What Is Normal?

What Is Normal?

(I came across this post while looking for something else. I wrote this in 2007, and I was probably giving “The Word” a fresh listen while getting ready to teach on Ezekiel. Although a lot has changed about me since the days when I wrote it, this still resonated with me.)

Reluctant ride in the middle of the belly of a whale
A wheel on fire in the middle of the sky
Abandoned baby kicking on the side of the road
And a wife has died but you’re denied the right to cry.

[“The Prophet”, The Word, Michael Card]

There is something attractive about the concept of being “normal.” There is a certain security that comes from fitting in and being a part of the accepted. When we find ourselves as “normal,” there is a certain reassurance that it is okay to be who you are, to do what you do.

And then we encounter the prophets. Here were a group of people who operated according to an entirely different set of rules. They lived their lives to the beat of different drummers. At every turn of their lives, people told them that they had no right to say what they said. They were criticized and often tortured for being unusual, being abnormal.

Once I heard someone preach in a chapel service about “the normal Christian life” and one of my students came up to me and asked, “What is normal?” That moment stuck in my head. Is normal really normal? And who decides what normal is anyway?

The Bible is filled with abnormal people. In fact there seems to be a disproportionate number of weirdos in there. Whether it is Elijah wandering around the desert being fed by ravens or Simon Peter seeing visions of sails with animals on it and hearing God talk to him or John the Beloved seeing angels with candlesticks and women clothed in the sun, there are some freaks who contributed to the inspired Word of God.

They were not normal. In fact, they would not be welcomed in most churches – even the wacko, progressive, emerging ones. These guys were cracked.

All of this is for a reason – and not just to prove that acting insane is Biblical. The reality is that God uses diverse people and methods. There is no such thing as a normal Christian or a normal church because God makes us all unique. Our wonderful mishmash of gifts and abilities was God’s idea.

Embracing diversity is a way of embracing a God who is big – REALLY BIG. He is SO big that he transcends our stereotypes, and I mean our stereotypes of each other and of him. We’re really all abnormal, because God is the biggest weirdo of us all. We are diverse because God himself created diversity so we could experience the full spectrum of everything he created for us.

The Conceit of Convenience

Technical fields that deal in the past – such as history and archaeology – have a necessary compression that takes place. It is an unavoidable conceit of convenience. (As far as I know, this is a new term I thought of in the car this morning.)

What do I mean by conceit of convenience? 

When an archaeologist says that a piece of pottery is from such-and-such a century BC, that is a conceit of convenience. There are assumptions and extrapolations made about materials lying above and below the strata in which the pottery was found, as well as the style and fashion of the pottery itself. There is no way to be absolute about the date of the pottery, but a date can be asserted in a general, speculative way.

When a historian says that one event led to another event, the historian probably does not know the complete chain of related events that occurred to result in this single event. Many times, the participants in these events are unaware of the repercussions of their actions. History is a long chain of butterfly effects. Very few people know the implications of their actions beyond the immediate circumstances. (Read more Bradbury if you do not know what that means). So, historians must concede to convenience. We describe events in terms and sequences that were not readily apparent to the participants of those events.

The danger of the conceit of convenience is that many times readers do not realize the necessity of this kind of shorthand. Readers assume that the historian or archaeologist has the omniscient perspective of a fictional narrator. Therefore it is tempting to come to an incomplete conclusion based on what is written or presented. Readers draw analogies – if such-and-such caused this, then this must always be true – but the conceit of conveniences deals in probabilities, not certainties. Just because a piece of pottery looks like another piece of pottery, that does not mean their is no chance that they are from very different times.

Think about trying to describe something as 20th century American. In 1909, 20th century meant telegraph messages, the gold standard and horses stabled in Manhattan. Men still wore jackets with tails on them, and Britain ruled most of the planet. In 1999, 20th century meant emails, faster-than-sound airliners and the burst of the dot.com bubble. We fought wars with bayonets in 1913 and laser-guided bombs in 1991.

