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Herod the Great













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Another lame essay.  This one was for an Ancient Rome course and is decidedly inferior.
















  Herod was not called the Great as a compliment.  Rather, his description stems from the great impact he had on Judea, serves to distinguish him from his sons, and as a reflection on his great building works.[1]  The man was known for his cruelty towards the people he ruled, and was hated by many.  Yet he also had many supporters among the ruled.  He was a keen political figure, playing political games well.  Herod was one of the most influential men in the region, and history reflects his cruelty, strength, political ability, and final madness.

To fully understand the impact Herod had on Judea, one must understand the organization of Jewish society, which was centered on several independent groups.  The Sanhedrin was the supreme court of the Jewish people.  It consisted of 71 people, being led by a member who was noted for his eminence in worth and wisdom.[2]  This position, called the nasi, was often given to the high priest.  The high priest often controlled the outcome of various cases brought before the Sanhedrin, since he was such an influential member of society.[3]  The Sanhedrin was comprised mainly of Sadducees, who were men of a conservative religious bent.  They also were willing to compromise politically in order to keep the power and position they had.[4]  After the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, the council lost much of the power it possessed, including the ability to give capital punishment as a sentence.  The Pharisees was a group of about 6,000 men who taught and viewed the Law of God in a very strict manner.  They were considered to be experts in the law.[5]  The priesthood of the Hebrews had by this time deteriorated, and a ruler usually appointed the high priest.  When once the priests had been independent and powerful, they had gradually lost power and control to outside influences.  The rules of succession were rarely followed, as the previous captivities of the Hebrew people had disrupted the family lines, making it unclear who was of which tribe.[6]

            In addition to the varying religious groups, there were several political groups.  The most prominent and important of these groups was the Herodian party.  This group was made up of Jews who supported Herods family as the last hope of retaining for the Jews a fragment of national government.[7]  They were not organized, but instead were many individuals working in support of the Herodian family.  They occasionally worked in groups with the Pharisees in opposition to early Christianity.[8]  There were also the Zealots, who strove to overthrow any foreign forces that influenced Judea.[9]

            Judea effectively came under Roman rule in 63 B.C. when Pompey besieged and conquered Jerusalem.  The parts of Judea that were not officially part of the Roman Empire were ruled by Rome nonetheless.[10]  Antipater became the procurator of Judea.  Antipater appointed his son Herod as governor of the Galilee region.  While serving in that capacity, Herod slaughtered Jewish patriots.  That is, he killed any who opposed Rome or himself.  He was duly put before the Sanhedrin for judgment.  Unlike others who presented themselves humbly before the Sanhedrin for judgment, Herod appeared in bright clothing and had a defiant attitude.[11]  However, Rome heard news of the proceedings, and quickly sent word that the Sanhedrin was to find Herod not guilty.[12] This was just one more example of the lost power of the Sanhedrin.  Herod, with his Roman allies, was already gaining enough power to be able to flout the Jewish authorities. 

            Malichus, a tax collector who hated Antipater convinced the high priests butler to poison the wine, and so assassinated Antipater.[13]  Herod succeeded him as ruler of Judea in 42 B.C.[14] Marc Antony, leader of region at that time, took it upon himself to have anti-Herodian Jews massacred.  He appointed Herod and his brother, Phasael, tetrarchs of Judea.  By giving the power entirely to Herod and Phasael, the position of high priest was effectively stripped of any real power.  Before, the high priest was looked to as the leader of the people.  Now, the Romans had appointed others for the Hebrew people to listen to and follow.  Hyrcanus, the high priest at the time, was a puppet with little real power.  This move placed power efficiently in the hands of Rome and Roman appointees.[15] 

            After ensuring that Rome had control of Judea, the attention of Rome was turned towards Syria.  The Parthians were causing trouble for Rome at that time, and the army was involved there.  So, in 40 B.C., a number of Jews used this opportunity to rise up against Rome in rebellion.  The leader of the rebel Jews, Antigonus, formed a pact with the Parthians to fight against the Roman army.[16]  The alliance was successful in that it forced Herod to flee to Rome.  Herod used this opportunity to gain the support of the Senate, and to ask for military support.  Unfortunately for the Hebrews, the senate gave Herod the throne of Judea and military support.  In 39 B.C. Herod returned to Judea as king, with mercenaries and Roman legions at his command.  He effectively drove out the forces of Antigonus.  However, the Romans took advantage of the opportunity to loot Jerusalem.  Herod, although wishing power, did not want to rule over a region devoid of wealth.  Herod quickly stopped the looting by agreeing to pay the Romans out of his own funds.[17] 

            After Judea, and Jerusalem specifically, had been regained, Herod killed 45 unsupportive members of the Sanhedrin.[18]  He replaced them with people who supported him and his regime.  He also took the opportunity to appoint Aristobulus as high priest.[19]  By doing this, he effectively removed power from the hands of the Hebrews, and gathered the reins of control into his own hands. 

