In fact, according to the Romans, the legitimate king of the Jews was Herod the Great. This Herod was on the throne when Jesus was born, and he tried to kill Jesus as an infant, but he is not the only Herod in the Bible. We continue to read about Herod’s descendants in the Gospels and in Acts.
Who were these people, and what do we know about them?
This is the story of the Herods—Judaea’s outrageous ruling family.
Herod the Great’s ancestors were not Jews. They were from Idumea, or Edom, as it is called in the Old Testament. This is a land south of the Dead Sea, whose inhabitants were reckoned as descendants of Jacob’s brother, Esau (cf. Gen. 25:19-34).
A little before 100 B.C., the Maccabean leader John Hyrcanus conquered Idumea and forced the inhabitants to be circumcised and convert to Judaism if they wanted to stay in their land (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13:9:1).That included a family that rose to prominence in Jewish society and eventually became the Herodian dynasty.
The Herods were thus Jewish by religion but Edomite by ancestry, a point that bred resentment among their Jewish subjects.
Birth of a dynasty
The man responsible for Herod’s rise was his father, Antipas the Idumean.
Antipas had become a key advisor to the Hasmonean rulers of Israel, whom he played against each other in order to gain influence for himself. He also courted favor with neighboring peoples, and—more significantly—he courted the favor of the Romans.
When Julius Caesar was fighting in nearby Alexandria, Egypt, Antipas took troops there and defended Caesar, who made him a governor. Antipas then used this position to usurp the place of the Hasmonean dynasty, which had ruled Israel since the time of the Maccabees.
Needless to say, Antipas made lots of enemies, and eventually one of them poisoned him.
The rise of Herod the Great
When Herod was a young man, his father appointed him governor of Galilee and his brother, Phasael, governor of Jerusalem.
Herod quickly endeared himself to the Romans by capturing and executing a band of brigands who were preying on his territory. This did not endear him to the Jewish authorities, in part because only the Sanhedrin was allowed to issue death sentences at that time.
The Sanhedrin summoned young Herod before it, but instead of appearing in the customary black clothing, he strode into its chamber wearing purple, with a group of bodyguards ready to defend him, and carrying a letter of protection from the governor of Syria.
Overawed, the council was afraid to do anything against Herod. The president of the tribunal, Shemaiah, warned the others that they would regret their failure to take action against Herod.
And they did.
Herod the king
Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of Roman senators in 44 B.C., leading to a period of civil war. Full stability was not restored until Augustus Caesar became emperor in 27 B.C.
Herod exploited the period of instability to his own advantage, switching allegiance as needed to promote his own interests. At one point, Herod was forced to flee Judaea by the last of the Hasmonean kings, Antigonus, who had been proclaimed king and high priest by the Parthians.
Herod ended up in Rome, where the future Augustus and his rival Mark Antony pleaded Herod’s case before the Senate. The body then proclaimed him king of the Jews.
He returned to Judaea and took possession of his kingdom by conquering it with the help of the Romans. Antigonus, the last king of the Maccabean line, was executed, and the Herodian dynasty began.
Herod the builder
In some respects, Herod proved an able ruler. During his reign, his kingdom prospered economically, which allowed him to raise the money needed to conduct an extensive series of building projects.
Constructing large and important public works was one of the ways ancient rulers made a name and—literally—built a legacy for themselves. Herod outdid many others in this respect, which is one reason he is styled “the great.”
He even conducted building projects in foreign lands, to build his reputation abroad, but of course most of his building was done in Palestine. This included as series of lavish palaces for himself, but he also had built many facilities for public use, including Hellenistic innovations like public baths, gymnasia, and racetracks.
To show his loyalty to his Roman patrons, Herod named many of the things he built after them. This included the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem (named for Mark Antony), the Samaritan city Sebaste (for Augustus’s Greek name), and the coastal city of Caesarea Maritima (again for Caesar Augustus). The name of Augustus’s long-time colleague, Agrippa, was even inscribed on one of the gates of the Jerusalem temple.
Herod initiated a massive campaign to expand and beautify the Jerusalem temple, which was to be the most important of all Herod’s building projects. This project, carried out on Judaism’s holiest site and expected to last for centuries, was meant to ensure Herod’s immortality.
The results were impressive. According to the Babylonian Talmud, there was a popular saying: “He who has not seen the temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” (Baba Batra 4a). One of Jesus’ own disciples exclaimed: “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” (Mark 13:1).
But Jesus himself stated: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (v. 2). Far from becoming an immortal monument to the memory of Herod, the Jerusalem temple was swiftly destroyed.
Herod the paranoid tyrant
As Herod’s reign progressed, he became increasingly paranoid and unstable. There were indeed plots against him, and those around him manipulated his fears to their own advantage, leading him to lash out violently, including against members of his own family.
