Herod the Great, or Herod the Terrible?
By Paul N. Anderson
George Fox University
The fourth episode of CNN’s “Finding Jesus” second season focuses on King Herod, who ruled in Judea from 37-4 BC. In the Gospel of Matthew, Herod is portrayed as a ruthless, self-absorbed king, who slaughtered all the baby boys in Bethlehem—two years old and younger—because he was threatened by the quest of the Magi. If the wise men coming from the East were seeking the newborn “king of the Jews,” might this imply eventual competition for Herod’s throne? Matthew portrays the wise men being led by a dream to return without informing Herod of their findings; hence his being threatened, and thus his ruthless response.
While the biblical presentation of Herod is of a terrible and violent ruler, however, he was clearly an effective and important leader from a political standpoint. He launched many important building campaigns throughout Judea, and ruled Palestine in cooperation with the Romans (albeit as a puppet king, according to Mark Goodacre). He ruled effectively for over three decades, creating a stable period for growth and enterprise, and he is thus remembered as the greatest Jewish king directly following the Hasmonean Dynasty. That being the case, should he retain his appellation as “Herod the Great,” or should he be considered “Herod the Terrible,” as presented in the Gospel of Matthew? This is the question raised by the CNN episode on Herod, and the possible discovery of his tomb in the Herodion might provide a clue.
As a means of getting into the subject, the scholars and religious leaders interviewed explore the presentations of Herod (not to be confused with his son, Herod Antipas—mentioned during ministry of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts—note that Mark 3:6 and 12:13 presents “Herodians” as conspiring to trap Jesus) in the writings of Josephus and the New Testament. A crucial challenge to the subject is the fact that while Josephus says a good deal about Herod, he says nothing of “the Massacre of the Innocents,” as portrayed in Matthew 2. On one hand, one could simply assume that Matthew is not historically accurate—the story is fabricated as a means of presenting Jesus to be the new Moses and Herod to be the old Pharaoh, reminiscent of Pharaoh’s slaying of the Jewish baby boys in Exodus (according to Candida Moss). Then again, this sort of event is in keeping with the sort of thing Herod is likely to have done, even by the reportage of Josephus (according to Father James Martin, SJ).
Both scholars have good points, here. Matthew certainly is building a case, and stories about Herod and Jesus could have come from any number of sources in addition to historical ones. Then again, just because an account is only mentioned in one source, this does not prove its nonoccurrence. Not necessarily does not imply necessarily not, so rather than claiming to know Matthew’s account is “not historical,” it is more accurate to say that it is “not confirmed by external sources historically,” which is to say its historicity is problematic, not overturned. Parsimonious Jesus scholars too often commit this sort of error in the modern era.
On the contributions of Herod, the series outlines well some of his great construction projects: the rebuilding of the Temple (begun in 19-20 BC; note the reference to the project having been in process for 46 years in John 2:20); the construction of palaces at Masada, Caesarea Maritima, and the Herodion near Bethlehem; and the building of aqueducts and roads throughout the region. Herod had married into the Hasmonean royal family, but he also found resistance among Jewish leaders because he was Idumean (from Edom) rather than of proper Jewish descent. For any number of reasons, things went awry with his concern over power. Out of jealousy, he had his beloved wife Miriamne killed (perhaps falsely accused in a plot by Herod’s mother), and out of fear for his life, he had three of his sons killed, according to Josephus.
Overall, the episode does a fine job of crafting a realistic portrayal of events as presented in the New Testament, while also acknowledging the critical questions raised by historical scholars in the modern era. I liked the ways that Robert Cargill showed a second-temple house near Bethlehem similar to the one in which Jesus may have been born, and the featuring of the Herodion as a seven-story palace is very well done. Given the ornate sarcophagus discovered by Ehud Netzer in 2007, this archaeological discovery could indeed have unveiled the final resting place of Herod the Great. Then again, such a connection is not conclusive, but its ornate quality makes the positive case arguable, and even marks of attempted destruction reflect anger toward the subject—hence an additional potential link to Herod. What could be significant about the discovery of the sarcophagus, though, is not that it shows the final resting place of the great king; rather, it is that the destructive blows to the vault reflect anger against this important person, despite being someone of great importance. That could be telling.
While Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents as presented in Matthew is described by some of the scholars interviewed as unfair to Herod (Rabbi Joshua Garroway), I’m not sure that Josephus would have agreed. After all, Josephus recounts that not only had Herod killed his wife and two of his other sons, but that he also had his firstborn son Antipater II killed just five days before his death, despite Herod’s having made him heir to his throne. That seems atrocious. Herod also had several Jewish leaders in Jericho imprisoned, ordering them to be killed upon his death—insuring there would at least be some grieving at his passing. Fortunately, that order was not carried out. And, following two pharisaic rabbis’ moving their forty disciples to tear down an eagle that had been posted in the temple area, Herod had them all burned alive. Around these stories, the Roman historian Macrobius cites a quip attributed to Caesar Augustus: “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” (Saturnalia 2.4.11) That might have been a safer existence.
So, while the Matthean presentation of Herod is that of a ruthless regent rather than a righteous royal, I’m not sure that Josephus would have disagreed. Perhaps Herod the Great and Herod the Terrible are not as disparate appellatives as one might imagine. And, on that score, Josephus and Matthew might have agreed.