In search of Herod

Decades of archeological digs and discoveries are showcased in a new museum exhibit, looking at the architectural legacy of Israel’s greatest builder

Herodium during excavations521 (photo credit: Gabi Laron/The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Herodium during excavations521
(photo credit: Gabi Laron/The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
King Solomon, Zerubbabel and Herod the Great share a unique distinction in history – they each had the privilege of building the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Yet while the Bible tells us much about King Solomon and Zerubbabel and their respective roles in constructing the House of the Lord, little is said about King Herod. And what does appear about him in the New Testament is not very flattering.
Herod the Great is a towering figure in the region’s history, but he remains elusive. Who exactly was this ruler who tried to bridge the wide chasm between the Jewish and Roman cultures? Why was he so driven to create some of the most monumental building projects of antiquity? And was he really as ruthless as he is portrayed in the New Testament, even to the point of ordering the massacre of innocent babes? In February, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem opened a grand exhibition – which will run through October – fitting for the larger-than-life figure of King Herod the Great, titled “The King’s Final Journey.”
“This is the most ambitious archeology exhibition that we ever have undertaken,” boasted James Schneider, director of the Israel Museum, at a preview tour for the media. Describing it as the first museum exhibition anywhere to focus on King Herod as a subject, he said it includes some 250 artifacts from around the world as well as 30 tons of display material from Herodium, where his tomb was finally discovered only six years ago.
Schneider was quick to pay tribute to Prof. Ehud Netzer, the “very eminent archeologist who spent nearly 40 years exploring and excavating Herodium.”
After decades of searching, Netzer at last uncovered Herod’s sarcophagus in 2007 and almost immediately came to the Israel Museum to say he wanted to arrange an exhibition focusing on the king. But in 2010, Netzer fell to his death while working at the site.
He was called “Herod the Great” because he was a great builder, but Netzer claimed that what set him apart was that he “not only showed interest in the field of construction but also had a profound understanding of planning and architecture, and therefore took an active and important part in the erection of many of his buildings.”
His legacy starts with Herodium, the peculiar shaved-off mountain peak located some 15 kilometers south of Jerusalem. Here, Herod carved out of bedrock the largest palatial complex of i t s day in the entire Roman Empire. Serving as a summer palace as well as his eventual resting place, Herodium contained fabulous gardens, large Roman baths and its own 700-seat theater.
Herod also built the formidable mountain fortress at Masada, and the impressive port city of Caesarea, complete with a hippodrome and amphitheater, which served as the gateway for Rome to the eastern half of its realm.
In addition, Herod built fortresses in Antonia, Threx and Cyprus, as well as palaces and other classic Roman buildings in both Jericho and Sebaste.
Herod also re-fortified existing fortresses at Alexandrium and at Machareus, where John the Baptist is believed to have been imprisoned and executed by one of his sons.
Besides his obsession with Roman architecture, Herod’s works also evidence a desire to appeal to the Jews. For instance, he built the rectangular Machpela in Hebron over the burial cave of Abraham and the other early Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs – the only fully surviving Herodian structure left today.
Yet the Cave of the Patriarchs (Ma’arat Hamachpela) is merely a small-scale replica of Herod’s masterpiece – his reconstruction and expansion of the Second Temple. The retaining walls of his rebuilt Temple rest on massive stones that would challenge even modern machinery to cut and move into place. He extended the Temple confines southward to include a lavish shopping mall and the colonnaded underground chambers of the Hulda Gates. The pinnacle of Herod’s refurbished Temple was said to rise some 137 meters above the adjacent Kidron Valley.
Beyond the physical remains of his many building projects, the other main source for our knowledge of Herod is the writings of noted Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who is believed to have had access to Herod’s autobiography compiled by Nicolaus of Damascus, himself a historian, philosopher and close friend of Herod.
According to scholars, Herod is believed to have been born in 73 BCE, during the reign of Queen Alexandra of the Hasmonean dynasty. His birthplace was probably in Idumea, the area southeast of the Dead Sea also known as Edom, where Isaac’s first-born son Esau once settled. The Edomites were one of Israel’s fiercest enemies and, according to Josephus, the Hasmoneans under the leadership of John Hyrcanus conquered their territory and forced the Edomites to convert to Judaism.
In his work Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus explains that “Hyrcanus took also Dora and Marissa, cities of Idumea, and subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country; if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews; and they were so desirous of living in the land of their forefathers, that they submitted to the use of circumcision, and of the rest of the Jewish ways of living; at which time this therefore befell them, that they were hereafter no other than Jews.”
