By Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Herod the Great is an interesting guy. And as is usually the case, there is far more to his story than the black/white view offered by the Christian mythology still being pushed by today’s fundamentalists. Nuance (read as “truth”) has no place in such a simplistic worldview.
Am I saying Christian historians and theologians lied about Herod the Great? Yes, I am. And their lies persist today. Fact must fit doctrine, after all, and Herod suffers as Jesus suffers. They lie about Jesus because they aren’t interested in the truth about the historical Jesus – they want the theological Jesus instead. The same goes for Herod. The Herod of the New Testament is the theological, not the historical Herod.
The real Herod wasn’t put there by “God” in order to fulfill prophecy. He put himself there, through skill, luck, ruthlessness, and pragmatism. He knew what he had to do to make himself acceptable to the Romans, and he was shrewd enough to understand that it was the Roman team to whom he should yoke his chariot, not the Parthians, who were the other major power on the Eastern stage.
Most Christians know Herod the Great through an old myth: We are assured that Herod went after the children and slaughtered them to make sure he got the one he was after – Jesus.
But the simple facts are he probably never knew that Jesus existed. After all, almost nobody else noticed, even after the supposedly dramatic moment of his death. One of the problems with accepting Acts’ truthfulness with regard to its wildly inflated conversion rates is that any cult growing so rapidly would certainly have attracted the notice of – someone, and as church historian W.H.C. Frend is force to admit, nobody did. A very literary first century Roman world missed entirely the advent of Jesus and Christianity.
It is an unpalatable fact for fundamentalists that there is no evidence at all to suggest Herod actually “slaughtered the innocents.” Nor is there any evidence that Jesus’ father, Joseph, was a troublemaker who would have attracted the king’s notice. He is presented in the New Testament as a simple carpenter.
At the same time, if you want to believe Herod did such a thing, you might as well look for a realistic – that is to say, plausible – origin for the story. And a trouble-making Joseph, the Galilean rebel, would offer us an explanation as to why Herod would have, by default, gone after his family – including the child Jesus.
But plausible doesn’t enter into it, does it? Not where Christian mythology is concerned. There are many pieces on the board, or to the puzzle, and each piece has to go in exactly the right place in order to make the picture work.
Even if you have to force the pieces in where they don’t belong.
And that brings us back to Herod the Great. The story of how Herod came to power says much about the facs on the ground in Judaea and Galilee in the time of Jesus.
The Maccabean, or Hasmonean Kingdom, as it is called in history, did not flourish for long and the phase of rapid expansion soon fell prey to internal dissent. Hyrcanus II, son of Alexander Yannai, and the last man to hold both the title of high priest and king, was overthrown by his brother Aristobulus II, who in turn was besieged in the Temple by Antipater, the father of Herod the Great and Aretas III, the Nabataean Arab king, who supported Hyrcanus.
It is at this point that Honi the Rainmaker (a foreshadowing of Jesus or simply another Jesus?) was stoned to death by Hyrcanus’ followers for refusing to place a curse on Aristobulus (Ant. 14.2.1 §§ 22-24). Aristobulus then appealed to the Roman legate of Syria but Hyrcanus proved to be the more fortunate in that he appealed to Pompey, one of the most powerful men in Rome. Aristobulus wisely followed suit. But when Pompey approached Jerusalem Aristobulus’ followers shut the gates against him (63 BCE). Pompey then attacked Jerusalem, breached its walls and attacked the Temple, where Aristobulus’ “purist Sadducee” supporters had fortified themselves against Antiper, Hyrcanus’ Idumean advisor, who favored collaboration with Rome (Ant. 14.4.1-5 §§ 54-79).
This is one of those critical points in history that at the time, nobody identifies as such, and much of what was to follow can be traced to these events. Pompey’s intervention put an end to all pretenses of Maccabean and even nationalist rule. But what was worse was that in the process Pompey violated the Holy of Holies but as Josephus admits, took nothing from it “on account of his regard to religion.” (Ant. 14.4.4 § 72) This violation of the temple’s sanctity took place on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
As James Tabor observes, the Jewish people had to be asking themselves how it could be “that the God of Israel, whom the Jews daily worshipped as ‘Master of the World,’ was unable to protect his own sanctuary on the most holy day of the Jewish year…The Jewish prophetic vision of a Messiah King who would rule the Land of Israel and eventually all the nations of the world never looked more hopeless.” Aristobulus was captured and sent to Rome as a hostage to be paraded in front of the conqueror’s chariot in the triumph (62 BCE). At this point, Rome replaces the Hellenistic kings as effective ruler of Palestine, acting not directly, but as was becoming common practice, through client kings.
