Episode 76: Judea Under Herod

The Roman client king Herod (c. 73-4 BCE) ruled Judea for thirty years. Learn about his rule, and the political and religious climate of Judea just before the birth of Christ.

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A Primer on the History of Judea in the First Century BCE

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 76: Judea Under Herod. In this program, the first in our series on the New Testament, we will cover the biography and overall historical period of King Herod the Great. Herod was a client king under Roman rule who reigned over the province of Judea between 37 and 4 BCE. King Herod, a complex and fascinating figure in the periphery of the ancient Roman world, consolidated his power in the same decade that the old Roman republic broke and changed into an empire under the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Herod’s territory was the boundary between the Roman west and the Persian East, and a cultural confluence of Parthians, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, tribal groups based in modern day Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and of course, Jews of every variety, from the conservative Pharisees, to the assimilationist Sadducees, to the ascetic and communitarian Essenes. Herod reigned over a region that rattled with internal tensions, year after year – tensions between Roman leadership and Jewish clergy, between Greek cultural institutions and conservative Jewish public leaders, between his own regime and an unruly frontier territory seemingly ever on the verge of chaos. Perhaps the most famous client king in all history, Herod’s story is a dramatic and violent one, and one, as I think you’ll soon see, very useful for understanding the world into which Jesus Christ and the Apostolic generation were born and came of age.

King Herod has been vilified for nearly the entirety of Christian history. In the second chapter of the Book of Matthew – the opening moments of the New Testament – we hear a story about an appalling crime that Herod committed against his subjects. And since the present section of the Literature and History podcast is on the subject of the New Testament, let’s take a moment and hear that story, in the NRSV, printed in The New Oxford Annotated Bible – a long quote from the Book of Matthew, and the single tidbit of information on King Herod that most of us know.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written”. . .Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. . .When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. . .When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly 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 seeking the child’s life are dead.” (Matt 2:1-20)1

Knowing the biography of Herod beyond this anecdote that appears in the Book of Matthew, Herod might well have been capable of mass infanticide like what is described in the story you just heard. The ancient historians Plutarch, Strabo, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and most importantly Josephus draw a portrait of a person capable of horrific violence – an insecure king especially willing to commit mass executions in order to prevent challenges to his reign.

Brooklyn Museum - Herod (Hérode) - James Tissot - overall

James Tissot’s Herod (c. 1890). Artistic depictions of Herod tend to portray an exotic, villainous figure.

We do not, however, have any more evidence of Herod’s persecution of infants and toddlers beyond these lines in the Book of Matthew. None of the ancient historians mention it, including Josephus, whose tell-all biography of Herod chronicles some of the king’s most appalling crimes. That Herod was alive when Christ was born suggests that the traditional birth date of Jesus is off by about four years – Herod died in 4 BCE at the age of 69.2 And in fact, the more one learns about Herod, the more one gets used to surprises.

Herod, once again, was a client king, who reigned in Judea between 37 and 4 BCE. When we study Roman history, the figures we call client kings, or vassal kings, are usually peripheral to the main story. Sure, Armenia, Pontus, Thrace, and other civilizations were ruled by client kings at various junctures, but the real story is Rome – its emperors, generals, consuls, and thunderous forward march. But the role of a client king, however little we’re inclined to think of it, is an intriguing one. Rulers like Herod had demands on them made by their subjects, and demands on them from their imperial overlords. They were accountable to all, scrutinized by all, and at times powerless, their reigns under perpetual threat by popular uprisings from below, imperial leadership changes from above, and foreign invasions on all sides. At best, client kings might hope to be remembered as subservient middle managers; at worst, traitors to their indigenous cultures or their imperial leaders. It took 1,900 years before anything like a nuanced assessment of Herod was published – before this, the Jewish assessment was that he was a traitor, and the Christian, that Herod tried to commit infanticide against the son of God.3 Today, we’re going to hear a fuller story, and while I can’t promise to make you fall in love with the man, I can definitely offer you a bit more information than what’s been made available through more traditional historical accounts.

Herod’s reign, like the reigns of all client kings, was full of compromises. While many of Herod’s conservative subjects in Judea detested the extent to which he embraced Greco-Roman culture, and while he could be brutally violent when he suspected a conspiracy, he also ushered in a period of economic prosperity, regional expansion, and glamorous notoriety unlike anything Judea had ever experienced. His crimes against his family and his people were awful, but nonetheless he brokered partnerships with numerous prominent Romans, and kept Judea a semi-autonomous kingdom through several decades during which without him, it likely would have simply been dissolved into the greater province of Syria. Energetic, ingenious, brave, and philanthropic, he was also cruel, paranoid, and strangely credulous when it came to believing malicious rumors and gossip. Herod is, to me, one of the strangest and most spellbinding figures from antiquity, a king who did more than anyone else to shape the world into which Jesus Christ was born, and at the same time, who is most often remembered only as the persecutor of Bethlehemite children. And this is his story. [music]

Idumea, Nabatea, and the Hasmonean Dynasty

After the River Jordan dies in the Dead Sea, if you continue southward along the line between modern day Jordan and Israel, you come to a land that in the days of the Old Testament was called Edom. Genesis tells us that the Edomites were descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau, but by Herod’s time, the lands south of the Dead Sea were called Idumea, Idumea being the Hellenized name of Edom. Idumea, where King Herod was born, was a crossroads between the Levant, Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. Its citizens had been conquered by the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty during conquests of expansion that took place around 125 BCE. And if we want to get Herod’s story straight, we need to learn three terms up front – Idumean, Nabatean, and Hasmonean.

Kingdoms of Israel and Judah map 830 Herod context

Edom had become Idumea by the life of Herod, and Moab and Ammon Nabatea. Map by Malus Catulus.

Let’s start with geography. Picture the Dead Sea. Jerusalem, where most of our story is going to happen today is about sixteen miles due west of the north end of the Dead Sea. Jerusalem was the seat of the Hasmonean dynasty, which we’ll get to in a moment. Idumea, that arid region south of the Dead Sea, stretched a hundred miles from north to south, ballooning to perhaps sixty miles from east to west at its widest point. And Idumea was where King Herod and his father Antipater came from. Both would go on to rule in Jerusalem, and both were never quite accepted due to their foreign, or Idumean heritage. They were converts to Judaism, but not full blooded Jews descended from the Twelve Tribes. Prior to their conquest and conversion to Judaism in 125, the Idumeans had worshipped a god the historian Josephus calls Koze.

So Herod and his father were from the south of the Dead Sea – the land of Idumea, and his people had converted to Judaism. But Herod wasn’t a full blooded Idumean – he was also Nabatean. If we picture the Dead Sea one final time, to its east was the territory of Nabatea, a kingdom that at various junctures controlled different portions of the northwestern Arabian Peninsula. The Nabateans, like their neighbors to the south of the Dead Sea, the Idumeans, were considered Arabs – in other words they had heritage associated with the Arabian Peninsula rather than the ancestral lands of Judea, and in fact Herod himself was half Nabatean, and half Idumean, having an Idumean father, and a Nabatean mother. These were not enormous kingdoms, but Idumea to the south of the Dead Sea and Nabatea to the east of it were still important conduits for trade between Africa, Arabia, and the Levant. By 100 BCE, though, they were subordinate to a powerful dynasty of Jewish kings.

This dynasty was the Hasmonean Dynasty – and I should clarify that the Hasmoneans were not a civilization, but a ruling dynasty, holding power in Jerusalem from 140-63 BCE. We talked about the Hasmoneans in a bonus episode called “All the Maccabees,” but let’s quickly review the historical background of the Hasmoneans before we go any further. To understand Herod’s life and world, in a sentence, you need to understand that the Hasmoneans were a fairly short-lived dynasty of Jewish monarchs, enthroned in Jerusalem, that had ended just before Herod and his father came to power. The Hasmonean dynasty began about a hundred years before Herod was born, and it ended when he was about ten. The Hasmonean dynasty was rooted in the Maccabean revolt that took place in the 160s BCE – various bibles include various Books of Maccabees – there are four of them in total. Back in the 160s, prior to the revolt, Jerusalem was being ruled by a king called Antiochus IV. A leader of one of the ever-shifting successor kingdoms left behind by Alexander the Great, Antiochus IV was a culturally Greek monarch who ruled from the city of Antioch. Unlike his predecessors, Antiochus proved oppressive to the citizens of Judea, attacking Jerusalem and forcing Judeans to worship Zeus, banning their age old religious practices. This led to the revolt of the Maccabees, a set of brothers who became legendary war heroes after their campaigns against Antiochus’ forces. The wars of the Maccabees in the 160s BCE played had out against a greater backdrop – Ptolemaic Egypt was vying for power against Antiochus’ regime in Syria, and meanwhile Rome was almost finished clobbering Carthage, annexing Greece, and becoming the master of the Mediterranean.