            Placing Aristobulus as high priest proved to be a mistake for Herod.  Aristobulus was the rightful successor to the office, and he was very popular with the people.  This worried Herod, who viewed him as a possible rival for power.  According to Josephus, Herod invited Aristobulus and others to go swimming.  When it began to grow dark, Herod and his followers began pushing Aristobulus under water as if in sport until he drowned.[20]  He appointed a puppet to the position of high priest, and never lost control of the priesthood again.

            Throughout his reign, Herod continually had to change his alliances with Roman nobles.  Due to the ever-shifting politics of Rome at that time, Herod would often have to shift his support away from the losing side.  Various Romans had superiority over Judea at various times.  Herod found himself serving as king under Julius Caesar, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Octavius Augustus.  His father, Antipater, had to switch his allegiance from Pompey to Julius Caesar to save himself and his power.[21]  When Julius Caesar was assassinated, allegiance was shifted once more to Cassius.[22] This necessary alliance grew into friendship just in time for Cassius to be defeated by Marc Antony and Octavius, ending with Marc Antony becoming ruler of the eastern half of Rome, including Judea.[23]  When civil war broke out between Octavius and Marc Antony, Herod immediately swore allegiance to Octavius.  As Green states, Herod had learned from his father the necessity of preserving alliances with Rome, no matter who its leader was.[24]

            Herod was responsible for making Jerusalem one of the most beautiful cities in the world.[25]  In an effort to rule over an impressive kingdom with an impressive capital, he worked diligently to improve the appearance of the cities.  He built numerous fortresses throughout the whole of Judea, the most prominent being his fortress palace at Masada.[26]  He built himself a palace at Antonia.  In Jerusalem, Herod built gates, walls, buildings, and beautified many existing buildings.  But more importantly to the Jewish people, he rebuilt the temple.  The temple then standing was unimpressive, small, and poorly built.  It had been built by the Jews upon their return from exile in Babylon and Persia.  The Temple of Herod was a massive undertaking, doubling the size of the temple mount to about the size of 24 football fields.[27]  He hired at least 1000 specially trained priests for its construction.  This was in keeping with the Jewish law, which stated that only Levitical priests could work on the construction of the temple.[28]  The temple he had built was elegant, and followed the Jewish methods of building a temple.  Construction began in 19 B.C. and it was completed in 10 B.C.[29] The lone exception to Jewish tradition was the Roman eagle Herod placed over the entrance.  This angered many of the Jews.  A small group of young men gathered and publicly tore down the eagle.[30] 

            The temple was just one attempt Herod made to pacify the Hebrew people.  The temple impressed even the Jews, calling it beautiful.[31]  In keeping with the commandment against graven images, Herod was careful that the coins he had minted bore no images.  He also did not build any pagan cities or temples within Judea.[32]  During the famine of 25 B.C., Herod provided food and seed to the population.  He went to the Roman government and made sure that Jews were excluded from Roman military service.  Because of this, the Jewish people were the first to be exempted from military service.[33] During the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, many of the Hebrew people were dispersed throughout the known world in what was called the Diaspora.  Herod labored to protect and aid members of the Diaspora throughout the empire.  This won him favor among the Jews of the Diaspora, since they received his fatherly gestures and not his cruelty.[34]

Regardless of his great building works and other attempts to gain the support of the Jews, the people of Judea resented Herod.  He was not of Judean stock, but rather of Idumean lineage.  The Idumeans were the descendants of the Edomites, who were despised by the Jewish people.  This ancient enmity dated back to the time of Moses, when Edom denied the Israelites passage through their land.[35] Further disputes between the two peoples made this enmity even stronger.  Eventually, the Jewish people conquered Edom, and for a while subjugated the Idumean people.[36]  This did not make him popular with many of the conservative Jews.  He bowed to the much-despised Romans, was a murderer of many Jews, and was noted for the rather unsavory habit of killing his family and wives.[37]  He upset the morals of the people by staging circuses and mock combats, and was a symbolic representation of Jewish defeat at the hand of the Romans.[38]