Herod had a large number of people executed or assassinated, including members of his broader family and even some of his own wives and sons.
One of Herod’s main wives was named Mariamne, and she was of Hasmonean origin. Herod married her, at least in part, to cement ties with the nation’s former ruling family, even as his own family was displacing it.
Herod professed to love Mariamne so much that, on more than one occasion, he gave orders for her to be killed when he himself died, so that he might not be separated from her in death. She, however, became convinced that he did not really love her, and relations between them turned frosty. Eventually, Herod’s sister convinced him that Mariamne was planning to poison him, and she was executed.
Herod’s own sons fared little better. Two of Mariamne’s sons—Alexander and Aristobulus—had fractious relations with their father, who suspected them of plotting against him. Eventually, he brought them up on charges of treason before Augustus Caesar, who allowed Herod to convene a court to try them.
The court found them guilty, and they were put to death by strangulation.
They weren’t the last of Herod’s sons to be killed. Herod’s firstborn son—Antipater, born of Herod’s first wife, Doris—for many years was favored by Herod and heir to his throne. But he, too, was eventually brought up on charges of plotting against his father.
He was executed just five days before Herod’s own death.
In view of such executions, the emperor Augustus reportedly quipped, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than son” (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2:4:11)—the joke being that, since Herod was a Jew, he didn’t eat pork and his pig would be safe.
Slaughter of the innocents
Against this background, it is easy to understand the account of Herod the Great in the Gospels.
The magi came from the east, seeking the newly born king of the Jews. It was natural to seek such an infant in the court of the current king—Herod—and so they appeared, asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2).
Since Herod killed three of his own sons for plotting against him, you can imagine how this would have set off alarm bells for him. The people of Jerusalem, knowing Herod’s fears about usurpers, would have been alarmed as well, and so they were: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3).
Herod manipulated the magi into finding the child for him, but when they failed to report back, he flew into a rage: “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matt. 2:16).
Sometimes it is objected that we do not have an independent record of this event, but even absent that, the event is entirely in keeping with what we know of Herod’s character and how he responded to perceived threats to his throne.
Herod survived all the perceived plots against him and died, apparently, of natural causes. What those causes were, however, is not entirely clear. He was felled by a mysterious disease that has proved difficult for modern medical experts to diagnose.
According to Josephus, “There was a gentle fever upon him, and an intolerable itching over all the surface of his body, and continual pains in his colon, and dropsical tumors about his feet and an inflammation of the abdomen—and a putrefaction of his privy member, that produced worms. Besides which he had a difficulty of breathing upon him, and could not breathe but when he sat upright, and had a convulsion of all his members” (War, 1:33:5).
Modern specialists have proposed a wide range of diagnoses for these maladies. One recent suggestion is kidney failure coupled with gangrene in the genitals.
Herod sought various forms of treatment before he died. Needless to say, many of his subjects viewed his death as a judgment from God and rejoiced at Herod’s fall.
The tyrant knew there would be rejoicing at his death, and to prevent that from happening, near his death he had many of the most eminent men in the land locked up in a hippodrome (a stadium for horse races) with orders that they be killed as soon as he died, so that every family would mourn upon his passing.
Fortunately, his orders were not carried out.
The next generation
Although Herod had killed several of his sons, he did not have all of them executed, and the survivors became the next generation of leaders in Judaea. It was not a smooth transition.
Three of Herod’s sons—Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip—ended up inheriting significant portions of his kingdom. Until shortly before his death, Herod’s will named Antipas as his principal successor, but in the end he changed his will in favor of Archelaus.
This set up a dispute among family members, with some favoring Archelaus, others favoring Antipas, and still others favoring the idea of direct Roman rule over Palestine.
The matter was ultimately settled by the Emperor Augustus, when the three brothers traveled to him for his decision. This trip forms part of the background to Jesus’ parable of the talents, in which “a nobleman went into a far country to receive kingly power and then return” (Luke 19:11-27).
Ultimately, Augustus confirmed Archelaus as Herod’s principal successor. The territories of Judaea, Samaria, and the family homeland of Idumea thus went to Archelaus, the territories of Galilee and Perea went to Antipas, and the northeasterly part of Herod’s kingdom (Iturea and Trachonitis) went to Philip.
Collectively, these brothers—like other members of the family—are known as Herodians. Each of the three is also called by the name Herod (Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, Herod Philip), and each is mentioned in the New Testament.
We meet Archelaus only briefly, when the Holy Family is returning from their flight to Egypt.
Matthew notes that St. Joseph “took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth” (2:21-23).
Had it not been for Archelaus obtaining Judea, Joseph might have taken the Holy Family back to Bethlehem, at least for a time. He went instead to Galilee, which was ruled by Antipas, perhaps indicating that he thought Antipas was a less dangerous ruler than Archelaus.
