One of the most famous villains of the Bible is King Herod. Herod was the evil king who felt threatened enough by the news of the birth of the King of the Jews that he ordered the mass murder of male children of his realm (Matthew 2:16-18). As I read the Christmas story recently, I wondered what historians know about Herod outside of the Biblical account.
There was actually more than one King Herod. Herod the Great spawned a dynasty that ruled Jerusalem and its surrounding area for decades. Since the date of Jesus’ birth is not precisely known, there is some doubt as to the identity of the Herod that was in power at the time.
The first Herod, Herod the Great, was a Jew who curried the favor of the Romans. He was named King of Judea by the Roman Senate in 40 BC. Herod the Great reigned until his death in 4 BC and was marked by extensive building programs and cold-blooded killings of people who challenged his rule. Among his construction projects were a rebuilt Jewish temple (called Herod’s Temple), the Fortress Antonia (which was named for Mark Antony), new city walls of Jerusalem, and the port of Caesarea.
Many of Herod’s subjects hated him. Many of the Jews disliked his Greek culture and his violation of Jewish religious laws. Jews and gentiles both probably disliked his heavy-handed taxation.
Herod the Great was ruthless in his suppression of political rivals as well as religious dissidents and other opposition. In one case, two rabbis and their students removed a golden imperial eagle that Herod had placed in the Jewish temple. Herod had the transgressors burned alive. Herod suffered a lingering illness prior to his death in 4 BC, but before he died, Herod had two of his own sons executed in order to prevent their succession to his throne after his death.
Herod’s realm was divided into three areas controlled by three of his surviving sons after his death. Herod Antipas became ruler of Galilee from 4 BC to AD 39. Herod Antipas is most known for his illegal marriage to Herodias, who had been his sister-in-law as well as his niece. John the Baptist denounced the marriage, prompting Herod Antipas to first imprison John and then have him beheaded (Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:14-29, Luke 9:7-9). The Bible tells us that Herod Antipas also had his daughter dance for his guests at a dinner for officials and military commanders, a role that most fathers of the day would not subject their daughters to.
While Herod Antipas may not have ruled at Jesus’ birth, there is no doubt that he was in power at the time of Jesus’ ministry and execution. The Bible tells us that Jesus actually appeared before Herod Antipas before His execution (Luke 23:7-12).
Luke references the governor of Syria and Caesar Augustus (2:1-2). Cross-referencing the reigns of these men with that of the Herods might help to determine which Herod was in power. Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire from 63 BC to AD 14. This length of time encompasses long periods alongside both Herod the Great and Herod Antipas.
Quirinius, the governor of Syria mentioned by Luke, is a more difficult case. The problem is that Quirinius was not the governor of Syria until after the exile of Herod Archelaus in AD 6, according to Josephus, an early Jewish historian. The discrepancy is probably best explained by the possibility that Quirinius took the first census before he was governor. Luke referred to him as “governor” because that was how people knew him as Luke wrote. Quirinius was also responsible for a second census that is mentioned in Acts 5:37. The reign of Quirinius does not help to pinpoint the birth of Jesus.
Ultimately, the Herod ruling at the time of Jesus’ birth and the Bethlehem massacre cannot be conclusively determined. The massacre is not found in historical accounts outside of the Bible, but that should not be surprising. Bethlehem at that time was a tiny village with a small population. Therefore, the death toll may have been smaller than typically believed. Additionally, the murder of innocent children is probably something that Herod would have wanted to cover up. Again, the small size of Bethlehem would have helped to hide the crime.
It is easy to believe that either Herod the Great or Herod Antipas would have ordered the killings of children that they believed might have threatened their rule. Herod the Great had a long history of murdering his political opponents. Herod Antipas would have been a new ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth. Ancient kings commonly killed anyone who had a claim to their throne in order to solidify their rule when they assumed power. Herod Antipas’ executions of John the Baptist and Jesus show that he had few qualms about having his opponents killed. Whichever Herod was ultimately responsible for the massacre at Bethlehem; both were rulers with blood on their hands.
The Archaeological Study Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005.
Barne’s Notes on the New Testament, Bible Explorer 4, WORDsearch, 2006.
The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998.
www.herod.info, The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. VII, online edition, 2003
2/13/09 Orlando FL