Time moved no slower in the 3rd century BC than it does now. People’s minds were just as capable as they are now. Therefore, we must be careful not to fall into a modernist trap and believe that things change quickly now but they did not change quickly in the past.

In reality, history and archaeology are very imprecise by their very nature. Both writers and readers need to acknowledge the conceit of convenience as they dialogue.

Herod – the End of His Life

Herod negotiated the complex relationship of the various Jewish groups, his Roman masters and the nations surrounding him with cunning, if not with ease. Herod’s cities and Temple complex attempted to bridge the gaps among these various groups, but there were simply too many moving parts and fissures appeared, especially among the rural Jews of Galilee. Later generations of Jews would not see his works. They would instead look back on Herod as “an insolent king…bold and shameless” who used fear and violence to oppress the faithful because of their sin.

The inevitable destabilization of Herod’s kingdom came not from outside, but from inside. In the last decade of his life, Herod’s personal and physical stability became compromised. “In just the last ten years of his life (i.e. 13–4 BC), Herod wrote at least five separate wills, each one naming a different individual or individuals who should be his heir.”

Three Treacherous Sons

Early in his reign, Herod had executed both his father-in-law Hyrcanus and his wife Mariamne to secure the throne. Two of Herod’s sons by Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobulus, became extraordinarily rebellious during his last years, thanks to the machinations of an Arab named Syllaeus. Syllaeus betrayed Herod at every opportunity, even attempting to poison Herod’s relationship with Caesar. Had it not been for Herod’s capable friend, Nicolaus of Damascus, Herod would have lost his kingdom in 7 BCE. At Caesar’s urging, Herod assembled a council in Berytus (Beirut) to try Alexander and Aristobulus. After a long trial, Herod had their followers and a number of those who had allied with Syllaeus publicly executed. His sons he had strangled in private.

Herod then established his oldest surviving son Antipater as his co-ruler, only to have Antipater conspire against him as well. When a plot to poison Herod was brought to light by the Roman governor of Syria, Quintilius Varus, Herod broke down in tears. Again, Nicolaus of Damascus, stepped in and deftly prosecuted the case against Antipater. In the end, Antipater was remanded to Varus and a message was sent to Caesar asking for a final determination. Caesar placed Antipater’s fate in Herod’s hands, and days before his own death, Herod had him killed. The body was thrown into a beggars’ grave.

Generations later, the Roman writer Macrobius wrote a series of puns he attributed to Caesar Augustus. Among them is a reference to this period. When told about Antipater’s plot, Augustus reportedly quipped, “It is better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”

The Aquila Revolt

The knowledge that Herod’s health was failing began circulating in 4 BCE. Two popular Galilean teachers, Judas b. Sepphoris and Matthias b. Margalus, fomented a movement to remove the Roman Aquila (eagle) from the Temple complex. Somehow their followers heard false rumors that Herod was dead. About forty of them rushed to tear down the Aquila, but they were quickly rounded up by the guards and brought to Herod. Although quite sick, Herod flew into a rage. He had the leaders of the revolt publicly burned alive and then executed the rest of them.

The Fatal Illness

After the executions, Herod’s health took a turn for the worst. He developed a low fever, itching all over his body, inflammation of the colon and some kind of infected tumors on his feet. On top of this, he developed necrosis in his genitals. His body was racked by a terrible cough and he was unable to eat. The pain became so great that he even attempted to kill himself.
What was Herod dying of? This was not the first time Herod had experienced some of these symptoms. Nikos Kokkinos reviewed the symptoms with Dr. Walter Y. Loebl of the Royal College of Physicians in Londond, and in a 2002 article for Biblical Archaeology Review Kokkinos reported:

