Talk about dysfunctional families—and not only mean to each other (sometimes to the point of murder) but mean in general. Whenever you see the name Herod in the Bible, you know you’re dealing with a pretty loathsome character. And, interestingly enough, the Bible authors weren’t very helpful in using the name, so the Herod at the time of Jesus’ birth was neither the Herod of the later Gospels nor the Herod of the book of Acts. Thankfully, world historians have filled in a lot of the details about these guys. Whichever Herod you’re reading about, believe that he was “bad to the bone.”
There were four generations of rulers in Palestine all named Herod. They are confusing to many Bible readers because in most instances the text only refers to “Herod.”
Herod the Great, a ruthless ruler, was king of the entire region of Palestine, 37-4 b.c. He was responsible for many building projects, including the third temple in Jerusalem. He was king at the time of the birth of Jesus.
The wise men naturally went to see King Herod to inquire about the newborn king of the Jews (Matthew 2). Herod was insanely jealous of anyone who might try to usurp his throne, so he told the wise men to let him know when they found this new king.
When they returned home without reporting back to him, Herod was furious and ordered the death of all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. (This event is sometimes called the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.) Joseph was warned of this danger in a dream, so he and Mary made a hasty flight to Egypt to protect their baby son. Herod the Great died in 4 b.c., so Jesus’ birth may have been as early as 6 b.c.
Herod’s son Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee and Perea, the territories in which Jesus and John the Baptist carried out most of their ministries. It was this leader who beheaded John the Baptist and tried Christ just before his death.
Herod Agrippa, I was the persecutor of the church in Acts 12, and Herod Agrippa II heard Paul’s testimony (Acts 26) just before he went to Rome to be tried by Caesar. Without knowledge of the Herodian family, one can hardly have a proper understanding of the times of Christ.
The Herodian Dynasty (67-47 BC)
The Herodian dynasty became prominent during the confusion that resulted in the decay of the Hasmonean dynasty, the transference of Syria and Palestine to Roman rule, and the civil wars that marked the decline of the nation. Much of what we know about the Herods comes from the historian Josephus’ writings: Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War.
Herod the Great (47-4 BC)
As Governor of Galilee (47-37 BC)
Herod the Great became governor of Galilee at 25 years of age. Although he gained the respect of both the Romans and the Galilean Jews for quickly capturing and executing the bandit leader Ezekias, some in Hyrcanus’ court thought that he was becoming too powerful and arranged to have him brought to trial. He was acquitted and released after that.
QUICKTAKE: HEROD THE GREAT
STRENGTHS AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS
- Was given the title king of the Jews by the Romans
- Held on to his power for more than 30 years
- Was an effective, though ruthless, ruler
- Sponsored a great variety of large building projects
WEAKNESSES AND MISTAKES
- Tended to treat those around him with fear, suspicion, and jealousy
- Had several of his own children and at least one wife killed
- Ordered the killing of the baby boys in Bethlehem
- Although claiming to be a God-worshiper, he was still involved in many forms of pagan religion
LESSONS FROM HIS LIFE
- Great power brings neither peace nor security
- No one can prevent God’s plans from being carried out
- Superficial loyalty does not impress people or God
Occupation: King of Judea from 37 to 4 BC
Relatives: Father: Antipater. Sons: Archelaus, Antipater, Antipas, Philip, and others.
Wives: Doris, Mariamne, and others
Contemporaries: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Mark Antony, Augustus
“Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance” (Matthew 2:16).
As King (37-4 BC)
Most scholars divide the reign of Herod into three periods:
- Consolidation from 37 to 25 BC;
- Prosperity from 25 to 13 BC; and
- Domestic troubles from 13 to 4 BC.
The period of consolidation extended from his accession as king in 37 BC to the death of the sons of Babas, the last male representatives of the Hasmonean family. During this period, he had to contend with many powerful adversaries.
The first adversaries, the people, and the Pharisees objected to his being an Idumean, a half-Jew, and a friend of the Romans. Those who opposed him were punished, and those who took his side were rewarded with favors and honors.
