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Herod the Great

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Copper coin of Herod, bearing the legend "Basileus Herodon" on the obverse and a Macedonian sun-symbol on the reverse
For other kings known by the name 'Herod' - see Herod.

Herod (Hebrew: הורדוס, Hordos; Greek: Ἡρῴδης, Hērōdēs) (74-r. 37-d. died::4 BC), also known as Herod the Great or Herod I, was the "King of the Jews" during the time of the Birth of Jesus Christ.[1] He is best remembered for ordering the Slaughter of the Innocents during his reign, and dying shortly thereafter of a gastrointestinal disease, the nature of which has never been determined.


Early years

Herod was not Jewish at all, but Idumaean, a descendant of Esau, who was also known as Edom. His father was son of::Antipater, a recent convert to Judaism and follower of John Hyrcanus.[2] His mother was son of::Cypros, a princess from the stone city of Petra, capital of Nabatea in the mountain range that today belongs to Jordan.[3][4]

Herod's family gained favor early with Rome, mainly by an uncanny capacity to ally themselves with the winning side in Rome's Civil Wars. The first general to favor them was Pompey the Great, Rome's Special High Commissioner to the Middle East, who had come to gain victory, once and for all, over the "Two Kings," Mithridates of Pontus and Tigranes of Armenia. In the process, Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 BC[5] and determined to settle the question of the high-priestly succession in which John Hyrcanus was involved. Pompey chose Hyrcanus over his rival, and Antipater and his family gained favor along with Hyrcanus.[3][2]

Subsequently the first of Rome's Civil Wars broke out between Pompey and Julius Caesar. Hyrcanus and Antipater sided with Caesar, and for that Antipater was made Procurator of Judea (in Greek, epitropos) in 47 BC. Antipater appointed his son governor of Galilee in this year.[4]

The assassination of Caesar Dictator probably unsettled all of Rome's provinces. A Roman publican (literally, a private collector of Rome's taxes) poisoned Antipater in 43 BC. Herod had the offender executed. Shortly thereafter he was married to husband of::Mariamne I, a member of the Hasmoneans, the other faction with whom the Hyrcaneans had struggled for so long. This gave him the basis to claim the kingship of the Jews.[3][4][5]

Wars of Conquest

In 40 BC, Antigonos, King of the Parthians, invaded Judea. Herod fled Jerusalem to Rome. There the Senate of Rome passed a resolution recognizing him as "King of the Jews."[3] This resolution carried with it the establishment of a patron-client relationship between Rome and Judea. Thus, in essence, Herod became a vassal of the Senate of Rome.[3][4][5]

But this relationship also obliged the Senate to support him with arms, and support him they did. Specifically he had the support of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, then Proconsul of Nearer and Further Spain and Gaul,[2] and of Marcus Antonius, Proconsul of all the Roman provinces east of Italy.[6] In 37 BC, the reconquest of Judea was complete. Antony himself had Antigonos executed,[2] a gesture that probably demonstrated Herod's continued subordinate relationship to Rome.[3]

In 32 BC Herod fought another war against Nabatea and won it a year later.

In 31 BC, war finally broke out between Antony and Augustus. The future Emperor Augustus won that war, and Herod quickly switched sides. Augustus (still called Octavianus at the time) confirmed him as King of Judea,[5] an office he would hold until his death.[6]

Family Troubles

Herod's family was at least as dysfunctional, if not more so, than was the Julio-Claudian family that produced the first five Emperors of Rome.[6] He brought many of his family members to mock trials and had them executed during his reign, beginning with this brother-in-law Aristobulus III[4] and continuing with his wife, his mother-in-law, another brother-in-law, and finally three of his sons.[4]

Building Campaign

Herod's theater in Caesarea

Herod was, first and foremost, a master builder and showman. His first grand project was the rebuilding, in 27 BC, of the city of Samaria, which he renamed Sebaste (after the Greek Σεβαστός Sebastos, the Old Common Greek word for the Latin Imperator).[2][5]

In 25 BC famine struck his kingdom. He imported a large amount of grain from Egypt and cut taxes by a third during the emergency.