Dr. Loebl finds four of Herod’s symptoms particularly diagnostic. The intolerable itch can be attributed, he says, to kidney failure, which causes waste chemicals to accumulate in the blood. This would have been the end-stage of a number of processes, including “diminished oxygen to the kidneys due to arteriosclerosis [hardening of the arteries].”
Dr. Loebl interprets the transparent swelling around Herod’s feet as edema, a build-up of fluids that often occurs in older people, especially in their ankles and legs. Bedridden people can also get it in their lower back and genitalia, he says. The commonest causes are “heart failure, renal [kidney] failure and dilution of the blood in anemia.” Another type of edema—pulmonary edema, or edema of the lungs—may have contributed to his demise.
The related putrefaction in Herod’s private member, Dr. Loebl sees as “myiasis.” He explains that “the moist skin with edema and the hot climate would have attracted flies who laid eggs, developing larvae looking like worms—[like] maggots used by fishermen!”
Dr. Loebl regards Herod’s inability to breathe unless in an upright position (orthopnoia) as “the most reliable part of the description.” As used in clinical medicine, “orthopnea is a typical sign in heart failure, renal failure or anemia.”

His conclusion is that, most likely, “Herod died of age-related failure of his heart and kidneys with terminal edema of the lungs.”

Loebl’s theory is not the only one that has been put forward, but it does explain all of Herod’s symptoms. Herod must have been experiencing some of these symptoms before the execution of the revolt leaders, but Josephus does note that Herod probably pushed himself harder than he should have during the revolt. This would have accelerated the effect of the disease.
Josephus tells us that Herod lived only five days after the onset of these symptoms. His condition was made worse when he tried to seek relief through a visit to hot springs near Jericho. His doctors attempted to bathe him in warm oil, which triggered additional symptoms. He began to lose his sight and slip in and out of consciousness. After ordering the execution of Antipater, Herod’s torture body failed and he died. Two of his remaining sons, Archelaus and Antipas, arranged his funeral.

Herod and the Jews

Herod had seen the greatness of Rome. His sons were educated in Caesar’s household. His kingdom had a substantial, urban Gentile population which formed a substantial power block. Early in his reign, Herod even minted coins with Roman helmets on them, showing his reliance on (or at the very least, admiration of) the Roman system. His new cities not only provided wealth. They also helped keep the Jewish population in check.

All the time, however, Herod seems to have considered himself a Torah-observant Jew. He reveled in his Jewish identity and viewed his kingdom as a Jewish state, even while acknowledging his indebtedness to the Romans. He attempted to maintain the tension of the ancient east and the new, growing west.

It is difficult to quantify the Jewish population of the Roman world in Herod’s day. Essentially, there were three self-identified groups of Jews. The Hellenic Jews lived throughout the Roman world, and they wielded substantial power. They were not particularly involved in the affairs of Herod’s kingdom, although their faithful payment of the temple tax probably financed much of his rebuilding of the Temple complex. The religious elites among the Jews – chiefly the Sadducees – were concentrated around Jerusalem. By far the largest proportion of Jews in the Levant were rural and, led by the Pharisees, often religiously conservative. Because they bore the majority of the tax burden, Herod courted their favor and good will, sometimes even reducing their tax burden when it served his purposes, but wary of the potential threat they posed.

Herod’s Architectural Ambitions

Thanks to his partnership with Augustus Caesar, Herod became enormously wealthy. If Josephus is to believed, Herod’s wealth was truly staggering, and he put it to good use. In the broader world, he sponsored numerous buildings and improvements, and in one year even sponsored (and hosted) the Olympic Games at one of his new cities.

The continual warfare in the previous generation and an earthquake which hit the Levant in 31 BCE had taken its toll on the infrastructure and urban settlement of his kingdom. In response, Herod employed his wealth to rebuild his kingdom in the style he had observed in the Roman cities of Antioch and Alexandria, as well as the majestic capital, Rome. These were not provincial undertakings, but sweeping, expensive feats of civic planning.