The second adversaries were those of the aristocracy who sided with Antigonus. Herod had executed 45 of the wealthiest and had confiscated their properties to replenish his own coffers.
The third group of adversaries was the Hasmonean family. Herod’s chief problem was his mother-in-law, Alexandra. She was upset that he had not appointed another Hasmonean to the high priesthood to replace Hyrcanus, specifically her son Aristobulus. She wrote to Cleopatra, asking her to influence Antony to force Herod to remove the appointed high priest, Ananel, and replaces him with Aristobulus.
Finally, Herod gave way to the pressure. In the end, after a celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, Herod had Aristobulus drowned, making it look like an accident. Herod put Alexandra in chains and placed her under guard to keep her from causing him more trouble.
Herod’s fourth adversary was Cleopatra. When civil war broke out between Antony and Octavius, Herod wanted to help Antony. But Cleopatra persuaded Antony to set Herod in a battle against the Arabian King Malchus, who had failed to pay tribute to her. When she saw Herod winning, she ordered her troops to help Malchus, hoping to weaken both parties to the breaking point so that she could absorb them both.
After a catastrophic earthquake in his domain in 31 BC, Herod defeated the Arabs and returned home. Soon after, on September 2, 31 BC, Octavius defeated Antony in the Battle of Actium, resulting in the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra.
The second period of Herod’s reign was one of prosperity (25-14 BC). It was a period of splendor and enjoyment interrupted by occasional disturbances. According to Josephus, the noblest of all Herod’s achievements was the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, begun in 20/19 BC (Antiquities 15.8.1). The Rabbinic literature claims, “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” (Babylonian Talmud: Baba Batra 4a).
Before this, he had built theaters, amphitheaters, and racecourses for both men and horses. In 24 BC Herod built himself a royal palace and built or rebuilt many fortresses and Gentile temples, including Strato’s Tower, later renamed Caesarea.
During this time, he became very interested in culture and gathered around him men accomplished in Greek literature and art. Greek rhetoricians were appointed to the highest offices of the state. One of these was Nicolas of Damascus, Herod’s instructor and adviser in philosophy, rhetoric, and history. In late 24 BC, he married Mariamne, daughter of Simon, a well-known priest in Jerusalem (she will be referred to as Mariamne II).
During this period, the people favorably accepted Herod’s rule. They were annoyed, however, by two things. First, he violated Jewish law by his introduction of the quinquennial games in honor of Caesar; and second, he built theaters and racecourses. He demanded a loyalty oath from his subjects, except for a privileged few.
Also, he would not allow them to congregate freely for fear of a revolt. Despite these things, he had good control of the people and twice favored them by lowering taxes (in 14 BC he reduced taxes by one-fourth).
The third period of Herod’s rule was clearly marked by domestic troubles (13-4 BC). By now he had married ten wives.
- His first wife, Doris, had only one son, Antipater. He repudiated Doris and Antipater when he married Mariamne I, allowing them to visit Jerusalem only during the festivals.
- He married Mariamne I in 37 BC. She was the granddaughter of Hyrcanus and had five children, two daughters, and three sons. The youngest son died while in Rome, and the remaining two sons were to play a significant role in this part of Herod’s reign.
- In late 24 BC, he married his third wife, Mariamne II, to whom one child was born, Herod (Philip).
- Malthace, his fourth wife, was a Samaritan and mother of two sons, Archelaus and Antipas.
- His fifth wife, Cleopatra of Jerusalem, was the mother of Philip the tetrarch.
Of the remaining five wives, only Pallas, Phaedra, and Elpsis are known by name, and none played a significant part in the events of this period.
Alexander and Aristobulus, the sons of Mariamne I, were his favorites. Immediately following their marriages, troubles began within the Herodian household.
Salome, Herod’s sister and mother of Berenice (wife of Aristobulus), hated these two sons, mainly because she wanted the position and favor they enjoyed for her own son. Herod decided to recall his exiled son Antipater to show Alexander and Aristobulus there was another heir to the throne. Antipater took full advantage of the situation and used every conceivable means to acquire the coveted throne.