The story of the Maccabees is a captivating one – again I tell it in a bonus episode, and it had a surprising outcome. Because of the greater geopolitical conflicts at hand, and because the Seleucids were suffering from a series of succession disputes, the Maccabees and their associates who had survived the wars of the 160s, making agreements with each new Seleucid king as best they could, finally managed, with the backing of Rome, to secure their own dynasty. This again was the Hasmonean Dynasty, and it was the most autonomous period of Jewish leadership Jerusalem had enjoyed since before the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE. To the Jews of Herod’s generation, and again Herod lived between 73 and 4 BCE, the Hasmonean Dynasty was remembered as a glorious time – a glowing century from 140-40 BCE that, while it had its ups and downs, saw Judea ruled from within, expanding its territories, and feeling as though its special providence was being proved by history. So what happened to this dynasty, which came to an end in about 40 BCE? Essentially, a series of problems converged all at once. The Hasmoneans had a succession dispute at a very unlucky time, and then the Romans showed up under Pompey, having recently locked down the province of Syria, and not wanting a squabbling minor kingdom to the south of their new territorial acquisition. We can imagine that those who identified as Jewish traditionalists, at this crisis moment in 40 BCE, wanted a reinstitution of the Hasmonean monarchy. But the Romans, predictably, wanted everyone to put their swords away, shut up, and pay their taxes. But what neither side could have anticipated was the exceptionally unlikely arrival on the scene of Herod’s father and even moreso, Herod himself – outlanders from a tribal backwater to the south who, in a bloody game of thrones that stretched decades in length, high jacked Jerusalem’s leadership and built a direct partnership with Rome. [music]

Antipater Slowly Gathers Power

So, we’ve met the Idumeans from the south of the Dead Sea, the Nabateans from the east of the Dead Sea, and the Hasmoneans of Jerusalem. Now it’s time to meet some of today’s main cast of characters, a small group of power players who lived in the generation of Jesus Christ’s grandparents and, over the course of the 60s, 50s, and 40s BCE, determined the fate of Judea between them. Herod, of course is the star of the show. But Herod’s father is also important to meet. His name, once again, was Antipater, and he was a rich and influential governor who, over the course of the 60s BCE, when Herod was a boy, had already inserted himself into the confidences of the last Hasmonean monarchs. In fact, let’s talk about those final Hasmonean kings – we need to meet three of them, and hear the dramatic story of Jerusalem in the 70s and 60s BCE.

One of the final Hasmonean kings was actually a queen. Salome Alexandra was on the throne between 76 and 67 BCE, being one of the more famous women in Jewish history. Alexandra had two sons, and both were eligible for leadership. The older, John Hyrcanus II, seems to have been pliable and unassertive. Antipater, the father of Herod, had become one of Hyrcanus’ advisors by the 60s BCE, and both he and Alexandra seemed to believe they could manipulate the passive older brother when Hyrcanus ascended to power.

Herod, like his father Antipater, shared a very specific characteristic. Both men were energetic, brilliant, and ambitious, but they were also hardheaded realists when it came to curbing these ambitions. Antipater sought, for much of his career, to pull puppet strings for a Hasmonean king, but never to seize Judea’s leadership for himself. And both men – Herod and his father Antipater, I mean – were able to survive and thrive largely because they were constitutionally unwilling to mess with Rome. Whichever Roman happened to be wielding power as the republic transformed into an empire, Herod, his father, and his sons seemed to understand that the military machine that controlled the Mediterranean wasn’t going to be vanquished by some folks from a tiny marchland kingdom to the east, regardless of the promises of manifest destiny written in various places in their holy book.

So, Herod’s father Antipater, around 70 BCE, had the oldest Hasmonean heir’s ear as an advisor. But there was a big problem. When Queen Alexandra died, and power actually passed to Hyrcanus, Alexandra’s younger son, Aristobulus II, was not content to fade into obscurity. In the succession dispute that unfolded, the younger son Aristobulus took advantage of a schism that already existed in Judea’s society. This was the schism between the sects called the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

Rubens-Feast of Simon the Pharisee herod context

Peter Paul Rubens’ Feast of Simon the Pharisee (1618-20). The Pharisees and the Sadducees, who emerge in the historical record around the time of the Maccabean revolt, were much more ideologically central to the formation of Christian theology than they’re normally given credit for.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees are an interesting crisscross of ideologies, both sects containing conservative and progressive elements. While the Sadducees believed only in the Torah, and thus disdained the work of interpretation and disputation in understanding the word of their god, they were also a wealthy and socially distinguished class who were open to Hellenization and the Greek language. And while the Pharisees discouraged other languages than the traditional Hebrew and Aramaic of Judea, and disdained Hellenization, the Pharisees also subscribed to the belief that scholars and sages could progressively interpret the meaning of the Torah, and the crowd-pleasing doctrine of a dichotomous afterlife and divine justice, which made them the more popular of the two sects with the lower classes. Their differences from one another are complex, so to give you something manageable, the Pharisees are often compared to modern Orthodox Judaism, and the Sadducees with Reform Judaism.

The Hasmonean power structure was intertwined with the nativist and populist Pharisees, and upon Alexandra’s death, the Sadducees had been demoted. In order to pursue his brother’s throne, Alexandra’s younger son Aristobulus allied with Sadducee groups and waged a war with his brother Hyrcanus. It was a nasty moment in Jerusalem’s history – the Hasmonean kingdom dissolving into civil war in the tense year of 67, just as Romans were stomping around in the north gathering power.

The outcome of this war for the Hasmonean throne was surprisingly not that bad. Hyrcanus simply shrugged and said that if his younger brother Aristobulus wanted to be king, they could switch places. In 66 BCE, this is exactly what took place, with Aristobulus being king and Hyrcanus taking the position of high priest. Everyone, however, did not live happily ever after following this bumpy Hasmonean power transfer. Herod’s father Antipater, ambitious up to a point, really wanted to have a direct back channel with the King of Judea. Antipater met with Hyrcanus and told him that Hyrcanus wasn’t safe any more – the deposed older brother still posed a threat to the king. But Antipater had a solution. They would go to the Nabateans to the east – Antipater had good connections with them – and seek military aid. Hyrcanus, whatever his reasoning, gave his thumbs up, and soon an army of 50,000 Nabatean Arabs crossed over the Jordan and laid siege to Jerusalem. Antipater, again the father of Herod, was confident at this juncture that he’d finally have a puppet king to control from behind the scenes, a weirdly compliant man who’d let his older brother betray him and then let a foreigner convince him to betray his brother. But before Antipater’s forces could break down the walls of Jerusalem and take over, some new, and uncommonly dangerous figures showed up. Their arrival would change Judea forever. [music]

Antipater’s Allegiance to Pompey and Julius Caesar

Herod would have been about ten years old when Pompey Magnus and his battle scarred legions appeared on the scene. Pompey had just finished annexing Syria, and he wanted to know if all the static coming over the airwaves from Judea was going to be a problem for his shiny new nearby province. Pompey, fresh from finally wrapping up the Mithridatic Wars, which had been going on for nearly 30 years, was likely ready for a vacation, and needed to know whether Judea needed to be destroyed, annexed into the province of Syria, or allowed to continue as a semi-autonomous kingdom. Normally when the Romans marched in to annex a territory, they picked someone who was already a regional leader who knew the lay of the land. But in this case, the Romans walked into a civil war – a succession dispute plus a suspiciously involved third and fourth party – King Aretas of the Nabateans of the east, and Antipater, governor of the Idumeans to the south. The younger Hasmonean brother Aristobulus, due to his having started the conflict, seemed like he’d be a poor choice for a Roman client king. The Hasmonean king Aristobulus was arrested and taken to Rome as a prisoner. But his supporters in Jerusalem wouldn’t tolerate his ouster from power, and Pompey elected to take the city by force. This happened in 63 BCE – incidentally the year of Cicero’s consulship. Pompey sacked Jerusalem, and to the dismay of the Jewish clergy, the Roman general entered the Second Temple and the Holy of Holies.

Bust of Gaius Iulius Caesar in Naples

A bust of Caesar currently in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Herod and his father had staggeringly bad luck in selecting the correct Roman strongman to back, choosing first Pompey, then Caesar, then Cassius, then Antony, before Octavian finally won and Herod allied with him!

As all of this played out, Herod’s father Antipater was shrewd and patient. Antipater worked his way into the good graces of the Roman governor of Syria up in Damascus and continued serving as the older Hasmonean heir’s advisor. Antipater prevented a war between the Nabataeans and the Romans, and made himself useful in other ways. One of these was controversial. Antipater saw his loyalties as ultimately to the Romans at this point, and so when the younger Hasmonean heir Aristobulus’s son, Alexander Maccabeus, started an uprising in 57 BCE, Antipater helped put it down, making friends with Mark Antony in the process.

As Julius Caesar grew ever more popular during the Gallic Wars of the 50s, Judea was able to rebound from the wars of the 60s. The older Hasmonean heir Hyrcanus had been down a bumpy road, but he was still a respected Hasmonean to the people of Judea, and he and Antipater had a good partnership with the governor of Syria. But when Caesar’s Civil War broke out between 49 and 45 BCE, a new problem emerged for the two men Rome had ultimately appointed to rule Jerusalem. And this was that the governor of Syria, with whom they had such a good relationship, was a strong supporter of Pompey, who would ultimately lose this war.

Once Caesar won, Antipater acted quickly. He sent his family, including young Herod, to Nabatea, that kingdom east of the Jordan. And then Antipater took advantage of one of Caesar’s blunders. Caesar had come down to Alexandria in hot pursuit of Pompey, and found his enemy already dead. Then, with a small force of about 4,000 troops, Caesar had marched into Alexandria as though he were king, becoming cozy with Cleopatra, and deciding that Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy XIII wouldn’t rule. The would-be pharaoh Ptolemy had a lot of fans, though, and these fans marched on Alexandria, and Caesar found himself besieged in a palace and engaging in street warfare.