As Byron McCane noted:

The sophistication of these structures and their resonances with the most important currents in the larger world of his day firmly establish Herod as a figure of high prominence in the early history of the Roman Empire. They also establish him as a figure of unparalleled prominence in the history of the Romanization of Palestine.

Rebuilt Urban Centers

Chief among the territories Caesar transferred to Herod in 26 BCE was the fortified city of Samaria. In celebration of Caesar’s new title, Herod renamed the city Sebaste (the Greek version of the title Augustus) and rebuilt it on a scale meant to “keep both the country and the city in awe” as a spine of security for his kingdom. Herod settled his Gentile veterans in the territory around the city – a nearby, ready reserve of trained soldiers.
Through war and machination, Herod became the exclusive purveyor of Asian goods to the Mediterranean world. To get them to market, Herod constructed an artificial harbor on the Mediterranean coast of his kingdom.

A new city rose around the harbor, which he named Caesarea Maritima in honor of his patron. “Caesarea Maritima employed new construction on the grand scale to create a comprehensive vision of the Empire as a destiny to be welcomed.” Caesarea was a magnificent feat of engineering that showed a harbor could be built anywhere it was advantageous to trade. As Avner Raba puts it, “Henceforth, harbor sites could be selected for economic or political considerations without regard for coastal topography.”

In Galilee, Herod rebuilt and fortified the city of Sepphoris as a strongpoint to keep an eye on the sometime troublesome Jewish residents. Sepphoris required an enormous investment, including the construction of massive cisterns and the building of an aqueduct. The scale tells us how vital it must have been to keep an eye on Galilee, which was probably the most populous region of his kingdom and certainly was home to the majority of conservative, Aramaic-speaking Jews.

Jerusalem’s Glory

For the centerpiece of his rebuilt kingdom, Herod turned his attention to the Jews’ holy city – Jerusalem. He rebuilt the city on a massive scale. Dan Bahat explained this saying:

“…the enhancement of the size of the city and the addition of the theatre, Hippodrome, and industrial and commercial quarters made the city of Herod a genuine Near Eastern metropolis, even in the writings of Roman historians.”

Josephus tells his readers that Herod’s most ambitious project was the Jewish Temple complex in Jerusalem. Supposedly, Herod wanted to rebuild the Temple to please the people he ruled, but they were suspect of his motives. He had to make extravagant promises about the continuity of worship during construction, going to extraordinary lengths to pacify the Jewish leaders. Josephus records a lengthy, emotional speech that Herod delivered to them as well as the concessions he made to persuade them.

After the reluctant Jewish leaders agreed to the proposal, Herod’s engineers set about constructing what is purported to be a marvel of the age. The Babylonian Talmud declares, “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building.” By any measure, the project was on a scale rarely seen in the ancient world. The Temple platform, which still exists today, was the largest artificial assembly space in the world until the eve of the Modern Age.

Herod’s plans for the Temple were ambitious and were not completed until 64 CE, over a half-century after his death in 4 BCE. Herod expanded the size of the Temple Mount, creating an enormous platform, much of which survives to this day.

Herod’s intentions were not altogether altruistic. Both ancient and modern commentators note that the platform was built to be global and political in its perspective. Surrounding the Jewish area (and separated from it by signs warning against crossing into them) was an enormous courtyard for all nations to gather. Herod freely accepted the gifts of wealthy pagans, and Rome still figured prominently in the life of the Temple. The adjoining fortress’ gate was adorned with a Roman Aquila (eagle), its wings spread out over all the earth.

The Temple headed by the high priesthood was the political-economic-religious institution by which the people of Judea were governed and revenues collected for the empire as well as the priesthood….The priests performed sacrifices on behalf of Rome and Caesar, and Roman soldiers stood guard on the porticoes of the Temple at Passover, lest excitement get out of hand during the people’s celebration of their deliverance from foreign rule in Egypt.

