King Herod the Worst.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 December

When Jesus was born, Judea was ruled by “Herod the Great,” as he’s commonly called. I don’t know who first gave him the title “the Great,” and loads of people—myself included—have pointed out the man was far from a great human being; he was a murderous tyrant. As achievements go, he did get way more done than the subsequent members of the Herod family. But in terms of character he’s the worst. Hence the title of this piece.

Lemme backtrack through history by way of introduction. So Isaac ben Abraham had two sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob’s descendants became Israel, and Esau’s descendants became אֱדוֹם/Edom, a nation located just southeast of Judah, which likewise spoke Hebrew and likewise did a rotten job of worshiping the LORD. And yes, they did know and worship the LORD; one of Edom’s more devout examples was Job. Yes, that Job. The guy with the book about him. (No he didn’t live before Abraham’s day; that’s just a weird young-earth creationist belief. All the names in his book are Edomite, and his book was written in sixth-century Hebrew.) Edom had a really long history of being subservient to Israel: First it was conquered by King David ben Jesse, 2Sa 8.14 and made a tributary state to Israel. When Israel split into Ephraim in the north and Judah in the south, sometimes Edom was ruled by one, sometimes the other; either way they weren’t big fans of Israelis. They rejoiced when Babylon conquered Judah in the early 500s BC, and were annoyed when the Babylonian Jews returned to found Judea in the 400s.

In the 300s BC, the Edomites themselves were exiled from their land—shoved out by the conquering Nabatean Empire. They were forced to resettle west of their old land, in southern Judea. This land became Ἰδουμαία/Iduméa—which is simply the Greek word for Edom. In 110BC, king and head priest John Hyrcanus 1 of Judea decided to take the land back, conquered Idumea, and told the Idumeans—who are ethnically the same as Judeans, y’know—they could stay there only if they followed the Law. Historians like to describe it as forcibly assimilating them, but the Idumeans could’ve fled to Egypt you know. But they didn’t; they stayed. By Jesus’s day they had largely assimilated into the rest of Judea. They’re Jews now.

(Yeah, there are various Christians who claim Jordanians are descendants of the Edomites. They’re not. They are descendants of Abraham; just not through Esau.)

Anyway 37 years after the Judean conquest, an Edomite named ܗܶܪܳܘܕ݂ܶܣ/Horódos was born to a former governor of Idumea, Antipater bar Antipas, in 73BC. Herod (Greek Ἡρῴδης/Iródis, Latin Herodes) was Antipater’s second son. His mother was Kyprós, a Nabatean noblewoman related to King Aretas 3 of Nabatea. Historians sometimes call Herod an Arab because they confuse Edomites with Arabs, or speculate the Idumeans weren’t really Edomites, but only claimed to be so they could relocate in Judea. Conspiracy theories regardless, Herod was a descendant of Abraham on both sides.

Herod’s rise to kingship.

Antipater was a shrewd politician who managed to wield a lot of influence in Idumea, and also manipulate the members of the Hasmonean royal family against one another—with the help of the Nabateans in his wife’s family, and the Romans.

When Herod was six, Queen Salome Alexandra died, in 67BC. Her son, head priest John Hyrcanus 2, was meant to succeed her as king. His younger brother Aristobulus overthrew him three months later, became head priest himself, and King Aristobulus 2. He forced Hyrcanus into premature retirement. Antipater convinced Hyrcanus his brother was secretly plotting to assassinate him, helped Hyrcanus flee to Nabatea, and got King Aretas to build Hyrcanus an army to retake Judea. Antipater promised Aretas a few cities in return.

Aristobulus tried to get the Romans on his side—which backfired big-time. The first Roman he contacted, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, was really easy to bribe with 400 talents (roughly $9.9 million USD today), but Aemilius’s superior, general Gnæus Pompeius Magnus (whom historians tend to call Pompey, a form of his family name) realized Hyrcanus would be way easier to manipulate, and backed him instead. Pompey invaded Judea to arrest Aristobulus, besieged Jerusalem in 63BC, and outraged the Jews by taking a peek in the temple’s Holiest Place to see what was in there. (He heard rumors it was a donkey’s head, and was mighty confused to find nothing in there. Worshiping an invisible god?—he couldn’t wrap his head around it.) He ordered the temple cleaned up and the worship resumed, then took Aristobulus to Rome with him for his ritual pagan triumph… in which Romans would parade their defeated enemies, then sacrifice ’em to their gods. Then Pompey made Hyrcanus head priest again—but not king.

