Herod and the Herodians


The Idumaeans were a tribe who had been forced by the Nabatean Arabs westwards into southern Judea, where they had been forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean rulers of Palestine. The Idumaeans were for this reason Jews of a recent and suspect background. At the same time they were shrewd, and had no scruples about making political deals with the Romans for their own advantage.

ANTIPATER governed them from about 47 BC. He also served as an advisor to Hyrcanus, and gained the confidence of Pompey. When Julius Caesar was besieged in Alexandria in 48 BC it was Antipater who persuaded the Jews to aid Caesar. In gratitude Caesar gave the Jews important privileges.

Antipater's son, HEROD THE GREAT, was an opportunist of the highest order. During the tumultuous years of the Roman civil wars he skillfully shifted his allegiance from Pompey to Caesar to Antony to Octavian (Augustus). Because he was such an able soldier the Romans valued his services. He provided a strong buffer-state for Rome against the Nabatean Arabs to the south and the Parthians to the east.

Herod was appointed king of Judea by the Romans in 40 BC, and was supported by Roman soldiers in his fight to gain control of Judea in 37. From that time he relied on Gentile soldiers, including the Celtic bodyguard of Cleopatra which had been granted to him by Octavian. He transformed the ancient city of Samaria into Sebaste for his foreign mercenaries. He also built Palestine's first deep-water port of Caesarea.

Though successful in politics, Herod was bitterly unhappy in his private life. He married ten wives, including the beautiful Hasmonean princess, Mariamne. Though he loved her passionately, he suspected her of infidelity and had her executed. Later, in 7 BC, he had her two sons killed. When he found that his favorite son, Antipater, had been plotting against him, he had him executed- just five days before his own death in 4 BC. It was this paranoid monarch who ordered the massacre of the babies in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus.

Our system of dating BC/AD was devised by a monk in the sixth century AD. However, he miscalculated the reign of the Emperor Augustus by four years. Jesus must have been born before Herod's death in 4 BC, a date which has been established by astronomical calculations.

Herod's kingdom was divided between his THREE SONS:

ARCHELAUS inherited Judea;

ANTIPAS was given Galilee and Perea (Transjordan);

PHILIP inherited largely Gentile areas east of the Sea of Galilee.

Philip's rule was just and relatively uneventful. It was in Philip's territory that Jesus was transfigured, on the slopes of Mount Hermon. At Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Hermon, Peter declared that Jesus was the Christ.

Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, was called 'that fox' by Jesus because of his craftiness. He was denounced by John the Baptist for his adulterous relationship with Herodias, the former wife of his half-brother. After a seductive dance by her daughter, probably Salome, Antipas rashly promised her whatever she asked. He reluctantly fulfilled her request by presenting John's head on a dish to Herodias. It was her nagging insistence which proved to be Antipas' undoing. When he asked to be upgraded from tetrarch to king in AD 39, he was instead banished with his wife to France.

Archelaus was 'a chip off his father's block'. As his first official act, he slaughtered 3,000 of his enemies. When Joseph and Mary returned from Egypt, they wisely avoided his territory and settled in Galilee. Archelaus' rule was so oppressive that Jews and Samaritans united in successfully requesting his deposition in AD 6. This paved the way for direct rule by Roman governors.


Herod was a prodigious builder, as recent archaeological excavations have shown His rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, begun in 19 BC, was admired by Jesus' disciples, according to Mark, chapter 13. Final work on the temple was completed just six years before it was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. All that remains today is the great platform whose western side is the Wailing Wall, where Jews today still lament the destruction of the temple.

Spectacular remains have also been uncovered at the fortress of Masada on the western shore and of Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. Machaerus was the fortress where John the Baptist was imprisoned. Other splendid structures from Herod's time have been found at Jericho, where Herod died, and at Herodium, where he was buried.


- He was the most politically gifted of Herod the Great's sons.

- Herod Antipas inherited only part of his father's kingdom at the tyrant's death in 4 B.C.

- Although he was not a Jew by ancestry, Antipas reigned for 43 years as tetrarch of principally Jewish Galilee, firmly keeping the peace and respecting the religious beliefs of his subjects.

- His presence in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus' arrest and trial, for example, indicates that he celebrated the Passover feast with a pilgrimage to the Holy City.

- Ambitious and luxury-loving, Antipas built the beautiful seaside town of Tiberias. (Ironically, the construction work uncovered an ancient cemetery, making the site ritually impure to observant Jews, and Antipas was forced to populate his new capital with foreigners and people of the lower classes.)

- On the international stage, he won the respect of Rome as a skilled and loyal diplomat.

- Antipas's downfall began when he fell in love with Herodias, who was both his niece and sister-in-law. His enraged wife, the daughter of a Nabatean king, escaped to her native land, and her father punished his son-in law with a disastrous military defeat.

- In the New Testament, Jesus calls Antipas "that fox," perhaps referring to his cleverness, but the tetrarch is also shown submitting to the wiles of Herodias when he orders the execution of John the Baptist.

- She was also responsible for his final, fateful error. Jealous that her brother Agrippa had been elevated to a kingship, she urged Antipas to go with her to Rome to ask Caligula for a crown, too. The emperor, convinced by letters from Agrippa that Antipas was a traitor, banished the tetrarch to Gaul in A.D. 39. The proud Herodias was offered sanctuary in Rome, but she chose exile with her husband instead.