Personal Palace-Fortresses

His civic improvements exude confidence in his kingdom’s success as a crossroad for Roman and Jew, but his personal palaces tell a different story. Herod palaces are all fortified strongpoints. Inside they were full of every luxury imaginable, but outside they were all might. They give us a clue as to how delicate the balance was between the Roman and Jewish sides of his reign.

Of all of Herod’s great works, only one was attracting the attention of Roman writers long after his death – Masada. This impregnable fortress in the wilderness near the Dead Sea had been constructed by his predecessors, but Herod adopted it as his personal stronghold in 42 BCE, and rebuilt it on an epic scale. There are ten cisterns capable of holding a total of 39,500m3 (approximately 10 million gallons) and storehouses sufficient to provide food for years, and yet no expense was spared in decorating the interior of the three palaces and numerous auxiliary buildings. Despite the fastness of its wilderness location and its towering height above the desert floor, Herod surrounded this complex with an impregnable wall, running 1,300 meters around the plateau.

Just outside of Jerusalem, Herod constructed a personal monument known today as the Herodium. The palace itself sat inside a hollowed mountain, surrounded by battlements and turrets. It was completed in 15 BCE, and it is Herod’s final resting place – a testament to both his power and his need for security.

Herod and Rome

Rome’s influence over the Levant began in 63 BCE when the general Pompey intervened in a feud between two factions of Hasmonean kingdom. Pompey took Jerusalem, installed one of the leaders, Hyrcanus as ethnarch and appointed one of his allies, Antipater of Idumea, as epitropos or “regent” to oversee affairs. Antipater saw the region through the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar; but he died in 43 BCE, only a year after Julius Caesar was assassinated in Rome. Herod, Antipater’s eldest son, assumed his father’s role.

With Antipater gone, Hyrcanus’ nephew Aristobulus put together a coalition with the Parthians, seized Jerusalem, mutilated Hyrcanus and put Herod to flight. Securing his family in the fortress Masada, Herod escaped to Rome where Marc Antony and Octavius convinced the Senate to declare him “King of the Jews.” By 37 BCE, his enemies were defeated and Herod solidified his right to rule by marriage to Hyrcanus’ only daughter, Mariamne.

Antony and Octavius went to war with each other in 31 BCE, and Herod managed to align himself with Octavius right before Antony’s final defeat. He was the first of Rome’s clients to celebrate Octavius’ ascension to supreme power. “[Herod] more and more demonstrated to Caesar the firmness of his friendship, and his readiness to assist him: and what was of the greatest advantage to him was this, that his liberality came at a seasonable time also.”

A friend to Caesar and client of Rome, Herod ruled over a kingdom that became a magnet for the wealth of the eastern Mediterranean. While client kings were generally nuisances to the Romans, Herod seems to have truly integrated himself into the Roman sphere. Octavius did not forget Herod, and when the Senate declared him to be Augustus in 26 BCE, he honored Herod with grants of land and enormously lucrative trade rights.

Herod the Great, Introduction

Herod the Great looms over the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew. He is a character judged more by popular impressions than by Scriptural revelation. For generations, that brief glimpse fueled all sorts of false perceptions and fictionalized narratives about Herod and his reign. In the past half century or so, archaeological expeditions in the major sites of his reign have yielded a different impressions. Herod emerges as one of the most cunning and successful client kings in the history of the Roman Republic.

Popular scholars hostile to the Scriptures have attempted to portray this new image of Herod as being contrary to the depiction in the Gospel of Matthew. They even portray him as something of a mentor to future emperors and the inspiration for the rebuilding of Rome under Nero.
Which depiction of Herod is correct? The one revealed by archaeology and modern biographical study or the one known from the Gospel of Matthew? Perhaps the answer is both. In this paper, we will examine the life of Herod and attempt to glimpse into his mind. Could the Herod of history have become the Herod of the Gospel of Matthew? Could influences, both internal and external, have driven him slowly into paranoia and dementia? Could the very Roman power that helped his rise also have been his downfall?

