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On Herod the Great
New Testament Villain or Revision History's Hero?
King Herod the Great
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 2 ¶ “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 ¶ They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
6 ¶‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’”
King Herod became the ‘King’ of Judea in 37 B.C. and would reign until his death in 4 B.C. (However, the consensus date for Herod’s date has been recently challenged via Biblical Archaeological Review, the author suggests 1 B.C. for Herod’s death) As in Matthew’s Gospel narrative placing Jesus’ return from Egypt after the death of King Herod, it’s been common for scholars to look for evidence of other narrative historical claims around these particular dates.
In recent years, there has been a rehabilitation from revisionist historians claiming that Herod’s great building projects should give him honor as achievements and be considered as contributions to history. Naturally, in our era, which values archaeology above all historical sub-fields, the building projects are easiest for historians to examine.
Herod historian Adam Kolman Marshak has written extensively on Herod and his buildings programs. “In addition to the utilization of Roman buildings, Herod’s architects also employed Roman technology and building techniques, such as the use of pozzolana for harbor installations and the appearance of opus reticulatum and opus sectile. Native Judaean building traditions were long established by the end of the first century bce, and Herod’s decision to use new and innovative means of construction speaks to his desire to position his kingdom more fully into the emerging Roman world of the principate.”
Norman Gelb, a biographer of King Herod, writes in his book Herod the Great that, “though Herod’s positive achievements as national ruler were also chronicled by Josephus . . . those redemptive features were consistently eclipsed by the portrayal of him as a malevolent figure.”
Josephus is the ancient Jewish historian who gives us the best information about the projects under the reign of King Herod. Josephus records, “He built a theater in Jerusalem, a hippodrome, and a large amphitheater . . . He now erected a palace in the upper city, furnished with gold and precious stones . . . at Caesarea he constructed a major port along a shore where there was none.” Naturally, what King Herod was most famous for was his rebuilding of the temple in the eighteenth year of his reign, which is recorded by Josephus. “Herod started to enlarge and reconstruct the temple at his own expense, which he knew would be his greatest enterprise.”
It’s interesting to examine the character of King Herod himself outside of the frameworks of the Gospels themselves. In many ways, Herod was respected by Rome as a client-king and he accomplished great cultural works during his reign. However, in the Western world, because of the Gospels accounts, Herod is seen as nothing but a blood thirsty tyrant. This accusation is more or less rejected by Marshak’s historical examination of King Herod:
“Indeed, if we examine the Josephan narratives carefully, what quickly becomes clear is that official violence was not nearly as frequent or effective as some scholars have argued. Instead, Herod succeeded and thrived as king of Judaea precisely because he was able to depict himself as the best candidate for the job to those with political agency and power. In this way, he was the ultimate political chameleon: he identified his situation and crafted an image and persona that would best satisfy his current needs and obligations.
Was he successful? In the chaotic and bloody death throes of the Roman Republic, he not only survived three civil wars but ultimately ruled in relative peace for over thirty years and passed on his kingdom to his chosen descendants. Very few rulers of this time period (or any time period) could claim such a feat.
Gelb examines in more detail the violence recorded in Matthew 2:13-32:
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the Wise Men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Wise Men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ¶“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.” 
Many modern historians believe this account never to have happened. Gelb claims:
Herod can justifiably be charged with numerous appalling acts, but it is ironic that the bloodbath of children in Bethlehem, the evil deed for which he is most notorious, is unlikely ever to have happened . . .
Josephus whose writings are the main source of information about Herod and who was not loath to record examples of his brutality, makes no reference to the supposed Bethlehem slaughter.
The problem with Marshak’s and Gelb’s examinations of King Herod’s massacre of the innocents is that while they acknowledge the violent reputation of King Herod, they also presuppose that the event would have been significant enough for Josephus or Augustus to have recorded it. Gelb argues, “there is nothing in accounts of Augustus’s well-chronicled life that refers to the Bethlehem episode, though such a barbaric act would surely have been brought to his attention”.
Naturally, this begs the question, would the massacre have been brought to his attention? It’s important to note that Bethlehem would have had a small population during this period. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor suggests that after Rehoboam, David’s grandson, had fortified Bethlehem two centuries later it was nothing more than an insignificant village. If Herod ordered the murder of a village of children two years of age and younger, how many would it have been, ten or less? The Gospel of Matthew’s treatment of Herod should be treated as historically accurate as it fits with in what is known about the violent nature of Herod. To argue against the Gospel of Matthew is to present a positive claim that Matthew’s narrative is false. Neither Josephus or Augustus refute Matthew’s claim, and in fact, those sources, by illustrating the temperament of Herod, are more likely to indicate that it was a probable event[.
Marshak and Gelb’s claims also neglect the cultural memory within Jewish history. By examining the Gospel of Matthew within the frameworks of literary analysis, Matthew created a narrative that fitted with the character attributes of a King Herod being a jealous blood thirsty tyrant who wouldn’t think twice about murdering a small village’s population of children. Why? It’s simple: within the cultural memory of the Jewish audience of Matthew, it was easily believed to be the truth due to the known actions of jealousy by King Herod.
Paul Maier writes, “Herod was so jealous of his favorite wife, Mariamme, that on two occasions he ordered that she be killed if he failed to return from a critical mission. And then he finally killed her anyway, as well as her grandfather, his brother-in-law, and three of his sons, not to mention numerous subjects.” Due to the brutality of King Herod, the facts simply stack far more in favor of the view that King Herod easily wouldn’t have thought twice about trying to murder Jesus to safeguard his throne.
Overall, the examination of the evidence available to scholars in regard to the historicity of the massacre of the innocents does not lead to a definite conclusion, but until further evidence presents itself, there’s no reason to distrust Matthew’s record on the event due to the known character of King Herod.
 Mt 2:1–6. RSV
 Adam Kolman Marshak, The Many Faces of Herod the Great (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 217.
 Norman Gelb, Herod the Great (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), 141.
 Paul L. Maier, Josephus: The Essential Works, 246-249
 Ibid, 250.
 Adam Kolman Marshak, The Many Faces of Herod the Great (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 339–340.
 Mt 2:16–18. RSV
 Gelb, King Herod the Great, 142.
 Jerome Murphy-O’Conner, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, 230.
 Maier, In the Fullness of Time, 64.