Pompey returned to Rome and joined in a triumvirate with Caesar and Crassus to rule the crumbling Republic. Caesar went off to conquer Gaul, Crassus flew headlong into disaster against the Parthians at Carrhae in 53 BCE, and with the status quo shattered, Caesar and Pompey drifted into war (49). When Pompey was murdered in Alexandria following his defeat at Pharsalus (48) Hyrcanus and Antiper marched to Caesar’s aid in Alexandria and thus earned Caesar’s favor and equitable treatment for the Jews, including the recognition of Hyrcanus and his line as ethnarchs and high priests and the return to Joppa to Jewish rule (Jos. Ant. 14.10.2 §§ 190-205. Antiper’s son Herod was made governor of Galilee and in 46. Caesar was assassinated in 44, throwing the Roman world into another bout of civil war, and Antiper himself fell prey to a rival in 43, paving the way for the ambitious Herod to exert his influence over the weak-willed Hyrcanus.
At this point, the Parthians invaded, coaxed, we are told, by Antigonus, the nephew of Hyrcanus, who wanted the rule of Judaea for himself and Herod dead (Ant. 14.13.3 §§ 330-331). Not to be discouraged, Herod fled to Mark Antony and according to Josephus, bribed him for help. Antony got the Senate to agree to make Herod king of Judaea (40 BCE), which had been more than Herod had expected or hoped for, and a civil war consumed the three years of Antigonus’ reign.
Herod’s victory in 37 dashed any remaining hopes of a Hasmonean renaissance and this too marks one of those critical periods for our study. When Herod seized power he immediately set about destroying the remaining Hamoneans, who had generally been popular with the people. This event shows that Pharisee position of accommodation is not the popular one as the bulk of the Jewish populace support the Maccabees.
It is noteworthy that the Galileans supported Antigonus against Herod (Jos. Ant. 14.15.4-5 §§ 413-430), revealing to us the anti-Herodian, and therefore anti-collaborationist context of Jesus’ homeland. Herod was an unpopular ruler, both because of his lack of piety and because he was perceived (correctly) as a puppet of Rome. It is noteworthy that Herod drew upon the Samaritans and various foreign troops, including Thracians, Germans and Galatians to fill the ranks of his small army (Ant. 17.8.3 § 198). Apparently he felt that native Jews could not be trusted, and he was undoubtedly right.
The composition of Herod’s army is revealing. This was not a Jewish state ruled by a Jewish king but a state held in bondage by what the mass of the people felt to be a foreign un-Jewish ruler abetted and supported by his Gentile puppet-masters. But the Romans supported Herod out of pragmatic reasons. He kept control of the country, and that was their primary concern. But the nationalist and Messianic fervor that had brought the Maccabees to power did not go away while Herod was king. It bubbled beneath, and sometimes above, the surface. That it was still strong and quite volatile can be seen by the reaction of the Jewish people upon Herod’s passing.
What is the context of Herod’s rule? It’s complicated.
A singular messianic focus held sway and directed events from the time of Herod’s accession in 38 BCE to the events of 66 CE a century later. As Adela Yarbro Collins observes, “The second temple period of Judaism can be characterized as a time of tension between Jewish tradition, particularly eschatological expectation and the realities of foreign rule.” And that expectation was of a messiah who would free Israel, a messiah who would either command armies or who would through the divine power bestowed upon him by God, slay Israel’s enemies. The Zealots might have been speaking of the former, and Jesus the latter, but both call for the destruction of Rome, both are seditious, and either would earn the adherent crucifixion. And as Klinghoffer notes, the Romans “were assiduous in putting down messianic movements in Palestine.” They had to be, when a character like the enigmatic “Egyptian” could appear and in short order gather around him 30,000 supporters and declare that he would bring down the walls of Jerusalem (Josephus, War 2.261-263). Clearly, first century Jewish messianism was a potent force.
