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Herods in the Bible

Updated: Jan 2

There are seven Herods mentioned in the biblical text. Herod was the name of several Jewish officials who ruled over Palestine. They were appointed by Rome.

To understand the Herods and the Herodian Dynasty and their significance to history, we will have to back up to the Intertestamental Period and the Maccabean Era (165 - 63 B.C.) The politics of this time period is fascinating. In 165 B.C. the Jews had won a war of independence, the Maccabean Revolt, from their Greek rulers. The Jews restored their temple worship and set up a government of Jewish priests from the same family, called the Hasmonean family. When the Hasmonean family came into power they forced all territories to convert to Judaism. They threatened that if someone wanted to maintain their land they would have to be circumcised. Two Arabs who were natives of Edom (later became known as Idumaea) "converted" to Judaism. These two men are Antipas and his son, Antipater the Idumaean. Both men served as military commanders for the Jews. Antipater the Idumaean became an important political advisor to the Judea priest-king John Hyrcanus II.

The Hasmonean family which ruled the Jewish people became progressively corrupt. Internal problems and chaos ensued. In 63 B.C. the Jews invited General Pompey to come in and restore order. The Romans weren't really interested in the Jews and what seemed like a strange religion, but they were interested in ruling the land near their enemies, the Persians. And they were interested in that trade route for sure! General Pompey took Jerusalem, entered the temple and even the Most Holy Place. This was sacrilegious to the Jews and they immediately realized they had made a colossal mistake! The Romans renamed the entire area Palestine and governed using client rulers.

Thus began the Roman Era (63 B.C. - the fourth century A.D.) of control of the biblical region.

When the Romans came into the region Antipater the Idumaean switched sides from the Jews to the Romans. Apparently that conversion wasn't genuine and he was a master at playing politics. The Roman Emperor Julias Caesar rewarded Antipater by making him the governor of Judea in 47 B.C. and he was called the "king of the Jews" although he was not ethnically Jewish. Caesar gave him Roman citizenship which was then passed on to his heirs. Antipater appointed his son, Herod, as governor of Galilee. Antipater is poisoned in 43 B.C. by a political opponent and dies. Antipater the Idumaean was a man of great influence and wealth and is considered the founder of the Herodian Dynasty. He is not mentioned in the Bible.

And that brings us to Herod the Great and the other Herods mentioned in the Bible. Here's a rundown of them and feel free to save or share this Herods chart I made. During my research I found several charts on the Herodian Dynasty, but they were quite complicated. I tried to simplify it. I give permission for personal or church use. I do not give permission for publication.

When Antipater died, the Jews align themselves with the Parthians and tried to revolt against the Romans. The Parthian Empire was massive and occupied modern day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. The Roman Senate then appoints Herod (Antipater's son) as the governor of Judea, Galilee, Iturea and Trichonitis in 37 B.C. Herod got a promotion to king of the Jews and the Senate ordered Herod to put down the rebellion. And that is exactly what he did. He wiped out the rebels and acquired the name Herod the Great. He had 45 Jewish leaders of the rebellion executed and he confiscated their wealth.

Herod the Great ruled Judea and Galilee when Jesus was born. He reigned from 37 - 4 B.C. I know those dates seem off. How could he have died before Jesus was born? The calendar marking the years was invented many centuries later and we now know it is off by a few years. See my article What Year Is It Anyway? Scholars now believe Jesus was born around 5 B.C.

Herod the Great placed his friend in the office of high priest at the temple. He controlled the Jews by controlling their leaders. This must have really upset the Jews. Everyone was expected to do his bidding and if they didn't he had them killed. He was not a man of morals. He married ten women. His second wife was a Hasmonean Princess named Mariamne. Her grandfather had been a high priest and she was one of the last heirs of the Hasmonean dynasty. Mariamne went above Herod's head to the Romans and had her brother appointed as head priest. Herod got worried Mariamne's brother would usurp his power; so he had him killed. This upset his wife of course and so Herod accused her of adultery and plotting against him and had her executed.

During his reign he had his wife Mariamne, her mother, brother and grandfather all killed. And Herod the Great had three of his sons killed. He was not a nice guy.

Herod the Great is also known as a master builder during his reign. He built Herodium - a palace and a fortress near Bethlehem, the port city of Caesarea, and gladiator rings, theaters, aqueducts, etc. But it was the Jewish temple which interests us the most.

Solomon's ornate lavish temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. A remnant of Jews had returned to Jerusalem and eventually built a small temple. This is called the Second Temple. Herod the Great went about making this temple a crown jewel of Jerusalem. He did this not because of faith, but because he wanted to be known for the glorious kingdom he ruled. Herod the Great had the hilltop expanded using massive retaining walls of stone blocks. Once he had the land shored up he expanded the temple and made it magnificent. In A.D. 66 the Jews rebelled against Rome and the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70. All that remains of Herod the Great's Second Temple today is a section of the lower portion of the Western Wall which is called the Wailing Wall. In the place where the temple once stood now stands the Dome of the Rock - the Muslim shrine built about 1300 years ago.

There was nothing great about Herod the Great and the Jews did not like him.

