Herod – Profile of a Cruel & Cunning King
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)
It is hard to believe anyone, especially the King of Judea, would kill all the boys in a Jewish community aged 2 years and younger just to ensure he killed one baby – Jesus. How could he be so cruel to his own people? One clue might be that Herod was not of Jewish heritage; his father was Idumean and his mother was Arabian.
Herod’s career began as governor of Galilee in 47 BC when he was 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.”
Killing so many people in violation of Jewish law, the Sanhedrin put Herod on trial for murder. High priest Hyrcanus tipped off the defiant Herod he was about to be found guilty allowing him to temporarily escape to Damascus.
Bribery and expensive gifts were effective in maintaining Roman relationships. Aligning himself with Roman rulers, they appointed Herod as a military general “for he sold him that post for money.” 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 in Judea had to be taken by force 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 (aka Augustus), Herod believed his days were numbered whereupon he boldly presented himself to Caesar in Rome.
Acknowledging his loyal friendship to Antony, Herod positioned his loyalty as a quality that would likewise be valuable to Caesar if he was allowed to pledge his allegiance. The ploy worked and established a lasting relationship with Augustus 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. Revenue was acquired through heavy taxes, from booty of war and at least some was acquired 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 enhancing the Temple back to the grandeur of Solomon. He also built new cities including Caesarea with a temple dedicated to Caesar as well as 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 valued more by Herod than honoring Jewish laws. The King showcased international games in honor of Caesar 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. Exacerbating the situation, Herod inserted Greek inscriptions and architectural features in the enhanced Temple. One such 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 Herod had 40 insurrectionists burned alive. 
Trusting no one, Herod was ruthless in quelling any possible threats. A favored interrogation method was torture on “the rack” with only family members being exempt. 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 within. With 10 wives and children, the palace was constantly in turmoil by family members who bore hatred for one another producing 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, simply because he wanted someone else to be high priest. He killed Hyrcanus, Mariamne’s father, former high priest, and old heir to the throne. Mariamne rebuked Herod, his sister Salome and their mother for these murders leading to her own execution under a false murder conspiracy.
Mariamne’s sons were heirs to the throne stirring more jealousies, slanders and conspiracies by Herod’s first wife and their eldest son, Antipater, born before Herod became King. Convinced Mariamne’s sons were guilty of a murder plot to kill him, Herod placed them on trial in absentia and, without any hard evidence, they were still convicted. Both sons were executed by strangulation and others who condemned Herod’s actions were tortured and killed. Days before Herod died, he also executed Antipater.
According to Matthew, Herod believed he had been deceived by the Magi who were compelled to return home by a different route . The King slew children up to 2 years old in the Bethlehem district to ensure the death of the newly born King sought by the Magi, but Joseph and Mary with Jesus escaped to Egypt.
Unusual for rulers of the era, Herod died a natural death, albeit a most miserable one. Disabled by a terrible groin condition, gangrenous bowels protruded out of his body compelling him to attempt a failed 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 to travel to his palace in Jericho.
Surmising they would all rejoice at his death rather than mourn, Herod wanted to deprive them of such mockery and locked them inside the hippodrome. Before his death announcement was made public, the soldiers were to kill them so as 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 Herod’s death, the plan was aborted and the principal men were released after informing the soldiers that the King had changed his mind at the last moment.
Does the historical profile of a cruel Herod strengthen the credibility of Matthew Nativity account or diminished it?
Updated December 18, 2021.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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