OK, you already know something about Herod the Great (73-4 BC). But how much do you really know about him, his background and role in world history? King Herod is one of the true villains of the Bible. His life and rule are solidly interwoven with one of the great periods of world history, the battle for rule of the Roman Empire between Octavian (later to be known as Augustus) and Marc Antony (lover of the great Cleopatra of Egypt.) The story of King Herod the Great’s life and rule in Palestine is tied into political intrigue, great power struggles, war, love affairs and, of course, one of the great periods of Biblical history, the birth and very early childhood of Jesus.
Image of Herod the Great
Although King Herod is significantly mentioned in only two books of the Bible, Mathew 2:1-19 and Luke 1:5, we all know at least something about him. What is not told in the Bible is the very important role he played in the Roman rule of Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth and throughout Jesus’ life.
To clear any confusion, Herod the Great was not the ruler of Judea during Jesus’ ministry or at the time of His execution. That was Herod Antipas, son of King Herod the Great. Herod Antipas’ title was Tetrarch and he ruled only about one-third of his father’s former territory.
King Herod was born in 73 BC. He was an Edomite, of the line of Esau. He was not of the line of David. So, how did he become “King of the Jews” in 37 BC? Here we have to look at the history and political battles of Rome.
Following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC there were great political/military power struggles throughout the Roman Empire. The group led by Caesar’s assassins fought against Julius Caesar’s closest allies, led by Marc Antony (Caesar’s Master of Horse or 2nd in command), Octavian (Caesar’s great-nephew) and Lepidus (A great military leader). This group was victorious over the assassins (including Brutus, son of Julius Caesar’s lover). Almost immediately a power struggle broke out among the victors. Lepidus quickly dropped out of the picture and the great struggle was between Octavian in the west and Antony in the East.
Bust of Marc Antony
Bust of Cleopatra
It was during this period that Herod rose to power. He led a military campaign to defeat a group of Parthinians who were at war with Rome. He then went to essentially badger Octavian and Antony who were meeting in Crete to grant him kingship over Palestine. In 37 BC he was named King. Neither Octavian nor Antony thought much of Herod, but they were in a pickle. Supported mainly by Antony, Herod was named King of Palestine in 37 BC.
The Romans held little interest in anything that was not “Roman”. Therefore, they had no interest or knowledge of the importance of the “Line of David” to Jewish kingship. That led, in part at least, to the great struggles that lay ahead in Palestine for Roman rule.
In 31-30 BC, the struggle between Octavian and Antony broke out into open warfare. Herod sided with Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian won the battle and both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BC. In 27 BC, Octavian was given the name Caesar Augustus by the Roman Senate and named the first Emperor of Rome.
Herod wormed his was out of supporting the wrong side by going directly to Octavian, explaining how loyal he was, declaring his loyalty to Octavian and Rome. Rome was also again at war with the Parthian/Persian Empire. So, needing a strong ally in Palestine, Herod got off the hook.
Herod got his title, “The Great”, not because of his leadership, but because he was a great builder. Among his building projects were Herod’s Temple expansion, Herod’s Palace in Jerusalem, the Fortress of Antonia and the port city of Caesarea which became the seat of Roman rule in Palestine.
King Herod was a ruthless tyrant and quite paranoid. He had at least ten wives, two of whom he had executed. He also executed one of his fathers-in-law, a former High Priest and three of his sons. Octavian said that he would rather be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons. This was of course a great insult to the Jews.
King Herod played a pivotal role in establishing the relationship between Rome and Judea throughout the life of Jesus. He often put down Jewish revolts and even opposition to either his or Roman rule with absolute brutality. He was despised by the Sanhedrin and the Jewish people as a whole.
We know King Herod particularly because of the visit of the Magi and his subsequent killing of baby boys in Bethlehem. His life and rule are key to the dating of the birth of Jesus. Herod consulted the religious leaders in his court, so he knew the prophesies of a coming Jewish king of the House of David. The Magi were not only important religious leaders from the east (Parthia/Persia), but also important political leaders. They undoubtedly came with a large contingent of servants and soldiers to take care of and protect them. Herod had good reason to expect a coming war or revolt. He reacted as he always had, with brutality.
King Herod the Great died in 4 BC. He left quite a legacy.
This is an example of how understanding the Bible is greatly enhanced when we know the context of the Biblical events. The birth of Jesus was near a time of some of the best know and most impactful, non-Biblical events in Western Civilization. Herod’s life and reign are supported extensively by extra-Biblical records.
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