The Herodian Dynasty: Herod The Great

The Herodian Dynasty: Herod The Great

Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross

Neal Pollard

The Herodian dynasty actually began during the civil wars of the first century B.C., when Palestine passed from Hasmonean (a Jewish family that included the Maccabees) into Roman rule. “The name ‘Herod’ is Greek and originated with a shadowy ancestor about whom, even in antiquity, little was known. Two ancient traditions make him either a descendant of a notable Jewish family with a lineage traceable to the Babylonian exile or a slave in the temple of Apollo in the Philistine city of Ashkelon. Neither can be proved” (Achtemeier 385). For well over a century and a half, the Herods would figure prominently in the Roman government under a multitude of emperors from 67 B.C. to about 100 A.D. The first ruler of this dynasty is Antipater I, who is appointed governor of Idumaea by the Hasmoneans. The Idumaeans are forced to “convert” to the Jewish faith, making them Jews at least in name. Meanwhile, Antipater’s son, Antipater II, through military and political savvy, earned Roman citizenship for his family and positions of power for his oldest two sons, Phasael and Herod. The latter was named governor of Galilee and was ultimately known as “Herod the Great.”

“Herod the Great” is the first of this dynasty to be mentioned in Scripture. He has a long reign characterized by guile, violence, and political alliance. By the time we read about him at the birth of Jesus, he’s months from dying. He had had ten wives and borne several sons who would fight with each other before and after his death. He had won acclaim among the Romans for his grandiose building projects, including the city of Sebaste, Strato’s Tower, Caesarea Maritime, Masada, Machaerus, the Herodium in Perea, the Alexandrium, Cypros, Hyrcania, and the Herodium southeast of Bethlehem (ibid. 386-387). No doubt his greatest architectural achievement was the extravagant rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem, which the disciples of Jesus took such great pride in (Mark 13:1). 

This Herod is shown to be cunning (Mat. 2:7), deceitful (Mat. 2:8), violent-tempered (Mat. 2:16), and vicious (Mat. 2:16-19). Information gleaned from outside the Bible confirm these character traits. Josephus especially chronicles Herod’s depravity with reams of material about murders he committed, intrigues he entered into, and power struggles he fought (Antiquities 14-18). Blomberg observes, 

It is often observed that there are no other historical documents substantiating Herod’s “massacre of the innocents.” But given the small size of Bethlehem and the rural nature of the surrounding region, there may have been as few as twenty children involved, and the killings would have represented a relatively minor incident in Herod’s career, worthy of little notice by ancient historians who concentrated on great political and military exploits (68). 

In addition to what we read of him in Matthew 2, “many of Herod’s building projects serve as backdrops for events of the New Testament” (Winstead, n.p.). Bethlehem is near the Herodium. Gospel writers repeatedly reference his rebuilt Jerusalem temple (John 7-10). The book of Acts refers to his coastal city of Caesarea, called Caesarea Maritima (Acts 8; 21:8; 23:33)–different from Caesarea Philippi in Matthew 16:13. As a living legacy to his wickedness, three of his sons disputed over what and how much territory they would rule. Augustus Caesar settled the matter by dividing the kingdom “but withholding the royal title of “king” from all of the heirs” (Garcia-Treto 378). 

The most notable thing about a man who pursued and was granted a measure of earthly greatness is the contrast between himself and the baby Jesus, “king of the Jews” (Mat. 2:2). He sought power and greatness. Jesus emptied Himself to be born in our likeness (Phil. 2:5-7). Herod sought self-preservation, but Jesus came for our preservation (1 Tim. 1:15). Herod jealousy guarded his position, but Jesus “gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). We will see the contrast between Jesus’ kingdom and the sordid legacy of King Herod, revealed in what the Bible says of his wicked descendants. 

Sources Cited

 Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper’s Bible dictionary 1985 : 385. Print.

 Blomberg, Craig. Matthew. Vol. 22. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992. Print. The New American Commentary.

 Garcia-Treto, Francisco O. “Herod.” Ed. Mark Allan Powell. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) 2011 : 378. Print.

 Winstead, Melton B. “Herod the Great.” Ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2016 : n. pag. Print.

palace ruins built into the rocks in Masada, Palestine.
Herod’s Palace at Masada (Photo Credit: Kathy Pollard, July 2017)

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