Some Thoughts on Institutions and Intimacy

Some Thoughts on Institutions and Intimacy

There is something about institutions that Westerners in general and Americans in specific find comforting. While simultaneously bemoaning the death of the intimacy and connection of the Mom and Pop stores on Main Street, Americans overwhelmingly shop at big box stores and in online stores like Amazon because they offer both convenience and value. The big box stores are falling one by one, but online retailers are booming.

In the fourth quarter of 2015, Amazon reported $35.7 billion in sales. That was an increase of over $6 billion from 4Q2014. They doubled their net profits from $214 million in 2014 to $482 million in 2015. If anyone wonders about the ubiquity of the service, just consider that Amazon has 304 million active customers. That is a global customer base nearly the size of the United States. And that is just one of the big retailers. Apple generated twice the revenue that Amazon did.

These are extraordinary numbers which show just how pervasive “big” retailers are. I grumble about not having the personal touches as much as anyone else does. I recently bought a new guitar, a significant investment. The sales person I worked with could not have been less interested in my questions. He saw only the hefty commission check he would collect at the end of the week. Part of my longed to be able to purchase my instrument from a local shop – but none of the handful of local shops deal in the brand I wanted nor could they have possibly matched the price point I found.

Mom and Pop stores still exist, and if they are able to keep costs down, they can even thrive. Small businesses like restaurants and specialty stores still manage to stay above water, thanks largely to working with distributors and vendors who utilize better infrastructure for inventory management and staffing. They can survive, but there is no doubt that institutions are ruling the retail sphere right now.

The same thing can be said for the Church. Institutional Christianity, whether in the form of aggressive denominational structures or independent megachurches, are dominating the Christian world. While many of the people who participate in megachurch environments express a desire for intimacy, the truth is that this has to be manufactured in an institutional setting (Hinkly 2006). It rarely occurs organically. When you are pressing hundred or thousands of people together for a worship gathering, one cannot expect to develop lasting relationships. There is no sense of “we always sit next to Bill and Mary” or “see you after service.” Things are programmed and planned, orchestrated for a single purpose.

Therefore, megachurches have to engineer community. It does not happen organically. One might threfore eventually find some kind of relational connection through a small group or fellowship event; but the truth is that there is little room for “accidental” connections because things are institutionalized. This is the price of thinking big.

Extraordinarily, although megachurches seem to be on the rise in America, the average size of congregations is actually falling (Chaves and Anderson 2014). The percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has not changed significantly in the past twenty years, and yet megachurches keep springing up everywhere. How can this data be reconciled? The truth is that institutional Christianity threatens smaller congregations, and the growth seen in the institutional congregations is not equal to the shrinkage of smaller congregations. In other words, megachurches have actually had a net negative effect on the state of Christianity.

Why then do they continue to gain popularity? At least a part of the reason is the same as the reliance upon big box stores and now online retailers. There is a comfort in an institutional provider. Megachurches present a brand, a recognizable and reliable identity. You can “trust” them to handle things correctly. The relational sacrifice is a minor one. What is more, the removal of intimacy is something of a self-preserving act. If one does not have to engage others intimately, then one does not take a risk on those relationships.

For me, the whole institutional thing holds little attraction anymore when it comes to the church. I have no problem with it as a retail model, I suppose, since I spend a lot of money on Amazon; but that is very different from a spiritual community. Can we really afford to put so much energy and money into creating institutions which service a “religious need” but do so at the cost of the real foundation of Christian fellowship – intimate relationships?

I am musing aloud at this point, without any real intent to the whole chain of thought, so if you’re a big church person, don’t get mad at me. It just seems like many of Paul’s letters address issues that came about as churches got too big to manage – leaders without accountability, abusive elitists who exalted status above charity, pseudo-religious leaders who offered alternative gospels that were more individualistic and self-serving. So many of the challenges facing the modern church seem to stem from a desire to “be bigger” at the cost of organic relationships and intimacy.


Chaves, Mark and Shawna L. Anderson. “Changing American Congregations: Findings from the Third Wave of the National Congregations Survey.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53, no. 4 (December 2014): 676-686.

Hinkle, Bart. “Small Town Religion: How Megachurches Create Micro-intimacy.” The American Enterprise 17, no. 4 (May 2006): 28-32.

Now, Go and Research That

Now, Go and Research That

Although aikido was founded by Morihei Ueshiba before World War II, it has been refined and developed by a number of his students into various styles. The style I practice is called Tomiki Aikido after one of Ueshiba’s pre-war students, Kenji Tomiki. Tomiki Sensei studied judo under its founder Jigoro Kano before studying with Ueshiba, and after the war became a professor at Waseda University. There, he developed a curriculum that further refined Ueshiba’s aikido into something that could be taught as part of an athletic club (undo bu) at the university, believing that repetition and competition would keep the techniques and principles alive.