One of the most savage and well known of Herods actions was the Slaughter of the Innocents found in the Gospel of Matthew.  There is little or no other evidence telling of this deed, but it remains one of the most dreadful of Herods actions.[39]  When he heard from visiting wise men that a king of the Jews had been born, he grew furious.  They were referring, of course, to Jesus the Christ.  He gave the order that all children in Bethlehem who were under two years old were to be killed.  This act was most likely committed near the end of his death in 3 to 4 A.D.  This notorious act has made him one of the most infamous of villains to Christians.[40]

            Herod faced a particularly unpleasant death.  He began to deteriorate physically, suffering from rashes, ulcerated bowels, worms, and gangrene.[41]   After executing his son in 4 B.C. for treasonous activities, Herod drifted into madness.  He murdered most of his family and suffered from fits of rage.  Five days after sentencing his son, Antipater, to death, he died of a fever.[42]  His funeral was extravagant.  The bier was of gold and precious gems, he was covered in purple, and a gold crown was set on his head.  There was a large, elaborate procession bearing Herods body to Herodium, where he was buried.[43]

Herods last son, Archelaus, was made ethnarch, which means ruler of the people.[44]  Two years later, in A.D. 6, he was deposed and Judea became a Roman province, fully under the control of Rome.  The Herodian family had ceased to play a part in Roman politics.  The reign of the Herodians was short, a total of only 69 years.  Herod the Great reigned as king for 43 years, which was quite a long time.  In that time he transformed Judea and the Jews.  He had much the same effect as Augustus had in Rome.  When he came, Jerusalem and Judea were poorly built and unimpressive.  When he died, he left a magnificent city and an impressive region behind.  He also left behind a legacy of cruelty, savagery, and hatred.

 



[1] Robert Green, Herod the Great (New York: Franklin Watts, 1996), 37.

[2] Sir William Smith, Smiths Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 588.

[3] The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible (Batavia, IL: Lion, 1987), 339.

[4] Ibid., 338.

[5] Ibid.,  133.

[6] Ibid., 656.

[7] Sir William Smith, Smiths Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 245.

[8] Madeline S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, Harpers Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper and Bothers, 1959), 257.

[9] The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible (Batavia, IL: Lion, 1987), 339.

[10] Hershel Shanks, Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography (New York: Random House, 1995), 235.

[11] Robert Green, Herod the Great (New York: Franklin Watts, 1996), 16.

[12] Ibid.,  17.

[13] Flavius Josephus, Josephus: The Essential Writings (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1988), 232.

[14] Bernard J. Bamberger, The Story of Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1970), 76.

[15] Robert Green, Herod the Great (New York: Franklin Watts, 1996), 25.

[16] Ibid., 29.

[17] Ibid., 30.

[18] Ibid., 31.

[19] Ibid., 32. 

[20] Flavius Josephus, Josephus: The Essential Writings (Grand Rapids: Kegel, 1988), 240.

[21] Robert Green, Herod the Great (New York: Franklin Watts, 1996), 15.

[22] Ibid., 21.

[23] Ibid., 22.

[24] Ibid., 36.

[25] Hershel Shanks, Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography (New York: Random House, 1995), 138.

[26] Ibid., 137.

[27] Ibid.,  141.

[28] Madeline S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, Harpers Bible Dictionary (New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1959), 734.

[29] The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible (Batavia, IL: Lion, 1987), 125.

[30] Hershel Shanks, Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography (New York: Random House, 1995), 138. 

[31] Robert Green, Herod the Great (New York: Franklin Watts, 1996), 48.

[32] Hershel Shanks, Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography (New York: Random House, 1995), 138.

[33] Robert Green, Herod the Great (New York: Franklin Watts, 1996), 51.

[34] Ibid., 49.

[35] Madeline S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, Harpers Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper and Bothers, 1959), 149.

[36] Davis Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Royal, 1973), 197.

[37] Hershel Shanks, Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography (New York: Random House, 1995), 137.

[38] Robert Green, Herod the Great (New York: Franklin Watts, 1996), 41-42.

[39] Ibid., 8-9.

[40] Ibid., 10-11.

[41] Flavius Josephus, Josephus: The Essential Writings (Grand Rapids: Kegel, 1988), 252.

[42] Robert Green, Herod the Great (New York: Franklin Watts, 1996), 54-56.

[43]  Flavius Josephus, Josephus: The Essential Writings (Grand Rapids: Kegel, 1988), 254.

[44] The Lion Encyclopedia f the Bible (Batavia, IL: Lion, 1987), 131.