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 ...

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