In the first post of this series, we will examine the literary sources available to us. These provide us with the basic framework of Herod’s life, which we shall consider in the second section. Here we will attempt to sketch out Herod’s rise to power and the influences that made this possible. In the third and final section, we will examine the end of Herod’s life and contrast it with his rise and the relatively quiet prosperous reign that is bookended by them.

In the end, we should be able to construct a reasonable synthesis of the Herod of archaeology and the Herod of the Gospel of Matthew. This serves to both support and inform the reliability of the Biblical narrative.

Literary Sources

Herod’s appearance in the Gospel of Matthew is not the only textual evidence of his existence. Thanks to contemporary the first century writer Flavius Josephus, the modern historian has an essential framework for reconstructing the history of the Levant under Roman rule. Josephus wrote two works that mention Herod in detail – Antiquities of the Jews and Wars of the Jews. These books were written sometime between 70 and 90 CE for the Flavian emperors, whom he serve.

Additional Jewish Sources

Herod is not well represented in literature outside of Josephus, but there are three first century CE, Jewish texts that mention him. None of them provide much biographical detail, but they do help us understand Herod’s context.

• The earliest is a first century CE interpolation in the pseuodopigraphical Assumption of Moses. Although Herod is not named, chapters 6-7 clearly refer to him in detail.
• There is also a discussion of Herod in the Babylonian Talmud. He is portrayed less than favorably, although the rabbis cannot help but gush about the Temple.
• Finally, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria records the words of Herod’s grandson Agrippa before the emperor Caligula. In his remarks, Agrippa mentions the relationship between Caligula’s maternal grandfather, Marcus Agrippa, and Herod the Great.

Roman Sources

There are only two known Roman texts that mention Herod. Pliny mentions Herod as the builder of Caesarea Maritima in Pliny’s Natural History, but adds no personal detail. The fifth century CE writer Macrobius put together Saturnalia – a series of dialogues in which Augustus features prominently. In Saturnalia, Herod is the butt of one of Augustus’ jokes. Outside of these, Herod is all but forgotten in extant literature.

The Reliability of Josephus’ Text

Thus, for biographical details we are forced to rely almost entirely on Josephus and what little detail exists in the biblical record. Josephus sometimes demonstrates a tendency to embellish the history to which he was a first-hand observer. As Gottfried Mader pointed out:

Josephus acknowledges the conventions of Greek historiography…with its rigorous insistence on truthful reporting…but equally he draws explicit attention to the lamentation….The two strands – as he himself acknowledges – coexist in uneasy tension.

Mader continues to detail that while Josephus generally presents factual history, the reader must always be wondering how much is fact and how much is the illusion of impartiality veiling ideology.

Mader’s focus is the Wars of the Jews, and Josephus had good reason to embellish when writing about a war he participated in. This need not be the case in his later work Antiquities of the Jews, however. While Josephus’ record of speeches and motivations are sometimes suspect, “there is one area in which everyone who attempts to reconstruct the chronology of Herod’s reign agrees: Josephus’ chronological notices are more-or-less reliable.”

Another important consideration is that when writing about Herod, Josephus possessed a reliable and known source, the now lost writings of Herod’s tutor and confidant Nicolaus of Dasmascus. It was not uncommon for historians to copy large passages of previous histories in toto and this seems to be the case here. The extant fragments of Nicolaus’ other works show him to be a reliable historian. There is therefore is good reason to find him reliable when he follows Nicolaus.

Archaeology has verified much of what Josephus has to say about Herod, but that does not mean that the reader should accept what Josephus writes (or omits) as unbiased. Whenever possible, we should continue to seek confirmation from the archaeologic record, especially given the absence of other literary references.

In the coming posts, we will dive into the history of this man and the implication of his reign upon the world Jesus knew.