Herod Antipas: An Archaeological Biography

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When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided among his sons by Caesar Augustus.  Herod Antipater, better known as Antipas, was granted the right to rule Galilee and Perea. He was given the title of Tetrarch (“ruler of a quarter”), although he was sometimes known as King Herod, as his father had been (Mk 6:14).  Antipas ruled from Herod the Great’s death in either 4BC or 1 BC1 until he was deposed by Caligula in AD 39.

Since he governed Galilee during the years of Jesus’ ministry, Antipas was the Herod Jesus knew.2 Christ once called him “that fox” (Lk 13:32), and eventually stood trial before him, although he refused to respond to his questioning (Lk 23:9).

Herod Antipas and John the Baptist

Herod Antipas is arguably most famous for beheading John the Baptist. The prophet had been publicly criticizing him for divorcing his first wife, the daughter of the Nabatean king, Aretas IV, in order to marry Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip I3 (Mt 14:1-5; Josephus Antiquities 18.5.1).  While Antipas wanted to kill the Baptizer, he feared the people, who revered John as a prophet, and chose to imprison him instead.  Some time later, we read of the infamous event.

But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.”  And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given.  He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.  (Mt 14:6-11)

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Herod Antipas’ citadel-fortress of Machaerus. Photo: Tbantle / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Josephus also describes the beheading of John, and adds an important detail: this occurred at his desert fortress of Machaerus, located in modern-day Jordan, on the eastern edge of the Dead Sea.4  Various excavations have been carried out at Machaerus, most recently by archeologist Győző Vörös and a team from the Hungarian Academy of Arts.5  They have revealed the remains of the Herodian palace, along with its many rooms, 30-foot tall walls, a 50-foot deep cistern, and a monumental mikvah (ritual baptismal bath).  The very spot of Herod Antipas’s infamous birthday party has also been discovered: a formal peristyle courtyard that was once surrounded with porticoes on all sides.  It is even possible to identify the place where the Antipas would have been seated, in a semi-circular apse, with his throne in the axial center of the courtyard.6   Vörös has concluded, “The historical data of the Antiquities on John’s arrest and jail by Tetrarch Herod Antipas is attested by all the Gospels, and their accounts are consistent with and complement that of Josephus.”7

Antipas’ divorce and remarriage ultimately led to a disastrous war between his army and that of Aretas IV.  Josephus records that it the Jews “thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God: and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John that was called the baptist.”8

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A September 2006 aerial photograph of the unguarded and abandoned archaeological site of Machaerus, with its unfinished monument-presentation project. The physical status of the citadel, before the Hungarian Mission launched the work in July 2009 (APAAME_20060910_DLK-0145). View from the north-east.  Photo: David Kennedy

The Coins of Herod Antipas

As Tetrarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas had the right to mint his own coins.  The archaeological record reveals that he actually minted relatively few coins during his reign.  Morten Hørning Jensen notes, “Herod Antipas’s coinage is telling for the impact (or lack of it) that he had on Galilee. In his 43 years as a ruler, he issued only five series of coins. And the first was not issued until his 24th regnal year. Moreover, all of them were small in number.”9  

According to numismatist, Arthur L. Friedberg, “His coins were generally of one basic design: a palm branch on the obverse and a Greek inscription within the wreath, usually a variation of Herod Tetrarch, on the other.  On a few coins, the inscription is the name of the city of Tiberius, meant to commemorate it’s founding.”10 Unlike is brother Philip, who was the first Herodian rule to feature images of emperors, and even himself, on his coins, Herod Antipas observed the ban against graven images so as not to offend his Jewish subjects.

