Herod the Great, A Life in Conflict

Crowned King

Herod the Great is a man of contrast and contradictions, both in his time and as history remembers him.

Born in 74 BCE in Idumea the son of Anitpar. Named Herod, which in Greek means “son of a hero” or “like a hero.” Destiny was to be his guiding star as he tried to become the hero.

But we have two very different pictures of him.

In the gospel of Matthew, he is an evil villain, a baby killer.

But history calls him the Great, for he was a cable administrator of Palestine and an industries builder. His crowing achievement is the construction of the temple, which Jesus visits as a baby, child and ultimately cleanses in the last week of his life.

So let’s take a brief look at the man Herod, who never directly interacts with Jesus, but his life and actions play a significant role in the backdrop of Jesus’ life.

What is Herod the Great, Known for in the Bible?

We only read of Herod the Great in the Bible in Matthew 2:1-23 where many of us get our vision of him as a villain. Deceptively helping the Magi’s seeking the newborn “King of the Jews,” but ultimately ordering the murder of all the baby boys of Bethlehem.

Jesus narrowly escaping death through an angel’s warning to Joseph, his father. Fleeing to Egypt till Herod’s death, when Jesus returns.

Only to move up to Galilee to avoid Herod’s son Archelaus ruler of Judea, who is also known for his violence. Who is so bad that outside of the Bible, we are told that Rome removed him from power in 6 CE because of the Jew’s reports of his abuse of the Jews.

Herod the Great Beyond the Bible

There is much written down about Herod the Great. For a more detailed account, check out the sources below.

But for our interests.

Herod’s father, Anitpar, was a politically shrewd individual who was able to manipulate the Hasmonean dynasty, the rulers of Judea at the time, well playing to the Romans. Through intrigue, deception and murder, he was able to rise to power.

In 47 BCE, he was able to appoint Herod, the governor of Galilee and his brother governor of Jerusalem. (Jos. Antiq. xiv. 9. 1-2; 156-158; War i. 10. 4; 201-203)

By 37 BCE, Herod becomes King of Judea with the backing of the Roman Senate.

Where he remained till his death in 4 BCE. Is recorded as being more painful and gruesome than recorded in the Bible. Josephus notes that his death was marked by an eclipse which many historians date as happening March 13, 4 BCE. Twenty-nine days before the Jewish Passover.

During his reign, Herod undertook many building projects, both Greek and Jewish in nature. From gymnasiums to the greatest Jewish temple ever built.

He sought to both please his Jewish subjects while antagonizing them with his actions.

Seeking to please his Roman overlords, he heavily taxed the Jews to pay for his many building projects in their honour and his glory. Along with giving expensive “gifts” to key Roman officials to buy their favour and support.

As a show of support for Romans offended religious Jews with emperor worship and the construction of pagan temples. Near the end of his life hung a large golden eagle (Symbol of Rome) at the main entrance of the temple.  

At the same time, during times of catastrophes, he would financially assist the suffering Jews from his own wealth. Plus, temporarily lower taxes to help them recovery.

His many building projects won over many of the upper class in Jewish society, who enjoyed their benefits. He directly became involved in the appointment of the High Priest. Offending the Jews while winning the favour of key families.

One such appointment was Aristobulus (35 BCE), his brother-in-law from his wife Maraimne, a Hasmonean princess whom he married to win favour with the Jews. Possibly the only true love of his life. Who he later executed, fearing she was conspiring against him. Immediately regretting doing so preserves her in honey.

But back to Aristobulus, who arranged to have accidentally murdered after his appointment because of his popularity while faking grief about his “untimely death.”

After this, he often appoints High Priests from Babylonia or Alexandria to win support from the diaspora and avoid power grabs from local families.

This is the life of Herod the Great.

Seeking greatness and love but succumbing to deception and murder.

Forever in the grips of paranoia that someone is conspiring to replace him.

Fitting well with the narrative in Matthew.

Where he both has the help of the Jewish Religious leadership in telling him where “the Christ is to be born” while lying to the Magi and murdering his possible replacement.

Sources

  • https://findinghopeministries.org/herod-part-1/
  • https://www.thetorah.com/article/how-jewish-was-herod
  • The Life and Times of Jesus the Messaih, Alfred Edersheim, 1993 Hendrickson Publisher, Inc
  • Historians estimate that there were about 6-7 million Jews living in the Roman Empire (plus another 1 million in Persia), many of whom would come to Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. So you had to have a huge space to accommodate such a huge number of people. Hence the size of the platform. https://aish.com/48942446/