The problem Herod faced was that he was not Jewish enough. Or to put it another way, he was both tolerant and pragmatic. Tolerant of foreign beliefs and cultures and pragmatic enough not to butt heads with Rome. His wisdom was forever proved in 66 CE when his people went to war against Rome – and lost. Herod was of a people recently – and forcibly – converted to Judaism during Hasmonean rule. Perhaps his religion was skin deep. Forced beliefs often are. Scholars still argue about how much of a Jew he really was, and we’ll never know for certain, unless some lost writings surface.
But Herod, though far from an ideal king, was also far from the monster he is portrayed as being. And one thing we would do well to note is his relationship with the truculent Galileans. We can never forget that Jesus was himself a Galilean and that he was known after his home town in Galilee (Nazareth). The same is true of his followers. We might bear this relationship, and this history, in mind when we consider Jesus’ opposition to the Herodian establishment in Judaea.
A final episode to consider:
Execution of John the Baptizer (36 CE) Josephus gives us the date of 36 for the execution of John the Baptizer (Ant. 18.116-119), which creates problems for a Jesus chronology, as the Gospels seem to suggest a date of 30 CE for Jesus’ crucifixion and Jesus is supposed to have been executed after John, who is supposed to have been killed c. 28/29. A later date is accepted by German scholar Wolfgang Schenk, who posits 35 CE as the critical year (while accepting an earlier date for Jesus’ execution).
The issue of John is a critical one for any reconstruction of Jesus’s life and career. Christians know him as simply a prophet who predicted Jesus, but this is later apologia and was not how his contemporaries actually saw him. First of all, that John was an Essene seems almost certain. Josephus’ description of him, superior to that in the Gospels, fits, as Robert Eisenman observes, the “righteousness/piety dichotomy and the emphasis on ‘doing’ and his baptism also matches that of the Community Rule at Qumram (Jos. Ant. 18:110-119). Further, Josephus’ description of a novice’s initiation into the community after a three-year probation (Ant. 15.373) (War 2.139-42) matches “exactly what he pictures John the Baptist teaching in the Antiquities.
It is significant that in Josephus Herod Antipas “feared he would lead them to rise up” (revolt) and so took him to Machaeros and put him to death. As Eisenman concludes, “Josephus’ presentation is the demythologized John, although highly mythologized portraits are given in the New Testament. The New Testament de-politicizes John (as it does Jesus) who is no longer the political revolutionary he was in Josephus, who states specifically that Herod killed him because he feared an uprising.
James Tabor states that “It is difficult to overestimate the dramatic impact John created by his preaching…The populace was electrified at the possibility – had God at long last sent a true messenger who would inaugurate the New Age of the Kingdom of Israel?” Interestingly, and as a final way of noting John’s historical importance, Josephus relates that some Jews thought that the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army by the Nabataean king Aretas IV was due to divine retribution for killing John (Ant. 18.5.1-2).
It should be obvious even from the brief overview I have provided here that the New Testament offers a very unreliable description of first century Jewish affairs. The New Testament does indeed support the Christian version of events but that is because it was written to do so. It does not, and this is significant, accord with the actual situation obtaining in first century Galilee and Judaea, the historical period and geographical area of Jesus’ career. Therefore, any attempt to portray the Jews as persecutors not only of Jesus but of his followers must be reconsidered and reinterpreted in light of political, not theological motivations.
 Herod had a reputation for killing members of his own family but was rigorous in his observation of Jewish law regarding non-consumption of pork, causing the Emperor Augustus to quip that he would feel safer as a pig than as Herod’s son (Macrob. Sat. 2.4.11).
 W.H.C. Frend, The Early Church (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1966), 35. “Significant of the Church’s slow spread through the Greco-Roman world is the silence of the Classical writers of the first century A.D. concerning it.”
 James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, 95
 Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Political Perspective of the Revelation to John,” JBL (1977), 241.
 David Klinghoffer, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus (NY: Three Leaves Press, 2005), 7.
 Indeed, it is possible as James Tabor has done, to suppose that Jesus took over John’s movement after the latter’s execution. See The Jesus Dynasty.
 Wolfgang Schenk, “Gefeangenschaft und Tod des Täufers. Erwägungen zur Chronologie und ihrer Konsequenzen,” New Testament Studies 29 (1983), 463-464. cited in Niels Hyldahl, The History of Early Christianity (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1997), 82-83.
 Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, 333-353.
 Tabor, 128.