In 23 BC Herod built a palace and a fortress, called Herodium, to the east of Bethlehem.[5] (He later built another fortress near Jericho,[5] and another fortress, the Masada fortress, on the shore of the Dead Sea.[5]) In this year he married yet again, to husband of::Mariamne II.[3]

In 23 BC Herod began what was probably his grandest project: the city of Caesarea Maritima,[3][2] which is the "Caesaria" that became the headquarters of Roman rule and where Paul briefly stood trial. He inaugurated that city in 9 BC with spectacular ceremony.

In 20 BC Herod began the project for which he is best known: the second Temple of Jerusalem.[2][3][4][5][6][7] This he inaugurated in 10 BC.

Herod and Christ

Herod figures briefly in the New Testament, chiefly for his great fear of the prophecy of the Messiah. Saint Matthew tells the story:

"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way." - Matthew 2:1-12 (KJV)

Woman pleads with Herod's soldiers in Bethlehem.
Joseph then received a warning to take his wife, and the Infant Jesus, to Egypt. Matthew then takes up the narrative of what Herod did next:

"Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not." - Matthew 2:16-18 (KJV)

Herod's Death

Subsequent to this, Herod died. The nature of the disease of which he died has never been determined, but some have speculated[3] that the disease was Fournier's gangrene, a cancer-like disease of the gastrointestinal tract.

Herod's death is a major epoch of the New Testament, because Flavius Josephus records a precise regnal period: 37 years after the Senate had confirmed him as client-king, and 34 years following the execution of Aristobulus. Furthermore, Josephus includes an astronomical reference, specifically to an eclipse of the moon that occurred shortly before his death. These events strongly suggest that Herod died in 4 BC.[2][8] Ussher agrees with this, and calculates his death at November 25, 4 BC, which was the 7th day of the month Chisleu or Kislev. However, Josephus says that Herod died shortly before Passover in that year, which would have taken place in April. (The Julian calendar was then in use, this after Julius Caesar had compelled its adoption in 45 BC, shortly before his assassination.)

Another view is that Josephus is mistaken as to when Herod died. One of the proponents of this theory is Dag Kihlman. According to him it is true that Herod was made king by the Roman Senate in 40BC. The event occurred after the Treaty of Brundisium, since Mark Antony was in Rome at the occasion. If Herod counted his regnal years according to the Julian calendar, 4 BC would be is 37th year. However, there are other dates in Herod's life too, dates that can be compared with Roman general history. They are not compatible with Herod counting regnal years according to the Julian calendar, but work perfectly with the Jewish calendar. Since the Treaty of Brundisium happened in September 40 BC, Herod became king the Jewish year 40/39. He conquered Jerusalem in his third year, according to Josephus, which would be the Jewish year 38/37, actually the summer 37 BC, which is compatible with the Jewish calendar but not with the Julian. Other dates and calculations of regins exist, and Kihlman argues that the dates prior to Herod's death are correct only if the Jewish calendar is used and if "in the third year" means that the third year is not completed while "after three years" means that three years are completed. According to this way of calculation, Herod should have died in the year 3/2 BC, and actually early 2 BC, since he is said to have died before Passover.[9]

Kihlman argues that Josephus claims to build his history of Herod partly on an eyewitness, Nicholaus of Damascus, who worked for King Herod. No other source apart from his own family traditions are mentioned by Josephus. Since Nicolaus worked for Herod, it is not surprising that Josephus history is very accurate and agree with what we know about Roman history in general. However, Kihlman points out that Josephus says about Nicolaus: "For he [Nicolaus] wrote in Herod’s lifetime, and under his reign, and so as to please him…” [10] Obviously, Nicolaus did not write after the death of Herod. Thus, Kihlman argues that Josephus account is not reliable as to the death of Herod.