Finally, a man of evil character, Eurycles from Lacedaemon, took it upon himself to inflame the father against his two sons and vice versa. Soon other mischief-makers joined Eurycles, and Herod’s patience became exhausted. He put Alexander and Aristobulus in prison and named Antipater heir.
In his impatience to gain the throne, Antipater attempted to poison Herod. This plot failed when Pheroras, Herod’s brother, drank the poison by mistake. Herod put Antipater in prison and reported the matter to the emperor (c. 5 BC).
At this time Herod became very ill with an incurable disease. He drew up a new will that bypassed his older sons, Archelaus and Philip because Antipater had poisoned his mind against them also. He chose his youngest son, Antipas, as his sole successor.
It was during this time that the wise men arrived in Judea, searching for the newborn king of the Jews. Herod instructed them to report to him the whereabouts of this child as soon as they found him. Being warned in a dream, they did not do so, but rather returned to their homes by another route. God warned Joseph (husband of the mother of Jesus) to flee to Egypt because of Herod’s intention to kill Jesus. Joseph took his family and left Bethlehem. Shortly after, Herod killed all the male children in Bethlehem who were two years old and under.
Herod’s disease grew increasingly worse. Permission came from Rome to execute Antipater, which he promptly did. He again altered his will, making Archelaus king of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria; Antipas tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and Philip tetrarch of territories east of Galilee. On the fifth day after Antipater’s execution, Herod died at Jericho in the spring of 4 BC. The people acclaimed Archelaus as their king.
Archelaus (4 BC-AD 6)
Archelaus was the son of Herod the Great and Malthace (a Samaritan) and was born around 22 BC. Archelaus was faced with a multitude of problems. He had killed 3,000 people in putting down a revolution led by individuals avenging the blood of those killed by his father, Herod. Thus his rule got off to a bad start.
At Pentecost in 4 BC, another revolt broke out, which lasted about two and a half months and during which the Temple porticoes were burned, and the Romans pillaged the treasury. This unrest spread to the countryside of Judea and Galilee and Perea.
Archelaus treated both the Jews and the Samaritans brutally (War 2.7.3), a fact borne out by the Gospels. When Joseph returned from his flight to Egypt and learned that Archelaus was ruling Judea, he was afraid to go there and was warned against it by God; he took the infant Jesus to Galilee instead (Mt 2:22).
Archelaus’ tyranny finally caused the Jews and Samaritans to send a delegation to Rome and complain formally to Augustus. The fact that such bitter enemies as the Jews and Samaritans could cooperate in this matter indicates the serious nature of the complaint. Antipas and Philip also went to Rome to complain about him.
Presumably, they resented his neglect as their Roman representative for Palestine. Thus in AD 6 Archelaus was deposed and exiled to Vienna in Gaul (modern Vienne on the Rh6ne, south of Lyons). Antipas and Philip were allowed to continue their own rules, and Archelaus’ territories were reduced to a province governed by prefects or procurators.
Antipas (4 BC-AD 39)
Antipas was the younger brother of Archelaus, born around 20 BC. Of all the Herodians, he is mentioned most in the NT because he ruled over Galilee and Perea, where both Jesus and John the Baptist concentrated their ministries.
Antipas’ domain was in turmoil caused by the rebellion begun at Pentecost in 4 BC. He immediately set out to restore order and rebuild what had been destroyed. Following the example of his father, Herod the Great, Antipas founded cities.
Sepphoris was his first project; it was the largest town in Galilee and his capital city until he built Tiberias. Since Nazareth was only four miles (6.4 kilometers) south-southeast of Sepphoris, it is entirely possible that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was employed as a carpenter (Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3) to help rebuild that city.
Of the 12 cities built by the Herodian family, Tiberias is the most important. It was the first city in Jewish history to be founded with the municipal framework of a Greek polis. It was built in honor of the reigning emperor, Tiberius.
Because a cemetery was destroyed in the process of building…Tiberias was considered unclean by the Jews. Antipas offered free houses, land and tax exemptions for the first few years to anyone who would move into the city. He completed the city in AD 23 and made it his capital.