Tomiki Sensei passed away in 1979, so a number of his students are still alive and practicing his form of aikido. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet Seiji Tanaka, who was the captain of the first aikido team at Waseda in 1958. The chief instructors of the Shodokan Aikido Federation (Tetsuro Nariyama) and the Japan Aikido Association (Fumiaki Shishida) were also students, as was Robert Dziubla who is now the head of Tomiki Aikido of the Americas.

Dziubla Sensei once recounted what Tomiki Sensei would say at the end of his training sessions: Jaa, sorede, kenkyuu shite kudasai. In English, this means “So then, please go and research that.”

Likewise, Tanaka Sensei provided me with a translation of one of Tomiki Sensei’s recitations in which Tomiki Sensei said, “The way is initiated by the Master’s achievement and subsequently will be completed by the followers’ achievements.”

Statements like this mark Tomiki Sensei as a teacher of the highest level. He was self-aware enough to understand that his understanding of aikido was not the boundary of aikido’s potential. His students would continue to research and work on what he presented; and they would exceed his own capacity, regardless how boundless it was.

This is how I think of a pastor’s job as a teacher. People sometimes ask why my title is “teaching pastor” instead of just “pastor” or “senior pastor.” The truth is that I believe in offering something people can take and “go and research that.” My role as pastor is not to limit people’s faith journey by my own understanding. Instead, I want to do my best to understand and study the Scriptures, knowing that I am not going to understand everything. Then, I release the results of that study to those who are willing to hear – with the express purpose of allowing them the space and time to “go and research that.”

No pastor should ever be laying down exacting demands on the people of his congregation, demanding that they conform. Yes, there are fundamental truths to the Christian faith which are immutable: the inspiration of Scripture, the divinity and humanity of Christ, Christ’s atonement and its sole sufficiency for salvation. There are fundamental truths to aikido as well. The teacher’s place in both fields is to instruct the fundamentals and then equip his learners to “go and research that” beyond.

The Necessity of Silence

The Necessity of Silence

At the beginning of every training session, most budoka will have a time of silence known as mokusou (黙想). The purpose of this silence varies from dojo to dojo, but at its heart mokusou is about silencing the distractions and thoughts that crowd our minds and keep us from making good decisions.

Most of what is asked of me in studying budo is difficult. I am not an overly coordinated person, so physical movement takes a lot of discipline. I am also quite used to just using bull strength to accomplish things while aiki is about the exact opposite. Nothing, however, was harder for me than learning mokusou. 

When I was young and wanted to study martial arts, I had someone tell me that this kind of thing “empties your mind so demons could get into it.” This of course terrified me, and so I decided I would never let that happen. It is not hard not to silence your mind when you have a mind like mine, which is always trying to think about fifteen things at the same time.

There is nothing about mokusou that opens the doors for demonic activity. It is not about emptying your mind at all or opening it up to suggestion. It is about silencing your mind.

During this time, we sharpen our focus on budo. We set aside the burdens that we all bear and enter the dojo mentally as we have already entered it physically. We are ready to learn and move.

This morning, I was considering the value of this discipline not only in budo but in life. We have a brief time on this world, and as a result many of us try to jam as much in as we can. The availability of the internet and mobile devices has allowed us to jam even more into our lives. We drop into bed exhausted by the rush and fury of our minds.

In evangelical Christianity, we often talk about our daily “quiet time” but all too often this “quiet time” is not quiet at all. We are reading our Bibles and working through prayers, all while making sure we finish promptly so we can get on to other activities. Our quiet time might be outwardly quiet; but it is often just as crowded and rushed as our “regular” time.

Jesus modeled a pursuit of silence in his own spiritual life. From time to time, the gospels describe him as going off to be alone, and it is usually when he is surrounded by a crowd. (Mark 1:35, Luke 4:42) Without cellphones or email, it was easy for him to find the quiet of a dark hillside and let the silence wash over him. It prepared him for the turmoil of the day ahead.

In a world that did not have our kinds of noise and distractions, the Psalmist referred to this as stillness (דמם).

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over the one who prospers in the way
Over the man who carries out evil devices! (Psalm 37:7)

Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10)

Likewise, Jesus taught his disciples the lesson of stillness in the midst of chaos when they were confronted by a great storm on the Sea of Galilee. When the fearful disciples woke Jesus from his rest, He commanded the seas, “Peace! Be still!” (Σιώπα! Πεφίμωσο!) The command was not just for the sea but also for them. They were so worried about what could happen that they were unable to find the stillness to recognize that if Jesus was not worried, they had no need to be either. (Mark 4:35-41)

(As a sidenote, in the 1955 Colloquial Japanese translation of the Bible, Jesus’ words “Be still!” are translated as 黙れ, the same kanji as appears in mokusou.)

If I could make a recommendation to every Christian I know, it would be to do something that will force you to learn the discipline of a silent mind. Call it “quiet time” or call it mokusou; but begin your day with a few minutes in which you discipline your mind to be quiet.

Not empty.

Just quiet.

Do it before you get into reading your Bible or journaling, or going through your prayer list.

Then ease into your other spiritual disciplines and from there meet the day.


Is it 2016 Already?

It has been over a year since I posted to this blog, and my posts were getting sporadic even then.

