Herod the Great: An Archaeological Biography

It’s been said that every story needs a villain.  In the case of the Christmas narrative recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, the villain is none other than Herod the Great.  King Herod looms large and menacing in Jerusalem when the Magi arrive looking for the new king who had been born. 

This amphora fragment bears the Latin inscription, “Belonging to Herod king of Judea.” Photo: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com

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, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…” (Matt. 2:1-3)

Understanding who Herod the Great was and the historical context surrounding the birth of Jesus illuminates and affirms the story recorded in Scripture.

HEROD’S RISE TO POWER

In the days of Herod, king of Judea…(Luke 1:5)

Herod’s father, Antipater, was favored by Caesar Augustus, and appointed procurator of Judea in 47 BC. One of his first acts was to make his son, Herod, governor of Galilee.1  Herod was then promoted to Tetrarch of Galilee by Marc Antony, and in 40 BC, was named the King of Judea by the Roman senate.2  Unfortunately, Judea already had a king, Antigonus, who was from the royal Hasmonean family.  Antigonus sided with the Parthians who conquered Jerusalem.  After three years of bloody fighting, Herod and his army reconquered Jerusalem and, in 37 BC, secured his hold on Jerusalem as the unrivaled King of Judea.3  

This coin depicts Herod’s helmet on one side and a tripod, surrounded by the Greek inscription, BAΣIΛEΩΣ HPΩΔOY, meaning “of King Herod” on the other. It is dated Year 3 (37 BC) and have been minted to commemorate his victory in Jerusalem. Photo: wildwinds.com, ex Freeman & Sear, Sale 12, Oct. 2002.

While Herod was officially the “King of the Jews,” his lineage proved problematic; his father was Idumean, and he was considered a “half-Jew.”4 To help overcome this, he divorced his first wife, Doris, and married Mariamne, a Hasmonean princess.  He also appealed to Jewish sensitivities by ensuring that no graven image appeared on the coins that he minted.  But perhaps the greatest way that Herod secured the good-will of the people he governed was through his glorious expansion to the Temple complex.  Even Jesus’ disciples were impressed by the magnificent buildings.

HEROD’S BUILDINGS

And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” (Mark 13:1)

This seaside hippodrome in Caesarea Maritima was built by Herod the Great. Photo: Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org

Herod the Great was a prolific builder.  During his reign he initiated great building projects throughout Israel, including at Jerusalem, Sebaste (Samaria), Caesarea Maritima, Jericho, Sepphoris, Paneas and Hebron.  He built a fortress at Masada and his fortress-palace called the Herodium (or Herodion).   He constructed palaces, ports, theaters, stadiums, hippodromes, gymnasiums, water systems, and gardens.5  Josephus recorded that his building activity was not limited to his own realm: “And when he had built so much, he showed the greatness of his soul to no small number of foreign cities.”6 

The Western wall of the Temple Mount with first-century street and fallen stones below. The lowest courses of stones of the Temple Mount are in their original position from the time of King Herod. This photo and caption are part of the Photo Companion to the Bible – Mark. It is an excellent resource from BiblePlaces.com: https://www.bibleplaces.com/photo-companion-to-the-bible/

Arguably, Herod’s greatest achievement was his expansion of the Temple.  Herodian ashlar stones can still be seen in the retaining wall surrounding the Temple mount, and some of the stonework from the buildings has been found in the rubble at the base of the wall which Roman soldiers threw down when they destroyed the temple in 70 AD.  Josephus wrote, “Accordingly, in the fifteenth year of his reign, Herod rebuilt the temple, and encompassed a piece of land about it with a wall, which land was twice as large as that before enclosed. The expenses he laid out upon it were vastly large also, and the riches about it were unspeakable.”7

Some of the tile designs that were reconstructed by the Temple Mount Sifting Project. These tiles likely once adorned the floors of some of the buildings that surrounded the Temple and/or from under the colonnade. Photo: Temple Mount Sifting Project https://tmsifting.org/en/

In 2016, Archaeologists from the Temple Mount Sifting Project successfully restored some of the stunning flooring tile patterns from the Second Temple using colored stone floor tile segments found in the earth and rubble that had originally come from the Temple Mount. Seven specific floor tile designs were assembled by using basic geometry, the known size of a Roman foot (approximately 29.6 cm), and similarities to the tile designs used by Herod at other sites, including his palaces at Masada, Herodium and Jericho.8