Herod’s father Antipater, resourceful and always capable of responding quickly to dynamic situations, helped resupply Caesar’s forces in Egypt, helped get troops down to support the general in his hour of need, and led 3,000 soldiers down to Alexandria to assist Caesar, becoming wounded in the fighting. These events, which took place between 48 and 47 BCE, convinced Julius Caesar that Antipater was a solid ally. Herod’s father Antipater was made procurator of Judea, and he and his family were granted Roman citizenship. At this point, the older Hasmonean heir Hyrcanus was retained as high priest of the Jews, although Jerusalem now understood that Antipater was the person in charge. Needless to say, to the median citizen of Jerusalem, Herod’s father Antipater would have been seen as an interloper – an illegitimate opportunist who’d slithered in at about the same time as the Romans, and curried favor with them to such an extent that the beloved Hasmoneans were in danger of becoming extinct.

As much as he was seen as an outsider, though, Antipater’s favor with Caesar had tangible positive results for Jews in the mid-40s BCE, during the height of Julius Caesar’s power. Jerusalem was allowed to build walls once again. Throughout the late republic, Jews were excluded from the prohibition on cult religions, they were allowed to maintain autonomous community judiciaries, and, incredibly, exempted from service in the military, since such service would likely violate their honoring the Sabbath.

The unlikely partnership between Antipater and Julius Caesar, and the continued presence of the Hasmonean high priest Hyrcanus helped Herod’s father Antipater lay the groundwork for his own dynasty. Prior to Caesar’s death in 44 BCE, Antipater’s position as procurator was so solid that he set up one of his sons, Phaesal, as governor of Jerusalem. And his younger son, Herod, was directed north in 47 BCE to govern the more volatile and backwater territory of Galilee. [music]

The Rise of Herod and His Allegiance with Cassius

When Herod went up to rule the region of Galilee for his father at about the age of 25, Herod’s claims to power were far from impeccable. He was ethnically Idumean and not Jewish, his father had been embroiled in Jewish civil wars and Roman campaigns against Judea, and he had direct ties to Syria’s Roman governor. And where Antipater was patient, calculating, and stayed in the shadows when he could, Herod was brutal, confrontational, and required obedience from his subjects.

Roman client kings during this period often had to choose between pleasing their local communities, and gratifying their Roman overlords, and Herod’s first recorded action when put in charge of Galilee was executing a band of Galilean raiders, winning him favor with Sextus Caesar, the governor of Syria and cousin of the famous general Julius Caesar. These raiders, however pesky they’d been to the Romans, were nonetheless not tried in Jerusalem’s sacred court, which was required by law, and they may have simply been local anti-Roman agitators rather than brigands. Josephus writes that after witnessing Herod’s actions as a ruler, “[T]he chief men of the Jews were. . .in fear, because they saw that Herod was a violent and bold man, and very desirous of acting tyrannically.”4 Herod was thereafter asked by the old Hasmonean high priest and onetime heir Hyrcanus to come to Jerusalem and have his day in court. He may have had the power of a Roman administration behind him, but he had still violated the legal customs of Judea.

This early incident in Herod’s career, and its aftermath, demonstrate the towering pride that characterized Herod’s conduct. He came to court, but brought an armed escort. He knew he was a Roman citizen, and felt himself exempt from the customs and rules of the lands under his control. The sacred court of Jerusalem did not prosecute the dangerous young man, and Herod very nearly led a retaliatory against war Jerusalem for even thinking of taking legal measures against him. Herod, and his father, it seemed, had secured power in the Jewish heartland at a dizzying pace, and through their dealings with powerful Romans, were all but untouchable by the beginning of 44 BCE. But events soon unfolded that once again destabilized Herod and Antipater’s positions in Judea.

In 44 BCE, the Roman governor of Syria, Sextus Caesar, was assassinated in Damascus shortly before his cousin, Julius Caesar, was assassinated in Rome. The fall of Pompey had pulled the rug out from under Herod’s father Antipater back in 48 BCE, and the death of Caesar threatened to do the same. In the war that broke out soon thereafter between the Second Triumvirate and the assassins of Caesar, Antipater had the ill luck of backing the assassin leader Cassius. Cassius, at this time, needed a dump truck full of money to help pay for his war against the Mark Antony and Octavian. And Antipater and his sons offered their support, scouring the towns and villages of Judea for cash to give to their latest Roman overlord. Four towns that failed to come up with their requisite donatives were sold wholesale into slavery. Impressed by Herod’s enthusiastic support of Roman causes, Cassius gave him an important military post in modern day Lebanon and the control of an army. Cassius said that once the assassins’ army had won the war, Herod, for his ready display of loyalty, would be made king in Jerusalem.

It should go without saying that at this time, as the armies of the Second Triumvirate – or Mark Antony and Octavian – and the armies of Caesar’s assassins – or Cassius and Brutus – prepared for their showdown at the Battle of Philippi in the autumn of 42 BCE, Antipater and his sons were not exactly loved by the median citizen of Judea. Herod, in particular, had violated sacred laws, licked the boots of the Romans regardless of the cost to the Jews, and now was positioning himself to be a king. Citizens of Judea thought back to the high water mark of the Hasmonean dynasty – those days before Romans and Idumaeans were telling them what to do, and a pro-Hasmonean plot led to Antipater’s assassination in 43 BCE.

Herod’s father Antipater had been, for some 20 years, the most powerful person in Judea. An outsider due to his Idumaean ancestry and his general support of Roman causes during those decades, he had not been well liked, notwithstanding the prosperity he helped usher in as dawn broke over Roman Judea. His death might have caused a resurgence of the power of the checkered Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus, and a revitalization of the Hasmonean dynasty, as it was surely intended to do. But instead, with Antipater out of the picture, fierce young Herod had a clear path to executive leadership of Rome’s new province. He was, when his father died, backing the losing side of a war being fought. But like Antipater had, Herod would prove a virtuoso at appeasing whichever Roman happened to be in charge, regardless of the costs the men and women of Judea had to pay. [music]

Herod’s Marriage and the War with Parthia

Cassius, the latest Roman strongman to command influence over Judea, died in 42 BCE, committing suicide at the Battle of Philippi. In this battle’s aftermath, it was agreed that Octavian would govern the central Mediterranean, and Mark Antony the east, and became clear that Mark Antony was the latest Roman boss whom any easterner, Herod included, had to ingratiate. In the northern part of Anatolia, Herod met with Mark Antony, bringing a large financial gift and an oath of fealty to the Roman general turned triumvir. Other citizens of Judea appeared before Mark Antony as well, requesting that the old Hasmonean high priest Hyrcanus should rule Judea, but Mark Antony preferred Herod.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo Herod

Head of Herod, attributed to Giuseppe Arcimboldo, c. 1566. The famous image shows Herod’s head made of Bethlehemite children, recounting a story in Matthew that’s of questionable veracity, but nonetheless colored the way that history would view the king forever after.

Herod, then, averted personal disaster by winning Mark Antony’s favor. Next up on his agenda, as the 40s drew to a close, was finding a suitable wife. His choice was a woman named Mariamne, descended from both John Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, a Hasmonean to the core. Marriage to her would help soothe the tensions in Judea over his being a foreigner and ensure that any heirs that he produced would be Hasmonean Jews. Inconveniently, he had a wife and son already, whom he abandoned. Also inconveniently, Mariamne was only twelve, but that sort of thing was rarely a bar to arranged marriages in antiquity.

At this juncture, with their foreign bootlicker leader now marrying a Hasmonean girl and preparing to insert himself and his heirs permanently into Jewish history, Judea had weathered a nasty quarter century. While Roman rulership brought new trade and stability, as the 30s BCE opened, the territory of Judea still faced the ugly prospect of rule by a foreign interloper who was working for bigger and scarier foreign interlopers. And then, unfortunately for the common citizen of Judea, yet another group of foreign interlopers showed up – this time from the east. Between 40 and 37 BCE, Parthian armies drove westward from their heartland in Mesopotamia, conquered the Roman province of Syria, including the territory of Judea, and were driven out again.

While Herod had allied himself with the Romans to the west, another faction in Judea allied itself with the Parthians to the east. This faction was led by a Hasmonean noble named Antigonus Mattathias. Antigonus had been sidelined by the power structure that had unfolded under Antipater and Herod, and he saw the Parthians as a means of advancing himself, and with him, indigenous Jewish leadership. Antigonus offered the Parthians money, aid in their conquest, and a harem of 500 women, and the Parthians accepted. And as the 30s BCE began, the citizens of Judea opened their doors to the Parthians with enthusiasm. Tired of tax burdens, Roman leadership changes, power-hungry Idumean client rulers, and various degradations of their cherished Hasmonean dynasty, Jews saw the Parthians as potential liberators.

The old priest and former heir Hyrcanus II, and Herod’s older brother Phaesal went to negotiate with the Parthians, and were taken into captivity. Phaesal took his own life, and John Hyrcanus, now getting on in years, the man who always seemed almost about to be King of the Jews, was maimed and sent to live in Babylon. At this juncture, Herod knew that there was nothing but trouble for him in Parthian Judea. He installed his family in the fortress at Masada to keep them safe. And after a series of appeals – first to the Nabataeans to the east and then Cleopatra to the south, Herod went to Rome, to meet with the Second Triumvirate.