According to Kihlman, only one external piece of evidence can be used to date the death of Herod, and that is a coin minted by his son, Herod Antipas in his 43rd regnal year. Since he was dethroned in AD 39 he must have started to count his reign from 4 BC or earlier. However, Kihlman points out that Herod Antipas was appointed Herod's heir when Herod turned against Antipater, the previous heir. One can not say from Josephus exactly when this happened, but it ought to have happened 4 BC or earlier. Antipater had reigned together with Herod. In case of co-regency, the successor counts his regnal years from the star of his regency and not from the death of the predecessor. If Herod Antipater too co-reigned with Herod, his coins might reflect the date when Antipater was kicked and not when Herod died. Since Josephus must have seen the coins, it might be that Josephus calculated the death of Herod to 4 BC. If Josephus assumed Herod became appointed king by the Roman Senate early in 40 BC, then he could have died early 4 BC after having been king 37 years. However, this contradicts the fact that Mark Antony was not present in Rome at that time, and since Herod travelled to Rome to meet Mark Antony, the calculation is just a calculation not compatible with history, according to Kihlman

Kihlman argues that other evidence in Josephus point to 1 BC as the correct year of death. The eclipse was more significant this year than 4 BC. Further Josephus says that Herod was 70 or older when he died and that he got an assignment when he was 15, which he should have been in the autumn of 47 BC. Now, the age 15 must be a mistake. Josephus says Herod is very young, but given what he had accomplished already and given the fact that he had three children a couple of years later, it is more likely that he was 25 than 15 when he got the assignment. In such a case Herod would have been 70 years old in the autumn of 2 BC.[11]

Dating the Herod's death and Jesus's birth

The traditional date of 4 BCE for the death of Herod the Great, as set forth by E. Schürer (1896), has been accepted by historians for many years without notable controversy. However, according to the texts of Luke and Matthew, Herod died shortly after the birth of Jesus (Lk 1:5, 30-31; Mt 2:1-23), which can be fixed in 2 BCE (Lk 2:1-2; 3:1). Consequently, there is apparently a major chronological contradiction but in fact Josephus gives a dozen synchronisms that enable us to date the 37 years of Herod's reign from 39 to 2 BCE and his death on 26 January 1 BCE just after a total lunar eclipse (9 January 1 BCE) prior to the Passover (Jewish Antiquities XVII:166-167, 191, 213).

Two important events confirm the dating of Herod's death: the census of Quiriniusin Syria (Titulus Venetus) which was a part of the Inventory of the world ordered by Augustus when he became Father of the Country in 2 BCE and the war of Varus (Against Apion I:34) after Herod's death conducted under the auspices of Caius Caesar (Jewish War II:68-70), the imperial legate of the East, and dated during the year of his consulship in 1 CE (Cassius Dio LV:10:17-18; LV:10a:4). Dating the census of P. Sulpicius Quirinius. According to Luke 2:1: Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census - the first-took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. The historian Paul Orosius precisely dated the census of Augustus in the year 752 of Rome (Histories against the pagans VI:22:1; VII:3:4) or in 2 BCE. According to Josephus: Quirinius had then liquidated the estate of Archelaus; and by this time the registrations of property that took place in the 37 th year after Caesar's defeat of Antony [in 6 CE] at Actium were complete (Jewish Antiquities XVIII:1-4, 26). The first registration under Herod the Great, as the census of Apamea, was made to know the number of citizens and it is not to be confused with the one implemented in Judea by Quirinius when he came to ensure the liquidation of property of Herod Archelaus after his disgrace, and of which Josephus says it was followed by an evaluation of property. This two-step operation did not have the same nature, nor the same goal, or the same geographical scope as the previous one. It was conducted according to the principles of the Roman capitation and not according to Hebrew customs, and only covered the sole Judea, not Galilee.

