King Herod’s Death Year Controversy

 

King Herod’s death occurred shortly after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth making it the lynch pin date to determine the birth year of Jesus. Referenced in the Nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke, Jesus of Nazareth was born during the lifetimes of three historical personages – Augustus, Herod and Quirinius.[1]

Not without controversy, the death year of Herod has posed a challenge for believers and detractors alike. One factor in determining the year Herod died is the timing of a lunar eclipse; the other factor is the time between the eclipse and the Passover. Both are referenced by Jewish historian Josephus marking the beginning of Herod’s final days.

Antiquity has no standardized calendar, instead timelines and dates are linked to well-known historical events. Establishing the date of Herod’s death requires piecing together such clues as the reigns of Tiberius, King Herod and his sons; the Battle of Actium; the Jewish religious calendar; astronomy data, Josephus’ accounts, etc.

Adding another level of complexity is “inclusive reckoning,” the question of whether a partial year was counted as a full year in historical references. The unsettled question instills a plus or minus factor of at least a year.[2]

Herod’s death year is commonly calculated by historians using Josephus’ reference in Antiquities of the Jews. His son, Philip, began his regional Judean reign when his father died as did his two brothers, Antipas and Aristobulus.[3]

“…Philip, Herod’s brother, departed this life, in the twentieth year of the reign of Tiberius after he had been tetrarch of Trachonitis, and Gaulonitis, and of the nation of Bataneana also thirty-seven years. – Josephus[4]

Tiberius began his reign in 14 AD, then adding 20 years lands in 34 AD to establish the year of Philip’s death. Subtracting 37 years of Philip’s rule backdates to the commonly accepted year for King Herod’s death in 4 BC.[5]

Josephus’ account bookends Herod’s final days starting with a lunar eclipse and died just before the approaching Passover. The historian described in great detail events that occurred in the interim.

King Herod

Drama of Herod’s final days is better than most movie scripts.[6] A gripping scene in Jerusalem begins with rumors that Herod had died inciting insurrectionists to remove the long-hated sacrilege of Rome’s golden eagle insignia Herod had mounted over the entrance gate.

Unfortunately for the insurrectionists, the King was not yet dead. Herod had the High Priest removed from office and 40 insurrectionists burned alive.[7] That very night was marked by a lunar eclipse.

Herod’s loathsome protruding bowels and gangrenous groin condition worsened. His physicians recommended therapy in the warm baths of Callirrhoe, a 2-day journey from Jerusalem across the Jordan River. Gaining no relief from the warm springs, his physicians then recommended soaking in a full vat of oil at his palace in Jericho.[8]

Treatments failed and Herod welcomed the relief that death would bring. Preparing for the final chapter in his life, the King sent letters throughout Judea summoning all the “principal men” to Jericho:

“all the principal men of the entire Jewish nation, wheresoever they lived, should be called to him…a great number that came, because the whole nation was called, and all men heard of this call, and death was the penalty of such as should despise the epistles.”[9]

In the interim, misery overcame the King who decided to hasten the inevitable by suicide with a kitchen carving knife. His cousin saw what was about to happen, grabbed the King’s hand and began screaming.[10]

Echoing screams throughout the halls of the palace were misinterpreted that Herod had died touching off a great wailing lamentation. Herod’s imprisoned eldest son, Antipater, believing a twist of fate had now posited the kingdom into his grasp, promised his jailer fortunes to release him immediately. Instead, the jailer informed Herod who became enraged, beat his head and ordered Antipater to be promptly executed.[11]

Herod died 5 days later after Antipater’s execution.[12] News of the King’s death spread across Judea and to other nations. International dignitaries and top military personnel including centurions, captains and officers; and full regiments of the Thracians, Germans, Galatians and Gauls all outfitted in full battle gear traveled to the King’s funeral in Jericho. An elaborate funeral procession and burial in Herodium took many days.