There was a tangle of family events leading up to the death of John the Baptist. Antipas had married the daughter of Aretas IV (the daughter’s name is unknown). Aretas IV was the Nabatean king, and Augustus may have encouraged this marriage since he favored intermarriages between various rulers to promote peace in his empire.
Around AD 29 Antipas took a trip to Rome, and on the way, he paid a visit to his half-brother Herod Philip, who must have lived in a coastal city in Palestine. Antipas fell in love with Herodias, Philip’s wife, who was also Antipas’ niece.
The idea of becoming the wife of a tetrarch appealed to her, and she agreed to marry him when he returned from Rome if he would oust Aretas’ daughter. Antipas agreed to the plan, and when Aretas’ daughter heard of it, she fled to her father. Therefore, this was a breach of a political alliance as well as a personal insult, which led to retaliation by Aretas.
The marriage of Antipas and Herodias was in violation of the Mosaic law that forbade marriage to a brother’s wife (Lv 18:16; 20:21) except to raise children for a deceased childless brother by a levirate marriage (Dt 25:5; Mk 12:19).
In this case, Philip not only had a child, Salome, but he was still alive. And this is the situation that John the Baptist spoke so boldly against, and Antipas threw him in prison.
Herodias’ hatred of John the Baptist was too great merely to settle for his incarceration. At an appropriate time, possibly Antipas’ birthday, she planned a banquet at Machaerus in Perea. Her daughter, Salome, danced for the king, and in a spontaneous moment, Antipas promised her under oath that he would give her anything, up to half of his kingdom. Following her mother’s advice, she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
Immediately Antipas was sorry for his rash promise, but to save face in the presence of his under lords, he granted the request. Thus, John’s ministry ended around AD 31 or 32.
There are three specific times when Antipas and Jesus are mentioned together in the Gospels.
Early in Jesus’ ministry Antipas heard of him and commented, perhaps with irony, that Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected (Mt 14:1-2; Mk 6:14-16; Lk 9:7-9). It was evident to Antipas that Jesus’ ministry was even more remarkable than John’s, but he was reluctant to use force to bring about the meeting for fear of once more arousing the people against him. Eventually, Jesus withdrew from Antipas’ territories without the two meeting.
Later, as Jesus became to gain popularity, Antipas saw a potential threat to his own power and threatened to kill Jesus. Thus it was that on Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem he was warned by some of the Pharisees that he should leave Antipas’ territories for his safety (Lk 13:31-33). Jesus sent as an answer to “that fox” that he would continue his ministry of healing and cast out demons for a little longer, and when he had finished, he would then go to Jerusalem to die. The lion and fox were often contrasted in ancient literature. The Lion of Judah, Jesus Christ, was not going to be coerced by the crafty coward, Antipas.
The final encounter between the two occurred when Antipas tried Jesus in AD 33 (Lk 23:6-12). Since only Luke mentions this event, some scholars consider it legendary. It must be remembered, however, that Luke’s addressee was Theophilus, probably a Roman officer, who would be especially interested in the reconciliation between Pilate and Antipas mentioned in this passage.
According to Luke’s account, when Pilate could find no fault in Jesus, he sent him to Antipas (who was celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem). Pilate thus freed himself from an awkward situation.
A more subtle reason may have been to reconcile himself to Antipas. Their relationship had been rather strained since the Galilean massacre (Lk 13:1), and because Pilate brought votive shields into Jerusalem, arousing the anger of the Jews (Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium 299-304).
When Jesus was brought before Antipas, the ruler only mocked him and sent him back to Pilate. The most significant political accomplishment of the incident was Antipas and Pilate’s reconciliation.
Philip the Tetrarch (4 BC-AD 34)
Philip the Tetrarch was the son of Herod the Great and Cleopatra of Jerusalem and was born around 22 BC. When Herod’s will was resolved, Philip was made tetrarch over Gaulanitis, Auranitis, Batanea, Trachonitis, and Iturea, all in the northern part of Herod the Great’s domain (Lk 3:1). His subjects were mainly Syrian and Greek. Thus he was the first and only Herodian to have his image on his coins.
