning any town you name,
    Mourning’s just the same.

    I’d like to give you everything,
    Democracy, less tainted wings,
    Peaceful people that it brings,
    In mourning Washington.

    Now this is what I have to give,
    to make you care, to win you with:
    “I know that we can get through this,”
    In mourning Washington.

    Mourning Washington,
    Time to put stonewaller down,
    Mourning any town you name,
    Mourning’s just the same.


    Joni Mitchell – Morning Morgantown KARAOKE

    • Eureka says:

      I remember we were all waiting for January 6th as a constitutional function. But upon the insurrection it instantly flashed, and all I could think, was “It’s Little Christmas!” — somehow the primary way I think of January 6th had vanished until that moment. You’ve excavated and wondrously arrayed that guttural cry. Thank you, Peterr.

      And thank you, SL, for the mourning through (allusions and all).

  2. WilliamOckham says:

    I was thinking about Herod the other day and decided he really ought to be a case study for middle managers. His career is a great way to explain the concepts of managing up and managing down.

  3. Tallyrand says:

    On the Magi:

    =¥£€Plutarch (45–119 AD) wrote in his Parallel Lives that Archimedes was related to King Hiero II, the ruler of Syracuse.[27] He also provides at least two accounts on how Archimedes died after the city was taken. According to the most popular account, Archimedes was contemplating a mathematical diagram when the city was captured. A Roman soldier commanded him to come and meet Marcellus, but he declined, saying that he had to finish working on the problem. The soldier was enraged by this and killed Archimedes with his sword. Another story has Archimedes carrying mathematical instruments before being killed because a soldier thought they were valuable items. Marcellus was reportedly angered by the death of Archimedes, as he considered him a valuable scientific asset (he called Archimedes “a geometrical Briareus”) and had ordered that he should not be harmed.[28][29]

    The last words attributed to Archimedes are “Do not disturb my circles” (Latin, “Noli turbare circulos meos”; Katharevousa Greek, “μὴ μου τοὺς κύκλους τάραττε”), a reference to the circles in the mathematical drawing that he was supposedly studying when disturbed by the Roman soldier. There is no reliable evidence that Archimedes uttered these words and they do not appear in the account given by Plutarch. A similar quote is found in the work of Valerius Maximus (fl. 30 AD), who wrote in Memorable Doings and Sayings “… sed protecto manibus puluere ‘noli’ inquit, ‘obsecro, istum disturbare'” (“… but protecting the dust with his hands, said ‘I beg of you, do not disturb this'”).[22]€£¥=

    • Tallyrand says:

      I believe Archimedes actually had a laser and that Marcus Claudius Marcellus actually gave an order to his soldiers to kill anyone in the city save for that man as he wanted him, the magi, alive. When the soldiers burst into his tower from which he directed his servants in distant towers and their mirrors… they mest up his circle in the sand of his highest tower. He went nuts and the Roman soldier ran him through.

      When I tell this story to my kids, in whatever class, I always point out that not matter what you should never lose your cool.

  4. Molly Pitcher says:

    Peterr, You are welcome to move back to the Bay Area any time now. This was beautiful and needed.

  5. Solo says:

    Wow! This is a glove-snug fit, the steady hand of “Home By Another Way” slipped into Peterr’s well-made meditation. Come up through time from the elders:

    “It’s a lead pipe cinch
    If you give an inch
    Then Herod’s gonna take a mile.”

    Be gone with you, naivete !

  6. Leoghann says:

    Thanks for the lesson, Peterr, and for sharing the James Taylor, which I hadn’t heard in a long time. Observation of the family of Herod can teach us many things.

    On this date last year, I spent part of the morning with a couple of friends. One commented that it was Epiphany, and she mused that she hoped the Trumpsters would themselves have an epiphany, upon the certification of the election, and accept that he lost. Of course, that isn’t how it went at all. These days, there’s a lot of wailing and moaning in the more sane parts of the press, saying that the January 6th insurrection was just the beginning of the destruction of democracy in the US. A good number of people, including some who comment here, obviously agree. Seeing the trends lately, though, I’m starting to think that the insurrection may have been the beginning of the end for our expensively coiffed and heavily made-up modern Herod. In the spirit of the day, may his destruction be manifold.

    • matt fischer says:

      Who here views J6 as “just the beginning of the destruction of democracy in the US”? Few if any. We know the bent toward autocracy started years before. And by certain measures our democracy is worse for the wear since J6. I hope you’re right about Herod’s destruction, but the peril remains, and no one knows for certain what lies ahead.

  7. David B Pittard says:

    Written before January 6, but it keeps seeming to be pertinent:

    By David B Pittard
    In the moment, with words mashing into headlines,
    smashing lies against truth like swords against shields,
    the attack, so in detail planned, routes of escape cut off,
    surprising us, breaking our peace we thought secure,
    then, our only thought: struggle to live or die.
    In the aftermath, with little left but life, counting the dead we loved,
    and those who slew them fled, we hardly thankful felt.
    Now grasping that, as peacefully we slept, evil lurked nearby, we ask
    from whence came these blank-eyed spouters of half-truths and lies,
    with diseased, half-eaten brains, berserking,
    each a tenth our strength, but, in their numbers, strong,
    flagellating first themselves, then us,
    hoping their curse becomes ours, too?
    From servitude to Pharaohs, did we bring them with us?
    And do they mix among us as we march on for some better promised place?
    Did we not, when first we saw, now one, now two, now more,
    fear consequence, find cause, post lookouts, sharpen quill and spear?
    Not fear affliction spread? Think truth could outrun lies?
    Delusion runs amok, finds full extent,
    as when a forest, more dead and dry than green,
    in perfect union with a spark, is first a flame, then conflagration,
    the fire spares nothing until nothing is left to burn,
    our heritage: now a vast burnt ash-scape,
    False prophets overrun us with their fear and promise salvation,
    calling us to worship a golden-haired calf.
    Must we wander in a wilderness; suffer scourge, outnumbered by those afflicted,
    who witness to us their delusions, and pleasure take in scratching sores:
    signs of their righteousness? Ghastly blessings!
    They know not what they do, infecting those they love with
    ignorance, their holy symptom, by envy, justified:
    what goes around, they swear, will come.
    “Did he not break the tablets? Kneel when he should stand?”
    They chant, in misery, a brotherhood.
    They chant, mainlining fear.
    They chant and human sacrifice perform.
    They offer to the calf their prayers.
    They pray for magic to prevail.
    They pray that not one voice will utter truth.

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