Meanwhile, a funeral bier was built of gold embroidered by “very precious stones of a great variety” and lined with purple material “of various contexture.” The King’s burial was followed by a 7-day morning period, then a feast for the people of Judea.[13] Some experts question whether all these things could have occurred in the span of only 4 weeks if Herod died in 4 BC…

Consultant and Biblical hobbyist, David Beyer, compared the 1544 Gutenberg printings of Antiquities used to determine the 4 BC date to two dozen older, handwritten manuscripts predating Gutenburg  He discovered all older handwritten Antiquities manuscripts said that Philip died in the 22nd year of Tiberius, not the 20th year.[14] This discovery changes the traditional year of Herod’s death to the 2-1 BC timeframe.

Two historical works by Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews and Wars of the Jews, back up Beyer’s discovery. In Antiquities, Josephus states Tiberius died after serving as Caesar “twenty-two years, five months and three days,” historically dating to early 37 AD. Philip reigned for 37 years places King Herod’s death in 1 BC.[15]

Agrippa traveled to Rome a year before the death of Tiberius, 36 AD. After saying to Caligula in a carriage ride that he wished Tiberius would die, the carriage driver told Tiberius who had Agrippa thrown into prison. Six months later with Tiberius’ death, Caligula (Caius/Gaius) gave Philip’s tetrarchy to Agrippa in 37 AD.[16]

Wars marked the Battle of Actium in the 7th year of Herod’s reign. The Battle of Actium is academically recognized as occurring in the year 31 BC. Josephus wrote that Herod served for 37 years. Simple math backdates the beginning of Herod’s reign to 38 BC thereby placing Herod’s death in 1 BC.

Historian Dr. Gerard Gertoux’s different calculation arrived at similar results through another method. Since Herod was 70-years old when he died, Gertoux determined his death occurred sometime between April, 2 BC, and March, 1 BC.[17]

NASA lunar eclipse data for Jerusalem shows that a partial, less-than-half lunar eclipse did occur on March 13th, 4 BC.[18] Passover that year fell on April 10th, just four weeks later.[19] However, a full lunar eclipse appeared over Jerusalem January 9-10, 1 BC, and the Passover was observed on April 6th, twelve and half weeks later.[20]

Historical records and archeological discoveries along with astronomy data point to the death of Herod in the 1-2 BC time frame. Did Herod’s death actually occur in 1 BC or the traditionally accepted year of 4 BC?

 

