The Herodians

By Kevin Rogers

Director, Reasonable Faith Adelaide

(Investigator 167, 2016 March)



The Herodians were a series of Roman client rulers of Palestine from 63 BC until 66 AD. They feature regularly in the New Testament, but who were they and what were they like?


Antipater the Idumean (died 43 BC)

It all began with Antipater the Idumean. He was a wealthy native of Idumea, east of the Jordan (formerly Edom). In other words, he was an Arab. However, his family had converted to Judaism and he was a practicing Jew. The racial origin of the Herodians was Arabic and so this was always a problem for the Jewish population. It was like putting a fox in charge of the chickens. However, all of the Herodians were nominally practicing Jews although they were always held in contempt because of their racial origins and their collusion with Rome.

In 63 BC Antipater supported Pompey in the conquest of Palestine, where Pompey replaced the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty with Roman rule. Antipater became a friend of Mark Antony and Julius Caesar. In 47 BC Antipater rescued Caesar with 3000 men from the siege of Alexandria and so Caesar rewarded him for his support by giving him Roman citizenship and making him procurator of Judea.

Antipater’s 5 children were Phasael, Herod (later called Herod the Great), Joseph, Pheroas and their sister Salome. Herod was made governor of Galilee in 47 BC and Phasael governor of Jerusalem. Antipater was assassinated by poisoning in 43 BC.


Herod the Great (74 BC to 4 BC)

In 41 BC the Parthians invaded Palestine and Herod fled to Rome, where the senate appointed him as King of Judea. After a 3 year conflict the Romans retook control of Palestine and Herod was made sole ruler of Judea.  In 31 BC Octavian Augustus confirmed him as king and later extended his kingdom to include Judea, Samaria, Galilee, areas north of Galilee and east of the Jordan.

In 37 BC Herod married a Jewish Hasmonean princess called Mariamne to improve his acceptance by the Jews. Altogether he had 8 wives and 14 children. Herod was a great builder and his crowning achievement was the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. He also increased the wealth of Palestine. However, his family was scourged by intrigue. His sister Salome plotted against Mariamne and Herod executed her in 29 BC, even though he grieved for her for many months. Towards the end of his life family matters got worse. Some of his sons plotted against him and he executed 3 of them. He became increasingly mentally unstable and paranoid. This caused Emperor Augustus to joke that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son.

Both Matthew and Luke state that Jesus was born in the time of Herod the Great. However the main account is in Matthew 2:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him…

The Magi found Jesus but were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod. In response to a dream Joseph took his family to Egypt. When Herod realised he was tricked he gave orders to kill all boys in Bethlehem who were 2 years or younger. This event is not recorded by Jospehus, but historians consider that the story is plausible, as this is the sort of thing that Herod would do.


Archelaus (23 BC – 18 AD)

In his will, Herod left his kingdom to 3 sons: Archelaeus, Antipater and Philip. Archelaeus was the principle heir and was made ethnarch (leader of an ethnic group) of Judea. Antipas was made tetrarch (ruler of a quarter) of Galilee and Philip was made tetrarch of the area north of Galilee. The sons went to Rome to dispute the will but Augustus confirmed Herod’s decision. Archelaeus then showed himself to be cruel and immoral. In 6 AD Augustus deposed him and he was exiled to Gaul. From 6 AD until Agrippa I, Judea was ruled by Roman governors, the most famous being Pontius Pilate. The only mention of Archelaeus in the New Testament is in Matthew 2:19-23

 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.


Philip the Tetrarch (22 BC- 34 AD)

Philip inherited the area north of Galilee when Herod the Great died. By all accounts he was a quiet, moderate and popular leader. There were few Jews in the area and he is only mentioned in Luke 3 to mark the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry. He was married to Salome the daughter of Herodias who asked for John’s head on a plate (Matthew 14 and Mark 6).


Herod Antipas (20 BC – 39 AD)

Herod Antipas was appointed to be tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (east of the Jordan) in 4 BC. He is the Herod who is mentioned in the gospels during Jesus’ public ministry. He constructed Tiberias (on the shore of Galilee) in honour of Emperor Tiberius. He married Phasaelis the daughter of King Aretus of Nabatea. However, he later divorced Phasaelis and married Herodias the wife of Herod II (his half-brother). John the Baptist reproved Antipas for his marriage to Herodias and so Antipas put John in prison. At a feast, Herodias’ daughter, Salome, danced before Herod. He gave her a wish and Herodias instructed Salome to ask for the head of John (Matthew 14 and Mark 6). Herod’s execution of John the Baptist is also recorded by Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews (18.5.2).
Even though Antipas was a pragmatic politician, he was also a torn character. Mark 6:19-20 records:

Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

Jesus’ early activities were in Galilee, which was Herod’s jurisdiction. Luke 9:7-9 records:

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was going on. And he was perplexed because some were saying that John had been raised from the dead, others that Elijah had appeared, and still others that one of the prophets of long ago had come back to life. But Herod said, “I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?” And he tried to see him.

