In terms of wealth, power, and influence, Herod the Great rivaled King Solomon as the greatest king in the history of the Jews. Most Christians, however, know little more about Herod than what is reported in Matthew 2: his interaction with the Magi and the slaughter of Bethlehem’s infant boys. Far beyond the significance of those isolated incidents, Herod powerfully shaped the world in which Jesus and the earliest Christians lived.
The collective historical opinion—colored by Matthew’s account—has viewed Herod as a paranoid, cruel, and murderous tyrant. Several historians, however, have recently sought to rehabilitate Herod’s image. Norman Gelb’s Herod the Great: Statesman, Visionary, Tyrant (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013), Geza Vermes’s The True Herod (Bloomsbury, 2014), and Adam Kolman Marshak’s The Many Faces of Herod the Great (Eerdmans, 2015) all seek to positively reassess his reign. Gelb and Vermes provide accessible accounts of Herod’s life, while Marshak provides an academic appraisal of Herod’s rule in terms of the ancient political, cultural, and religious expectations of a good king.
It is too strong to claim that these recent books indicate a sweeping renaissance in the study of Herod’s life. Nevertheless, they represent a growing interest in the historical Herod fueled by a desire to look afresh at Herod’s life apart from Matthew’s Gospel.
Rise to Power
Herod was born around 73 B.C., the second son of an Idumaean statesman. The inhabitants of Idumaea (ancient Edom) were forcibly converted to Judaism in the second century B.C. Thus, Herod was raised religiously as a Jew even though he was always viewed as an Idumaean Arab by many of his Jewish subjects. Julius Caesar appointed Herod’s father as the procurator of Judea and granted him Roman citizenship in 48 B.C.
Herod’s father soon appointed Herod as the governor of Galilee. He served effectively in this role, but the trajectory of his life was drastically altered when Brutus and Cassius assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. And a year later, Herod’s father was assassinated by Malichus, a Jewish official hoping to bring a true Jewish ruler back to power in Judea.
Herod avenged his father, but the death of Malichus led only to more political upheaval. Further, his support of Cassius put his career in jeopardy when Roman leadership changed yet again. Herod was able to successfully navigate the changes, and Mark Antony—the new Roman ruler of the East—appointed Herod and his brother Phaesal as governors of Jerusalem.
However, the Parthians—Rome’s dreaded and powerful enemies in the East—overtook Jerusalem. Phaesal was captured in this conflict and reportedly committed suicide in prison, while Herod escaped to Rome.
Herod arrived in Rome vulnerable, nearly broke, ruling no territory, and with no real claim to the Judean throne. Yet he was able to convince the Roman senate that he could recapture Judea and stabilize it. The senate appointed him king of Judea in 40 B.C., and he retook Jerusalem three years later.
Brilliant, Generous, and Religious
In The Many Faces of Herod the Great, Marshak argues that Herod’s brilliance was displayed in his self-presentation. To the Romans, Herod presented himself as a capable and loyal client-king—a king submitted to Rome but with a degree of independent authority. To the Jews, he presented himself as an ideal and devout Jewish king in line with David and Solomon. He knew who he needed to be in each political situation.
Herod’s political survival depended on his loyalty to the Romans and ability to successfully navigate leadership changes. The most dangerous transition he faced was when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C. Having been a faithful supporter of Mark Antony, Herod had to convince Octavian that it was in Rome’s best interest to keep him as king of the Jews instead of killing him. According to Josephus, Herod asked Octavian to consider “not whose friend, but how loyal a friend” he had been.
Every single power transition Herod navigated could have wrecked his career—or killed him—because he was on the losing side every time. But he knew how to evaluate the situation and present himself as the most viable ruler of Judea. Each Roman ruler, in turn, was impressed with him and became dependent, to varying degrees, on his ability to rule an important border-kingdom. Not only was Judea important for trade, it also provided a buffer between the Romans and their Parthian enemies.