There, things went well. Things went, in fact, spectacularly well. Herod, and his father Antipater, Mark Antony and Octavian concluded, had switched loyalty a couple of times – but they had always been loyal to Rome. Herod had merely planned to ask for a de facto leadership position behind a Hasmonean puppet ruler. As the geographer Strabo writes, Herod, “having surreptitiously obtained the priesthood, distinguished himself so much above his predecessors, particularly in his intercourse, both civil and political, with the Romans. . . [that he] received the title and authority of [King of the Jews].”5 And Herod’s first act, after a public procession announcing his ascendancy to the throne, was a sacrifice to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. [music]

Herod Becomes King

The main problem confronting Herod, upon his return to Judea, was that Jerusalem was still controlled by the Parthian-appointed Antigonus, and that many Judeans emphatically didn’t want Herod to be their king – they vastly preferred Antigonus. Antigonus, after all, was a Hasmonean noble, and Antigonus was unsmirched by a history of cozying up with Romans. After drumming up support down in his homeland of Idumea, Herod hurried to Masada to rescue his now besieged family. The next year in Judea was filled with frustration for the ambitious new Roman client king. Herod, then about 36 years old, had definitely been proclaimed king of Judea in Rome, but Judea didn’t seem to want him, and Rome left him much to his own devices in terms of actually setting up his kingship in the intractable eastern province. Though the Roman military had swatted Parthia away from Judea, Herod found that his shiny new title didn’t necessarily come with steady military help, and that actually installing Herod on the throne in Jerusalem seemed to be very low on the Roman priority list. Herod couldn’t take the besieged Jerusalem on his own, and so he kept himself busy putting down outbreaks of resistance around Galilee. Finally, though, after Herod dashed out into Mesopotamia to help Mark Antony resolve a supply line crisis, Herod got what he wanted. Mark Antony saw that Herod was his man through and through, and commanded the Roman governor of Syria to help the King of the Jews actually become the King of the Jews.

The conquest of the city of Jerusalem took five months, culminating in the summer of 37 BCE, the Jews holding out, as far as the Romans were concerned, far longer than was rational. Livid at the length and brutality of the siege, Roman troops massacred and looted the city once the gates went down. Josephus records the conquest of the city as follows:
[Herod] made an assault upon the city, and took it by storm; and now all parts were full of those that were slain, by the rage of the Romans at the long duration of the siege, and by the zeal of the Jews that were on Herod’s side, who were not willing to leave one of their adversaries alive; so they were murdered continually in the narrow streets and in the houses by crowds, and as they were flying to the temple for shelter, and there was no pity taken of either infants or the aged, nor did they spare so much as the weaker sex; nay, although the king sent about, and besought them to spare the people, yet nobody restrained their hand from slaughter, but, as if they were a company of madmen, they fell upon persons of all ages, without distinction.6

The Hasmonean would-be king Antigonus was beheaded. The citizens of the Jewish capital, who hadn’t wanted Herod as their ruler to begin with, now hated him more than ever. But once he was in control of Jerusalem with Rome’s stamp of approval, Herod proved worse than anyone could have imagined.

We’ve seen purges in this program – that of Sulla, of the Second Triumvirate, of Tiberius, and Herod’s opening purge was as bloody and relentless as any of them. Forty-five prominent supporters of the Hasmonean dynasty were killed. Anyone Herod could think of who had opposed him or criticized him was executed. Herod confiscated property and seized property from the Jerusalem temple. In a rare act of clemency, he urged the exiled old, maimed John Hyrcanus to come home to Jerusalem – but admittedly when the onetime Hasmonean king did so, Herod kept him on a tight leash.

Herod strategized extensively thereafter over whom to appoint to the high priesthood in Jerusalem, and after briefly putting a Babylonian in this position, by popular demand Herod appointed his brother-in-law, a Hasmonean. But there was a problem. This brother-in-law was handsome, tall, well liked, and in all ways a glowing reminder of the Maccabees and the glorious decades of Hasmonean leadership. Herod had him drowned at a party, and was able to pass it off as an accident, although members of the family circle knew full well what had happened.

Preemptively drowning family members is not generally a sign of trust or psychological stability, and one of Herod’s overwhelming characteristics, which grew more and more as he became older, was paranoia – paranoia that mollified itself through preemptive acts of violence. He simply couldn’t let anyone in Judea enjoy any prominence without being threatened, and a hundredfold more if they had Hasmonean heritage. The crisis with the high priesthood of Jerusalem was part of a darker web of feuding between Herod and his Idumean family on one side, and Herod’s Hasmonean in-laws, and Herod only appointed his brother-in-law to the high priesthood because his mother-in-law had established a direct line with Mark Antony via Cleopatra. This made Herod feel threatened, and when Herod felt threatened, things got ugly.

While Herod feuded with his mother-in-law, and killed her son as a result, another feud was broiling between Herod’s sister Salome, and his now eighteen-year-old wife Mariamne. The two hated one another, and Salome lied to King Herod and said that Mariamne had had sex with Salome’s husband – a man named Joseph. While Mariamne convinced Herod that this had not happened, Herod caught wind of some other dirt on Joseph. And what I’m about to tell you, by the way, is one of the crazier anecdotes we have about the generally madcap life of this ancient king. Specifically, when Herod had gone away on an errand, he had ordered his brother-in-law Joseph not to have sex with Mariamne, and in fact, to kill his wife Mariamne if he (I mean Herod) died while on his business trip. Herod was infatuated with his teenage wife and didn’t want anyone but himself to be with her – ever. Joseph, unfortunately for all involved, told young Mariamne about this ugly royal directive. And when Herod found out that Joseph had told Mariamne about the awful order, Herod got so angry that he had Joseph killed. Killing family members, as it turned out, would prove to be one of King Herod’s most frequent pastimes. [music]

Herod, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra

As King Herod butchered his way through his first years of leadership after taking the throne in 37 BCE, the Roman republic entered its final meltdown. We’ve spent hours on this decade – the 30s BCE, I mean – in our podcast – the decade during which Horace and Virgil published their first works, and Mark Antony slowly fell out of favor in the capital due to long absences, delays in the Parthian campaign, and most of all his association with Cleopatra and plans for the children they had together. The growing rift between Mark Antony and Octavian was bad news for Herod, and the rest of Judea, who would not be allowed to remain neutral in the war that was looking increasingly likely. What complicated matters was that Cleopatra detested Herod, and had begun to see him as an annoying obstacle to her own control over Judea. She had Mark Antony in her pocket, after all. Couldn’t her beefcake boyfriend simply tell the irritating Roman/Jewish/Idumean commoner to get lost so that she’d have full control of the trade between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula?

Very awkwardly for everyone, then, Cleopatra began to give marching orders to Herod as the fuse burned down on the bomb that would blow up the Roman republic. Around 31 BCE, Herod was ordered to attack Nabatea – again that ethnically Arabian region east and southeast of Judea, essentially because the Nabateans owed Cleopatra some money. Herod attacked, successfully, but just before he could finish the Nabateans, Cleopatra’s forces attacked Herod’s, crushing his army. And then the Nabateans struck back against Judea. And as if the Jews of Herod’s generation hadn’t faced enough tribulations, an earthquake rocked Judea, destroying structures and aiding the Nabateans, who had backing from Cleopatra – the historian Josephus estimated that this 31 BCE earthquake killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 Jews, though the number seems a bit outlandish. Sandwiched between the Nabatean counterattack to the east, and Cleopatra’s armies from the southwest, and staggering through the streets and buildings broken by the recent earthquake, the citizens of Jerusalem must have felt like the end of their civilization was imminent. Cleopatra’s forces, however, abruptly left Judea when the war with Octavian required their presence elsewhere. And Herod and the Judeans, emboldened by the lack of Cleopatra’s reinforcements, struck back hard, butchering the Nabatean counterattack and winning their territories back.

Herod, however much his subjects had hated him, was acknowledged as having done a sterling job as a general. The King of the Jews was many things, but he was not a coward. Having backed Pompey, and then Caesar, and then Cassius, and then Mark Antony, the Herodian dynasty had had poor luck in tossing the coin to decide which Roman to support. Plutarch records that Mark Antony’s last days in Egypt, Antony “heard that Herod the Jew, with sundry legions and cohorts, had gone over to [Octavian].”7 And when Herod was summoned to the island of Rhodes in 31 BCE – to an audience with Octavian – he must have wondered whether or not this time there would be consequences. [music]

Herod’s Family Life and Economic Efforts in Judea

Prior to his meeting with Octavian, Herod finally had the old Hasmonean king-turned-priest John Hyrcanus II executed, having discovered evidence that the old man had sought refuge with the Nabatean king to the east. And after carefully installing his family in safe fortresses, and once again giving the order that his wife be killed if he never returned from his diplomatic venture, Herod went to meet with Octavian. Herod was, if we trust the historical record, honest, humble, and clear at this pivotal meeting, the gist of his message to Octavian being that he had an impeccable record of unconditionally supporting whichever Roman he promised to support, and that now, he pledged his loyalty to Octavian. Octavian’s response was, “Sure, man.” Or something of that nature. And this relationship, unlike Herod’s other collaborations with Roman rulers, would last for the rest of Herod’s life.

Herod, however, did not live happily ever after. When he returned to Jerusalem in 30 BCE, now about 44 years old, he found his wife Mariamne once again outraged at him for ordering her death in the event that he didn’t return. And this time, everyone in the royal household turned on Mariamne. Herod’s family – Idumeans and Nabateans like him – had always disliked his imperious young Hasmonean bride, there were likely fabricated charges of adultery, and even Mariamne’s mother testified against her. After some delay, the young woman was executed. Herod took her death hard, meandering through modern day Israel with tearstained sleeves and purportedly becoming quite sick. When his mother-in-law began plotting against him, he had her killed, as well. Not wanting to lose his momentum, perhaps, Herod then had his brother-in-law Costobarus killed – this was the second of his sister Salome’s husbands he’d killed, both at her behest. Costaburus had been governor of Herod’s home territory of Idumea to the south, and with his death Herod had greater control over the region.

