Herod the Great, Wanton Murderer
WHAT the Bible records regarding the various Herods is very brief. In going to secular or profane history for additional information it is both interesting and strengthening to faith to note how truly representative of the individual Herods those fragmentary Scriptural references really are.
The Herods and their immediate predecessors ruled in Palestine during the greater part of both the first century before Christ and the first century after Christ. They were Idumeans, or Edomites, whose people the Maccabean princes of the Jews had subjugated in the second century B.C. Early in the first century B.C., an Idumean, one Antipas, was appointed by the then ruling Jewish prince to be governor of Idumea. Upon his death he was succeeded by his son Antipater. This Antipater succeeded in causing strife between the members of the Jewish royal family from which he benefited, so that Julius Caesar made him governor of Judea as well as a Roman citizen.
At the time Antipater was appointed governor of Judea he gave the governorship of Galilee to his son Herod and that of Jerusalem to another son, Phasael.
According to Josephus, when Herod was made governor in 47 B.C. he was very young, only fifteen years of age. (Antiq. 14:9, 2) Some historians insist that a copyist’s error crept in here and that the record should read twenty-five years, so as to correspond with other dates given by Josephus. Herod distinguished himself by ridding his territory of robber bands, whom he summarily executed without due process of law, much to the consternation of the Sanhedrin, whose authority he openly flouted. In 43 B.C. he succeeded his father, who had been poisoned by a Jewish general, but only after first putting down a revolt. He also had his father’s assassin slain without legal formalities.
In 40 B.C. Herod had to flee for his life because of a successful revolt by the Jewish Asmonéan prince Antigonus. His brother failed to make a getaway and was forced to commit suicide. Herod eventually reached Rome, where he succeeded in obtaining the crown from the triumvirs Antony and Octavian. Returning, Herod gradually was able to gather to himself a Roman army of sufficient size to take Jerusalem and to establish himself as king of Judea in 37 B.C. Upon taking the city Herod executed forty-five of the leading partisans of Antigonus and later also Antigonus himself. All the Sanhedrin save two were likewise slain at Herod’s command. Envious of the popularity of one of his brothers-in-law, a mere youth whom he had appointed high priest, Herod had him drowned and then feigned great sorrow at his death.
Herod had ten wives in all, of whom Mariamne, of the Jewish royal family, was the most beautiful. He was so jealous of her that on two occasions when he left for distant parts he gave secret orders that should he fail to return she was to be slain. Each time the one to whom he gave this order betrayed it to his wife. This involved each in the charge of adultery and as a result Herod had all three executed.
Cunning and craftiness must be added to Herod’s base traits. Adroitly he switched his allegiance to Julius Caesar, to Cassius, to Antony and to Octavian and gained favors from them.
King Herod was also an ambitious builder. He caused to be constructed theaters, amphitheaters, hippodromes, citadels, fortresses, monuments and even cities, which he named after himself, his relatives or the emperors. He built an artificial harbor city, Caesarea, which rivaled the seaport Tyre; he rebuilt Samaria, and carried on vast building projects in many other lands, in Tyre, in Sidon and in cities as far removed as Athens and Antioch.
He built many temples throughout his land in honor of Caesar Augustus, and a magnificent temple at Rhodes to the pagan deity Apollo. On Mount Zion he built a palace for himself as well as the famed “Herod’s temple” for the Jews, which took forty-six years to fully complete. (John 2:20) At the time it was said concerning it: “He who has not seen Herod’s temple has not seen anything beautiful.”
But wicked Herod, in spite of his achievements, had no peace. The slaying of his beautiful wife Mariamne filled him with remorse. While currying the favor of the Jews by the construction of such a magnificent temple, he estranged himself from them by his idolatries, his foreign-building projects and by his appointment of Greek counselors. To many of the Jews he seemed to be no better than that Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, who tried to force the Greek religion and culture upon the Jews and against whom the Maccabees (Asmonéans) rebelled in the first place. Repeatedly the Jews made conspiracies to take his life and as a result one of his fortresses was continually filled with seditious Jews who, after a brief detention, were executed. Toward the closing years of his reign he had two of his own sons executed on suspicion of sedition and, while on his deathbed, a third son.