Luke 8:3 mentions that one of Jesus’ women followers was “Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household.” This may explain how the gospel writers learned about what was happening in Herod’s court.

Herod was also concerned about Jesus’ increasing following and Jesus’ view of Herod was not that complimentary. Luke 13:31-32 records:

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’"

According to Luke 23:7-12 Antipas finally met Jesus during his trial:

When Pilate learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.

Antipas’ demise came not long afterwards. Phasaelis, his first wife, returned to her dad, King Aretus, who was somewhat annoyed. There were also border disputes and Aretus declared war on Antipas. Antipas lost badly. As well as this, his nephew and brother in law (Agrippa I) went to Rome and conspired against Antipas. Emperor Caligula exiled him in 39 AD. His wife Herodias chose to join him in exile and he died soon afterwards.


Herod Agrippa I (11 BC – 44 AD)

Herod Agrippa I was a grandson of Herod the Great. His father was Aristobulus, who was executed by Herod in 7 BC. His sister was Herodias, the wife of Antipas. Thus he was a brother in law and nephew to Antipas. Incestuous relationships were quite common amongst the Herodians. At least they liked each other… well sometimes.

After the death of his father, Agrippa was sent to the court at Rome for his political education (which was a common pattern for the Herodians).  Emperor Tiberius liked him and he also became good friends with Caligula, who became Emperor after Tiberius. After Philip the Tetrarch’s death, Caligula appointed him as King of Syria. He then conspired against Antipas and took over Antipas’s territory (Galilee and Perea) after Antipas was exiled.

In 41 AD Caligula was assassinated and Agrippa supported Claudius in becoming Emperor. As a reward, Claudius made him king of Judea and Samaria as well. Thus his kingdom was similar to Herod the Great. Agrippa was zealous for the Jewish faith. On one occasion he risked his life by advising Caligula against desecrating the temple. Thus he was liked by the Jews.

However, he was not so nice to the Christians. He supported the Jewish leadership. He persecuted the Christians, including executing the disciple James the son of Zebedee and arresting Peter. He did not rule for long. His death is recorded in Acts 12:19-23:

Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. He had been quarrelling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply. On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Josephus provides an independent account of the same event:

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato's Tower; and there he exhibited spectacles in honour of Caesar, for whose well-being he'd been informed that a certain festival was being celebrated. At this festival a great number were gathered together of the principal persons of dignity of his province. On the second day of the spectacles he put on a garment made wholly of silver, of a truly wonderful texture, and came into the theatre early in the morning. There the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays, shone out in a wonderful manner, and was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked intently upon him. Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good) that he was a god; and they added, "Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature." Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery. But he shortly afterward looked up and saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, just as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain arose in his belly, striking with a most violent intensity. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, "I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner." When he had said this, his pain became violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumour went abroad everywhere that he would certainly die soon. The multitude sat in sackcloth, men, women and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king's recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground he could not keep himself from weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age and in the seventh year of his reign. He ruled four years under Caius Caesar, three of them were over Philip's tetrarchy only, and on the fourth that of Herod was added to it; and he reigned, besides those, three years under Claudius Caesar, during which time he had Judea added to his lands, as well as Samaria and Caesarea.


Herod Agrippa II (28-92)

Herod Agrippa II was the son of Agrippa I. His sisters were Berenice, Mariamne and Drusilla (the wife of Felix). In 48 AD he was given the Syrian kingdom, he looked after the Jerusalem temple and he appointed the high priests. His kingdom was further increased in 53 AD and 55 AD.

The Apostle Paul’s appearance before Agrippa and Berenice is recorded in a long account in Acts 25:13 to 26:32. Paul’s defence is as follows:

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defence: “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defence against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.”

This reflects Agrippa’s knowledge of Jewish affairs. Paul then provides his defence and the trial concludes as follows:

I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen — that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defence. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”


The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”


So Paul was sent to Rome and we hear no more from Agrippa II in the New Testament.

Unlike his father Agrippa II was unpopular with the Jews for his capricious manner. At the start of the Jewish Wars in 66 AD the Jews expelled Agrippa and Berenice. Agrippa went back to Rome and Berenice settled in Pompeii where she perished when Mt Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.


Conclusion

This marked the end of the Herodian dynasty. The Herodians were puppet rulers for the Roman Empire. Their task was to collect taxes for Rome and keep the peace. Their advantages were that they were friendly and cooperative with Rome but were also of the Jewish faith. Thus they sided with the Jewish religious leadership and were wary of any movement that seemed to threaten the existing religious establishment. This included Jesus and his followers.

The New Testament is deeply embedded within a historical context. Jesus interacted with the religious and imperial politics of his day. The politicians of the day were aware of his movement, as his ministry was “not done in a corner”. The New Testament writers are making a claim about historical events.

There are surviving busts of Agrippa I and II and we know what they looked like. However, the Herodians and all their kingdoms and influence are long since gone. By contrast, there are no busts of Jesus or Paul and we don’t know even what they looked like. All we have is the written word. They did not have the power of the sword but rather spoke to peoples’ mind, and their influence will go on forever.



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