Lacking existential crises and ruling with Octavian’s support did not assuage what seems to have been a lifelong paranoia – a partly justified lifelong paranoia – on the part of Herod. He paid spies to observe his subjects, looking for any sign of insurrection or criticism. He policed criminal activity meticulously. And according to several ancient historians, he was quick to resort to torture and execution as standard means of punishment. Unlike other leaders in Roman history associated with extreme violence, however, such as Caligula and Commodus, Herod did not torture and kill for pleasure – his persecutions seem to have been often preemptive strikes based on rumors, paranoid hunches, and sometimes solid intel. But this was only one side of Herod, and it’s high time for us to meet the other side. Because to subjects and acquaintances Herod did not fear were plotting against him, he was actually a generous and energetic ruler. As historian Norman Gelb writes,
Judaea might easily have remained just another of Rome’s assortment of little remembered client states, like Pontus. . .Nabataea, and Thrace. But under Herod, it was transformed into a nation of international repute. He turned it into a secure, comparatively prosperous, bureaucratically efficient land. He changed the face of it, rebuilt and beautified war-ravaged Jerusalem, constructed new cities, and launched state-of-the-art urban renewal projects across his kingdom.8

Herod irrigated dry areas of Judea and settled landless citizens there on newly instated farms. Agricultural exports from Judea increased, including new ones – rice and cotton, and money and resources flooded into the countryside. As the more remote regions of Judea enjoyed new prosperity and economic recovery, cities saw new buildings and public works projects going up – aqueducts, theaters, bazaars, cisterns, new roads, temples, and in Jerusalem, a racetrack and amphitheater. While his taxes on his subjects – especially wealthy ones – were high, during lean years and droughts Herod reduced them and used his personal fortune to help meet his tribute payment to Rome. He instituted programs for feeding the hungry and older citizens who could no longer work, and established partnerships with Egypt and Syria. Numerous towns all over Judea underwent reconstruction and revival, including the ancient northern capital of Samaria, which was renamed after Augustus. And the most famous of Herod’s constructions was his rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.

Jerus-n4i Herod Temple

A 1:50 scale model of Herod’s rebuilt second temple at the Israel Museum, showing the broad Court of the Gentiles where Christ interferes with the buying and selling of offerings in the Gospels.

Now, the First Temple had purportedly lasted from the 900s BCE down to the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The Second Temple started going up after the Judahite nobility returned to Jerusalem after 539 BCE – the Book of Nehemiah talks about how this reconstruction project began. This Second Temple was damaged and profaned in 168 BCE before the Maccabees rose up in rebellion and were able to reconsecrate it. And although it had been entered again in 63 BCE by Pompey, and thus profaned a second time, Herod’s rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple was nonetheless a little bit odd – the Second Temple still stood, and it was still functioning. The problem for Herod was that Jerusalem’s Temple wasn’t the massive structure described in the Books of Kings and Chronicles. So Herod, leveling out and broadening Temple Mount in Jerusalem, essentially built Temple 2.5, a larger complex than the Second Temple and one which had an important new feature. This feature was the Court of the Gentiles – an area of the temple complex where non-Jews were allowed to enter, for the first time, the holiest of Jerusalem’s religious sites. The Court of the Gentiles served many functions, one of the more important being that it allowed Romans a glimpse of Jerusalem’s inner sanctum, thus making Jews and their Roman overlords feel slightly less alien from one another. Unfortunately, Herod’s attempt to bridge Jewish and Roman culture was short lived and unsuccessful.

Herod’s temple was destroyed – later – in 70 CE, under the emperor Titus during the First Jewish-Roman War – its largest remnant is the Western Wall, which is one of Jerusalem’s most visited historical sites. Had the temple survived, today’s tourists could see its marble Corinthian pillars, and its successively holier courts beyond the great Court of the Gentiles – these for Jews only – first the Court of Women, then the Sanctuary, which women were not allowed to enter, then the Court of Priests, which only priests could enter, and then the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest could enter. The historian Josephus describes the Second Temple that Herod rebuilt, when seen from afar, as resembling a snowy mountain, and by all accounts Herod’s famous project was absolutely magnificent, even though, sadly, it existed for less than a century. The temple, completed in about 19 BCE, together with Herod’s energetic refashioning of Judea as a whole, changed Jerusalem into one of the more famous cities in the Roman Empire, and as Jerusalem continued to grow into a cultural and commercial hub, its advantageous location made it one of the more diverse urban centers in antiquity.

While Jerusalem was revitalized as the cultural and religious seat of Judea, Herod built the historically important city of Caesarea, named in honor of Augustus Caesar, on the coast between modern day Tel Aviv and Haifa, to be Judea’s trade hub. Caesarea was home to the first artificially constructed port in history, Herod’s engineers using concrete to make breakwaters and building statues at the port’s entrance that could be glimpsed from out at sea. Caesarea was given a Roman theater, its own aqueduct and sewer system, a palace, and a racetrack, but Caesarea and the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem were only the tip of the iceberg of the structures Herod left behind, which included a dizzying array of projects all over the Roman world, many built as acts of philanthropy.

Herod had always had money – through income producing inheritances from his parents, and later his wife. But as Judea exploded into economic activity, he grew to be one of the richest men in the empire, becoming notorious abroad for bailing out entire industries, and perhaps most famously, rescuing the Olympic Games from extinction when they’d fallen by the wayside during Rome’s civil wars. The affection that Augustus and Agrippa had for Herod, and the respect Herod had more generally across the Mediterranean, caused Jews to be regarded more highly – they came from an admired and glamorous eastern province, and the King of the Jews had the Roman emperor on speed dial, after all.

But all the same, Judea itself still wasn’t hunky-dory. New aqueducts and marble facades didn’t appease a citizenry who remembered the various atrocities and betrayals brought on by Herod and his father, and who continued to see Herod as a profiteering usurper. There were always seemingly those in the ancient Mediterranean who disapproved of the spread of Greek culture, and Herod’s kingdom’s more ardent traditionalists didn’t like the signs of westernization creeping up along newly built boulevards and gymnasiums. As 20 BCE gave way to 10, it seemed there was little Herod could do to ever win them over.

For Judea’s cultural purists, Herod was another figure in a long line that went back to Alexander of Macedon – a figure, in other words, pulling Judea in the direction of Hellenization. Herod’s actual religious beliefs are unknown, but we do know that he almost always respected Judaism’s most sacred traditions, even when impractical and expensive, and at the same time he enthusiastically embraced many of the cultural, technological, artistic, and other aspects of the Greco-Roman world.9 He could have done little else and stayed on the throne as long as he did, and yet conservatives like the Pharisees wanted to keep Judea a Hebrew-speaking, traditional society, even if the upper classes were becoming ever more interested in Greek culture. To quote historian Norman Gelb again,
Most of Herod’s subjects, ill-disposed to him from the start, never came to terms with what was to them his eccentric and often alien interests and enthusiasms. Adapting to his vision and cultural ecumenism would have eroded their biblically established conviction that they were God’s people and their assumption that any king of theirs should conduct himself accordingly rather than succumb to foreign ways. . .They bridled at his unwillingness as king to commit fully to the traditional cultural patterns of their land. His failure to do so contributed to his inability to win esteem and affection as their ruler. 10

But the disfavor of Judea’s traditionalists was not, ultimately, what caused Herod to lose his groove. This was something else. The one thing that could reliably send Herod off the deep end was problems in his inner family, and as he went through a second marriage, and a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth – no joke – as he continued to make questionable decisions in promoting family members to important state posts, he put himself repeatedly into intrinsically tense situations – situations which brought out the worst in him. [music]

Squabbling Between the Hasmonaean and Idumean Factions of Herod’s Clan

By the time Herod was finished, he had produced sons by five of his nine different wives. This, as you can imagine, was a volatile situation. And without a visual family tree, and also because like the Romans did, Herod’s kids had irritatingly similar names, it’s not going to be practical for us to review the circus of Herod’s familial life, so I’m just going to give you the most important details. Over and above the strife in Herod’s family was a contest between his Hasmonean heirs and in-laws – those connected with the beloved indigenous Jewish dynasty that had ruled before the Romans came, and his Idumean heirs and in-laws – those connected with his heritage to the small kingdom of his father.

Fra Angelico 003 Herod

Fra Angelico’s Murder of the Bethlehemite Children (c. 1450). Notwithstanding the fascinating account of his life we have in Josephus, the Christian world focused on the Book of Matthew’s version of the ancient king.

Though he had been married nine times, Herod seems only to have loved his second wife, Mariamne the Hasmonean. Admittedly, he’d had her murdered, but she’d very important for him, and had also produced two of his favorite heirs – Alexander and Aristobulus. In 17 BCE, Herod was 56 and these two boys were eighteen and nineteen, and they’d just finished princely educations in Rome. They were treated like celebrities when they returned to Judea, much to the fury of Herod’s brother and sister. The rift came down to the Hasmonean and the Idumean factions of Herod’s family. Both Herod’s brother and sister, the Idumeans, had conspired against his second wife, Mariamne the Hasmonean, and Herod’s brother and sister feared that if Herod ever bit the dust, his celebrity Hasmonean heirs would chop their heads off for persecuting their mother Mariamne. So Herod’s sister spread a rumor around that the two celebrity heirs hated their father for killing their mother.

