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.

History and Language – Tools for Biblical Exegesis

Why does the teacher of the Scriptures need to know history? Why should we invest the time to not just be acquainted with the languages and cultures of the biblical authors?

In the post-Protestant Reformation era, the idea of using just the Bible (sola scriptura in Latin) has become the battle cry of many independent interpreters of the Bible. There are some who believe that reading the Bible, just in translation, is sufficient preparation to know the Bible’s meaning. When pressed, they will often misquote passages of the Scriptures that indicate the Spirit of God will teach us all we need to know (1 John 2:27 is a favorite).

Unfortunately, this attitude has led to a lot of interpretational and exegetical error in the Church. There are many people who claim to be teachers of the Scriptures but who refuse to acknowledge any authority except their own intellect. They isolate the Scriptures, and in the name of revering the text they demote it to the level of their own predispositions and imagination. This can happen both intentionally and unintentionally. Often unintentionally, small misunderstandings and misinterpretations go unchecked and compound over time.

Allow me to share an example of this kind of poor interpretation. It involves the common use of the name Lucifer for the Evil One. We can trace the evolution of this idea through literature and history, and thereby illustrate how the study of history and language not only demonstrates how something like this can happen but also how situations like this should be a battle cry for more thorough, holistic approaches to the Scriptures.

Ask the average conservative Christian what the devil’s name is and they will say either Satan or Lucifer. 

The name Satan derives from the book of Job, where it is used fourteen times. The name is a transliteration of the Hebrew title HA-SATAN or “the adversary” or “the opponent”. It is not really a name as much as it is a title for anyone who opposes another person – whether it is the angel who opposes Balaam (Numbers 22:22) or Hadad the King of Edom opposing Solomon (1 Kings 11:14). All the same, the idea of a single, great opponent – THE Satan – appears to be a part of the Hebrew thinking, especially by the period after the Exile (Zechariah 3:1-2).

But what about the name Lucifer? Does that have an ancient Hebrew root? In reality, it does not. The word lucifer is Latin. It derives from lux, which means “light.” How did this come to be treated as a name for the devil or Satan? To get that answer, we have to go back to the prophet Isaiah and a prophecy he was given by God.

During the reign of the Judean king Yehoahaz b. Yotham (c 730-710 BCE), Isaiah was given a rather troubling message. This message (the Hebrew word is MASSA or “pronouncement”) was for the King of Babylon. The message, which appears in Isaiah 13-14, foretells the rise of the Babylonians and their eventual conquest of the land of Judah. At the time Isaiah gives this message, however, Babylon is one of the client kingdoms of the mighty Assyrians. They are perhaps the strongest of the client kingdoms, but they are just one of many.

To foretell the rise of Babylon, the oracle contains these lines:

How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!

You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God I will set my throne on high;
‘I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
‘I will make myself like the Most High.’

But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. (Isaiah 14:12-14, ESV)

In these very poetic lines, Isaiah depicts the King of Babylon using a specific form of the Hebrew word HELEL, which means “shining” or “bright.” This particular form includes an additional letter, and so is HEYLEL. This is the only place that this particular form of the word appears and it is coupled with a parallel phrase – BENIY-SHAHAR or “son of the dawn”.

Because of the phrase “son of the dawn” Greek-speaking Jews (or Christians, no one is entirely sure) translated this unique word HEYLEL into Greek as fos-forus or heos-foros (variant spellings of the same term), which was the name they gave to Venus when it rose in the dawn.  This is when Venus is brightest in the sky. When it appears in the late winter sky, it is ten times brighter than the next brightest object – Jupiter. Over time, of course, the magnitude of Venus fades and then it slips below the horizon and does not make an appearance in the dawn sky for another 263 days.

The appearance of Venus as this “son of the dawn” was a harbinger of the end of winter, since it appears in late February. As a result, it also meant that soon the days would get significantly longer. This is probably why the Greeks called this appearance fos-forus – the bringer of light”. (When Venus appears in the night sky, the Greeks called it hes-perus or “evening star”.

The Romans astronomers likewise knew about this star (or planetes as the Greeks called it). They called it lucifer – “the light bringer”. No one knows whether this is a translation of the Greek or if the Romans came up with the name independently.