He built two cities. First, he rebuilt and enlarged Paneas and renamed it, Caesarea Philippi. Here Peter made his confession of faith to Jesus and was given the revelation of the church (Mt 16:13-20; Mk 8:27-30). Next, he rebuilt and enlarged Bethsaida and renamed it Julias. Here Jesus healed the blind man (Mk 8:22-26), and in a nearby desert place, he fed the 5,000 (Lk 9:10-17).
Philip was not as politically ambitious as his brothers. His rule was marked by tranquility and the loyalty of his subjects. When Philip died in AD 34, Tiberius annexed his territories to Syria. After Caligula had become emperor in AD 37, he gave the areas to Agrippa I, brother of Herodias.
Agrippa I (AD 37-44)
Agrippa, I was the son of Aristobulus (son of Herod the Great and Mariamne I) and Berenice. He was born in 10 BC and was the brother of Herodias.
Agrippa I might be considered the black sheep of the Herodian family. While at school in Rome, he lived a reckless life, incurring many debts. In Rome, he became a friend of Gaius Caligula and at one point stated that he wished Caligula were king rather than Tiberius. Because this was overheard and reported to Tiberius, who imprisoned him, he remained in prison until Tiberius’ death six months later.
Upon Caligula’s accession to the throne, he released Agrippa and gave him Philip the Tetrarch’s territories and the northern part of Lysanias’ territory as well as the title of king. The title of king aroused the jealousy of his sister Herodias, and that eventually led to her husband, Antipas’, downfall. At that time (AD 39) Agrippa acquired all of Antipas’ territories and property.
When Caligula died in AD 41, Agrippa curried the favor of the new Emperor Claudius, after that Claudius added Judea and Samaria to Agrippa’s territory. Agrippa’s grandfather, Herod the Great, once ruled this land.
Agrippa I is mentioned in the NT for his persecution of the early church to gain favor with the Jews (Acts 12:1-19). He killed James, the son of Zebedee, and imprisoned Peter. When an angel released Peter, Agrippa put the sentries to death.
Agrippa died in AD 44 in Caesarea. Accounts of this incident are recorded both by Josephus (Antiquities 184.108.40.2064-275; War 220.127.116.11-215) and the Scriptures. The event took place at Caesarea; he was wearing a bright silver robe, and when the people flattered him by calling him a god, he was suddenly struck with a mortal illness and died a horrible death.
He was survived by his daughters, Bernice, Mariamne, and Drusilla, and by a son, Agrippa, who was 17 at the time. Because of Agrippa II’s youth, his father’s territories were temporarily made a province.
Agrippa II (AD 50-100)
Agrippa II was the son of Agrippa I and Cypros. In AD 50, six years after his father’s death, Claudius made him king of Chalcis.
Agrippa II was in control of the Temple treasury and the vestments of the high priest and thus could appoint the high priest. The Romans consulted him on religious matters, which is why Festus probably asked him to hear the apostle Paul at Caesarea (AD 59), where he was accompanied by his sister Bernice (Acts 25-26).
In May AD 66 the Palestinian revolution began (War 18.104.22.1684). When Agrippa’s attempt to quell the revolt failed, he became a staunch ally of the Romans throughout the entire war (AD 66-70).
During this time, Nero committed suicide, the new emperor Galba was murdered, and Vespasian became the emperor. After pledging his allegiance to the new emperor, Agrippa remained with Titus, Vespasian’s son, who was in charge of the war (Tacitus’ History 5.81). After the fall of Jerusalem (August 6, AD 70), Agrippa was probably present to celebrate the destruction of his people.
Following this, Vespasian added new territories to Agrippa’s kingdom, though just which ones are not known. In AD 79 Vespasian died, and Titus became emperor. Little is known of Agrippa’s rule after this, except that he wrote to the historian Josephus praising him for The Jewish War, and he purchased a copy of it (Josephus’ Life 65.361-367; Apion 1.9.47-52).
Although the Talmud implies that Agrippa II had two wives (Babylonian Talmud: Sukkah 27a), Josephus gives no indication that he had any wives or children. Rather, he was known for his incestuous relationship with his sister Bernice. He died around AD 100. His death marked the end of the Herodian dynasty.