Herod’s brilliance is also seen in his massive building projects. He was one of the greatest builders of the ancient Greco-Roman world. He rebuilt the Jerusalem temple into a structure unlike any other. He employed cutting-edge hydraulic cement to make the harbor at Caesarea the largest artificial harbor the world had ever known. He built cities and rebuilt others (such as Samaria, Caesarea, and Antipatris). He built palaces, military fortresses, aqueducts, forums, theatres, amphitheaters, and temples (such as in Philippi, Beruit, Tyre, and Rhodes).
Herod was also generous. During a severe famine in Judea in 25–24 B.C., he distributed food—with his own money—to his starving people and to needy people in neighboring cities. In order to facilitate economic recovery, he lowered taxes by a third following the famine. He also lowered taxes by a quarter in 14 B.C.
One could argue that cold-hearted political calculations motivated Herod’s self-sacrificial benevolence. But Herod seemed to go beyond what was politically expedient. His people never loved him, but he was not altogether cold hearted.
Herod was also a proficient administrator. His bureaucratic efficiency led Judea into a period of stability, relative wealth, and abundance. He greatly increased trade, and his building projects employed countless people. Many cities experienced what could be called urban renewal, and the expansion of irrigation systems led to greater agricultural productivity.
Jews living outside Judea loved Herod more than his local subjects, because he actively tried to promote and protect their interests. His benefaction reached throughout the Roman world, and he paid for the construction of gymnasia, theatres, baths, fountains, aqueducts, streets, temples, and buildings outside of Palestine. He rescued the ancient Olympic Games financially and was appointed Olympic president for life.
Herod also presented himself as a religiously devout Jew to the inhabitants of Judea. Josephus said that Herod’s project to rebuild the temple was a result of his ambition “to godliness” to make “full return to God for the gift of this kingdom.” To be sure, Herod also funded temples to Roma and Augustus in support of the Imperial cult and other non-Jewish cults. But he saw himself as an observant Jew.
A Paranoid, Cruel, Murderous Tyrant
Like many political leaders, Herod was also ruthless. Early in his career, he slaughtered bandits in Galilee who were pillaging non-Jewish Syrians. Herod was subsequently tried by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem for unlawfully executing the bandits without first holding a trial. He arrived before the Sanhedrin with enough bodyguards to slaughter the entire court if he sensed a serious threat. To avoid bloodshed or problems with the Romans, the trial was ended before a verdict was reached.
When Herod conquered Jerusalem in 37 B.C., he had Mark Antony execute Antigonus, the rival king allied to the Parthians. Herod feared that if Antigonus were taken as a prisoner to Rome, he would convince the Romans that he was the rightful king of Judea instead of Herod. Herod then captured and killed any in Jerusalem who criticized him, and thus turned Judea into a police state where dissenters and opponents could be executed. He had spies and informants all over, and he regularly tortured confessions out of suspects before executing them. Private meetings were banned. In response to one assassination attempt by ten Jerusalemites, he tortured to death the would-be assassins and their associates—and he had their families killed.
Herod was determined to kill any potential rival king. In 35 B.C., he had his brother-in-law Aristobulus drowned in a swimming pool “accident” because he had become popular with the people. Political conspiracies and fabricated rumors bred quickly in Herod’s court and family. He had ten wives and eight sons, and the question of who would succeed Herod caused incredible turmoil. Most people around Herod lied to him about others. For instance, Herod’s sister Salome accused his beloved wife Mariamne of attempting to poison him. So he executed Mariamne on the charge of adultery. He also executed Mariamne’s mother and two of Salome’s husbands. He even killed three of his sons, fearing they might assassinate him.
The sickness that led to Herod’s death is tough to diagnose, and it likely influenced some of the maniacal decisions he made near the end of his life. For example, when Herod knew that his death was imminent, he ordered that many notable Jews be slaughtered upon his death. Knowing that many of his subjects would rejoice in his passing, he wanted the nation to mourn instead. Fortunately, his final wishes were not enacted.
