Herod the Great

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The three wise men

We have opened our presents, but Christmas isn’t actually over until the 12th Day (January 6th). The 12th Day of Christmas is called the Feast of the Epiphany. Tradition holds that it is when the Wise Men found Jesus in Bethlehem and gave him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The story of the Wise Men is told in the Gospel of St. Matthew. The figure of a King, Herod the Great, looms large. He is troubled by the news of a rival King being born in Bethlehem, and he tries to have the baby killed. Fortunately Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, escape to Egypt. Eventually they learn that Herod the Great is safely dead, but they are afraid of his son, Archilaus, who is now on the throne of Judea. They do not feel it is safe to return to Bethlehem. Instead they settle in Nazareth in neighbouring Galilee.

This is an exciting story which Christians hear every year. But perhaps it is a little confusing. Why was there a king on the throne? Weren’t the Romans meant to be in charge? There’s another Herod in the story of John the Baptist – how does he fit in? And doesn’t it contradict the story told by St. Luke, where Mary and Joseph start by living in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem (rather than the other way around)?

It all makes a little more sense when you know a little more about Herod the Great. He ruled Judea (which included Jerusalem and Bethlehem), for 37 years until his death in 4BC. He knew the likes of Mark Antony, Queen Cleopatra, and the Emperor Augustus. In fact, he was involved in the major events of his time – from the start of the Roman Empire to the birth of Jesus. His life can help you understand the world into which Jesus was born.

Written by Bertie.

Read by Elizabeth. 

Proofread by Claire Deakin & Jana Elizabeth.

(Sources include “Jerusalem: The Biography,” by Simon Sebag Montefiore, and, “The Unauthorized Version,” by Robin Lane Fox. The original history can be found in the works of the Jewish historian, Josephus)

Herod the Great -

Our anti-hero is one of the biggest baddies of all time – King Herod the Great. If you know the story of the birth of Jesus, you will have heard his name. He was the King whom the wise men visited while following the star to the little town of Bethlehem. He later ordered a terrible crime called ‘The Massacre of the Innocents.’ I’ll tell you a little bit more about that later.

Nativity -

Even if you are not a Christian, I bet you know the story about the birth of Jesus. And if you are brought up in the Christian tradition, perhaps you have acted in the school Nativity play. Maybe you were an angel, or a shepherd, or a sheep, or even Joseph or Mary. You will know that Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem. This happened because Mary and Joseph were visiting the town and there was no room at the inn.

That familiar story is the one told in the Bible by St. Luke. But actually the Bible gives two versions of the Nativity story. It is in the other version that King Herod looms large. St. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. But Matthew implies that Bethlehem was where Mary and Joseph lived. There’s no mention of a stable or any shepherds. But he does tell us about King Herod and the Wise Men.

St. Matthew -

According to Matthew, the wise men from the East saw a special star in the sky. They followed the star to Judea and came to see King Herod in the city of Jerusalem. There they asked him: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”

This was not the most tactful question to ask King Herod. Naturally he did not like the idea of a rival King being born. He wanted his own sons to inherit his throne. Herod asked his scribes and advisors about this Christ King. They told him of a prophesy that the King would be born in Bethlehem, in Judea.

Herod summoned the Wise Men back before him and told them to go to Bethlehem and to search for the baby King. He added, rather cunningly: “When you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

But of course he had no intention of worshipping the baby Jesus. He meant to have him killed.

The Wise Men headed off for Bethlehem and were delighted to see that the star was travelling before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. They went into the house and found Mary and the baby. They fell down and worshipped him. Opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Fortunately the Wise Men did not report back to King Herod. They were warned of danger in a dream, and went back home by a different route. An Angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

And so the family got up in the middle of the night, slipped out of Bethlehem, and went to hide in Egypt. When Herod understood that he had been tricked by the Wise Men, he flew into a furious rage. He sent soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the boy children who were under two years old. This terrible crime is known as the ‘Massacre of the Innocents.’

And so it is clear from the Bible that King Herod was a cunning and evil tyrant.

History -

Although history outside the Bible does not mention the ‘Massacre of the Innocents,’ it is pretty much in agreement about Herod’s character. He was a paranoid murderer who bumped off members of his own family. But on the world stage, he was a brilliant diplomat. He kept Judea semi-independent from the Romans, and used his wealth to rebuild his capital, Jerusalem, into a magnificent city. Despite being a baddy, he is known for his achievements as Herod the Great.

Contemporaries -

So who was Herod the Great? To work backwards, he died around the time that Mary gave birth to Jesus. In fact, if you know a little bit about Herod’s life, you can get a feel for the world into which Jesus was born. Herod lived at the same time as Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and his life is entwined with her story.

Like Cleopatra, he was only able to sit on his throne because the Romans allowed him to do so. He was what is known as a client King. All his power depended on staying friends with the Romans. But the problem was, which Romans? Back in Rome, the democracy known as a Republic was falling apart and Romans were fighting each other.

Mark Antony -

In Rome, Julius Caesar had been elected dictator, and then murdered in 44 BC. For a while the power of Rome was divided among Julius Caesar’s friends. One of these, a general called Mark Antony, came out to the East. In Egypt, Mark Antony fell madly in love with Queen Cleopatra. It’s a romance that has been written up by Shakespeare and retold in an epic Hollywood movie.

