Historic Jesus
Herod the Great

During an especially turbulent period of Middle Eastern history, King Herod in his thirty-three-year reign demonstrated remarkable abilities to survive, to administer, and to complete an ambitious building program. Jewish political independence ended in 63 B. C.., when the Roman general Pompey entered Jerusalem with his troops to settle a dispute between feuding Jewish parties over who should rule. The Romans resolved the problem by taking over control of the nation. They appointed puppet rulers who carried out Roman policies and sent Jewish taxes to the Roman treasury.

In 40 B. C., the Roman senate appointed Herod king of Judea and Samaria, although he did not assume the throne until 37 B. C. for reasons of civil unrest in Jerusalem. By the time he died in 4 B. C.., his kingdom included Idumea, Judea, Samaria, Perea, Galilee, and territories north and east of Lake Galilee.

During the first period of his reign, Herod consolidated and extended his power. He faced opposition from the people, the nobility, the Jewish royal family, and Cleopatra of Egypt. Herod was an Idumean, a descendant of the Edomites, ancient enemies of the Israelites-a fact that didn't enhance his popularity. Herod increased his power, often at the expense of wealthy landed nobles. When he suspected disloyalty among these nobles, he executed them, confiscated their property, and used this wealth to buy favors from the Roman rulers. The Hasmonian family had controlled the throne and the high priesthood during the period of Jewish independence (142-63 B. C.). Herod's marriage into the family helped legitimize his rule, but some of his relatives, including his wife Mariamne, constantly plotted against him. One by one, Herod killed the leading members of the family, culminating in the execution of Mariamne in 29 B. C.

Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt, was descended from Ptolemy, a general under Alexander the Great. After Alexander died, his generals seized parts of the empire for themselves, with Ptolemy securing Egypt, Palestine, and Cyprus. General Seleucus ruled Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Media, Iran, and Afghanistan. Palestine became the unsettled frontier between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires, being under the control of first the one and then the other general. When Herod became king, Cleopatra was determined to own Palestinian land. She used her influence with the Roman general Anthony to acquire parts of HerodŐs territory. In a struggle for ultimate power in Rome, Anthony was defeated by Octavian in 31 B. C. Anthony and Cleopatra committed suicide.

Herod had read the signs well, and early in the Roman struggle for power he had sided with Octavian, who soon was proclaimed Caesar and took the name Augustus. The new ruler rewarded Herod for supporting him against Anthony by reconfirming his kingship and by granting him more territory to rule. Herod, now firmly in power and in good favor with the Roman emperor, embarked on a vigorous building, program. He constructed palaces, open-air theaters, race courses, fortresses, and new cities. He named two of these new cities after the emperor: Scbaste (Greek Sebastos, Latin Augustus) on the site of ancient Samaria, and Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. He built temples for the gods of Greece and Rome, furnishing them with beautiful statuary. He also sponsored structures and colonnades in cities outside his own realm, some as far away as Athens. He also rebuilt the Jewish temple in Jerusalem; the old temple was becoming overshadowed by the grand palaces Herod had constructed nearby. The rebuilding of the temple began in 19 B. C. and continued until A. D. 62, long after Herod's death .

Herod loved the Greek way of life. He sponsored Greek games and surrounded himself with Greek scholars, poets, and philosophers. He was not interested in the Jewish religion, but instead tried to spread Greek culture throughout his kingdom. He paid for all this activity by heavy taxation. It is little wonder that the Jewish people resented-and feared him.

When Herod was nearly seventy, he contracted a painful disease that sapped his strength. When it was known that he was failing, two rabbis aroused the people to tear down a metal eagle he had placed years before over the gate that led into the temple. Herod had the leaders arrested and burned alive.

During the last ten years of his life, Herod was caught in a web of family struggle and intrigue. In all Herod had ten wives and many sons and daughters. The jealousies and rivalries between the stepbrothers for succession to the throne plagued him; rumor, strife, and slander infected court life. Herod was torn between love for his own children and rage when one or the other of them was caught trying to supplant him. In 7 B.C., in Sebaste he hanged two of his favorite sons for treason (Mariamne was their mother), together with three hundred men whom he suspected of supporting them. Shortly before his death, Herod made a will, which divided his realm into three parts, and named three of his sons as his heirs. Archelaus, the older son of Malthace a Samaritan woman, was named ethnarch of Judah, Idumea, and Samaria. His brother, Antipas, was named tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Philip, the son of Cleopatra of Jerusalem was named tetrarch of Gaulanitis, Trachonitis, Batanea, and Pania.

Only five days before he died, Herod had his eldest son executed for attempting to poison him. Herod also imprisoned the chief Jewish leaders of the nation shortly before he died and ordered his sister Salome to slaughter them after his death, thus ensuring a national time of mourning at his passing. During the closing months of Herod's notable but bloody reign, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. When the magi asked Herod where "the king of the Jews" was to be born, he acted swiftly to destroy any possible rival. Herod's massacre of the innocent children, which Matthew recorded, was entirely in character.