As Advent approaches, we gravitate towards the passages of Scripture that relate the birth of Messiah and we think on hymns and difficulties of the Christmas season. Today’s post is on Herod the King, aka Herod the Great.

Herod then with fear was filled;

‘A king’, he said, ‘in Jewry!’

All the little boys he killed

At Bethl’em in his fury,

At Bethl’em in his fury.

One of Cardinal Jock’s recent comments reminded me of the trouble we often have regarding pagan historical sources confirming or not the truth of God’s Word. Well, it may surprise you to know that for once we have abundant evidence regarding a historical figure; but what a figure! Truly an account of Herod’s life should be nuanced, but no one can get away from the madness and evils of his end – all the little boys he killed in Bethlehem.

First the Biblical accounts: Matthew chapters one and two speak of Herod and so does Luke 1:5. The name ‘Herod’ comes up elsewhere in the New Testament, but look carefully at the title or name associated with it. In those days it was common for fathers to give their sons their own name, and Herod the King had many sons and grandsons. These other Herods have different titles like ‘tetrarch’: on Herod’s death the title king was taken from his line and  not restored till Herod Agrippa. The phrase ‘Herod the king’ is thus a means of distinguishing one Herod from another.

Incidentally, Herod or Ἡρῴδης is not Hebrew at all but Greek (you will find similar names in the Greek corpus) and means either ‘song of a hero’ or ‘son (as in offspring) of a hero’. This name may be a reference to his father Antipater, who was a powerful man during the days of John Hyrcanus, a Hasmonaean High Priest, who ruled Judaea during the waning days of her independence. The reader will note that Herod and his father and the High Priest all have Greek names (Hyrcanus refers to Hyrcania, a province of the Persian Empire; this name may have become popular as a way of celebrating Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia). Jesus’ name, by contrast, is authentically Jewish. This Gentile/Jewish distinction is important in understanding the politics of Judaea from the days of Alexander the Great to the end of the Roman occupation. As Greeks from Alexander’s armies began to settle in the Middle East and his generals took power, becoming ‘kings’ of the territories they fought each other to possess, Greek became the new lingua Franca of the region (though Aramaic remained very important). In order to communicate with people of other ethnicities, not only did people start speaking Greek, they also adopted Greek names. These names were useful not only for business purposes, but also for political advancement: they were a sign to the Greek powers that the person in question was loyal to them or at least open to alliance. It is thus significant that Herod’s father had a Greek name and so did Herod himself. The fact that Herod’s grandson had the name Herod Agrippa, after M. Vispanius Agrippa, who was a friend of Augustus and Herod the Great, indicates that Herod and his family wanted to maintain close relations with powerful Romans.

Furthermore, I do not believe the use of ‘king’ as an epithet for Herod was a careless choice by the Gospel writers. I believe it is meant to create contrast between Herod the tyrannical, false king, and Jesus, the true ‘King of the Jews’.

Outside of the Bible, the major source for Herod’s life is – you guessed it – Flavius Josephus. Now, if you’ve read about historical sources outside the Bible for Biblical people and events, you’re probably expecting a small amount of information, one or two sentences here and there. Well, with Herod you get more, much more. Books 14-17 of Josephus’ twenty book history, Antiquities of the Jews, contain a great deal on Herod’s life, while Book 1 of his Wars of the Jews contains similar details. It is from Josephus that we get the majority of our information on Herod. Josephus wrote in the second half of the first century AD, some time after Herod’s death (4 BC). He based his account on the writings of Nicolaus of Damascus, who was one of Herod’s most important ministers. This man knew all the sordid details of Herod’s family and his politics. Josephus may have also consulted other historians and he may have received reports or eyewitness accounts from family members and friends in Judaea. Josephus, like all ancient historians, infused his work with moral precepts and literary techniques. His circumstances and motives changed between the writing of Wars of the Jews and Antiquities of the Jews. For these reasons, the reader must be careful in trawling these works for ‘facts’. The basic narratives are accepted by modern historians, but they have become aware of tragic story-telling designed to evoke sympathy or fear of Herod – the account is not unbiased.

I will not bore the reader with all the events set down by Josephus, but a few should be noted to indicate the difficulty of Herod’s reign. Herod was created King of Judaea by the Romans so that he could rule on their behalf in that land. He was forced to flee Judaea when the Parthians invaded and installed Antigonus, a Hasmonaean, as High Priest and ruler in place of his uncle John Hyrcanus, who had been ruling as High Priest. Herod returned and married into the Hasmonaean family and eventually the Romans captured Jerusalem and installed Herod there. He tore down the old Acra fortress, and built his own, the Antonia, named after M. Antonius (Mark Antony). As time went on and things became difficult he killed off the remaining Hasmonaeans (some of whom at least were conspiring to gain power) and he eventually had his Hasmonaean wife executed. He ruled with an iron fist and chose his own High Priests, rather than letting them obtain the position by inheritance through the ‘proper’ family lines. He continued to have family problems and towards the end of his life had some of his own sons executed (which makes the Bethlehem story in Matthew quite believable). He initiated great building works, including a complete renovation of the Temple. When much of the Temple had been built, he put a golden eagle on one of the doorways as a sign of his loyalty to Rome. Jewish agitators formed a mob and pulled this eagle down. Herod had those responsible executed. You can see from these details that Herod had a very stormy reign: he was no doubt hated by many – but not all. Many will have embraced his moves to improve relations with Rome; many will have been thankful for his relief efforts during a famine; and many will have understood the evil machinations of the Hasmonaeans and Herod’s own siblings and children.

Our last literary source is the Talmud*. This is trickier to handle than Josephus because it is difficult to assess the age, accuracy, and veracity of the traditions contained in it. Herod died long before the Talmud was written down and much can change in the retelling of a story. A famous comment from the Talmud is, ‘One who has not seen Herod’s Temple, has not seen beauty.’

Lastly, there is the archaeological evidence. It may interest people to know that coins have survived from Herod’s reign with his name on them. The buildings he left behind are probably more impressive though. He was one of the busiest builders among all the rulers of classical antiquity and he lived in an age when buildings were important as tools of propaganda. I direct the reader to Duane Roller’s book, The Building Programme of Herod the Great, and Paul Zanker’s book, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, for a treatment of Augustus’ building programme and artistic patronage. Anyone who has been to Israel will know first hand the splendour of Herod’s projects, even in their ruined state. He rebuilt the city of Samaria; he built Caesarea Maritima on the coast; he fortified Masada; he rebuilt the Temple (the Wailing Wall is probably his work); he probably built the complex at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. This only scratches the surface of what he did.

Truly Herod was a larger than-life-figure; he ranks up there with the likes of Augustus and Mithridates. To be sure, he was a wicked man – but what do you expect from a powerful Gentile ruler of this period?

*There is a brief reference to Herod in Macrobius’ Saturnalia. Augustus makes a weak pun by saying he’d rather be Herod’s pig (συς) than his son (υιος). The point is that Herod was nominally Jewish by religion (ethnically he was Idumaean) and so wouldn’t eat pork.