The situation was made worse by the fact that Herod’s Hasmonean heirs, Alexander and Aristobulus, were aloof and condescending to his Idumean brother and sister. Herod’s sister persuaded him to get back in touch with his first wife and son – they were Idumeans – and Herod did so. This estranged son – Herod’s eldest – understood the intrigues at hand, and also began trying to turn Herod against his celebrity Hasmonean sons. This son, confusingly, was named Antipater – the same name as Herod’s father. Anyway, various nobles quietly lined up to back either the Idumean or the Hasmonean sons. And slowly, Herod’s firstborn son gained ground in the horserace for the throne. Herod then remarried his first wife – this being his tenth marriage, and began promoting his firstborn son as his chosen successor, sending the young man to meet Agrippa and Augustus, and to be educated in Rome.

Since Herod was generally so energetic and intelligent as a leader, it’s astonishing that he didn’t understand the factionalism cleaving his court and family in two. Rather than getting everyone in a room together and demanding that everyone speak their peace, Herod allowed himself to become more and more paranoid that his Hasmonean heirs really did detest him, and that they were plotting against his life. Herod fled to seek the counsel of Augustus, who did what Herod should have done to begin with – Augustus got the two Hasmonean heirs and the oldest son in a room with their father and asked them what in the hell was going on. The Hasmonean heirs tearily, and in all likelihood truthfully denied that they had plotted against their father, and the immediate crisis was averted. Thereafter, we can assume, the Emperor Augustus was able to add “family counselor” to his inimitable resume.

When Herod got back to Judea from his counseling appointment in Italy, he proclaimed that his oldest son and the two Hasmonean heirs were all, certifiably, his heirs. And everything thereafter was fine. Just kidding, everyone still hated one another and a complex, murderous, and audacious web of lies and powermongering made the Herodian court an awful place for all involved. As family members and other conspirators whispered rumors into Herod’s ears, he became increasingly drawn to isolation, and more and more wracked with anxiety. Various evidence from his biography indicates that he found family and clan something sacred – something very much a part of his identity, and that notwithstanding his streaks of brutality he was a warm and caring family man. And so when he heard allegations of betrayal, he had trouble coping.

Over the years between 12 and 10 BCE, the Idumean faction began to prevail. The older of Herod’s Hasmonean heirs was imprisoned, and it took the intervention of the young man’s father-in-law, the King of Cappadocia, to convince Herod not to do anything rash. The Cappadocian king also let Herod know that if he wanted to look for a source of the unrest in his court, he ought to look to his own siblings, and after some more dirty laundry was aired, the immediate crisis died down.

Another family crisis rose up soon thereafter, though. A popular Spartan war hero was venturing through the empire, and he paid Herod a visit. Since the Spartan was in high favor with Augustus, Herod welcomed him warmly into Jerusalem. This Spartan, whose name was Eurycles, then proceeded to sow discord anew in Herod’s household, by once more driving a wedge in between the Idumean and Nabatean factions. He made himself a confidant of Herod, Herod’s eldest Idumean son, and Herod’s two Hasmonean heirs, getting dirt from each one on the others. Then, Eurycles the Spartan lied to Herod about one of Herod’s two Hasmonean sons, saying that the young man intended to kill Herod and report malfeasance to the emperor Augustus. Eurycles the Spartan then sped off to tell more lies in more royal families and accrue financial rewards from people he’d duped, but the damage had been done in the City of Jerusalem.

Herod found himself again in the awkward position of having to ask Augustus for advice in regards to his family affairs – Augustus, again, knew the two Hasmonean heirs, having known them during their educations in Rome. Augustus told Herod to set up a public tribunal with some high ranking Roman officials to consider the case. Herod did so, and in the trial that proceeded he essentially voiced the worst of his suspicions and assumed the two young men’s deaths would be a foregone conclusion. The other officials in the proceedings agreed.

Killing his two sons would be unpopular, as the Hasmonean heirs seemed Judea’s last hope for a revival of the Hasmonean dynasty, and the two young men were popular with the army. Herod didn’t care. The young men were killed, along with three hundred soldiers who’d voiced their support of them. Herod was 66 years old, and it was 7 BCE. He had by this point killed a wife, their two sons, her grandfather, her young brother, and two brothers-in-law. And the latest of these killings, if the historical record is accurate, took a terrible toll on him.

Following the killing of Herod’s two Hasmonean heirs – the sons of his beloved second wife Mariamne, Herod’s eldest son Antipater, the son of his first – and also tenth wife – same person, once again, was announced as his heir. The Pharisees, that traditionalist sect of Jews opposed to Hellenization, saw an Idumean dynasty consolidating and proved unwilling to swear an oath of fidelity to Herod and Augustus. Herod’s sister Salome told him that the Pharisees were predicting his imminent demise, and so Herod had a fresh round of executions – Pharisee leaders and courtiers who had evidently announced their approval of the king’s imminent death.

His inner circle, at this point, was becoming a viper’s nest. When Herod’s last remaining brother died, his eldest son Antipater was (in all likelihood falsely) accused of having been involved in the death, and Antipater quickly fell out of favor in Jerusalem. Those who would profit from Antipater’s death fed the credulous Herod all sorts of rumors, and Antipater was formally accused of planning to poison Herod. Antipater was imprisoned in the famous port city of Caesarea, and when Herod returned to Jerusalem, he found that a new crisis confronted him.

He had had a carving of a golden eagle installed on the temple’s main gate in order to honor Augustus. The Old Testament, however, being quite clear about disallowing carved idols in holy places, encouraged some Jewish traditionalists in the city to tear it down. They were caught by guards. Herod, furious at this insubordination, told them that they wouldn’t have a lavishly constructed Second Temple without the peace and economic renaissance he had ushered in under Roman rule. And he had them executed, burning some of them alive.

The horrific punishment was perhaps in part due to increasing physical ailments Herod was experiencing in his late 60s. Whatever he was suffering from, it was evidently very painful, and he traveled around modern day Israel, trying to find a climate that would ease the discomfort. He failed. His deathbed orders included generous donatives to those who supported him. They also included a directive for the army to gather up those who had been his dissidents in Judea, imprison them in the hippodrome in the city of Jericho, and kill them all when he died. Following an opportunistic escape attempt, his eldest son Antipater was executed on his orders. And the King of the Jews survived his eldest son’s death by just five days, dying, at the age of 69, in 4 BCE. [music]

Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip

When Herod died, his sister Salome briefly assumed control of Judea. Though she had been instructed to kill an unspecified but potentially large number of Jews captured and taken to the hippodrome in Jericho, she told them to just go home. Thereafter his will was read aloud, and the succession situation was disclosed to the public.

Herod’s Hasmonean heirs were dead. His eldest son was dead. But he still left some eligible heirs behind, and in his final will, he left his crown to his three surviving sons. The first two were the children of Herod’s sixth wife. Nineteen-year-old Archelaus was to rule the territory of Judea, and seventeen-year-old Antipas to rule Samaria, Galilee, and Perea, a territory along the east bank of the River Jordan. Herod had another son by his seventh wife. This son was named Philip. Just sixteen, Philip was to rule the regions beyond Galilee to the northeast. No public outcry greeted this announcement, and Herod’s funeral procession was purportedly magnificent.

Archelaus, the oldest surviving son, summoned an assembly in the Jerusalem temple shortly thereafter. For a moment, when Archelaus promised to be kinder and more clement than his father, it seemed as though the succession would go smoothly. But things became ugly. The assembly at the temple began making demands to Archelaus. They wanted lower taxes, and they wanted prisoners freed. Agitators who had long hated Herod suddenly emerged from the woodwork and seemed more than ready to take down his eldest heir. Archelaus tried a moderate approach, but in the end, three thousand dissidents were massacred. While insurrection and political scheming flared up all around Archelaus, he faced another challenge from within. In a good old fashioned succession dispute, Archelaus’ younger brother Antipas, not content to rule the provinces of Judea, wanted to rule the capital. Many of the Herodian clan backed the younger heir Antipas – these included Archelaus and Antipas’ mother, Herod’s sister Salome, and the dead king’s chief minister. And as before, Herod’s family showed up in Rome on Augustus’ doorstep so that the emperor could arbitrate for them.

By this point, Augustus must have had a sense of the staggering dysfunctionality of Herod’s generation and their successors. He listened to various family members and officials to make their cases for the leadership of Judea – Archelaus should rule; no, Antipas; no, the Herodian dynasty should be dissolved and a counsel of Pharisees should lead; no, it should be absorbed into the province of Syria. As Herod’s clan made their petitions to Augustus, in Jerusalem, an anti-Roman insurrection took place. A Roman treasurer had seized booty from Jerusalem’s palace and led Roman troops into Jerusalem. Unfortunately, it was a religious holiday, and in Jerusalem and elsewhere a groundswell of uprisings broke out, some independently of one another.

These attacks on Romans drew the attention of Publius Varus, the governor of Roman Syria, who dispatched multiple legions. In short order, the uprisings were put down, and thousands of rebellious Jews were killed, crucified, or sold as slaves.

Herod Contex Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist by Artemisia Gentileschi ca. 1610-1615

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist. The ignominous episode in the Gospels takes place due to the actions of Herod’s sons.