Updated September 14, 2022.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Matthew 2. Luke 2.
[2] Gertoux. “Dating the Death of Herod.” pp 3-4.  Maier, Paul L. The New Complete Works of Josephus. Trans. William Whiston. Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel Publications. 1999. Dissertation 5, Appendix #38.  Google Books. n.d. <http://books.google.com/books?id=kyaoIb6k2ccC&lpg=PP1&dq=the%20complete%20works%20of%20josephus&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false >  Ramsay. Was Christ Born in Bethlehem? Chapter 11 & end note.
[3] Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVII, Chapter XII; Book XVIII, Chapters V.  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Galilee; Judaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[4] Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVIII, Chapters IV.
[5] Whiston. The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian.” 1850. p 349 footnote.  <https://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&hl=en#v=snippet&q=349&f=false>  Bernegger, P.M. “Affirmation of Herod’s Death in 4 B.C.” Journal of Theological Studies. 1983. Vol. 34, no 2, pp 526-531, <http://www.redatedkings.com/postings/Bernegger.pdf>  Schurer, Emil.  A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. 1890. Volume 1, pp 464-465, footnote 165.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=BRynO3W9FPcC&pg=PP1#v=snippet&q=Tiberius&f=false>  Doig, Kenneth F.  New Testament Chronology. 1990. Chapter  4. <http://nowoezone.com/NT_Chronology.htm
[6] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book VII, Chapters VI – IX. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews. Chapter XXXIII; Book II, Chapter I. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
[7] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI, VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[8] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII. “Tulul Abul Alayiq (Herodian Jericho) – Jericho.”  This Week in Palestine. Issue No. 102, October 2006. <http://www.thisweekinpalestine.com/details.php?id=1948&ed=132&edid=132>  “Callirrhoe.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3933-callirrhoe>  “Map of New Testament Israel.”  Bible-history.com. Map. n.d. <http://www.bible-history.com/geography/ancient-israel/israel-first-century.html>
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.5. CR Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[12] Josephus. Antiquities.  Book XVII, Chapter VI-VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[13] Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapters VII-VIII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII; Book II, Chapter I. Whiston. The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian.” 1850. p 450, footnote.  <https://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&hl=en#v=snippet&q=349&f=false>; “Highways and Roads of Palestine.” 2017. Map. Bible-history.com. <http://www.bible-history.com/geography/ancient-israel/israel-first-century.html>  San José, Juan Antonio Revilla. “On the Year of Herod’s Death.”  A partial translation from “La Fecha de Muerte de Herodes y La Estrella de Belén.” 1999. Astrology of the New Centaurs. <;href=”http://www.expreso.co.cr/centaurs/steiner/herod.html”>  Smallwood, E. Mary. The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian. 2nd Ed. 1981. p 104, footnote 158. <http://books.google.com/books?id=jSYbpitEjggC&lpg=PA151&ots=VWqUOinty4&dq=census%20Syria%20Rome&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false>; Reinhold, Roy A. “Other Scholarship Proving the Exact Date of Birth of Yeshua (Jesus), part 5.” Codes in the Bible. 2001. <http://www.ad2004.com/Biblecodes/articles/yeshuabirth5.html “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8616-jesus-of-nazareth> Beyer, David W.  “Josephus Reexamined:  Unraveling the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberius.” 1998. p 88. Chronos, Kairos, Christos II. Ed. Jerry Vardaman.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=mWnYvI5RdLMC&lpg=PP1&dq=isbn%3A0865545820&pg=PA85#v=snippet&q=beyer&f=false>  Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the death of Herod.” 2015 Academia.edu. <http://www.academia.edu/2518046/Dating_the_death_of_Herod/a>
[14] Beyer. “Josephus Reexamined.” pp 86-87, 90-93, 95-96.  Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter II. 2. Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter IX.1, 6.  Wolfram, Chuck.  “The Herodian Dynasty.” 2004. <http://web.archive.org/web/20151013221102/http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cwolfram/herod Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. 2nd Ed. 2003. Chapter 13. A.S.K. (Associates for Scriptural Knowledge.  <://web.archive.org/web/20170917115234/http://www.askelm.com/star/star015.htm> Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter VI.6-8, 10.
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter II. 2; Chapter VI.5.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.8.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter VI.10. Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter IX.6.  “Augustus.” UNRV History |The Roman Empire. United Nations of Roma Victrix. 2017.  <http://www.unrv.com/fall-republic/augustus.php>  “Did Caesar and Cleopatra really have a son?” The Ancient Standard. 2010. <http://ancientstandard.com/2010/12/03/did-caesar-and-cleopatra-really-have-a-son
[17] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter V, Book XVII, Chapters VI – Chapter VIII.  Josephus.  Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII. “Actium (31 BCE).”  Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2019. <https://www.livius.org/articles/battle/actium-31-bce> “King Herod the Great.” Livius.org. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/he-hg/herodians/herod_the_great01.html>  “The Actium Project.” New World Encyclopedia. The University of South Florida and the Greek Ministry of Culture. Dir. William M. Murray.  Research Project. 1997.  <http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~murray/actium/brochure.html>  Chesser, Preston. “The Battle of Actium.” Ohio State University. 2002. <http://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/battle-actium>  Gertoux. “Dating the Death of Herod.” pp 6, 9, 11.  “HEROD I. (surnamed the Great).” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011.  <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7598-herod-i>  Villalba i Varneda, Pere. The Historical Method of Flavius Josephus. 1986. p14.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=kdUUAAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA14&ots=2ek7SgCy2c&dq=josephus%2C%20battle%20of%20actium%2C%20herod&pg=PA14#v=onepage&q=josephus,%20battle%20of%20actium,%20herod&f=false>  Bernegger. “Affirmation of Herod’s Death in 4 B.C.”  San José, Juan Antonio Revilla. “On the Year of Herod’s Death.” Pages 14, 140.  “World History 50-0 BC.”  HistoryCentral.com.   MultiEducator, Inc.  n.d. <http://www.historycentral.com/dates/50bc.html>
[18] Espenak, Fred.  NASA Lunar Eclipse Website. 2007. Asia and Asia Minor – Jerusalem, Israel; Century Selection -0001 – 0100.  <https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/JLEX/JLEX-AS.html
[19] Martin. The Star of Bethlehem. Chapter 13. Bernegger. “Affirmation of Herod’s Death in 4 B.C.”
[20] Espenak. NASA Eclipse Website. Asia and Asia Minor – Jerusalem, Israel. Century Selection -0001 – 0100.  Espenak, Fred.  “Six Millennium Catalog of Phases of the Moon.” NASA Eclipse Website. n.d. “Phase years Table:  -0099 – 0000.” <https://archive.is/UsEwe> Kidger, Mark R. “The Date of Passover 11BC – 10AD.”  <http://www.observadores-cometas.com/cometas/Star/Passover.html> Reinhold. “Other Scholarship Proving the Exact Date of Birth of Yeshua (Jesus), part 5.”

