Herod – Profile of a Cunning and Cruel King
Infamous as King of Judea in the Nativity story, Herod the Great was a threat to the lives of the Magi, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Was the King really such a villain?
MT 2:1 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…”
MT 2:16 Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” (NKJV)
Hard to believe anyone, especially a king of Judea, would kill all the boys in a Jewish community the age of 2 years and younger. How could a king be so cruel to his own people? One clue might be that Herod was not of Jewish heritage – his father Idumean, his mother Arabian.
Herod’s career began as governor of Galilee in 47 BC appointed by his father, an administrator of Judea under Julius Caesar. Josephus noted people quickly saw Herod’s harsh personality: “…they saw that he was a violent and bold man, and very desirous of acting tyrannically.”
As governor, he killed so many people in violation of Jewish law, the Sanhedrin put him on trial for murder. High priest Hyrcanus tipped off the defiant Herod that he was about to be found guilty allowing his escape to Damascus.
Aligning himself with Roman rulers, the Procurator of Syria, Sextus Caesar, appointed Herod as a military general “for he sold him that post for money.” Bribery and expensive gifts would be effective to maintaining Roman relationships. Marc Antony “by money” named Herod as tetrarch and such persuasions helped avert a dangerous dalliance with Cleopatra.
With more financial influences, Antony presented Herod to the Roman Senate which voted to make him King of Judea in 40 BC. Authority had to be taken by force in Judea over the course of 3 years with the assistance of Roman Legions provided by Antony.
Politics were a life and death game, one Herod played very adeptly. After Antony’s defeat by Octavius, Herod figured his days were numbered whereupon he boldly presented himself to Octavius in Rome. Acknowledging his loyal friendship to Antony, Herod positioned his loyalty as a quality that would likewise be valuable to Caesar if allowed to pledge him allegiance. The ploy worked and established a lasting relationship for the remainder of Herod’s life.
Allowed more power by Rome than any other king in the provinces, Herod was positioned to acquire great wealth and fame. Wealth was acquired through heavy taxes, from booty of war and at least some illicitly. Josephus wrote that under cover of night, Herod robbed King David’s sepulcher of gold furniture and precious goods (Hycranus had already robbed the money).
Herod is famed for rebuilding the Temple back to the grandeur of Solomon. He also built new cities including Caesarea with a temple dedicated to Caesar and Herodium in honor of himself; buildings in honor of his parents and other Roman friends; palaces, temples, theaters, amphitheaters, market places, aqueducts, harbors, and exercise facilities throughout Judea and beyond including Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Greece.
Rome’s Hellenistic culture was more important to Herod than honoring Jewish laws. The King hosted international games in honor of Caesar every five years with naked competitors and large prizes; Roman-style arena spectacles with wild animals and men; and public displays of trophies of war.
All these things caused great animosity among the Jews. Throwing fuel on the fire, Herod used Greek inscriptions and architectural features in the new Temple. One sacrilege was placing Rome’s golden eagle insignia over the Temple gate leading to a future incident marking the final days of Herod – and another atrocity when 40 insurrectionists were burned alive. 
Trusting no one, Herod was ruthless in quelling any possible threats to himself. A favored interrogation method was torture on “the rack” where anyone excepting his family were subject to it. Josephus identified palace eunuchs, body guards, maids, friends of family members, soldiers, and anyone else possibly holding secrets who met a fate on the rack.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Herod actually came from his own family. With 10 wives and children, the palace was constantly in turmoil full of people who bore hatred for one another with rivalries, slanders, lies, backstabbing, and murder conspiracies.
Executions and murders were standard fare. Herod killed the 17-year old brother of his second wife, Mariamne, because he wanted someone else to be high priest. He killed Hyrcanus, her father, former high priest, and old heir to the throne. Mariamne rebuked Herod, his sister Salome and their mother for the murders leading to her own execution from a ginned up false murder conspiracy.
Mariamne’s sons were heirs to the throne stirring more jealousies, slanders and conspiracies by Herod’s first wife and oldest son, Antipater, born before he was king. Convinced Mariamne’s sons were guilty of a murder plot to kill him, Herod tried them in absentia and, without any hard evidence, they were still convicted. Both sons were strangled and others who condemned Herod’s actions were tortured and killed. Days before Herod died, he also executed Antipater.
Unusual for rulers of the era, Herod died a natural death, albeit a most miserable one. Disabled by a gangrenous groin condition where his bowels protruded out of his body, he thought death would be a welcome relief and attempted suicide.
Knowing death was imminent, the King devised the most dastardly plan of his reign. Feeling sorry for himself, Herod summoned all the “principal men” throughout Judea under threat of death compelling a great number to travel to Jericho.
Surmising they would all rejoice at his death rather than mourn, Herod wanted to deprive them of such mockery and had them locked inside the hippodrome. Before his death announcement was made public, the soldiers were commanded to kill them with darts intended to place all of Judea in a state of mourning. Further, to ensure deep national mourning, one member of each family in Judea was also to be killed.
Such depravity was even too much for his wicked sister, Salome. Upon his death, the plan was aborted and the principal men released after informing the soldiers that Herod had changed his mind at the last moment.
Matthew says that Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus and slew children up to 2 years old in an attempt to ensure his death. Does the historical profile of Herod strengthen the credibility of Matthew’s Nativity account or diminished it?
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 Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Chapter 1; Book XVI, Ch. VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVI.
 Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapters VIII, X; Book XVII, Chapter IV. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXX.
 Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter I. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XII. XXII. “Herod the Great.” Livius.org.
 Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII.
 Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter XI; Book XVII, Chapter IX. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVII. XXXIII.
 Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.
 Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
 Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.