Looking at the chaos that had unfolded after Herod’s death, Augustus considered his options for who should rule there. Judea, he predicted, would not take kindly to an openly Roman administration in Jerusalem. And so Archelaus and Antipas, sons of Herod’s sixth wife, would rule there after all, along with Philip, the son of Herod’s seventh wife. They would not be kings, but would have other titles, and their territories would be slightly diminished. Judiciously, Augustus gave the squabbling family back the majority of the cash Herod had bequeathed to the emperor upon Herod’s death. The three surviving sons of the King of the Jews went back home to begin their reigns.

The youngest son, Philip, seems to have done fine, ruling the remote areas of the northeast beyond the Sea of Galilee. He married his niece Salome, not to be confused with his aunt Salome, and this niece is the figure associated with the death of John the Baptist who appears in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome and shows up all over European art as an orientalized temptress schlepping around a severed head. Philip ruled from 4 BCE until 34 CE. The middle son, Antipas, went on to rule the regions of Galilee and Perea, the latter a broad strip along the east bank of the Jordan River. Antipas, whom the New Testament confusingly calls Herod, built a new capital called Tiberius, but he is much more well known for having ordered the execution of John the Baptist and doing nothing to stop the crucifixion of Jesus. Antipas ruled from 4 BCE until 39 CE. Finally, the oldest heir, Archelaus, proved an ineffective leader. His father Herod had kept things together through surveillance and preemptive actions against opponents; Archelaus, reactive rather than proactive, let uprisings begin before reacting with mass slaughter. Augustus was convinced to exile Archelaus to Gaul, where he lived until his death in 6 CE. At this point, Augustus understood that Jerusalem was a case that deserved special attention, and so he brought a Roman procurator to rule over the most populous regions of Judea. This procurator was the first in a long line of Roman appointees who ruled the territory once called Canaan, the fifth and most notorious of whom was called Pontius Pilate.[music]

The Herodian Swan Song: Herod Agrippa I and II

This was not the end of the Herodians. Most famously, Herod’s grandson, Herod Agrippa I, after a carefree youth spent sampling Rome’s pleasures, spent some lean years in his late thirties before buddying up with Caligula and being named king once more – first of the northwestern territories of Judea, then the region of Galilee, which he connived to steal from his uncle Antipas. Perhaps the greatest achievement under Herod Agrippa I’s belt – and again he was Herod the Great’s grandson – was that he helped avert what would have very likely been a bad situation in Jerusalem. The megalomaniacal Caligula, like many Greeks and Romans, found the Jewish dietary proscriptions, monotheism, and requirement for circumcision to be culturally alien. Caligula ordered a statue of himself carved and set up in the Jerusalem temple. Needless to say, this wouldn’t have gone well for anyone, and through delay tactics and exquisitely careful petitioning, Herod Agrippa I, along with a Roman governor of Syria at that time, were able to prevent the statue’s installation over the course of 40 CE.

Herod Agrippa I was also involved in the power transfer between Caligula and Claudius, in the crucial weeks after Caligula’s assassination in January of 41. With the dreadful emperor’s death accomplished, many were ready to see a restoration of the republic. Herod Agrippa I, who was personal friends with Claudius, knew that if the army’s promotion of Claudius to the position of emperor succeeded, he and Judea would have a direct line to Claudius. Herod Agrippa I, who understood Rome’s power structures well, helped serve as kingmaker for Claudius in the shaky weeks after Caligula died. And Herod Agrippa I’s rewards as a result were lavish. He was made, as his grandfather Herod had been, the ruler of Judea, and the Roman procurators went home.

It was a great decision on Claudius’ part. Herod Agrippa I was not only the grandson of Herod – he was also the son of one of Herod’s Hasmonean heirs, and thus bore the stardust of two monarchical lines, one loved by the Jews, and the other approved of by the Romans. Upon taking power, Herod’s grandson lowered taxes and ingratiated his subjects by humbly partaking in religious festivals, rather than lording himself over them. And he responded well to the cultural changes happening in Judea. There were heavily Greco-Roman cities in Judea – especially Herod the Great’s flagship port city of Caesarea, and an entire new citizenry perfectly comfortable with Roman rule. Herod Agrippa I tried to serve as a facilitator and connecting bridge between the two cultures, as his famous grandfather had done, but without the constant recourse to mass violence. For an incredible three years between 41 and 43 CE, Herod Agrippa I nearly seemed able to do the impossible – to please both the Jews and the Romans.

At some point during his reign, this grandson of Herod the Great dealt harshly with the Apostles of Jesus Christ. He had James the Greater executed, and Peter imprisoned, making life in Judea perilous for Jesus’ earliest followers more generally. To Herod Agrippa I, it seemed the delicate balance of Judea might easily be shaken by the emergence of a new religious faith. Shortly after scattering the Apostles, Herod Agrippa I, who might well have smoothed over the schism between Jews and Romans with his unique identity and policy measures, died after experiencing terrible abdominal pains – perhaps due to illness, perhaps poisoning, and perhaps, as the Bible tells us, as divine punishment for persecuting the Apostles.

Herod Agrippa I’s son played out a quiet swan song for the dynasty his great grandfather had established. Herod Agrippa II was granted authority to select the temple’s high priest, and to rule over the northeastern lands of Judea. Roman procurators returned to rule over the main part of the Jewish heartland, serving two to four year terms and using their appointments to fleece taxes from their eastern subjects. Lacking an energetic bridge between Jews and Romans at the executive level, tensions between the two populations rose over the 40s, 50s, and 60s CE, and Judea’s economy, without the business acumen of Herod, or more generally any long term oversight and direction, faltered.

The last of the Herodians, Herod Agrippa II, stayed in the background rather than hurling himself into the fray to serve as Judea’s fixer. But he did have one final contribution to make to history – a contribution which involved helping a much, much more famous person. The ever-mobile Saint Paul of Tarsus had completed his third missionary journey, and some time between 57 and 60 CE, had been arrested in Jerusalem for being a public disturbance at the Temple, and thereafter was imprisoned for two years in the port city of Caesarea. Paul had requested being sent to Rome to be tried as a Roman citizen, as he knew from experience that conservative Jewish court officials wouldn’t take kindly to what they perceived as Paul’s apostasy. The Roman procurator didn’t know what to do, and so he asked the last Herodian Herod Agrippa II how he ought to deal with this vociferous oddball who’d disturbed the peace by marketing his new religion. Herod Agrippa ultimately said Paul had done nothing illegal in his eyes, and that he should be sent to Rome as he had requested, and so, around 60 CE, Paul escaped the hostile territory of Judea and made his way to the equally hostile splendor of Neronian Rome, where he lived out the remainder of his days.

Colosseum 11-7-2003

The Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum, completed in 80 CE with the spoils of the First Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 CE, marks the end of Herod’s dynasty, and the twilight of indigenous Jewish leadership in Jerusalem in the ancient world.

Christianity, though, just kept popping up in Judea, in spite of the Temple high priest’s and sacred court’s various efforts to snuff it out. One such attempt was the execution of James the Just, the brother of Christ, which took place some time in the 60s CE. But various Pharisees spoke out against the execution. Jews couldn’t go around killing Jews, they said, and further, if this continued to happen, it would be perceived as illegal court proceedings by the Roman overlords. With theological tensions rumbling all around Temple Mount amidst the Jews themselves, a slumping economy, brigandage crippling commerce, and deepening factionalism between Jews and their Hellenized colonial rulers, at the exact wrong moment, a Roman procurator named Gessius Florus took power – he reigned from 64-66.

Florus made no attempt to palliate the tensions in Judea. He openly backed Greco-Roman culture, sowing anti-Semitism, and stealing money from the temple treasury – literally just to line his pockets and ferry cash back to Rome. Petitions to Nero were, unsurprisingly, useless. The final Herodian, Herod Agrippa II, tiptoed around Judea and saw that things had come to a breaking point. Resistance fighters were arming themselves in the unpoliced regions of Judea. In Jerusalem, Herod Agrippa II – the great grandson of Herod the Great – pleaded with his countrymen that a popular uprising against the Romans would do more harm than good. In an impassioned speech recorded by Josephus, Herod Agrippa II told them that their newly awakened rage and zeal wouldn’t even scratch the armies of the Roman Empire. But Herod Agrippa II was ultimately chased off the stage, and the first Jewish-Roman War, which lasted from 66-73 CE, broke out in earnest. Herod Agrippa II no longer felt capable of doing anything to stave off the chaos and violence, and in early August of 70 CE, the Second Temple his great grandfather had built was pillaged and destroyed. And one small further detail should be recorded here.

An inscription carved into the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Coliseum, reads that the Emperor Titus built it ex manubis, or with the spoils of war.11 The war in question was the First Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 CE, and the spoils may well have been largely made up of the wealth sacked from the Jewish Second Temple treasury. And so over the course of the 70s CE, a workforce made up at least in part by Jewish prisoners, funded by loot stolen from the most iconic structure in Jewish history, built the most iconic structure in Roman history. Herod Agrippa II, last in his line, lived until the 90s CE, respected but largely ignored. The hope of a prosperous Roman Judea, which had appeared – albeit with faults – under Herod the Great and twinkled briefly under his grandson, had ended in tragedy, and the Coliseum rose out of the rubble of the Second Temple. [music]

Christianity and Client Kings

When Jesus Christ was born around 4 BCE, if we trust the dating of the Book of Matthew, Judea was at the midpoint of the long succession of events we’ve discussed today, which began with the birth of Herod in 73 BCE, and ended in 73 CE, with the close of the first Jewish-Roman War. We opened this program with that passage in the Book of Matthew describing Herod’s attempted slaughter of Bethlehem’s infants and toddlers. While as I said earlier, we have no archaeological or non-biblical evidence of this campaign, from what you now know about Herod, it should be clear that his subjects were caught in a double bind of political powerlessness and violent persecutions, having little they could do in the face of the multilayered administration behind which ultimately lay the iron fist of Rome.