The Magi’s Provocation of King Herod

 

Arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi had been traveling on a month’s long quest to find the newborn King of the Jews.[1] They knew to start searching somewhere in Judea and it made perfect sense to start in Jerusalem with the King of Judea – Herod.

Immediately the Magi gained direct access to the King, their reputation as Magi making that possible. The first words spoken by the Magi to Herod in Matthew’s Nativity account set the stage in the palace:

MT 2:2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (NASB, NKJV)

No doubt, it was shocking news to the reigning king who knew nothing about this royal birth. After all, this child certainly was not Herod’s son. Qualifying their revelation, the Magi explained how they knew conclusion were true saying:

MT 2:2 “For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship him.” (NKJV)

Now the second shock wave – they came to worship this newborn King of the Jews! No one worshiped the great Herod, yet these Magi traveled hundreds of miles from a foreign land emphasizing their personal conviction of what they had observed – what child would be worthy of such worship? The Magi left the palace without getting an answer.

Stirring the pot tends to cause people to act in peculiar ways. The Magi certainly shook things up undoubtedly getting the attention of everyone else in the palace.

Good gossip is just too hard to keep a secret. All of Jerusalem was “troubled” by the news, translated from Matthew’s Greek text word tarasso meaning “to stir or agitate (roil water).”[2]

A newborn king of the Jews – who was his father? A child worthy of worship by the reputed king-makers? Could he even be the promised Messiah? Now this was newsworthy! 

News about a new king undoubtedly raised hopes, yet at the same time, it was just as troubling – would the new king be worse than Herod or hopefully a good king? It would be years before this new king would begin his reign. 

Servants came from among the general population where they still had family and friends. Herod’s family was scandalously known for their loose lips. Throughout history palaces of kings and queens notoriously have been unable to hold their secrets. Maybe, too, was their unusual arrival by a conspicuous caravan of camels; their foreign grandiose attire; or that they were regarded as kings from Persia.[3]

For any king, especially with the personality profile of Herod, this whole affair, whether true or not, would be an embarrassment and no king should ever be embarrassed. As the story unfolds, the King came to quickly view this child’s birth as a real threat that must be dealt with such as Herod had done many times before using whatever means necessary.[4]

Processing in his mind the Magi’s alarming news, after the Magi left the palace, the King immediately assembled “all the chief priests and scribes of the people.”[5] Not just a select few, but all of the Jewish religious experts – the King was leaving no stone unturned.