General censuses were performed every 5 years (= 1 lustre) as can be deduced from those reported by Cassius Dio. The census prior to the one of 4 CE, confined to Italy (Cassius Dio LV:13), was performed in 2 BCE. Dating the war of P. Quinctilius Varus. The intervention of Varus, after Herod's death, was described as a war by Flavius Josephus and also by the Seder Olam, yet the only war mentioned in the Roman archives in this region and at that time was the one conducted by Caius Caesar in 1 CE. The career of Caius Caesar, the grand-son of Augustus, was very brief, an inscription in a cenotaph of Pisa provides his cursus honorum and mentions as the only honorary remarkable action: after the consulship which he held with good fortune, waging a war beyond the farthest borders of the Roman people. Dating the birth of Jesus. Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata I:21:145) placed the birth of Jesus 194 years before the death of Commodus (31 December 192 CE) and Tertullian (Against the Jews VIII:11:75) placed it in the 41st year of the reign of Augustus [which began from the second triumvirate of October 43 BCE] and 28 years after the death of Cleopatra (29 August 30 BCE). By combining these data, the birth of Jesus must be fixed in 2 BCE in a period between 1 September and 30 October. Dating the death of Jesus. This dating is easy to determine since Jesus was baptized in 29 CE (Lk 3:1-23), celebrated 4 Passovers (John 1:28-32; 2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 12:1) and was killed on Friday 14 Nisan (Jn 16:31). In addition, when he died there was a (partial) lunar eclipse, described as "blood into moon" (Ac 2:20), dated on Friday 3, April 33 CE, which was viewed in Jerusalem from 5:50 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. according to astronomy. In addition, chronological examination of the famous Messianic prophecy in Daniel 9:25 involves the death of the Messiah on April 3, 33 CE. Paradoxically, despite many studies for knowing with accuracy the date of the Last Supper: 13, 14 or even 12 Nisan, there is still no consensus because absolute dates are not used and chronological data are generally replaced by some crafty guesses.[12]

Herod's Burial

For centuries, the final burial site of Herod the Great was unknown. Then on May 8, 2007, archaeologist Ehud Netzer found the remains of a mausoleum and pieces of an eight-foot coffin at the end of a staircase in the Herodium. This tomb bears no identification, but no personage other than Herod is known from the period who would likely be buried in such a tomb in such a place.[13]


Herod left three sons and successors alive: father of::Archelaus, to whom he bequeathed his overall kingdom, father of::Herod Antipas, who became Tetrarch of Galilee; and father of::Herod Philip, Tetrarch of sundry other lands.[3][6][4] Herod Philip does not come further into the Bible, except that Herod Antipas later married Philip's wife, prompting John the Baptist to protest that this was unlawful, which landed John in prison. Archelaus could not be confirmed with the title of king because the Emperor never consented to this.


  1. James Ussher, The Annals of the World, Larry Pierce, ed., Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2003 (ISBN 0890513600), pghh. 5050-6082ff.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Tierney, John J. "Entry for Herod." The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. VIII. New York. Robert Appleton Co., 1910. Retrieved June 18, 2007 from New Advent.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 Lendering, Jona. "King Herod the Great." <>, 2007. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 Greetham, The Rev. Phil. "King Herod the Great." The Nativity Pages, 2001. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 Authors unknown. "Entry for Herod." The Jewish Virtual Library, American-Jewish Cooperative Enterprise, 2007. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Author unknown. "Entry for Herod." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  7. Thomas J, "Archaeologists discover King Herod's quarry," Associated Press, 6 July 2009. Hosted by MSNBC. Accessed 6 July 2009.
  8. Greetham, The Rev. Phil. "The Death of King Herod." The Nativity Pages, 2001. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  9. Kihlman, dag "The Star of Bethlehem and Babylonian Astrology." Accessed April 19, 2017.
  10. Josephus Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVI, Chap. 7:1.
  11. Kihlman, dag "The Star of Bethlehem and Babylonian Astrology." Accessed April 19, 2017.
  12. Herod the Great and Jesus: Chronological, Historical and Archaeological Evidence.
  13. Govier, Gordon. "Tyrant's Tomb Unearthed: Herod the Great's final resting place said to be found." Christianity Today Online, June 28, 2007. Retrieved June 28, 2007.