Nope; instead of king, Pompey made Antipater the Idumean the governor of Judea. In 47BC, the Romans officially made him their procurator, which we tend to translate as “governor,” but properly means “guy who procures stuff for us.” Namely taxes. Antipater was the guy who really ran stuff. John Hyrcanus, the Romans declared, was the ethnarch/“ethnic leader,” and you could try to translate that as “king” if you please, but that’s not really what it means. Hyrcanus ran the temple and the Judean senate, but Antipater ran Judea—and all the territories Judea controlled.

The Romans also gave Antipater and his family Roman citizenship, although it doesn’t look like Antipater or his sons adopted Roman-style names. Herod’s descendants later used “Herod” as their family name; hence all the Herods in the New Testament.

Antipater made his eldest son Phasael governor of Jerusalem, and the 26-year-old Herod the governor of the Galilee. Herod was outstanding at tax farming, which the Romans appreciated; plus he had a zero-tolerance policy for bandits, which the Judean senate regularly condemned as brutal. Antipater died four years later in 43BC, but the Romans kept Herod in his job, and in 41BC Rome’s new dictator Marcus Antonius (“Antony”) made Herod the Galilee’s tetrarch/“ruler of a quarter,” under Hyrcanus. Also in 41, Herod divorced his wife Doris so he could marry into the Hasmonean royal family—marrying Mary (Hebrew מִרְיָם/Miriám, Josephus Μαριάμη/Mariámi, which many historians spell Mariamne), Hyrcanus’s granddaughter.

But in 40BC, Hyrcanus’s nephew and Aristobulus’s son, Antigonus Mattathias, decided he was gonna grab the throne. He purchased an army from the Parthian Empire, got Hyrcanus and Phasael captured during what they thought was a peace negotiation, and had Hyrcanus’s ears mutilated so he could no longer be head priest. Lv 21.17, 23 Phasael killed himself rather than be tortured, and Herod escaped to Syria for safety. He went to Rome to seek Antony’s help, and while there, in 37BC, the Roman senate declared Herod king of Judea, and gave him an army to retake Jerusalem. Which he did, finally defeating Antigonus in 34 and sending him to Antony to be executed. Herod had Hyrcanus returned to Jerusalem from exile… but he kept the title of king nonetheless.

The Judeans were not at all thrilled to have an Idumean as their king. Many Pharisees felt only a Judean (preferably a descendant of David ben Jesse) should be king, and Pharisees would frequently encourage Maccabee-style uprisings which might overthrow Herod. It only succeded in making Herod more paranoid and tyrannical. He created a secret police force to monitor the public, and make sure they weren’t a problem for him—and crucify or kill anyone who might be. He later created a personal bodyguard of 2,000 soldiers, mostly gentiles of European descent, called the Δορυφόροι/Doryfóri, “spear-carriers,” and modeled after Caesar Augustus’s personal bodyguard.

But two notable Pharisees, Pollion and Samaias, figured Herod was simply God’s judgement on Israel for wickedness, and supported him regardless. When Herod decided in 6BC to force Pharisees to swear a loyalty oath, Pollion and Samaias refused to take it, so he backed off. Nevertheless Herod banned public meetings, and to keep the peace he lowered his oppressive taxes a few times.

Still, a number of Sadducee nobles had supported Antigonus, so Herod had 45 of them executed. And since Hyrcanus could no longer be head priest, Herod appointed another descendant of Aaron to the job, Ananelus of Babylon—who, notably, was not from the Hasmonean family.

