Herod the Great

When confronted with an article like this you may feel in agreement with the German philosopher, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who cynically said, ‘We learn from history that we do not learn from history’. And if we do not learn from history, what is the point in reading it? But wait a minute. More than half the Bible is divinely-inspired history. And Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope’, Rom. 15. 4. In his last inspired letter, Paul wrote to Timothy, ‘All scripture (including the historical books) is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable’, 2 Tim. 3. 16. So we can learn from Bible history!

But what about extra-biblical history? The thing about biblical history is that it has a very narrow focus, and rightly so. It charts the outworking of God’s redemptive purpose, primarily shining the light on Abraham and his descendants. But Bible events did not occur in a vacuum. Just as we live in a secular society, and are affected by world events, the characters we meet in the Bible interacted with the world about them. Daniel was carried to Babylon under the direction of Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man of his day, Dan. 1. 1-6. It was at the decree of Caesar Augustus that Mary and Joseph travelled southward to Bethlehem, Luke 2. 1-5.

Christians have nothing to fear from secular historians. Not only does secular history verify the Bible accounts but it shows their context and enhances our appreciation of them. Herod the Great, the cruel and ruthless ruler of Judaea, is a case in point. His and his forefathers’ political wrangling and interactions with key players on the world stage significantly influenced the land of Palestine leading up to the birth of the Lord. Herod’s craving to build (including the Jerusalem temple) and his slaughter of the innocents, Matt. 2. 16, were consistent with his Edomite roots (as outlined in the Old Testament) and the extra-biblical records of his life.

Ambitious and savvy, Herod skilfully manoeuvred his way through the constantly changing political landscape to attain, and then at all costs to retain, the Judean throne. It has been said that he stole the throne like a fox, ruled like a tiger, and died like a dog.1 Although Herod was exceptionally brutal, his Roman overlords saw him as an efficient administrator who ensured taxes were paid on time and peace was maintained in this strategically important land bridge between Asia and Africa. With tyrannical efficiency, any suspected threat to his reign, even from his family, was immediately extinguished.2 This vicious paranoia, combined with his religious observance of Jewish dietary restrictions, see Lev. 11, famously prompted Caesar to say, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son’.3

But Herod was a complex character. If there was no immediate threat to his rule, he could be kind. In hard times, Herod reduced taxes, using his own vast wealth to make up the payments demanded by Rome. He even rescued the Olympic Games from financial ruin. And running in tandem with his need for control was an insatiable desire to build up his kingdom ‘into a glittering modern state in which he could glow in the reflected glory’.4 Through irrigation systems he optimized the agricultural potential of the land. By increasing Judaea’s exports he enriched his kingdom. He built new cities, revived existing ones, constructed a palace at Masada, rebuilt the Jewish temple, and, using newly invented concrete, constructed a harbour at Caesarea, the city which he named in honour of Augustus Caesar.

Being of Edomite (from Esau) descent, Herod was never truly accepted by the Jews as their king. As well as self-aggrandisement (one of the many Edomite traits displayed by Herod and his son, Antipas), his temple project may have been an attempt at winning the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. Its ruin in AD 70 at the hands of Roman legions was a small foreshadowing of Edom’s eventual destruction in the end times, when God will overthrow all of that nation’s building projects.5

Herod stole the throne like a fox

Following the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC), Ptolemy Soter, ancestor of Cleopatra, seized Egypt, while Seleucus Nicator took Babylon and most of Alexander’s near-eastern territories, assimilating the land of Judaea into the Seleucid Empire. The prophet Daniel accurately predicted the struggle between these two kingdoms, Dan. 11. When the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes (215-164 BC) reacted sharply to Jewish protests against enforced Hellenization, which involved outlawing circumcision and other Jewish religious observances, and even re-dedicating the Jerusalem temple to Zeus, he provoked a massive revolt led by Judas Maccabeus (167-160 BC). These renegade Jews took Jerusalem from the Seleucids and extended their conquests to include Edom (Idumea), whose wealthy ruler was Antipas, Herod the Great’s grandfather.

In 134 BC, John Hyrcanus I (164-104 BC), who was the nephew of Judas Maccabeus, became high priest and leader of the Jews. When he died, Aristobulus, his son, declared himself king of the Jews, establishing the influential Hasmonean dynasty. About one year after Aristobulus’ death, Alexandra Salome, his widow, married his brother, Alexander Jannaeus. After Alexander’s death, Alexandra Salome reigned as sole regent (76-67 BC), one of only two women to rule Judaea, the other being Athaliah, 2 Chr. 22. 10-12. Although she appointed her son John Hyrcanus II to succeed her, when Salome died, her younger son, Aristobulus II, took the crown forcibly.

