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.

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