Naturally this bugged the Hasmoneans. Mary’s mother Alexandra asked Antony’s new wife, Cleopatra 7 of Egypt, for permission to make her 17-year-old son Aristobulus the new head priest. Worried Antony might make Aristobulus king too, Herod simply took the boy with him to Jericho, and one day when they were horsing around in the pool, Herod had his friends drown him. Then he made Ananelus head priest again. Alexandra protested to Cleopatra, so Antony sent for Herod to defend himself. Once Herod returned, his mother and sister told him of Alexandra’s involvement, so he put her under house arrest. Relations with his wife, mother-in-law, and Hyrcanus deteriorated to the point Herod was convinced they all conspiring to overthrow him. Much as he claimed to love Mary, he simply had them all killed.

Herod’s growing fears of getting overthrown means the story of him wiping out all the toddlers in Bethlehem Mt 2.16 is right in character.

What made him “great”?

Like I said, Herod was an outstanding tax farmer, which meant he had loads of money to send to Rome and keep ’em happy—and keep ’em out of his hair, ’cause as long as he was productive, they’d keep him as king. But the other thing he did with all that money was construction projects. Herod was big on civic improvements. What’s gonna keep you famous for a mighty long time? Lots of stone buildings. Lots.

Herod demanded a specific style of stone-dressing: His construction guys would dig out massive blocks of limestone, square them, then create margins around the edges. If you ever see some of the blocks in the Western Wall tunnels, you’ll notice these margins kinda look like frames—although the margins aren’t so obvious on the blocks exposed to the weather and open air; 20 centuries of erosion will do that. Herod wasn’t the first guy to use this style, but he was the one who used it throughout ancient Israel, and this way people would easily recognize the stones as part of Herod’s projects.

Beginning in 20BC, Herod decided the post-exile temple of the LORD simply wasn’t good enough, and had it rebuilt. Its reconstruction lasted till the 60s of our era—so, all the time of Jesus’s life on earth. The Judeans make reference to how, by that point, it had been under reconstruction 46 years, Jn 2.20 meaning it was the year 26 or 27 at at time—at the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and Jesus would’ve been 32 years old.

The main construction was having the temple platform expanded to double its size, and the entire takedown and rebuilding of the temple building. Herod didn’t want the worship interrupted, and had priests trained to do all the masonry, carpentry, and metalwork in the areas where only they could go. A massive wall was built to retain all the earth in the platform; you’ve probably heard of the Western Wall, where Jews worship nowadays. Most of this work was complete by 10BC, and everything which continued into the 60s was simply ornamentation and repair. Work which inspired Jesus’s students to marvel at it, though Jesus knew it was all coming down soon enough.

Herod also built and rebuilt cities. He had the harbor at Cæsarea Maritima rebuilt with cement. He built Sepphoris, Sebaste (on the ruins of Samaria; named for one of Caesar Augustus’s titles), Antipatris (named for his father), and Herodium. He built his Jerusalem palace like a fortress, and built a few other fortress-palaces for himself at Masada, Jericho, and Alexandreion. He built other fortresses—Antonia (named for Antony) to overlook the temple, and Machærus. He built Roman-style public projects in Jerusalem, namely a theater, amphitheater, hippodrome, public baths, a renovation of the Pool of Siloam, a water channel, and fixed the roads. He rebuilt the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. And, to appease Augustus, he built three temples to him in the Dekapolis for his pagan subjects to worship.

He gets a lot of credit as a builder. But, as we recognize when we see massive construction projects like this nowadays, you don’t build like this unless you’re definitely trying to make a name for yourself… at the expense of the people of your country. Dictators build like this. Despots keep the people in poverty and fear, while they use their money to build themselves palaces… and build ’em like fortresses because they have every reason to fear the people, who’d overthrow them the instant they had a chance.

Many a historian will actually defend Herod’s behavior, and title “the Great,” by saying, “Well, but he rebuilt the temple.” But that’s not a defense. At all. Especially since, through Jesus, God was building his own temple out of his followers—and like Stephen pointed out, this is the only temple God wants. Stone temples only matter to materialists. Never to God.

What made him awful.