Matthew 2: Fact or Fiction?
The events of Matthew 2 took place sometime during the final year of Herod’s life (5–4 B.C.). Wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem seeking a newborn king. Herod pretended to help them find the child but intended to kill him. God warned the wise men in a dream not to report back to Herod. He also warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Herod responded to this by slaughtering all the boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area under the age of two.
While each of the three biographies readily acknowledge Herod’s dark side, they argue that he never ordered the slaughter of Bethlehem boys. They view the story is fictional, even though such brutality would have been consistent with Herod’s ruthless actions.
They argue against Matthew’s historicity by pointing to silence on the issue from other ancient sources. Macrobius, however, an early fifth-century non-Christian philosopher, states that when Caesar Augustus “heard that Herod king of the Jews had ordered boys in Syria under the age of two years to be put to death and that the king’s son was among those killed, he said: ‘I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.’” Most scholars assume this quote relies on Matthew’s Gospel for information. But Macrobius does not show any familiarity with Christianity. And he mixes up the historical events: he locates the massacre in Syria and includes Herod’s son in the slaughter. Matthew doesn’t tell us that Herod killed his own son, so Macrobius may have received his information from the same place he drew his other information about Caesar. It is impossible to know, therefore, whether Macrobius’ information came from Matthew’s Gospel, and the possibility that he drew from another ancient source cannot be omitted.
Further, Josephus—who was born about 40 years after Herod’s death—tells us more about Herod’s life than any other source. Josephus depended primarily on the Universal History—a lost source by Nicolas of Damascus—for his information about Herod. Nicolas was an official in Herod’s court. He minimized Herod’s faults and presented him favorably. Josephus was aware of Nicolas’s bias, but we don’t know if Josephus knew about the Bethlehem slaughter. Nicholas likely would have suppressed such information.
Bethlehem was a small and relatively obscure town at this point in history. So the number of victims were likely few—perhaps a dozen or two. On the scale of ancient atrocities, Herod’s act would have been despicable, to be sure, but perhaps not notable enough to warrant special attention. His final intense and painful sickness made him particularly dangerous as he became psychologically unhinged during his final year. The Parthian empire to the east was not at war with Rome at this point, but relationships were nonetheless tense. It appeared that another rightful heir, backed again by the Parthians, was trying to usurp his throne. This, along with his consistent over-the-top slaughter of potential threats, easily explains Herod’s violent response, despite the astrological support claimed by the wise men (Matt. 2:1–2, 7) and the scriptural support adduced by the chief priests and scribes (Matt 2:3–6).
Josephus was not exhaustive in his account of Herod’s life. So it is insufficient historical reason to reject Matthew’s account. Nothing in Matthew contradicts what other sources say about Herod, and he published his Gospel before Josephus published his works. It is thus closer in time to the actual events.
Vermes’ argues that Matthew made up his story of Jesus’ birth—which is strikingly similar to Moses’ birth—in order to draw similarities between Jesus and Moses. The existence of parallels, however, does not warrant the conclusion that Matthew’s account is fictional. Such a conclusion depends on a prior distrust of Matthew. In fact, the Gospels are some of the most important historical documents describing life in first-century Palestine.
Herod was indeed a complex figure. He was as cruel as he was brilliant, as paranoid as he was generous, and as murderous as he was religious. But he wasn’t much worse than other ancient rulers. Pragmatically, his positive attributes and accomplishments far outshine those of other contemporary client-kings, and he was easily one of the best rulers of his time. He fundamentally shaped the economic, religious, and political world in which Jesus and the early church lived. But none of this justifies his ruthlessness, especially his attempt to kill Jesus. He failed, of course, because God’s plan could not be thwarted, and Jesus lived to rescue his people and rule as the King of kings and Lord of kords.
Alex Stewart is academic dean and assistant professor of New Testament language and literature at Tyndale Theological Seminary in Badhoevedorp, The Netherlands. He is author, along with Andreas Köstenberger, of The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Crossway).