Herod the Great was known for being a violent dictator, an expansive builder, and as we know from Matthew 2, the king who sought to have baby Jesus killed by having all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old murdered. (Matthew 2:16)

The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that Herod the Great suffered a horrible death when he was about seventy years old. It was most likely chronic kidney disease which was made so much worse by maggot-infested gangrene of his genitals. Ugh!! Medical scholars say he could have lived months or even up to two years suffering with this condition. If the two years is correct, it means Herod the Great would have begun suffering about the time Jesus was born. When Herod the Great died it was recorded the Jews throughout the country celebrated his death. Herod the Great was buried at Herodium and in 2007 his mausoleum and sarcophagus were excavated.

Before Herod the Great died he had four living sons and he divided the kingdom between three of them. All four of these sons are mentioned in the biblical text - sometimes by just their name and sometimes as King Herod or just Herod.

"Herod" was a title as a descendant of Antipater and Herod the Great. And the group of Herods is called the Herodian Dynasty.

Herod Archelaus ruled the lion's share of the kingdom from 4 BC- AD 6, but fell out of favor and lost his throne and was exiled. He was replaced by a Roman procurator.

Herod Antipas ruled the northern part of ancient Palestine including Galilee from 4 BC - AD 39 during the time of Jesus ministry. Antipas is infamous for a couple things. He divorced his wife and married his brother's wife, Herodias. John the Baptist pointed out this was unlawful to do and Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded. Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee during Jesus' ministry. Jesus called Herod Antipas a "fox." (Luke 13:32) But the second thing Herod Antipas is infamously known for is mocking and treating Jesus with contempt, putting a gorgeous robe on him and sending Jesus back to Pilate. Afterwards Herod Antipas and Pilate became friends. (Luke 23:6-12)

Herod Philip I was not a ruler and although he was not a ruler, he was historically known as Herod Philip I. He is only mentioned in the biblical text because he was married to Herodias. She ended up marrying Herod Antipas and was the instigator in having John the Baptist beheaded.

Herod Philip II was the ruler of the region north of Galilee from 4 BC to AD 34.

At this point we are at five Herods mentioned in the Bible. Now we come to Herod Agrippa I who was the grandson of Herod the Great and the nephew of Herod Antipas. In Acts 12:1 the biblical text refers to him as "Herod the king." He persecuted the early church and is infamously known as having put to death the apostle James. Herod Agrippa I was struck by an angel of the Lord because he did not give God the glory. He was eaten by worms and died. (Read Acts 12:2-23.)

And we are to the last Herod mentioned in the Bible. It is Herod Agrippa II, the son of Herod Agrippa I and the great grandson of Herod the Great. The apostle Paul goes before King Herod Agrippa II. The account in Acts 25 and 26 is fascinating. Paul tells the king how he had been a Pharisee and how he had persecuted the early Christians. He tells the king about his Damascus road conversion. King Herod Agrippa II heard Paul's story. We will never know the impact on this Herod. Perhaps Paul did persuade him to become a Christian. King Agrippa stated "This man is not doing anything worthy of death or imprisonment." (Acts 26:31) And Agrippa sent Paul on to Rome to appeal to Caesar.

"Ethnarch" just means ruler over a common ethnic group. A "tetrarch" is the ruler of one fourth of a region. These local kings were actually client rulers and were given their authority from Rome. Palestine was part of the Roman empire, but Rome imposed a regional government first through King Herod the Great and his successors, and then later through prefects such as Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. These leaders were the puppets of Rome.

Another thing to mention is some of the Jews aligned with various Jewish sects like the Sadducees and Pharisees. These sects within Judaism developed during the Intertestamental time period. There was also a Jewish sect called the Herodians. The Herodians were a political party who wanted to further the cause of Herod's government. They are mentioned three times in the biblical text - Matthew 22:16, Mark 3:6, and Mark 12:13.

In the chart are many geographical names. Ancient Palestine was divided into three general geographical sections. Galilee in the north which is where most of Jesus' ministry took place. Samaria in the center. Judea in the south where Jerusalem is located. Jerusalem was the location of the temple and where the Jewish leaders were located. It is the center of the Jewish faith and the center of commerce. To be king over Judea was to have the more important position because Judea was the largest part of the kingdom and also had significant prominence to the Jewish people.

Most of the New Testament events happen in either Judea or Galilee and it helps for understanding to know who ruled these sections at various times.

  • Anipater ruled just Judea 47 - 43 BC - founder of the Herodian Dynasty.

  • Herod the Great ruled Judea and Galilee 37 - 4 BC - king when Jesus was born.

  • Herod Archelaus ruled Judea 4 BC- AD 6, lost his throne and was exiled and was replaced by a Roman procurator.

  • Herod Antipas ruled Galilee from 4 BC - AD 39 - had John the Baptist beheaded and mocked Jesus and had Jesus sent back to Pilate.

  • Herod Agrippa I ruled Judea AD 41- 44 - persecuted the early church and had the apostle James put to death.

  • The rest of the time Judea and Galilee were ruled by Roman procurators (governors.) The most famous being Pontius Pilate who ruled over Judea from AD 26 - 36.

There are seven Herods mentioned in our biblical account. We know about them from the biblical text but also because they were significant figures in history and were written about outside biblical records.

The Herods were considered alien rulers and for the most part were despised by their Jewish subjects. (Herod Agrippa I did find favor with most Jews during his rule.)

The rule of Rome using client rulers plays significantly into the historical context of our biblical text.

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