“In the Days of Herod the King”
IN AN attempt to kill the infant Jesus, Herod the Great, king of Judea, sent envoys to massacre all baby boys in Bethlehem. History records numerous events that took place “in the days of Herod the king,” events that throw light on the context of Jesus’ life and ministry.—Matthew 2:1-16.
What made Herod want to kill Jesus? And why was it that when Jesus was born, the Jews had a king, but when Jesus died, Pontius Pilate, a Roman, governed them? To get the full picture of Herod’s role in history and to understand why he is important to Bible readers, we need to look back several decades before Jesus’ birth.
Power Struggles in Judea
In the first half of the second century B.C.E., Judea was ruled by the Syrian Seleucids, one of the four dynasties that formed after the breakup of the empire of Alexander the Great. However, in about 168 B.C.E., when the Seleucid king attempted to replace worship of Jehovah with the cult of Zeus at their temple in Jerusalem, the Jews, led by the Maccabee family, revolted. The Maccabees, or Hasmoneans, ruled Judea from 142-63 B.C.E.
In 66 B.C.E., two Hasmonean princes, Hyrcanus II and his brother Aristobulus, fought for succession to the throne. Civil war ensued, and both sought the aid of Pompey, a Roman general who at the time was in Syria. Pompey jumped at the chance to interfere.
The Romans, in fact, were extending their influence eastward, and by this time, they controlled much of Asia Minor. A series of weak rulers in Syria, however, had allowed the area to sink into anarchy, menacing the peace that the Romans desired to maintain in the East. So Pompey had stepped in to annex Syria.
His solution to the Hasmonean quarrel was to back Hyrcanus, and in 63 B.C.E., the Romans stormed Jerusalem to install their nominee. Hyrcanus, however, was not going to be an independent ruler. The Romans now had a foot in the door and were not about to remove it. Hyrcanus became a Roman ethnarch, one who ruled by the grace of the Romans, dependent on their goodwill and support to retain his throne. He could administer internal affairs as he wished, but in foreign relations, he had to conform to Roman policy.
The Rise of Herod
Hyrcanus was a weak-willed ruler. He was supported, though, by Antipater, an Idumean and the father of Herod the Great. Antipater was the power behind the throne. He kept restless Jewish factions at bay and soon took effective control of Judea. He helped Julius Caesar fight his foes in Egypt, and the Romans rewarded Antipater by raising him to the position of procurator, answerable directly to them. Antipater, in turn, appointed his sons, Phasael and Herod, as governors of Jerusalem and of Galilee respectively.
Antipater taught his sons that nothing could be achieved without Rome’s consent. Herod remembered that lesson well. Throughout his career, he juggled the demands of his Roman patrons with those of his Jewish subjects. He was aided by his skills as an organizer and a general. On his appointment as governor, 25-year-old Herod promptly won himself the admiration of Jews and Romans alike by vigorously eliminating bands of bandits from his territory.
After rivals poisoned Antipater in 43 B.C.E., Herod became the most powerful man in Judea. Yet, he had enemies. The Jerusalem aristocracy considered him a usurper and sought to persuade Rome to remove him. The attempt failed. Rome was loyal to Antipater’s memory and valued his son’s abilities.
Made King of Judea
Pompey’s solution to the Hasmonean succession crisis some 20 years earlier had embittered many. The unsuccessful faction repeatedly attempted to retake power, and in 40 B.C.E., they succeeded with the help of Rome’s enemies, the Parthians. Exploiting the chaos created by civil war in Rome, they invaded Syria, deposed Hyrcanus, and installed an anti-Roman member of the Hasmonean family.
Herod fled to Rome, where he received a warm welcome. The Romans wanted the Parthians ousted from Judea and the territory returned to their control with an acceptable ruler. They needed a reliable ally and saw Herod as their man. The Roman Senate thus crowned Herod king of Judea. In an act symbolic of the many compromises that Herod would have to make to maintain his grip on power, he led a procession from the Senate to the temple of Jupiter, where he sacrificed to pagan gods.
Helped by Roman legions, Herod defeated his enemies in Judea and claimed his throne. His revenge upon those who had opposed him was brutal. He eliminated the Hasmoneans and the Jewish aristocracy who had supported them, as well as any others who chafed at having a friend of the Romans rule over them.
Herod Consolidates His Power
In 31 B.C.E. when Octavius emerged as the undisputed ruler of the Romans by defeating Mark Antony at Actium, Herod realized that his long-standing friendship with Mark Antony would be viewed with suspicion. So Herod hastened to assure Octavius of his loyalty. The new Roman ruler, in turn, confirmed Herod as king of Judea and enlarged his territories.
In the years that followed, Herod stabilized and enriched his kingdom, transforming Jerusalem into a center of Hellenistic culture. He embarked upon great construction projects—building palaces, the port city of Caesarea, and grand new edifices for Jerusalem’s temple. All the while, the focus of his policy and the source of his strength were friendship with Rome.
Herod’s control over Judea was total; his authority, absolute. Herod also manipulated the high priesthood, appointing to this office whomever he wished.
Herod’s private life was turbulent. Many of his ten wives wanted one of their sons to succeed his father. Palace intrigues aroused Herod’s suspicions and his cruelty. In a fit of jealousy, he had his favorite wife, Mariamne, executed, and he later had two of her sons strangled for alleged plots against him. Matthew’s account of the Bethlehem massacre thus harmonizes with what is known of Herod’s temperament and his resolve to eliminate possible rivals.
Some say that, aware of his own unpopularity, Herod was determined that his death should be met with national mourning rather than rejoicing. In a scheme to achieve that goal, he arrested Judea’s leading citizens and ordered that they all be executed when his own death was announced. The order was never carried out.
The Legacy of Herod the Great
On Herod’s death, Rome decreed that Archelaus succeed his father as ruler of Judea and that two other sons become independent princes, or tetrarchs—Antipas over Galilee and Perea, Philip over Iturea and Trachonitis. Archelaus proved unpopular with his subjects and masters. After a decade of his ineffectual dominion, the Romans removed him and appointed their own governor, the predecessor of Pontius Pilate. In the meantime, Antipas—whom Luke simply calls Herod—and Philip continued to govern their own tetrarchies. This was the political situation at the start of Jesus’ ministry.—Luke 3:1.
Herod the Great was an astute politician and a ruthless murderer, probably his worst act being his attempt to kill the infant Jesus. Examining Herod’s historical role is useful for Bible readers—it helps illuminate key events of the period, explains how the Romans became rulers of the Jews, and sets the stage for Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.
[Map on page 15]
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Palestine and surrounding areas in Herod’s time
Sea of Galilee
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Herod was just one in a succession of rulers who dominated Judea in the two centuries prior to Jesus’ ministry