Though Antony was his patron, Cleopatra coveted certain territories which Herod ruled over, and got her new husband to reassign ’em to her kingdom. So there was that bit of friction between them—which Herod used to his advantage when he made nice with Octavian.

Octavian, a.k.a. Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, was the great-nephew and adopted son of former Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar. He was elected consul in 33BC. Annoyed Antony had divorced his sister to marry Cleopatra, Octavian went after him politically, getting ahold of a copy of Antony’s will in which Antony bequeathed a lot of royal titles and Roman territory to Cleopatra and his relatives. Turning the Roman senate against Antony, it became open civil war in 32, and Octavian decisively defeated Antony’s forces in 31.

Worried he’d backed the wrong guy, Herod met Octavian in Rhodes. He admitted to the consul he had been loyal to Antony, but he’d stayed out of their civil war, and now he was formally switching sides. He donated 800 talents ($19.8 million USD) to Octavian’s campaign. In return, Octavian confirmed Herod’s kingship and gave back the territory which Cleopatra had taken. They were friends ever since; Octavian even gave him permission to choose his own successor. Herod renamed Samaria “Sebaste” in Octavian’s honor, and Octavian—by that point renamed Augustus by the senate—gave him more land to administer, and even put him in charge of Rome’s Syrian procurators.

Some anti-Herod revolutionaries were hiding out in Nabatea, so Herod send troops to go get ’em, and in so doing killed 25 Nabateans. Nabatea’s dictator Syllaeus went to Rome to protest to Augustus, and accused Herod of killing 25 thousand Nabateans. Augustus believed him, and outraged by that much bloodshed, he sent word to Herod their friendship was over. Herod freaked out and sent diplomats to defend himself—namely the eloquent speaker Nicolas of Damascus, who finally convinced Augustus this was pure slander. Augustus executed Syllaeus, and he and Herod returned to being friends.

As Herod grew old, in the last decade of his life (14–4BC), his sister Salome and his sons began fighting one another for influence, hoping to be designated his successor. He’d had 10 wives by then; his two favorite sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, were by Mary. Salome hated them, and she and Herod’s eldest son Antipater convinced Herod they were conspiring against him. Herod jailed them, and since Augustus gave him permission to deal with them as he saw fit, he put them on trial in Beirut, then had ’em strangled in 7BC. Many historians claim the death of Mary’s sons marks the end of the Hasmonean line, but it actually doesn’t; Aristobulus’s son Agrippa later became Herod Agrippa 1 in the year 37. Anyway with those sons dead, Herod made Antipater his successor.

It was probably around 5BC or so the magi showed up looking for a new king, Mt 2.1-2 which disturbed Herod, and Jerusalem, which knew how paranoid and murdery he could get. Mt 2.3 Discovering Messiah was foretold to be born in Bethlehem, Herod sent the magi there; when they never returned, Herod had all the toddlers and newborns in Bethlehem killed. Mt 2.16 Typical Herod.

Herod suffered from various incurable diseases, and spent a lot of this time at hot baths, hoping they’d treat him. Some Pharisee rabbis took advantage of his absence and in 4BC had rioters tear down the Roman eagles on display outside the temple gate. Herod wasn’t that weak, and had ’em arrested and burned alive.

Since Herod wasn’t dying fast enough for Antipater, he impatiently arranged for his father to be poisoned on a trip to Rome. Herod found out, and executed Antipater the instant he got the okay from Augustus—which was five days before Herod died, so real bright there Antipater. Herod’s next-to-last will made his son Antipas his successor, but his very last will switched that to his son Archelaus, with his sons Antipas and Philip to be made tetrarchs of his northern Israeli territories.

In his last months, Herod returned to Jericho, summoned all the notable people throughout his kingdom… then locked them in the Jerusalem hippodrome, and ordered Salome and her husband Alexas to slaughter them at the moment of his death. He figured this way, there’d be massive mourning after he died, instead of mass celebration. But once he died Salome and Alexas, recognizing how psycho this plan was, reneged and released the captives. Archelaus become king… for a while; at least till Antipas and the Judean senators got Augustus to overturn the will.

And that’s it for Herod. All the other Herods in the bible are descended from him.