Herod kingdom

Herod’s world was a complicated one, not only at the crossroads of Parthain East and Roman West, but also home to internal blocs opposed to one another long before he and his father rose to power. Map by Jniemenmaa.

The list of oppressors who had ruled over Judea was growing ever longer, and in both the days of the Maccabees and the brief war with Pompey, Jews had been massacred while observing the Sabbath (1 Macc 2:32-8). The apex of the Hasmonean Dynasty had lasted little more than two generations, and as much as it had been a glorious time, its short duration was yet another painful reminder of how the luminous providence of the Jews foretold in the Old Testament was not playing out in the streets and synagogues of the Roman world. Believers in Judea responded to oppression and disappointment in different ways. Some became militant. Some immigrated. Some, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, engaged in theological debate, trying to find a better path forward. The majority, we can imagine, buckled down, tried to scrape enough money to pay taxes to whomever was in charge, occasionally got caught up in a mob, but more generally just tried to survive.

When the Apostles began passing on Christ’s teachings in the 30s and 40s BCE, and almost as importantly, when Paul confronted Peter in Antioch and said that gentiles can and must be encouraged to convert to Christianity without circumcision or strict observance of the Torah’s laws, a religion was born that had a unique appeal in the war torn, tax farmed, ineptly administrated eastern provinces of the Roman empire, like Judea. For the tired, the poor, and the huddled, Christianity promised love, forgiveness, and posthumous salvation, and had a working class god who had suffered just as they had. For the intellectual, it offered a rich synthesis of stoic ethics, Platonic metaphysics, and the deep and awesome heritage of recorded Jewish history. For mass circulation, its texts were written in Greek, its message was simple, and its deity was singular. For the literary, its prose and poetry was extensive and gorgeous and profound, from the folkloric narratives of Jesus in the Gospels, to the philosophical portions of the epistles, to the wondrous and dark imagery of Revelation. It is perhaps fitting, in hindsight, that a historical juncture characterized by so much wall-to-wall violence, factionalism, greed, conspiracy, and hatred produced a religion that, as we actually read its doctrines in the Gospels, is characterized by charity, forgiveness, and above all, hope.

But stories about Herod tend to conclude with Jesus, and I’d like our story about Herod to conclude with Herod. Perhaps most simply, we can say that the Idumean-Nabatean King of the Jews is one of the strangest and most morally complex figures available to us from ancient history. Half police-state butcher, and half visionary statesman and philanthropist, he is not easily categorized. I think the episode from his biography that sticks in my mind the most – and we talked about it today – is his response to the Jewish traditionalists tearing down the carving of the eagle from the gates of the newly constructed Second Temple. The traditionalists in this story – students at the temple – are simply following the dictates of the Pentateuch, and doing right by their ancestors. Herod, just as simply, is trying to honor the emperor visibly in Judaism’s most sacred location. Appallingly, Herod kills the students, burning some of them alive. And, without falling into insensitive revisionism, I hope, we can still speculate about what was happening in his mind at the time. Is he simply going out with guns blazing to a challenge on his authority, as he so often did in the past? Or is the ferocity in his response rooted in a longstanding frustration – a frustration that while he understands the dictates of both the Jewish and the Roman worlds, these worlds cannot, and refuse to understand and compromise with one another? Of course, again, killing and torturing his own subjects for defending their worship practices is a sickening offense, suggesting Herod’s own indisposition to compromise – he could have moved the eagle carving outside the temple, or put it in some symbolic location within sight of the temple, and Augustus and Herod’s own subjects would have been placated. But this particular outbreak of violence against his pious countrymen, one of the more grisly marks on his record, illustrates the plight of everyone in Herodian Judea – an ethnically tarnished king, resented by his subjects, often for good reason, but also in spite of his best efforts on their behalf; a diverse and generally pious citizenry, unwilling to give up ground due to love of country and religious faith; and the juggernaut of Imperial Rome, cold, proud, parasitic, and unpredictable.

Herod’s story shows us the extent to which a single person, and the interpersonal relationships that he managed, could affect hundreds of thousands of lives out in the Roman provinces. Rome and its colonies needed bridges – conduits between center and periphery, and its client kings and other indigenous leaders often did brave and brilliant work for their subjects, only to be seen as toadies and bootlickers at home. Because while client kings did have to act the part of imperial lackeys, showering Roman leaders with effusive compliments and glittering gifts, the alternative for provincial subjects was often far worse – a haphazard slideshow of procurators and proconsuls who often spent their two to four year tenures sopping up tax revenue before returning home, indifferent to the calamities they’d caused out in the colonies. [music]

Moving on to the Gospels

Well, now that we have a decent sense of what was going on in the generations who lived in Judea prior to Jesus Christ, it’s finally time to dive headlong into the New Testament. It’s been fifty episodes since we last opened the Bible, and over those episodes we covered the main texts and headline events of Greek and Roman antiquity. The bulk of the Hebrew Bible was produced in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, in a very different world from the one in which Jesus lived. The boogeymen who recurrently haunted the ancient Judahites – the imperial Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians, were no more. The population of the Mediterranean basin had ballooned. And while the Sadducees endorsed it, and the Pharisees decried it, Hellenism had taken root in Judea, and would be there for a long time to come. So in the next program, Episode 77: The Gospels, we’re going to read the four accounts of Jesus Christ’s life and deeds available to us in the Bible, out of which seemingly every phrase and sentence feels familiar, texts alive and well and on the lips of millions of readers every day, as they have been for nearly two thousand years. And while I can’t promise to give you any profound revelations about the Gospels, or perhaps even tell you anything you don’t already know, I hope to provide a good, solid, middle-of-the-road overview of this quartet of holy books – their stories, their histories, their differences, and a bit about prominent scholarship on them.

In closing, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you to all of you who purchased some of my fifty plus hours of bonus episodes available at literatureandhistory.com, and signed up to support this show on Patreon since that previous episode. It has been, all in all, a very heartening few weeks, and needless to say it’s pretty wonderful to see the program getting some more financial support from all of you listening. Not to beat on the same drum too much, but if you haven’t heard The Astounding Apocrypha series, along with the Christianity’s Roots series, that alone is nearly twenty hours of bonus content that will help you learn your Maccabees and your Hasmoneans and Pharisees and Sadducees, and I think those shows are excellent material to familiarize yourself with prior to jumping into the Gospels. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, welcome to our fifth season, and for all you Patreon supporters, I have something special. Since so many of you were kind enough to offer your support over the last month or so, and since we’re about to cover the Gospels, I thought I’d record a Gospel – in fact, the entire Book of Mark, in a nice, free modern public domain translation. Mark is the earliest of the four canonical Gospels and pound for pound, may be the most influential 11,000 words or so ever written. It’s a familiar narrative, but also a terse and often cryptic one alongside its neighboring and longer Gospels. Out of everything in the New Testament, excepting the early Pauline epistles, it is the oldest and unadulterated text that we have from Early Christianity, and it’s actually a pretty happy story – aside from the crucifixion part – the word Gospel, as you may well know, means “good news.” But like so many tales we hear mostly secondhand, and think we’re familiar with, Mark is also a hauntingly strange text to revisit in its entirety, with Christ himself, his bustling determination, his frequent flusteredness and his rhetorical questions and opaque volleys of proverbs appearing on the page to make a character who’s a bit more intellectual, and exotic, and idiosyncratic than the benevolent patriarch many of us imagine when we think of Jesus Christ. So, Patreon supporters, I hope you enjoy that ninety minute plus recording, and if you didn’t get a chance to pledge a dollar a show on Patreon, just click on the link labeled Details or the little menu bar next to the episode in your podcasting app for a link to our Patreon page and enjoy the whole Book of Mark. For everybody, I’ve got a song coming up – stick around if you want to hear it – and otherwise, this concludes the dramatic and colorful story of Herod the Great.

Still listening? Well, yeah, I had to do a song about King Herod. It’s hard to make a comedy song about a guy who played such a controversial role in both Jewish and Christian history. It’s hard, but then, it’s not. Such an excessive personality, and all the back corners of Herod’s life actually just beg for a bit of light comedic verse, so I threw together a short, twangy bluegrass number called “Herod Hoedown.” Hope you like this little piece and get ready for the New Testament Gospels next time.

[“Herod Hoedown” Song]


1.^ Printed in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael Coogan et. al. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 1750.

2.^ See Gelb, Norman. Herod the Great: Statesman, Visionary, Tyrant. Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 2472.

3.^ John Vickers’ The History of Herod; Or Another Look at a Man Emerging from Twenty Centuries of Calumny was published in 1885.

4.^ Josephus. The Works of Josesphus: Complete and Unabridged. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 17322.

5.^ Strabo Geography XVI.2.667. Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Strabo. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 29081.

6.^ Josephus (2014). Location 18114.

7.^ Plutarch. Antony 71.1. Printed in Plutarch. Delphi Complete Works of Plutarch. Delphi Classics, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 28794.

8.^ Gelb, Norman. Herod the Great: Statesman, Visionary, Tyrant. Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 1537.

9.^ See Gelb (2013), Locations 1766-1816.

10.^ Gelb (2013), Location 1849.

11.^ See Welch, Katherine. The Roman Amphitheatre: From Its Origins to the Colosseum. Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 160.