A doric capital that would have once been atop on of the columns in Solomon’s Portico. Photo: Temple Mount Sifting Project https://tmsifting.org/en/

In 2017, the Temple Mount Sifting Project displayed a capital from one of the columns that formed the eastern colonnade of the Second Temple, known in the New Testament as “Solomon’s Colonnade” (John 10:23; Acts 5:12).9

In his book, The Architecture of Herod the Great Builder, Ehud Netzer describes Herod as a builder who was ahead of his time:

“Herod not only showed interest in the field of construction but also had a profound understanding of planning and architecture, and therefore took an active and important part in the erection of many of his buildings…Herod’s grasp of the realm of construction seems to me to be beyond the times in which he lived. The combination of an vibrant ruler, having an analytical mind and at the same time a pragmatic approach, together with a far reaching imagination, led him to initiate building projects that reflect a line of thought similar to that of an architect acting in the 20th or 21st century!”10

HEROD’S CRUELTY

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matt. 2:16)

The Slaughter of the Innocents, by Giovanni Pisano (1250-1314), in the Sant’Andrea Church, Pistoia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The “Slaughter of the Innocents” is unknown to historians outside of the Bible, but its cruelty consistent with the type of person Herod was, particularly in his later years.  He drowned his brother-in-law, Aristobulus, an 18-year old High Priest, because he thought the Romans would favor the popular young man over him as ruler of Judea.11 He ordered his Hasmonean mother-in-law, Alexandra to be executed,12 as well as his beloved second wife, Miriamme.13 He also ordered that his sons Alexander and Aristobulus,14 as well as Anitpater15 be killed.  Caesar Augustus was said to have quipped that it was better to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios).16 In modern times, Herod the Great has been variously diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia or with Paranoid Personality Disorder.17

The sad reality is that the slaughter of boys in Bethlehem may have been too insignificant an event for historians, such as Josephus who wrote nearly a century later, to take note of.  William F. Albright estimated the population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth to be about 300 people.18 Historian, Paul Maier estimates that there may have been only a dozen boys or so who were slaughtered19 – a tragic event, but not the sort of thing that would catch the attention of historians of the day.

Gordon Franz concludes:

“The slaughter of the innocents is unattested in secular records, but the historical plausibility of this event happening is consistent with the character and actions of Herod the Great. Besides killing his enemies, he had no qualms in killing family members and friends as well. Herod would not have given a second thought about killing a handful of babies in a small, obscure village south of Jerusalem in order to keep his throne secure for himself.”20

HEROD’S DEATH

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” (Matt. 2:19-20)

The dating of Herod’s death is linked to the dating of the birth of Christ, since it was a short time afterward that Joseph took his child and moved back to Israel from Egypt, where he had fled.  Anyone who studied the dating of Herod’s death21 knowns that it is a convoluted journey through contradictory data, involving the date Herod’s sons began to rule, Josephus’ account linking his death to a lunar eclipse,22 and possible copying errors that were propagated in later manuscripts of Josephus.23 The consensus view is that he died in 4 BC; the minority view is that he died in 1 BC, with Jesus’ birth occurring in the year or two before Herod’s death. 

An aerial view of the Herodium, Herod’s fortress-palace. Photo: Asaf T / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Josephus records that Herod knew that he was unpopular as his end drew near and that people would celebrate his death. So he ordered that a group of men who had come to Jericho be killed when he died, stating, “Every family of them, will weep at it, whether they will or no.”24  Upon his passing, this command was not carried out.  Herod’s remains were taken back to the Herodium, where he was buried.

This reconstructed sarcophagus was discovered near a mausoleum at the Herodium. Some scholars believe it once contained the body of Herod the Great. Photo: A.D. Riddle / BiblePlaces.com

In 2007, Ehud Netzer announced that, after a 35-year search, he had found Herod’s tomb half-way up the eastern slop of the Herodium.25  Near the tomb he discovered hundreds of red limestone fragments from an eight-foot long sarcophagus adorned with intricate rosettes.  While there was no tell-tale inscription, Netzer believes it to be the sarcophagus of Herod the Great, which had been deliberately destroyed by those who hated the Jewish king. Other scholars have questioned this conclusion, however, pointing out that neither the mausoleum nor the sarcophagus was impressive enough for a king of Herod’s riches and ego.