Licentious living—Herod was wanton in this respect also—brought upon him loathsome diseases from which he suffered greatly, his palace resounding with his cries. He consulted physicians, took baths, but all to no avail. Sensing that the Jews would rejoice at the news of his death, he determined to have mourning at his death such as no king had ever had before. To this end he ordered all the principal men of Jewry brought to Jericho, where he was staying at the time, and incarcerated in the hippodrome, and then gave secret instructions that upon his death, before the news was to be given out, all these men were to be slain. These latter instructions, however, were not carried out.
MATTHEW’S ACCOUNT LEGENDARY?
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 6, page 360, Herod’s connection “with the alleged massacre of the Innocents as related in the New Testament is now generally admitted by independent Christian thinkers to be legendary.” Evidently such ‘thinkers’ base their conclusions on the fact that this incident was not recorded by Josephus or other historians of the time.
However, for truly Christian thinkers that is no proof at all. They stand by God’s Word as true though it makes all men liars. (John 17:17; Rom. 3:4, NW) To deny the authenticity of Matthew, chapter two, would be to deny also the authenticity of Jeremiah 31:15, which prophetically foretold the incident, as well as remove the basis for the fulfillment of the prophecy at Hosea 11:1, regarding Jehovah’s calling his Son out of Egypt. (Matt. 2:15) Numerous reasons might be given why Josephus and others failed to mention this event, intentionally or unintentionally; and, besides, the number of times that archaeology has verified the Bible on points on which secular historians were silent estops any doubting of Matthew’s account simply because it was not mentioned by others!
Some question Matthew’s account because the date of Herod’s death is generally given as 4 B.C., at the age of seventy years, whereas Bible chronology indicates that Jesus was born 2 B.C. (Compare Luke 3:1, 23 with Daniel’s prophecy of “seventy weeks” at Daniel 9:24-27, and which weeks of years began in 455 B.C.) However, note the following:
According to Josephus’ Antiquities, Book 14, chapter 16, (¶1, 4) Herod took possession of Jerusalem in the summer of 37 B.C., and actually began to rule more than three years after he had been appointed to be king of Judea by the Roman senate. It is from this year, then, rather than from the earlier date, that Herod’s 37-year reign mentioned by Josephus in Book 17, chapter 8 (¶1), should be counted. On the basis of this calculation Herod’s death would fall in 1 B.C. or A.D. 1, which would easily allow for Jesus’ birth to fall in 2 B.C. during Herod’s reign, and for the visit of the magi to Herod thereafter and then the slaughter of the young boys in Bethlehem.
Among the proofs given for Herod’s death as occurring 4 B.C. is that he ordered the burning alive of two Jewish seditionists shortly before his death and that on the night they were executed there was an eclipse of the moon, and it is calculated that there was such an eclipse March 13, 4 B.C. But a lunar eclipse is not a sufficient date by which to locate the year of a certain event, because in any year there usually are two eclipse seasons and in many years two eclipses of the moon may be seen in a certain part of the earth. In fact, while only one partial eclipse is recorded for 4 B.C., three are given for 1 B.C., and they complete ones. So, on the basis of the eclipse, 1 B.C. would have a stronger claim than 4 B.C.
In this regard it is interesting to note that authorities differ greatly as to how old Herod was when he became governor in 47 B.C.; also that according to Appleton’s Cyclopedia, when it comes to dates, Josephus “is altogether too careless to be taken into account.” Thus the date of Herod’s death furnishes no obstacle to accepting the account of the slaughter of young boys mentioned by Matthew. And certainly in view of what we have seen about Herod’s disposition, his many murders and his scheme to slay all the principal men of Jewry so that there would be great mourning at his death, yes, everything we know about him is in keeping with that event.