Making it clear he believed the Magi’s proclamation, he asked the  Jewish religious experts, chief priests and scribes, to determine “where the Christ was to be born.”[6] It was not a question of if … it was a 2-fold assumption. Where he was to be born and Herod used the Greek word, Christos, translated as Christ, the Messiah. Their consensus response: “In Bethlehem of Judea” citing the prophecy of Micah.[7]

Up to this point, the actual appearance of the star witnessed by the Magi astronomers had been only incidental information. Had the star been the most attention-getting news from the Magi, a cynical Herod would have been expected to question it, even scoff at it – he didn’t. It was a detail; however, that did not pass his attention.

Matthew does not say Herod was unaware of the star event – it can only be said that he did not know when it had occurred. Events in the sky would likely have been a relatively petty matter to the King prior the Magi’s visit, especially considering his bigger political problems in the kingdom, with Rome, and his scheming family affairs.

Upon hearing of Micah’s prophecy, his focus changed. No star was mentioned in Micah’s prophecy nor recorded by Matthew in the response from the chief priests and scribes. As religious experts, they were likely fully aware of Balaam’s prophecy of a star coming forth from Jacob signifying a ruler of Israel.[8] Maybe they mentioned this to Herod, maybe not.

One thing is for certain, Herod had a new fixation:  when did this star appear? This was the one detail now important – this information would establish a timeline.

Summoning the Magi back to the palace, Herod wanted this second meeting to be in secret. Since the word was all over Jerusalem about the Magi’s initial visit to the palace, the secrecy of the second meeting strongly suggests the King had something to hide.

Herod now possessed two details of interest to the Magi – Micah’s prophecy corroborating the birth of a Jewish ruler and the general location of Bethlehem where he could be found. He could use this information as leverage to learn when the star had appeared. During this second meeting, Herod got the information he wanted and the Magi got the information they were seeking.

One other thing Herod wanted… the Magi were asked to report back to him with the exact location of the child under the pretense that he, too, of course could worship the new king. It was a well-known fact, Herod worshiped no one or thing.

In Bethlehem, the Magi found Jesus and worshiped him offering expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Magi may have intended to inform Herod of the child’s whereabouts until they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.

Returning home by another route the Magi avoided Jerusalem. Enraged, Herod then ordered all the children 2 years and younger to be killed in the district of Bethlehem based on the timing of the star’s first appearance ascertained from the Magi.

King Herod was more than capable of such cruelty. Among many murders, he had killed a chief priest, his second wife, her grandfather, her two sons and would soon execute his firstborn son by his first wife.[9] His cruelty extended even to his death bed when he summoned all the principal men of Judea to Jericho, locked them in the hippodrome, and gave orders to have them killed just to deny them the opportunity to gloat over his death.[10]

Does Herod’s reactions ring true to the Magi’s declaration that the Messiah, King of the Jews, had been born in Bethlehem?

 

Updated September 26, 2022.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] “Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia.” 2000. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/silk/hd_silk.htm>  “Trade Routes.” Smithsonian|The National Museum of American History. n.d. <http://web.archive.org /web/20160618154742/http://americanhistory.si.edu/numismatics/parthia/frames/pamaec.htm>  “46178 -wisemen-magi-jesusbirth.” KFAX AM 1100. photo. n.d. <https://media.swncdn.com/cms/CW/46178-wisemen-magi-jesusbirth.1200w.tn.jpg>
[2] Net.bible.org. Matthew 2:2 Greek text. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=2> Strong, James, LL.D., S.T.D.  The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. “tarasso <5015>”  Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1990.
[3] Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XV, Ch.VII-VIII; Book XVI, Ch. VIII, XI, IX, XIII, XVI. Book XVII, Ch. I, V. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XVIII, XXII, XXIV, XXXI, XXXIII. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Strabo. Geography. Chapters II-III. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0239:book=1:chapter=2&highlight=magi> <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0239:book=15:chapter=3&highlight=magi>  Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0258:book=1:chapter=prologue&highlight=magi>  Stillwell, Richard et. al. “Gaza Israel.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=gaza&highlight=caravan>
[4] Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Ch. 1; Book XV, Ch. 1, 3, 6, 7; Book XVI, Ch.VII, VIII, X; Book XVII, Ch. IV, VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XXVI, XXII, XXIV, XXVI, XXX, XXXI. “Herod the Great.” 2017. Livius.org. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great
[5] Matthew 2:4. NRSV, NKJV, NASB.
[6] NET, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NKJV.
[7] Matthew 2:5. NET, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NKJV.
[8] Maimonides, Moses. Mishneh Torah. “The Law Concerning Moshiach.”  Kesser.org. n.d. <http://www.kesser.org/moshiach/rambam.html#SIE>   Rich, Tracey R. “Mashiach: The Messiah.” Judaism101. 2011. <http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Ch. III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI; Book XVI, Ch. XI; Book XVII, Ch. IX.
Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII, XXVII, XXXIII.
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Ch. VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XXXIII.