CONCLUSION

Herod the Great’s reign left a mark on Israel that can still be seen today in the Herodian architecture that remains.  Some of the “wonderful stones” the disciples pointed out to Jesus can still be seen today at the Temple Mount.  His reign was also documented by historians, such as Josephus, who did not shy away from the terrible things he did.  Herod’s paranoia and tempestuous behavior provide the historical background to his command to kill all the boys two years of age and under in Bethlehem in his attempt to eliminate yet another perceived threat to his throne.  

Title Photo of Herod’s Coin: Used with permission of wildwinds.com, ex Freeman & Sear, Sale 12, Oct. 2002.

Endnotes

1 Stewart Henry Perowne, “Herod.” Encyclopædia Britannica.  Online: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herod-king-of-Judaea (Accessed Dec. 8, 2020).

2 Josephus, War, 1.284.

3 Josephus, Antiquities, 14.470-481.

4 Josephus, Antiquities, 14.403.

5 John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1991), 92.

6 Josephus, War, 1.422.

7 Josephus, War, 1.401.

8 Leen Ritmeyer, “Flooring from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.” Sept. 12, 2016. https://www.ritmeyer.com/2016/09/12/flooring-from-the-temple-mount-in-jerusalem/ (Accessed Dec. 9, 2020).

9 Leen Ritmeyer, “A Capital from Solomon’s Porch on the Temple Mount.” April 5, 2017. https://www.ritmeyer.com/2017/04/05/a-capital-from-solomons-porch-on-the-temple-mount/ (Accessed Dec. 9, 2020).

10 Ehud Netzer, The Architecture of Herod the Great Builder. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), XVII-XVIII

11 Josephus, Antiquities, 15.50-56.

12 Josephus, Antiquities, 15.247-251.

13 Josephus, Antiquities, 15.222-236.

14 Josephus, Antiquities, 16.392-394.

15 Josephus, Antiquities, 17.182-187.

16 Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2.4.11.

17 Gordan Franz, “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?” Associates for Biblical Research. Dec. 8, 2009.  https://biblearchaeology.org/research/chronological-categories/life-and-ministry-of-jesus-and-apostles/2411-the-slaughter-of-the-innocents-historical-fact-or-legendary-fiction (Accessed Dec. 10, 2020).

18 William Albright and C.S. Mann in The Anchor Bible, Matthew (New York: Doubleday, 1971), quoted in Gordan Franz, “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?” Associates for Biblical Research. Dec. 8, 2009.  https://biblearchaeology.org/research/chronological-categories/life-and-ministry-of-jesus-and-apostles/2411-the-slaughter-of-the-innocents-historical-fact-or-legendary-fiction (Accessed Dec. 10, 2020).

19 Paul Maier made this claim in a recent interview entitled, “Truth or Fiction: Did Herod Really Slaughter Baby Boys in Bethlehem?” The transcript is available here:  https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/truth-or-fiction-did-herod-really-slaughter-baby-boys-in-bethlehem (Accessed Dec. 10, 2020).

20 Gordan Franz, “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?” Associates for Biblical Research. Dec. 8, 2009.  https://biblearchaeology.org/research/chronological-categories/life-and-ministry-of-jesus-and-apostles/2411-the-slaughter-of-the-innocents-historical-fact-or-legendary-fiction (Accessed Dec. 10, 2020).

21 There is some debate around when Herod the Great died.  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).

22 “Herod’s Death, Jesus’ Birth, and a Lunar Eclipse,” Biblical Archaeology Society. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/herods-death-jesus-birth-and-a-lunar-eclipse/ (Accessed Dec. 10, 2020).

23 Gerald Culley, “The Star of Bethlehem” Bible and Spade. Vol. 29. No. 3. (2016), pg. 82.

24 Josephus, War, 1.660.

25 Barbara Kreiger, “Finding King Herod’s Tomb.” Smithsonian Magazine, August 2009.  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/finding-king-herods-tomb-34296862/ (Accessed Dec. 10, 2020)

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