Antipater, Herod’s father, now governor of Idumea, befriended John Hyrcanus II and encouraged him to take the throne from his younger brother. At this time, the Roman General Pompey took Jerusalem from Aristobulus (63 BC), marking the end of Jewish independence. Aristobulus II was arrested and John Hyrcanus II remained high priest, but not king. In effect, Antipater, Herod the Great’s father, and John Hyrcanus II functioned as administers of Judaea, remaining loyal to Pompey. When Alexander Maccabeus, the son of imprisoned Aristobulus II, revolted against Rome, Antipater, whose prime loyalty was now to the Romans, helped crush the uprising. At this time, he befriended a young Roman officer named Mark Antony. When Julius Caesar defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus (48 BC), Antipater, who had been a loyal supporter of Pompey, knew he was in trouble. But he quickly saw an opportunity to win Julius Caesar’s trust. At Alexandria, Julius Caesar had become embroiled in a civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy. Having only a small army, Caesar found himself in grave danger. Antipater reacted immediately, arranging supplies for Caesar’s troops and facilitating the movement of reinforcements. Suitably impressed, Caesar appointed Antipater procurator of Judaea (48 BC). Antipater, in turn, made Phaesal, his oldest son, governor of Jerusalem, and Herod, at the age of 25, governor of Galilee (47 BC).

Herod ruled like a tiger

Herod immediately antagonized the Jews by hunting down and killing a Jewish rebel named Hezekiah (47 BC). When called to appear before the Jewish Sanhedrin, Herod intimidated them with his armed bodyguards. After the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 BC), Rome moved from republican rule to the days of empire. Octavian, Julius Caesar’s 18-year-old great nephew and main beneficiary of his will, quickly outwitted his political opponents. He adopted the name of Caesar, took control of several Roman legions, and demanded that Julius Caesar’s assassins be executed. When Octavian and Mark Antony defeated Cassius and Brutus (two of Caesar’s assassins) at the battle of Philippi, they emerged as the undisputed rulers of the Roman world (42 BC). Herod travelled quickly to Bithynia, now Turkey, to congratulate Mark Antony, to pledge his allegiance to his new master and, with a large money gift, to secure his own ruling position in Judaea. Mark Antony responded by confirming Herod and Phaesal, his brother, as tetrarchs of Jerusalem. That same year Herod was betrothed to Miriamne, the Hasmonean granddaughter of John Hyrcanus II. But although such a link with the Hasmonean aristocracy would make any future claim that Herod made to the Judean throne more legitimate, Jerusalem was soon attacked by the Parthians. Phaesel was captured and subsequently committed suicide. Herod fled to the impregnable rocky citadel of Masada. Leaving Miriamne and the rest of his family there, Herod travelled to Rome, where, at the age of 33, the senate declared him king of Judaea (40 BC).

Having re-taken Jerusalem, with the help of Antony’s legions, Herod killed all who had publically opposed him, strengthened a Hasmonean fortress, renaming it Antonia, after Mark Antony, and further fortified Masada, a nearly impenetrable refuge on top of a 1,300-foot rock on the verge of the Dead Sea. When he felt that Aristobulus IV, whom he had appointed high priest, threatened his power, Herod had him drowned.

When things turned sour between Octavian and Mark Antony, further civil war ensued. Herod again switched allegiances. Before leaving for his critical meeting with Octavian in Rhodes, to ensure his period of Judaean rule was extended, Herod executed John Hyrcanus II. He also ordered that Miriamne be killed if he did not return. Afterwards, family quarrels spiralled out of control until Herod killed Miriamne, her mother Alexandra, and Costobarus, his sister Salome’s second husband, of whom she had tired.

Herod died like a dog

Herod seems to have constantly mourned for Miriamne, although in later life he remarried Doris, his first wife, whom he had previously divorced. Always afraid of losing control, Herod spied on his citizens, ruthlessly crushed any potential threats to his powerbase, modernized existing fortresses and built new ones. When Salome, Herod’s cruel sister, spread poisonous rumours about Alexander and Aristobolus, Miriamne’s sons, Herod had them executed by strangling (7 BC). When a group of Jews removed a golden eagle Herod had placed on the temple’s main gate in honour of Caesar Augustus, they too were executed. Only five days before his own death Herod had his son Antipater put to death. Herod finally died at the age of 69 (4 BC). His feet had become swollen, his groins grew worms and he was in great pain; compare with the fate of his grandson, Acts 12. 23.



Attributed to ‘a contemporary Jewish historian’, see Norman Kotker, When Rome ruled Palestine, Horizon Books.


Most historical details taken from N. Gelb, Herod the Great, Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013.


Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2.4.11. cited by N. Gelb, Herod the Great, Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013, pg. 96.


N. Gelb, Herod the Great, Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013, pg. 99.


See Isa. 34. 5-15; 63. 1-6; Jer. 49. 7-22; Ezek. 25. 12-14; 35. 1-15; Joel 3. 4; Obad. 17-21; Mal. 1. 3, 4.


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