Archelaus had a poor reputation as a ruler. Even before Augustus had confirmed his position, Archelaus had 3,000 of his subjects massacred in the temple at Passover (which he then canceled). He made many enemies among his subjects, and eventually the Romans banished him to what is now France and assumed direct rule of his territory.
This is why, when Jesus is crucified, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is in charge in Judea rather than one of the Herodians.
St. Joseph’s judgment that it would be better to live under Herod Antipas than Archelaus may be reflected in the fact that, when Jesus was an adult, Herod Antipas was still ruling Galilee. By comparison to his brother Archelaus, Antipas was a more stable and long-lasting ruler.
Because he ruled Galilee during Jesus’ ministry, Herod Antipas is the family member about whom we hear the most in the Gospels. Often he is referred to simply as “Herod.”
The Gospels portray him as a complex man. For a start, he had an unlawful marriage. At some point, he apparently stole Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip. That put him in opposition to John the Baptist, who opposed the union (Mark 6:18), leading Herod to arrest John (Matt. 14:3).
Although he had John in custody, and although his wife hated John and wanted him dead, Herod Antipas served as John’s protector and had an unusual fascination with the fiery preacher: “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly” (Mark 6:20).
Eventually, after her daughter, Salome, delighted Antipas with a special dance at his birthday party, Herodias was able to manipulate him into giving the order for John’s death (Mark 6:21-28).
This did not end Antipas’s fascination with John. When he began to hear reports about Jesus, he thought Jesus might be John risen from the dead (Mark 6:14), and he sought to see Jesus for himself (Luke 9:9).
There are also indications he sought to kill Jesus. At one point, some Pharisees seek to help Jesus by telling him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31). In the end, Herod does get to see Jesus: During the Passion narrative, Pontius Pilate sends him to see Herod (Luke 23:6-12), and Herod mocks Jesus and sends him back (Luke 23:11).
Although Antipas lasted longer than his brother, Archelaus, he too ended up being exiled to France by the Romans after being accused of plotting against the Emperor Caligula.
We know less about Herod Philip than we do his brothers. In fact, there is some confusion in the historical sources about him.
As the ruler of the most northeasterly part of Herod the Great’s territories, Philip does not enter very much into the Gospel accounts, as Jesus’ ministry was not based there.
He was the first husband of Herodias, before she married Herod Antipas (Mark 6:17). It appears that he was the father of her daughter, Salome, who performed the dance that led to John the Baptist’s death (Josephus, Antiquities 18:5:4).
Herod Agrippa I
Eventually, the generation of Herod the Great’s sons began to pass, and a new generation began to take their place.
The key figure in this generation was Herod Agrippa, one of the original Herod’s grandsons. He was named after the Roman statesman and general Marcus Agrippa, who was a friend of Herod the Great and a colleague of Augustus.
Herod Agrippa’s father was Aristobulus, one of the sons his grandfather had executed. Agrippa was educated in Rome and spent much time there. He was friends with the emperors Caligula and Claudius and played a pivotal role in helping stabilize Claudius in office after the dramatic assassination of Caligula by his own guards.
A roguish and flamboyant figure, Herod Agrippa was sometimes down on his luck, but ultimately he rose to prominence, being given the title “king” and also territories that ultimately became larger than those of Herod the Great. He was a popular ruler and, in his own day, was referred to as “Agrippa the Great” (Josephus, Antiquities 17:2:2).
We meet him in Acts 12, where he has James the son of Zebedee put to death (12:1-2) and attempts to have Peter killed as well (12:3-19).
Agrippa met his end when, at a public meeting with a delegation from Tyre and Sidon, he was acclaimed as a god and did not rebuke the flattery. He was immediately struck with a violent illness and died five days later (Acts 12:20-23; Antiquities 19:8:2).
Agrippa II—Last of the Herods
The Herodian dynasty lasted one more generation in Judaea. Its principal figure was the son of Herod Agrippa, who also bore his father’s name.
He is referred to in Acts simply as “Agrippa,” and we meet him when he and his sister, Berenice, pay a welcome visit to the Roman governor Festus, who had St. Paul in custody (25:13 through 26:32).
Agrippa takes an interest in Paul’s case, and when a hearing is held in which Paul speaks to Festus, Agrippa, and Berenice, he takes the opportunity to evangelize, and Agrippa responds: “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!” Paul replies with the comedic line that he wishes all men would become as he is—“except for these chains” (26:28-29).
After Paul was sent to Rome, Agrippa and Berenice went on to play a major role in trying to prevent the Jewish War that broke out in A.D. 66 and led to the destruction of the Herod the Great’s temple in A.D. 70.
Part of Agrippa’s own territories revolted, and he fought alongside the Roman forces to put down the rebellion. Ultimately, they succeeded, and Agrippa was rewarded for his loyalty to Rome.
Little is heard of him after that and he, together with the Herodian dynasty, vanishes into history.