“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem,” (Matthew 2:1 (ESV).
Who was Herod the king? What relationship does he have, if any, with the Herod who not only had John the Baptist beheaded but also was involved in one of the six trials Jesus experienced immediately prior to His crucifixion?
The Herod which Matthew refers to is also known as Herod the Great. His cumulative reign as King of Judea began in 37 B.C. until 4:B.C. The Jewish historian Josephus referred to Herod as Herod “the great.” This term probably referred primarily to the fact that he was the oldest son of Antipater. Not only was Herod a shrewd politician, but he was also a great soldier, orator, and a builder. Aside from his appearance in Matthew’s nativity narrative, Herod the Great’s building projects serve as the backdrop for many New Testament events.
There are three significant time periods in Herod’s life. They include the following:
- 37–27 bc: Consolidation of Power. Herod impressed Rome with his ability to pacify the Jews whose homeland he occupied. Herod was capable at collecting taxes and quelling uprisings.
- 27–13 bc: Peace and Prosperity. Herod rebuilt forts, instituted Olympic style games, and began rebuilding the Jerusalem temple.
- 13–4 bc: Domestic Strife. This period saw troubles within the land along with misunderstandings with Rome. It was a time marked by Herod’s increasing mental instability. He was also plagued by problems with his 10 wives and his children.
Herod became a paranoid tyrant. He constantly worried that he would lose his kingdom. The fortresses he built reflect this paranoia, as they provided refuge when he felt threatened. Herod executed his two sons Alexander and Aristobulus due to rumors of mutiny. Herod married 10 women and fathered 15 children by them.
At the end of his life, Herod suffered from a severe illness. Josephus described Herod’s symptoms: “For a fire glowed in him slowly, which did not so much appear to the touch outwardly as it augmented his pains inwardly; for it brought upon him a vehement appetite to eating … His entrails were also ulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly” (Josephus, Antiquities, 17.6.5). He was buried in the Herodium.
Herod issued two commands to be performed upon his death:
- To execute the recently imprisoned Jewish elders so that the people would be mourning during his death.
- To execute his son Antipater.
Upon Herod’s request, his lands were divided among three of his sons:
- Archelaus was left the throne.
- Antipas was to be tetrarch of Galilee.
- Philip was to be tetrarch of Gaulanitis.
Herod’s most significant role in the New Testament is his appearance in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2). This account reflects Herod’s influence and jealousy. His attempt to discover the rival “King of the Jews” resulted in the murder of innocent children in the Bethlehem region.
Many of Herod’s building projects serve as backdrops for events of the New Testament. As one commentator explains, “Bethlehem—the birthplace of Jesus—is located near the Herodium. The magnificence of Herod’s temple is clearly displayed in the Gospels. At one point, Jesus’ disciples commented about the architecture of Herod’s temple: “As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down’ ” (Mark 13:1–2, NASB). The temple played a significant part in the life and ministry of Christ.”
Christ came to what is referred to as Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem three times a year, every year, from the time he was 12 years old until He died. During His ministry, Jesus preached in this temple (John 7–10), He celebrated Jewish feasts there and predicted the temple’s destruction (Luke 19:43–44; 21:6).
Many of Herod’s building projects also provide the backdrop for the Book of Acts. This includes the city of Caesarea, which was visited by Peter, Paul, and was the home of Philip (Acts 8; 23:33; 21:8). Paul was also brought to trial in the city of Caesarea, which Herod had built and whose port he had engineered.
Following Herod’s death, his son Antipas served as tetrarch over Galilee (Mark 14:1; Luke 3:1). He is the Herod most referred to in the Gospels. Antipas reigned during Jesus’ years of ministry. Antipas probably inherited some of his father’s shrewd ways, since Jesus referred to him as a “fox” (Luke 13:32). Herod Antipas is also mentioned at the trial of Jesus (Luke 23:6–12). Herod’s son Philip is also mentioned as the tetrarch of the northern region of the kingdom (Luke 3:1).
It is important for us to understand the historical character of Herod the Great. Otherwise, we may not understand why he does what he does following the news of a child born to be the king of the Jews.
We will continue our study of the visit by the Magi when next we meet.
Soli deo Gloria!
To all my North American readers and partners, Happy Thanksgiving.