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.
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.
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.