Herod – Profile of a Cruel & Cunning King

 

Infamous as King of Judea in the Gospel’s Nativity story, Herod was a threat to the lives of the Magi, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Was King Herod 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)

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 just one baby – Jesus. One clue might be that Herod was not of Jewish heritage; his father was Idumean and his mother was Arabian.[1]

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.”[2]

Killing so many people in violation of Jewish law, as a young ruler the Sanhedrin put Herod on trial for murder. High priest Hyrcanus tipped off the defiant Herod that he was about to be found guilty allowing him to temporarily escape to Damascus.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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).[7]

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.[8]

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 atrocity when Herod had 40 insurrectionists burned alive and marked his final days.[9]

Trusting no one, Herod was ruthless in quelling any possible threats.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12]

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. Herod 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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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 these principal men 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.[16]

Such depravity was even too much for his reputedly 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.[17]

Does the historical profile of a cruel Herod strengthen or diminish the credibility of Matthew Nativity account of killing all male boys 2 years and younger in the Bethlehem area just to ensure he killed baby Jesus?

 

Updated November 30, 2022.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Idumaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624> Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Idumaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624> “Herod the Great Biography.” TheFamousPeople. photo. n.d. <https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/herod-the-great-37596.php
[2] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XIV, Ch. IX.  William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Google Books.  n.d <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews.  Book I, Chapter X. William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  Google Books. n.d. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Herod.”  Jewish Virtual Library. 2017. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/herod>   “Herod the Great – Governor of Galilee (47-37 B.C.).” <https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Idumean> Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Judaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[3] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Ch. IX; Book XV, Chapter II.  Josephus. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter X. “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016.
[4] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapters IV, V, IX, XI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter X.
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapter. XVI, XII-XIV.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters IV, XV – XVII.  “Herod I.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7598-herod-i>
[6] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters VI-VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XIX-XX.  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod the Great.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624&gt > Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Jerusalem.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[7] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters XXI, XXV, XXIV.  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  “Herod the Great.” Livius.org.
[8] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. 1826-1889. Chapter 1. <http://philologos.org/__eb-ttms/default.htm>  Hegg, Tim.  “Separating the Most Holy from the Holy:  The ‘Veil’ in the Tabernacle and First & Second Temples” Torah Resource. <http://www.torahresource.com/EnglishArticles/Veil%20ETS%20Paper.pdf>  “Temple of Jerusalem.”  New World Encyclopedia. 2015. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Temple_of_Jerusalem>  “Herod’s Temple.”  Bible-history.com.  n.d.  <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great/HERODHerods_Temple.htm>   “Herod.”  Jewish Virtual Library.
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter VIII; Book XVI, Chapter V; Book XVII, Chapters VI; VIII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Hellenism” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism>  “Asia Minor.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2010-asia-minor>
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Chapter 1; Book XVI, Ch. VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVI.
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapters VIII, X; Book XVII, Chapter IV. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXX.
[12] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter I.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XII. XXII.  “Herod the Great; Herodias.” Livius.org.
[13] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII.  Bunson. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod the Great.”
[14] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter XI; Book XVII, Chapter IX.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVII. XXXIII.  Bunson. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod the Great.”
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[17] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.