Herod the Great
Herod may have been set in a position of power by the Romans, but he proved himself to be a very small man. His title, “King of the Jews,” was given to him by the secular, political rulers. But the Jewish people only partially accepted his authority. He was not of the Davidic kingly line. He wasn’t even half Jewish.
He was appointed to rule over Galilee by Mark Anthony. The saga is Shakespearean. Herod’s father, Antipater, was something of a chief of staff to Hyrcanus, one of two men who were trying to seize control of the Judean region. After Caesar was assassinated, in 44 BC, by Brutus and Cassius, the murderers fled to the East and Mark Anthony raised taxes to fund the effort to apprehend the fugitives. Antipater managed to get the 15,000 kg of silver required from Judea, but his collection methods were so harsh that he too was murdered.
Herod enlisted the help of other Romans and avenged his father’s murder. He then defeated Hyrcanus’ nephew, and married Hyrcanus’ daughter, Mariamne, in a bold political move to officially become part of the right family. By 42 BC, Mark Anthony had dealt with Brutus and Cassius. Herod convinced the ruler that his father had not supported the murder of Caesar. He was rewarded with the title “tetrarch of Galilee.”
The story goes on and on with political twists and turns that sound too strange to be true, but all marked by violence. Herod’s main goal was to impress everyone who might help him and destroy anyone who might dethrone him. He eventually murdered his father-in-law, Hyrcanus, his wife, his mother-in-law, two brothers-in-law... can you spell dysfunctional homicidal maniac? It just seems to be ok if you are the “king.”
In order to please the Jews he took on several huge building projects. He repaired the wall of Jerusalem, and built a citadel to guard the Temple. But he named it Antonia, in honor of Mark Anthony. He minted coins bearing his own name. Following an earthquake in 31 BC, he rebuilt markets, theatres, and a palace.
He conceived and built the huge seaport of Caesarea, named for the Emperor. It was a planned city, with a Grecian-style grid of streets, piers, baths, aqueducts, a circus, and pagan temples. Herod was willing to support any religious group that exalted him. To fund all his projects, he imposed taxes approaching 18%, which was extremely high in a pre-industrial society.
In 20 BC, he began the Jewish Temple which bears his name. Yet, he had an eagle, the symbol of Rome, placed over the Temple gate as a reminder that Rome ruled Judea. Despite all his scheming and grand accomplishments, he was not loved by anyone.
Now, we see Herod as he enters Biblical history. Here come the magi, undoubtedly with a huge support caravan, looking for someone whom they believe is the “King of the Jews,” and whom they want to worship. Herod wasn’t about to let this situation pass! He says that he doesn’t know of this person, but tells the magi to be sure to let him know if they find the baby they are seeking. He has cunningly appeared to show interest in the age of this infant king.
We know that he certainly was interested, but not because he wanted to worship the new king, as he claimed. Instead he set out to kill all the boys who were two years old and under, just in case one of them might have a legitimate claim to his position.
The familiar story unfolds- The magi do find Jesus and present their gifts. Mary and Joseph are warned by God to take baby Jesus and go to Egypt to avoid the Herodian slaughter, and God warns the magi to skip a return visit with Herod.
Herod the Great’s death in 4 BC is one of the key elements of dating the birth of Jesus at about 6 BC. (Calendar errors have nothing to do with Biblical accuracy.) He possibly died of the same disease as his grandson, Herod Antipater, whose death is described in Acts 12:23, as being “eaten by worms.” It is speculated that they both died of Fournier’s gangrene, a condition in which bacteria infect the urinary tract and prostate, causing gangrene, and tissue necrosis. Not a pleasant way to go.
It’s quite likely that Herod the Great was not much missed.