Around 380 CE, a bishop of Rome named Damasus I asked one of his clerics, a man named Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, to prepare a standardized Latin translation of the Bible. Hieronymus is known to us today by an anglicized version of his name – Jerome. Working first from Greek and then from Hebrew, Jerome produced what is known today as the Vulgate – the standard Latin Bible of the Roman Catholic Church to this day.

In the Vulgate, Jerome rendered HEYLEL/heos-foros as lucifer. He also used lucifer to render a statement about Christ in 2 Peter 1:19 – where Christ is called the fos-forus. 

For Jerome, lucifer must have meant exactly  Venus when it appears in the morning sky. But Jerome lived in a troubled time. The western half of the Roman empire was crumbling. Jerome had left Italy around 373 CE and never returned. During his lifetime, the city of Rome was sacked by German invaders and within a generation, nothing would be left but fragmented petty German kingdoms.

Sometime in the early Middle Ages, the connection seems to have been made between the Greek fos-forus and Latin lucifer with the pagan Greek god fos-forus (usually spelled Phosphorus). It was an unfortunate collision of rising Christian fervor against the old pagan ideas, which included astronomy, and a translation meant to indicate a linguistic analogy. As time and distance produced medieval commentary based on perception and not on historical reality, the king of Babylon of Isaiah’s prophecy came to be seen as the Evil One himself.

Well before the 13th century CE, the word had become a name, a title, for the devil. But in that unfortunate century, an English clergyman named John Wycliffe translated the Vulgate into English. He retained, and capitalized, the word Lucifer in Isaiah 14:12, while he rendered the same Latin word as dai sterre in 2 Peter 1:19. The labeling of Satan was completely integrated into the beliefs and values of medieval England (and Europe as a whole). Subsequent English translators like William Tyndale and the KJV translators used Wycliffe’s transliteration of the Vulgate in Isaiah.

So, Satan got a new name – Lucifer – with its own mythology built around it.

The use of this name as synonymous with Satan is ubiquitous in almost any western nation with a Christian past. It was easily equated with statements elsewhere in Scripture, such as Paul telling his readers that Satan disguises himself as an “angel of light” (angelos fotos) in his second letter to the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 11:14) and John seeing a vision of Satan sweeping stars from the sky (Revelation 12:1-9), which was taken to be a parallel to the poetic language of Isaiah 14.


By studying the history and language, as we have, we can see that this usage of the term lucifer as a name – as if it was the Evil One’s name in eternity past – is unwarranted. The history illuminates the Scriptures and frees us from medieval misinformation.

Unfortunately, theology is subject to cultural and traditional layering. People are often not willing to alter their perceived set of truths, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. This is part of the burden of applying the disciplines of the humanities to theology. Many teachers of the Scriptures are vaguely aware of the historical and linguistic realities in matters like this, but they take the popular (meaning, more easily accepted) course rather than appear to be criticizing a view which has been taken to be gospel truth.

As teachers of the Scriptures, we are bound to the text – not to popular opinion, no matter how deeply rooted it is in our culture. We must use the tools of history and language (and countless others) to understand the sacred Word and to preserve it from the taints and plaque it might accumulate as humans carry it with them, often morphing original meaning as they go.

We are slaves to the text. We must strive to know it as it was written, even when it flies in the face of opinion and tradition.

Live and Let Live

God gives us the means to live and let live. Humanity chooses to live and let die. – Chris Wright, Knowing Jesus through the OT
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Don’t Give In, part 5

Don’t Give In, part 5

Just Be Cool.

Nothing is less cool than making people conform to something they did not think of themselves. They’re going to respond much better to a form of pastoring that starts with what they want and then builds around them. What is really cool is that we focus more on appearances and feelings. That is cool. Cool is determined by what the people want – what the majority of people expect.

What’s not cool?

  • The Bible, except as something quotable
  • Reverent language
  • Expecting people to think for themselves

What’s cool?

  • Light shows
  • faux hawks and soul patches
  • Feel-good, predictable sermons

It is much cooler to appeal to the lowest common denominator and treat it as exceptional than it is to call people to standards that would clearly require discipline and involvement. It’s simply not possible to be too cool, right? I mean, you don’t wind up looking like an idiot when your objective is coolness, right?

Yep. That sounds good.

[This post, and all in this series, are satirical hyperbole. That means I am making a point by exaggerating the opposite point.]