Herod the Great, one of the most well-known rulers in Jewish history, is praised to this day for magnificent building projects of, for example, the temple in Jerusalem and fortresses like Herodium and Masada. Yet many are filled with disgust when learning about his cruel acts. Even one of his first biographers, the first-century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, struggled to evaluate the “inconsistency” between Herod’s benevolence and his brutality (Ant. 16.150-159). Who was Herod the Great, “king of the Jews”?
How did Herod become “king of the Jews”?
In 40 BCE, Herod was granted the title “king of the Jews” by the Roman senate (Josephus, War, 1.284). There was only one problem: the Jews already a king on the throne, Antigonus, who was from the old, royal Hasmonean family. In fact, the title “king of the Jews,” proved to be marred by another problem to Herod’s Jewish subjects: Herod was only “half-Jewish”; his father was an Idumean from south of Judea, who had converted to Judaism (Josephus, Ant. 14.403), and his mother the Arab princess, Cypros, from Nabatea (Josephus, War 1.181).
Just prior to Herod’s coronation in Rome, Antigonus, backed by the Parthians, Rome’s enemy in the east, conquered Jerusalem, which sent Herod on the flight out of the country.
Deprived of his army, friends, family, and all good fortune, it seemed, Herod put all his hopes on the Romans. The Romans, for their part, were looking for a strong, resolute leader that could match the growing threat of the Parthians and reconquer Israel.
This convergence of interests secured Herod, only an Idumean “half-Jew” in the eyes of many Jews, the ringing title, “king of the Jews.” His first official deed was to climb the steps to the temple of Jupiter in the Roman forum, where he sacrificed and deposited his vows of allegiance to Rome (Josephus, War 1.285).
Three more years and a bloody battle would pass before Herod finally conquered Jerusalem in 37. There was no welcome committee. Herod’s Roman allegiance and the brutal capture of Jerusalem foreshadowed the real problem of his reign: Would he be able also to capture the hearts of the Jews?
Was Herod a good or a bad “king of the Jews”?
In modern research on Herod, the most discussed issue concerns the impact of his reign on his Jewish subjects. Opinions vary. Some scholars paint a picture of a cruel tyrant, even a maniac suffering from a personality disorder, who introduced the ancient version of a Gestapo state with an extended spy network and imprisonment, torture, and execution of anyone falling under the slightest suspicion. His own family was far from exempt, and the list of Herod’s executions of family members include three of his sons, his Hasmonean wife Mariamne, and his wife’s mother and grandfather. In light of this, Solomon Zeitlin said with reference to Herod’s ancestry and his death from a painful disease: “He attained his kingdom as a fox, ruled as a tiger and died as a dog.”
Others claim that his cruelty should be evaluated against the standards of ancient rulers and not modern sentiments. Even Josephus admits that during a famine Herod relieved the nation by distributing food from his royal supplies, just as he cut taxes twice, gave the Jewish nation a beautiful temple, and generally created a period of peace and growing prosperity.
It has been suggested by Geza Vermes and others that the conflicting nature of Herod’s reign is best explained as an outcome of an impossible vision of raising the Jewish nation to new heights by incorporating it solidly within the new Roman world order. This would explain why Herod, on the one hand, tried to be “a Jew to the Jews” by complying with Jewish customs. For example, he produced mostly aniconic art and coins (as suggested by archaeological excavations of his palaces); he married into the old, royal Hasmonean family; and he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. On the other hand, he tried to be “a Roman to the Romans” by putting pressure on the Jewish nation to accept Roman customs such as Greek sporting games and temples dedicated to the emperor.
If Herod’s intent was to incorporate the Jewish state into the Roman world order, his dream collapsed. As Vermes stated, the discontentment with Herod planted seeds that eventually grew into the great rebellion against Rome some 70 years after his death. In this light, Herod was not only the one of the most famous “king of the Jews,” but also one of the most fatal.
Morten Hørning Jensen, "Herod the Great", n.p. [cited 16 May 2021]. Online: https://bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/main-articles/herod-the-great
Morten Hørning Jensen is associate professor at Lutheran School of Theology, Aarhus, Denmark; adjunct professor at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Oslo, and Research Fellow at University of South Africa. He is the author of Herod Antipas in Galilee (Mohr Siebeck 2010) besides numerous articles on topics related to first-century Galilee and the Historical Jesus including the entry on Herod Antipas in The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (de Gruyter 2015).