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A coin of Herod Antipas, dated to year 34 (AD 30). Photo: CNG coins / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The Inscriptions of Herod Antipas

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An inscription from Kos, Greece, which commemorates Herod Antipas. Photo: Harvard Image Library / CC BY 4.0

Two inscriptions on the Greek Islands of Kos and Delos refer to Herod Antipas, and indicate that they once accompanied statues in his honor.  The inscription on Kos reads, “Herod, the son of Herod the King, tetrarch…” The Delos inscription bears a similar inscription and was once part of a roofed gateway to the temple of Apollo, indicating he was involved in improving that structure.11  Jensen observes, “Antipas’ worries about adhering to the ban against images are put in perspective by two monumental inscriptions found at Cos and Delos, respectively…revealing how Antipas took part in the regular Greco-Roman cult practice outside Galilee.”12

The Building Projects of Herod Antipas

Herod Antipas built the city of Tiberias (mentioned in Luke 6:23) to replace Sepphoris as his capital, likely completing the work around AD 23.13  It was constructed according to the Greco-Roman conventions of the day, including a forum and public baths.  Antipas also constructed a synagogue for the Jewish inhabitants of the city.14 Excavations of first-century Tiberias have unearthed a stone road, a city gate, and a stadium.

Antipas was not the builder his father was, and aside from Sepphoris and Tiberias, his projects were limited.15

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The gate complex of Tiberias with the Sea of Galilee in the background. The gate is to the left of the bridge. Byzantine city walls were incorporated into the Roman gate. Photo: Photo courtesy of Biblewalks.com / https://www.biblewalks.com/Tiberias_South_Gate

Summary

The historical and archaeological evidence suggests that Herod Antipas walked a fine line between pacifying his devoutly Jewish subjects and encouraging Greco-Roman culture and life.16 The way in which he “played both sides of the fence,” seeking to appease both Jews and Romans may be, in part,  behind Jesus’ contemptuous response when people told him that Herod wanted to kill him: “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’” (Lk 13:32).

 

Title Photo:  Courtesy of Todd Bolen, Bibleplaces.com.

Endnotes:

1 There is some debate around when Herod the Great died, and thus, when his sons began their reigns.  The consensus view is that he died in 4 BC, the minority view is that he died in 1 BC. For as summary of the evidence I recommend Andrew Steinmann’s book From Abraham To Paul: A Biblical Chronology (pg. 230-238).

2 The phrase, “The Herod Jesus knew” comes from the title of an article by Morten Hørning Jensen in Biblical Archaeology Review (38:5, September/October 2012).

3 Herod Philip I (sometimes called Herod II) was another son of Herod the Great who never ruled, and is not to be confused with Herod Philip II (ie. Philip the Tetrarch – Lk 3:1).

4 Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2.  Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html (Accessed February 19, 2020).

5 http://www.machaerus.org/ (Accessed February 18, 2020).

6 Morten Hørning Jensen, “Machaerus: Where Salome Danced and John the Baptist Was Beheaded.” BAR 38:5 (September/October 2012), 39.

7 http://www.machaerus.org/ (Accessed February 18, 2020).

8 Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2 Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html (Accessed February 19, 2020).

9 Morten Hørning Jensen, “Antipas—The Herod Jesus Knew.” BAR 38:5, (September/October 2012), 45.

10 Arthur L. Friedberg, Coins of the Bible. (Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, 2004), 60.

11 Morten Hørning Jensen, Herod Antipas in Galilee. (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 209-210.

12 Ibid, 209.

13 Alfred Hoerth and John McRay, Bible Archaeology: An Exploration of the History and Culture of Early Civilizations, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 164.

14 “Tiberias,” NIV Archaeological Study Bible (ed. Walter C. Kaiser Jr and Duane Garrett; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 1732.

15 Biblical Archaeology Society Staff, “Herod Antipas in the Bible and Beyond,” Bible History Daily – Biblical Archaeology Society, June 3, 2017. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/herod-antipas-in-the-bible-and-beyond/ (Accessed February 20, 2020).

16 “Herod Antipas and Herodias,” in ESV Archaeology Study Bible (ed. John Currid and David Chapman; Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 1443.

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