Herod (also known as Herod the Great; born 73 or 74 BCE, died 4 BCE in Jericho), was a Roman client king of Judea.

His title of “the Great” is widely disputed, as he is described as “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis.”

He is also known for his colossal building projects in Jerusalem and elsewhere, including his expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (sometimes referred to as Herod’s Temple) and the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima.

Important details of his biography are gleaned from the works of the 1st century CE Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

Herod, the Man

Herod was born around 74 BCE in the southern region of Idumea.

He was the second son of Antipater the Idumaean, a high-ranked official under Ethnarch Hyrcanus II, and Cypros, a Nabatean.

Herod practiced Judaism, as many Edomites and Nabateans had been commingled with the Jews and adopted their customs. These “Judanized” Edomites were not considered Jewish by the dominant Pharisaic tradition, so even though Herod may have considered himself of the Jewish faith, he was not considered Jewish by the observant and nationalist Jews of Judea.

A loyal supporter of Hyrcanus II, Antipater appointed Herod governor of Galilee at 25, and his elder brother, Phasael, governor of Jerusalem. He enjoyed the backing of Rome, but his brutality was condemned by the Sanhedrin.

Two years later Antigonus, Hyrcanus’ nephew, took the throne from his uncle with the help of the Parthians.

Herod fled to Rome to plead with the Romans to restore him to power. There he was elected “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate. Josephus puts this in the year of the consulship of Calvinus and Pollio (40 BCE), but Appian places it in 39 BCE.

Herod went back to Judea to win his kingdom from Antigonus and at the same time, he married the teenage niece of Antigonus, Mariamne (known as Mariamne I), in an attempt to secure a claim to the throne and gain some Jewish favor.

Herod already had a wife, Doris, and a three-year-old son, Antipater, and chose to banish Doris and her child.

Three years later, Herod and the Romans finally captured Jerusalem and executed Antigonus.

Herod took the role as sole ruler of Judea and the title of basileus (or king) for himself, ushering in the Herodian Dynasty and ending the Hasmonean Dynasty. Josephus reports this as being in the year of the consulship of Agrippa and Gallus (37 BCE), but also says that it was exactly 27 years after Jerusalem fell to Pompey, which would indicate 36 BCE.

According to Josephus, he ruled for 37 years, 34 years of them after capturing Jerusalem.

Herod, the Butcher

Herod guarded his throne jealously, and was more than willing to prosecute or execute anyone who threatened it – including members of his own family

Josephus writes that Herod had great passion and also great jealousy concerning his wife, Mariamne I.

In 29 BCE she learned of Herod’s plans to murder her, and stopped sleeping with him.

Herod put her on trial on a charge of adultery. His sister, Salome I, was chief witness against her. Mariamne I’s mother Alexandra made an appearance and incriminated her own daughter. Historians say her mother was next on Herod’s list to be executed and did this only to save her own life.

Mariamne was executed, and Alexandra declared herself Queen, stating that Herod was mentally unfit to serve.

Josephus wrote that this was Alexandra’s strategic mistake; Herod executed her without trial.

In 28 BCE, Herod executed his brother-in-law Kostobar (husband of Salome, father to Berenice) for conspiracy.

In 8 BCE, Herod accused his sons by Mariamne I of high treason. Herod reconciled with Augustus, who also gave him the permission to proceed legally against his sons.

The court hearing took place in 7 BCE at Berytos (Beirut) before a Roman court. Mariamne I’s sons were found guilty and executed. The succession changed, so that Antipater was the exclusive successor to the throne. In second place, the succession incorporated (Herod) Philip, his son by Mariamne II.

In 5 BCE, Antipater was brought before the court – charged with the intended murder of Herod. Herod, by now seriously ill, named his son (Herod) Antipas (from his fourth marriage with Malthace) as his successor.

Massacre of the Innocents?

Herod the Great appears in the Gospel according to Matthew (2:1-23), which describes an event known as the Massacre of the Innocents.

According to this account, after the birth of Jesus, “wise men from the East” visited Herod to inquire the whereabouts of “the one having been born king of the Jews”, because they had seen his star in the east and therefore wanted to pay him homage.

Herod, as King of the Jews, was alarmed at the prospect of a challenger to his position.

Herod assembled the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the “Anointed One” (the Messiah) was to be born. They answered, in Bethlehem, citing Micah 5:2.

