Herod the Great is perhaps best known for the massacre of the innocents portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew. Interestingly, many scholars believe that Herod claimed to be a messiah, and Ehud Netzer’s discovery of King Herod’s tomb at Herodium led to additional evidence. In this interview, biblical archaeologist and Masada expert Jodi Magness expounds on her related article in the Journal of Ancient Judaism.
Learn more in the article by Jodi Magness, “Herod the Great’s Self-Representation Through His Tomb at Herodium.”
Table of contents
- Herod the Great
- Literary works
- Lost biography
- Messiah claims
- Herod’s tomb
Who was Herod the Great?
King Herod ruled Judea as client king on behalf of Rome from 40 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. He was the son of an Idumaean Jew named Antipater and a Nabataean woman named Cypros.
What was King Herod most known for?
For most people, Herod is probably most known for the massacre of the innocents described in Matthew 2:16, according to which he ordered all boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem put to death after being informed that the Messiah had just been born:
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
(Because Matthew is the only source that reports on this episode, scholars disagree about whether it actually occurred.)
Among archaeologists who work in Israel, Herod is known as the greatest builder in the country’s history.
Are there any literary works authored by Herod?
No, our main source on Herod is the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was born about 40 years after Herod’s death and drew his information from a lost biography written by Herod’s court biographer, Nicolaus of Damascus.
Why is Herod’s mausoleum the closest we come to hearing from him directly?
Herod is buried at Herodium—the only site he named after himself because he intended it to be his everlasting memorial. Therefore, through his mausoleum Herod tells us how he wanted to be remembered.
How does Herod the Great’s tomb parallel the Sema at Alexandria and Philippeion at Olympia?
The Sema at Alexandria was the tomb of Alexander the Great. Because it is lost, we do not know its appearance. But ancient literary sources seem to indicate that it might have been a vaulted tomb marked by a pyramidal superstructure, or perhaps an artificial conical tumulus (in which case the appearance would be similar to the mountain of Herodium).
Herod’s mausoleum consisted of a square podium with a circular structure (tholos) on top capped by a cone-shaped roof. Like the Philippeion at Olympia, the tholos of Herod’s mausoleum was surrounded by 18 Ionic columns, which is very unusual for a tomb.
These similarities suggest that Herod was consciously drawing a parallel between himself and Alexander the Great.
Why would Jews have seen King Herod in the Bible as illegitimate?
Much of the Jewish population would have considered Herod an illegitimate king for a few reasons:
- Ancestry. Herod the Great was not descended from the Hasmonean line (the native Jewish dynasty).
- Heritage. As a corollary, Herod was Jewish only on his father’s side of the family (his mother was not Jewish).
- Culture. He was appointed king by the Romans.
The main issue would be #1.
Who were the Herodians?
Most scholars nowadays believe the Herodians were prominent and influential members of the (Jerusalem) elite associated with Herod’s court.
However, a long list of ancient and modern writers (from the third century CE on) identified the Herodians as a Jewish sect that considered Herod (or his son Herod Antipas or his grandson Herod Agrippa I) to be the Messiah.
In what context do Herodians appear in the Gospels?
The authors of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew present the Herodians as a Jewish group who conspired with the Pharisees against Jesus.
Did the lost biography of Herod allude to him as a messiah?
Tal Ilan has suggested that Nicolaus modeled his portrayal of Herod after David, and thus, like David, Herod was divinely elected—and even surpassed David in [re]building the Jerusalem temple.
What other events could Herod have used as evidence claiming to be a messiah?
Through Herod’s cooperation with Augustus, the Jews participated in the peace, prosperity, and abundance of the Roman oikoumene.
How do the Gospels present Herod?
The Gospels’ authors (Matthew and Luke, who present Jesus’ birth narratives) took for granted Davidic lineage and birth in Bethlehem as prerequisites for the legitimate Messiah. Herod apparently claimed to have fulfilled the expectations associated with a Davidic messiah through God’s will—and thanks to the agency of the Romans.
Herodium’s location overlooking Bethlehem indicates that by Herod’s time, the assumption that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem must have been widespread. Therefore, we may assume that the Jewish population understood the Messianic and divine claims conveyed by Herod’s tomb at Herodium.
I believe the massacre of the innocents in Matthew reflects one response: Herod cannot be the Messiah because he is not of Davidic lineage and was not born in Bethlehem. His claims to kingship are threatened by the true Messiah (Jesus), who has the documented credentials Herod lacks. Not only is Herod a false messiah but he even tried to have the true Messiah put to death.
In other words, Matthew presents Herod as the antithesis of Jesus, the true Messiah.
What does Herod’s tomb say about the way he wanted history to remember him?
The parallels between the mausoleum at Herodium on the one hand and the Sema at Alexandria and Philippeion at Olympia on the other associated Herod with Alexander, the Hellenistic prototype of a heroic and deified king.
The massive tumulus, apparently added after Herod’s visit to Rome in 12 B.C.E., recalled the Mausoleum of Augustus, through whose agency Herod claimed to have fulfilled Jewish messianic expectations.
In support of these claims, Herod asserted Babylonian Jewish origins, rebuilt the Jerusalem temple, announced the arrival of a period of peace and prosperity that heralded the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, and tied himself to the birthplace of David by situating his final resting place—a royal, dynastic monument and victory memorial – overlooking Bethlehem.
Literary traditions about the Herodians support the possibility that some ancient Jews accepted Herod as the Messiah. The mountain of Herodium, which bears Herod’s name and was planned as his final resting place and everlasting memorial, is a visual expression of these claims and the closest we come to hearing directly from the man himself.
About the interview participant
Jodi Magness is a classical and biblical archaeologist who specializes in ancient Palestine. She is a Past President of the Archaeological Institute of America and a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She holds a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania and has research interests ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to ancient pottery and synagogues. She is the author of two books (with a third on the way), including Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth and The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (2nd edition),
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Herod King resources
- Herod the Great’s Self-Representation Through His Tomb at Herodium (Journal of Ancient Judaism)
- Finding King Herod’s Tomb (Smithsonian Magazine)
- King Herod’s Secret Is Out: Archaeologists Discover Tomb of Ancient King of Judea (Science.org)
- Herod’s Building Program (BYU Studies)
- Herod and the Herodian Family Tree (Biblical Archaeology)