And when Antony was in Egypt, a young Herod rode across to meet him. Antony confirmed Herod and his brother as rulers of Judea. Herod looked forward to a life of power, wealth and success.

Parthian Invasion -

His satisfaction, however, did not last for long. The Romans’ fiercest enemies, the Parthians, invaded Jerusalem. Herod’s brother was killed and he himself had to flee to Egypt, to Queen Cleopatra. From there he sailed to Rome.

Alliance with Rome -

The two most powerful Romans, Mark Antony and Octavian, led him into the Senate where he was declared, ‘King of an Ally, and Friend of the Roman People.’ After that, Herod and Mark Antony went back to the near East and reconquered first Galilee and then Judea. Herod was back on his throne in his capital Jerusalem, and even more powerful than before.

Allegiance -

But in Rome, people were very uncomfortable about rumours of a noble Roman gallivanting about with an exotic Eastern Queen. The romance of Mark Antony and Cleopatra became a scandal. Antony fell out of favour, and Octavian sent out an army to fight him. Herod had to decide which side to back.

He chose to stay loyal to his old friend Antony. Unfortunately, he picked the losing side. Antony and Cleopatra sent their ships into a sea battle against Octavian at Actium in the year 31 BC. They were totally defeated. Both committed suicide.

Things looked bad for Herod. Fearing the worst, he went to see Octavian on the Greek Island of Rhodes. He humbly laid his crown before Octavian’s feet and said: “Consider not whose friend I have been, but what sort of friend I am.”

Octavian and prosperity
Octavian was impressed, and he placed Herod’s crown back on his head. From then on, Herod’s position was secure. Octavian changed his name to Augustus and became the first Emperor of Rome and the most powerful man on earth. He was a staunch friend of Herod and increased the size of his kingdom. Such was the friendship that Herod sent two of his sons to Rome where they grew up and were educated in Augustus’ house. At home, Herod began to rebuild Jerusalem on a magnificent scale. His greatest project of all was the new Temple.

The Temple of Jerusalem -

It was a monumental and dazzling building covered in plates of gold that glowed with fiery splendour. This was the great temple that features in the Gospels.

In the Bible, The devil takes Jesus up onto its highest tower and tries to tempt him to throw himself off, so that angels would catch him. Later, Jesus predicts that the wonderful temple would be destroyed.

According to St. Mark -

As Jesus went out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him: “Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!”

And Jesus answered saying: “See these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

That was the temple built by Herod the Great. Jesus’s prediction came true in the year AD 70. There was a huge revolt of the Jews against Roman power in AD 69. When the Romans eventually put down the revolt they destroyed the magnificent temple.

Herod and Family -

Herod also built a sumptuous palace for himself. But inside, his court was full of intrigue. He was madly in love with his wife, Marriamme – or Mary in English – but he did not trust her scheming mother – and with good cause. Eventually he started to suspect Marriamme herself. He ordered her to be executed, even though it broke his heart. Later on he had three of his twelve sons put to death.

When he heard of these killings, the emperor Augustus commented,: “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son,” because he knew that Herod did not eat pork. These nasty turn of events contributed to his reputation as a murderous tyrant. He was the sort of man who was quite capable of ordering the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ as told by the Bible.

Herod’s Sons -

Eventually Herod died after 37 years on the throne. One of his sons, Archilaus, actually rejoiced, and sang and danced.

Herod’s kingdom passed to three of his sons, Archelaus, Philip, and Antipas. They all took the name of Herod and were known as Tetrarchs.

Herod Antipas ruled Galilee. Galilee was where Jesus grew up and did many of his early miracles. His home town of Nazareth was there. It is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and ruler of Galilee who features in the story of John the Baptist and the Dance of Salome.

His brother Archilaus ruled Judea, which included the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But Archilaus was so vicious and incompetent that Augustus grew fed up with him. Ten years after the death of Herod the Great, in the year AD 6, Augustus sent Archilaus into exile.

This was when Judea became a Roman province. There was no longer a Herod in charge of Jerusalem. Instead, it was ruled by a series of middle ranking Roman officials, called Prefects. One of these was Pontius Pilate who presided over the trial of Jesus.

Census -

AD 6 is an important date because it is the year that Judea came into the Roman Empire. For the first time the people of Judea had to pay tax to the Romans. The Roman Governor of Syria, called Quirinius, ordered a census so that people in Judea could register their property. In the Gospel of St Luke this census was the reason why Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem.

Gospel Gossip -

This is one of a number of points on which the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke contradict each other and now it should be clear that they do not agree on the date of Jesus’ birth. According to Matthew he was born in the last years of Herod the Great 4BC). But Luke says he was born ten years later when the Census of Quirinius took place (in 6AD). But of course they both do agree on the most important point for Christians – that Jesus was born to Mary as the son of God.

I do hope that you have found this history interesting and that it helps you see the stories of the Bible as happening in a particular time and place. If you would like us to tell you some more history do leave us a comment. We could for instance tell you more about the life of Cleopatra or Julius Caesar. Let us know if there is anyone or any event that you would like to learn about.