Herod therefore sent the “wise men” to Bethlehem, instructing them to search for the child and, after they had found him, to “report to me, so that I too may go and worship him”. However, after they had found Jesus, the Magi were warned in a dream not to report back to Herod.

Similarly, Joseph was warned in a dream that Herod intended to kill Jesus, so he and his family fled to Egypt.

When Herod realized he had been outwitted by the Magi, he gave orders to kill all boys of the age of two and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity. Joseph and his family stayed in Egypt until Herod’s death, then moved to Nazareth in Galilee in order to avoid living under Herod’s son Archelaus.

Regarding the Massacre of the Innocents, no other known source from the period makes any reference to such a massacre. However, given Herod’s track record of brutal acts (including the killing of his wife and two of his sons), it is not difficult to imagine him having given such an order.

Since Bethlehem was a small village, the number of male children under the age of two might not have exceeded 20, and this may be the reason for the lack of other sources for this history.

It should be noted, however, that some modern biographers of Herod tend to doubt that the event took place.

A Contentious Death

Most scholars have agreed that Herod died at the end of March or early April in 4 BCE. However, this consensus has not gone unchallenged in the 20th and 21st centuries, with several scholars endorsing 1 BCE as the year of Herod’s death.

Evidence for the 4 BCE date is provided by the fact that Herod’s sons, between whom his kingdom was divided, dated their rule from 4 BCE, and Archelaus apparently also exercised royal authority during Herod’s lifetime.

Josephus states that Philip the Tetrarch’s death took place after a 37-year reign, in the 20th year of Tiberius (34 CE).

Josephus tells us that Herod died after a lunar eclipse. He gives an account of events between this eclipse and his death, and between his death and Passover. A partial eclipse took place on March 13, 4 BCE, about 29 days before Passover, and this eclipse is usually taken to be the one referred to by Josephus.

There were however three other, total, eclipses around this time, and there are proponents of both 5 BCE (with two total eclipses), and 1 BCE.

Josephus wrote that Herod’s final illness (sometimes named as “Herod’s Evil”) was excruciating.

From Josephus’ descriptions, some medical experts propose that Herod had chronic kidney disease complicated by Fournier’s gangrene. Modern scholars agree he suffered throughout his lifetime from depression and paranoia.

More recently, others report that the visible worms and putrefaction described in his final days are likely to have been scabies; the disease might have accounted for both his death and psychiatric symptoms. .

Josephus also stated that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, that he commanded a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho, and he gave an order that they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place! Fortunately for them, Herod’s son Archelaus and sister Salome did not carry out this wish.

After Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided among three of his sons by Augustus.

Archelaus became ethnarch of the tetrarchy of Judea, Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, and Philip became tetrarch of territories east of the Jordan.

Herod’s Tomb

The location of Herod’s tomb is documented by Josephus, who writes, “And the body was carried two hundred furlongs, to Herodium, where he had given order to be buried.”

Josephus provides more clues about Herod’s tomb – which he calls Herod’s monuments:

“So they threw down all the hedges and walls which the inhabitants had made about their gardens and groves of trees, and cut down all the fruit trees that lay between them and the wall of the city, and filled up all the hollow places and the chasms, and demolished the rocky precipices with iron instruments; and thereby made all the place level from Scopus to Herod’s monuments, which adjoined to the pool called the Serpent’s Pool.”

Professor Ehud Netzer, an archaeologist from Hebrew University, read the writings of Josephus and focused his search on the vicinity of the pool and its surroundings at the Winter Palace of Herod in the Judean desert.

An article of the New York Times states,

“Lower Herodium consists of the remains of a large palace, a race track, service quarters, and a monumental building whose function is still a mystery. Perhaps, says Ehud Netzer, who excavated the site, it is Herod’s mausoleum. Next to it is a pool, almost twice as large as modern Olympic-size pools.”

It took 35 years for Netzer to identify the exact location, but on May 7, 2007, an Israeli team of archaeologists of the Hebrew University led by Netzer, announced they had discovered the tomb.

The site is located at the exact spot given by Flavius Josephus, on top of tunnels and water pools, at a flattened desert site, halfway up the hill to Herodium, 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) south of Jerusalem.

The tomb contained a broken sarcophagus but no remains of a body.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Gush Etzion Regional Council intend to recreate the tomb out of a light plastic material.

And that’s the body of evidence, for this one.

See you next time; I hope.