Herod the Great: Introduction

Because Herod the Great overshadows all of Judea due to his architectural accomplishments, his establishment of the Herodian dynasty, and his numerous mentions in the New Testament, one of which reveals his brutal side as a murderer, he is a minor character mentioned in Casting Lots.  Further, his son, Herod Agrippa, is also described in Casting Lots. Simply put, no story of Judea could be told of the time of Jesus without Herod the Great.  It is for these reasons, that in the course of the next several blogs, I will write a detailed biography of Herod, incorporating new material, such the most recent discussion of the dating of his death-a story of four Lunar Eclipses.

Herod was various things: a military general, a schemer, a builder on a colossal scale, a friend of Rome who easily traded alliances with one great Roman for another, a murderer of friends, family, and foe alike, a man of many wives, and a King with a vision, who was an able administrator, a man who rebuilt the temple, but who killed rabbis.  In these articles, I will detail how Herod came to rule, his interactions with Rome, his building campaign, his ambivalent observance of the Jewish religion, his four wives, his numerous children, as well as exploring his method of ruling and examining whether he committed the crimes attributed to him.

Herod’s Parents

As is typical of many important people of this time, Herod’s birthdate is in dispute with Herod having been born in either 74 or 73 BC.  His father was Antipater (in Latin Antipatros), and his mother was Cypros.  His father was an Idumaean and his mother was a Nabetean.  This parentage played an important role in his life.

Idumea was an iron-age kingdom which was situated directly south of the Dead Sea.  The word Idumea, which is Greek, is a transliteration of the word ‘Edom’ which means ‘red’.  Some have speculated that this is derived from the red color of the Seir Mountains east of the Wadi al-Araba.  Saul fought against the Edomities which were finally vanquished by King David.  At some point in time, before the Hellenistic Age, the Edomities moved to the Negev and made Hebron their capital. Of importance is the fact that Edomities were not accepted as Jews.  Thus, Herod having an Edomite father made him less than a Jew in his people’s eyes.

This sin was compounded by his mother’s lineage. The Nabeteans come from the area between Israel and Syria. Nabeteans were originally allies with the Hasmoneans dynasty (the dynasty which Herod ousted) against the Seleucids.  Later, they switched sides and became rivals of the Hasmoneans. Ultimately, they were forcibly converted to Judaism. Thus, Nabeteans were also viewed as being less than Jews.

After the death of Queen Salome Alexandra, the mother of Hyrcanus and his younger brother, Aristobulos, Hycranus II ruled as  ethnarch (in Greek ethnarches: meaning political leader over an ethnic group or homogeneous kingdom) and possibly asking over Israel.  Antipater was a high official and advisor under Hycranus II. Eventually the two brothers warred over who would succeed Queen Salome Alexandra.  After a series of battles between Hyrcanus II and his brother, Aristobulos, Hyrcanus II ceded the crown to his brother and accepted appointment as high priest.  Nonetheless, Antipater fed Hyrcanus’ fears that Aristobulos would assassinate Hyrcanus and got him to seek asylum among the Nabeteans. This uncertainty surrounding the Kingdom of Israel and the fact that the Nabeteans revolted caused Pompey to intervene in Judea, but Rome was relatively unsuccessful in controlling the Nabeteans.

In 49 BC, during the distribution of provinces, Pompey’s father-in-law, Metellus Scipio, was allocated the province of Syria. Pompey wanted him to equip a fleet which could be used against Caesar in the Civil War.  Metellus Scipio did his job well.  He levied many new taxes and even seized the publicani and forced them to advance the next year’s taxes.  Syria justifiably was afraid of Caesar’s wrath when he won the battle of Pharsalus on June 6, 48 BC.  Numerous Syrian dynasts and kings flocked to Caesar’s banner, including Hycranus II and the Idumaean Antipater.  Caesar appointed  Hycranus II as high priest. Caesar then appointed Antipater to rule the region, who in turn appointed his two sons, Phasael as governor of Jerusalem and Herod in Galilee.  Thus the stage is set for the career of Herod.

This article will be continued in next week’s blog.

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