There are very good reasons for this.

In addition to pastoring Bedford Road Baptist Church, I was also working full-time (12-15 credit hours per semester) on my Master of Divinity in Church History. Originally, I had planned to just take a course here and there; but then I realized it was far more cost-effective to just bang all the classes out as quickly as I could. This has required far more of my time and energy than I anticipated that it would.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 6.35.24 AMThe good news is that I am preparing for my final semester. Since August 2014, I have completed 20 classes, transferred or tested out of 5 and have just 6 remaining. (The graphic says I need 7 classes, but this is because it does not account for a course substitution I had to do.) Once this is done, my big plan is to continue on to a doctorate; but I am going to take some time off before I get into that.

In the meantime, I have also earned my shodan (black belt) in Shodokan Aikido and devoted a great deal of time to connecting with some great people in the aikido world. Among other things, this has meant acquiring a rudimentary, technical vocabulary of Japanese (about 200 words) and struggling to understand the writing system.

The net result has been that I have written about 60,000 words in the past 15 months or so, but there has not been a lot of time for non-school writing. Some of the things I wrote about will undoubtedly find their way onto Unorthodox Faith in the coming year. Some of them will remain safely within the confines of academia.

In terms of reading, I have not done a whole lot of that except for school as well. Each class has had at least three textbooks, and I have also completely read at least three or four resources and referenced numerous others for each research paper I have written. A lot of my time has been devoted to plowing through boring books so I could answer obscure questions on exams or write coherent papers. (There have been some really, really awful books.)

Here are the textbooks that I have read since August 2014 (and yes, I read them all):

  1. Beilby, James K. Thinking About Christian Apologetics: What It Is and Why We Do It. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011.
  2. Bettenson, Henry and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church. 4th ed. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  3. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4. Minneapolis: First Fortress Press, 2003.
  4. Bruce, F. F. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977. ISBN: 9780802847782.
  5. Bush, L. Russ. The Advancement. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003.
  6. Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
  7. Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.
  8. Earley, Dave. Personal Prayer: The Timeless Secret of High Impact Leaders. Chattanooga: Tennessee. AMG Publishers, 2008.
  9. Earley, Dave. Prayer: The Timeless Secret of High-Impact Leaders. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2008.
  10. Earley, Dave, and Rod Dempsey. Disciple Making Is…: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013.
  11. Edman, Victor R. They Found the Secret. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
  12. Falwell, Jerry. Building Dynamic Faith. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007.
  13. Fearon III, H. Dana, and G. Mikoski. Straining at the Oars: Case Studies in Pastoral Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013.
  14. Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 4th ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.
  15. Ferguson, Everett. Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.
  16. Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns of Theology and Mission. 1st ed. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2005.
  17. Gaustad, Edwin S., & Leigh E. Schmidt. Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.
  18. Groothuis, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011.
  19. Kapic, Kelly. A Little Book for New Theologians. Downers Grove: IVP, 2012.
  20. Klauber, Martin I., and Scott M. Manestch, eds. The Great Commission: Evangelicals and the History of World Missions. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2008.
  21. Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Rev. ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004.
  22. LaSor, William S., Hubbard, David A., and Frederic W. Bush. Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1996.
  23. Lea, Thomas D., and David A. Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message. 2nd ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003.
  24. MacArthur, John. Pastoral Ministry: How to Shepherd Biblically. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005.
  25. McBeth, Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1987.
  26. McDill, Wayne. 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. 2nd ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007.
  27. McGrath, Alistair. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
  28. Meyer, F. B. Expository Preaching. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001.
  29. Olson, Roger. The Story of Christian Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity. 1999.
  30. Platt, David. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. Portland: Oregon. Multnomah, 2010.
  31. Pratico, Gary D., and Miles V. Van Pelt. Basics of Biblical Hebrew – with CD. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.
  32. Putman, Jim, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman. DiscipleShift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.
  33. Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
  34. Sanders, Fred and Klaus Issler, Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007.
  35. Scott, J. J., Jr. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000.
  36. Smither, Edward L. Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014.
  37. Spurgeon, Charles. An All Around Ministry. London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1972.
  38. Spurgeon, Charles. Lectures to My Students. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979.
  39. Stanford, Miles J. The Complete Green Letters. Grand Rapids: Michigan. Zondervan, 1983.
  40. Tennent, Timothy C. Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. 1st ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.
  41. Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.
  42. Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. 1st ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
  43. Vyhmeister, Nancy J., and Terry D. Robertson. Quality Research Papers for Students of Religion and Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.
  44. Weston, Anthony. A Rulebook for Arguments. 4th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2009.
  45. Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs: Colorado. Navpress, 1991.
  46. Wright, Christopher J. H. Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
  47. Yarnell, Malcolm B. The Formation of Christian Doctrine. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007.

I have nine more textbooks cued up for this semester and two for the summer. Then I will be back to reading for pleasure (something I have missed). I am not going to lie. This has been a rough 15 months; but it is almost over. My wife and daughter have been very patient; and I am ready to get back to having time to hike, bike and relax.

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 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.