Hyrcanus chose Herod’s grandfather, Antipas, one of the most influential leaders of Idumea, to act as governor of the region. His son, Antipater, then married Kufra, also known as Cyprus, the daughter of a leading Nabataean family. Together, they had five children, one of whom was Herod.
Julius Caesar would later appoint Antipater to be the Roman procurator of Judea, and Herod and his brother Phasael quickly assumed the offices of governor of Galilee and Jerusalem respectively.
Around 37 BCE, the Roman Senate elected Herod the Great as its vassal ruler of Judea, a move aided by his close friendship with Rome’s first emperor, Augustus Caesar.
Herod married 10 different wives, and sired a total of 15 children. His first wife was Doris, with whom he had Antipater, mentioned in the Gospels. With his second wife, the legendary beauty Mariamne, he married into the Hasmonean dynasty in Jerusalem. The couple had two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus.
Herod’s relationship with Mariamne proved rocky. Obsessed with her beauty, he appointed a special attendant to always watch over her in his absence, knife at the ready in case anyone else were to ever touch her. He once instructed his brother, Joseph, to also strike her down if he were to die while away traveling. Upon his return, Herod suspected Joseph of cheating with Mariamne and had him executed.
Eventually, Herod had her killed as well, urged on by his sister Salmon’s accusation that she was planning to poison him. In his rage, Herod also murdered several of Mariamne’s close relatives, along with the two sons they had together.
Thus, Herod’s lust for power and notorious cruelty became widely known.
Josephus describes a mix of Herod’s despicable traits and records the words of Emperor Augustus: “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”
In a later marriage with Mariamne II, daughter of the Hasmonean High Priest Simon, he fathered a son named Herod Philip. With Cleopatra of Jerusalem, he had Philip the Tetrarch. With Malthace, a Samaritan woman, he sired Herod Archelaus and Herod Antipas – who would later behead John the Baptist for disapproving of his marriage to Herodias.
For Christians, Herod is best remembered for slaying the infants of Bethlehem, in a jealous rage over a report by wise men from the East that the “king of the Jews” had been born in the small village. Some scholars have questioned this account from the book of Matthew, arguing that no one could truly be that cruel. However, the fact that he eliminated his own wife and sons out of a similar fit of jealousy lends credence to the New Testament’s dark depiction of Herod the Great.
Reuven Rosenfelder, a senior guide at the Israel Museum, explained to The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition that Herod was seen in a similar cruel light by most Jews back then – and even now.
“Herod’s relationship with the Jews is a complicated subject,” said Rosenfelder.
“We never call him ‘Herod the Great’ because actually we view him in Jewish tradition very negatively. The title ‘great’ is only relevant in the sense that he was probably the greatest builder in the history of this country.
“He certainly stands out in a most prominent way and Masada, built by Herod, is by far the most popular tourist site in Israel. Plus the Talmud states that whoever has not seen Herod’s rebuilt Temple has not seen a beautiful building in his life.”
But Rosenfelder insisted that the Jews never really accepted Herod as a Jew, despite his grandfather’s conversion to Judaism. He was rather seen as a protégé of the Roman overlords, and Talmudic and rabbinical literature refer to him as an Edomite slave and a servant of Rome.
Yet despite Herod’s warped personality, intense insecurities and huge edifice complex, there appears to have been another side of the great builder – that of a king who sold his gold in order to save the people of Judea from starvation.
According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem the Biography, the Judea of the first century had never been as populated, prosperous and aweinspiring as it was in the wake of Herod’s building spree. Indeed, it would be 20 centuries before Jerusalem would begin to recapture its glorious peak under Herod the Great.
The late British diplomat and historian Stewart Perowne also credits Herod with doing great things for the Jewish subjects of Judea. During his reign the country was at peace, trade flourished and cities were crowned with magnificent buildings. He even maintains that Herod kept the Romans at a distance and defended the rights and safety of Jewish communities throughout the growing empire.
Still, Herod also bent over backward to please the Roman elite. He named cities and major building projects after the caesars, and inaugurated new buildings and cities in conjunction with dates important to the Roman emperors. For instance, the Herodian city of Sebaste, near modern-day Nablus, was founded in 27 BCE, the same year that Caesar Augustus became emperor, while Caesarea is believed to have been dedicated in 13 BCE to mark his 50th birthday.
The last years of Herod’s life were marked by disease, envy and murder. In the period leading up to his death, he killed three of his sons, believing they were threatening his power. Alexander and Aristobulus were slain in 7 BCE, while Antipater was killed in 4 BCE. After their deaths, an ailing Herod appointed Archelaus, Antipas and Philip as his new heirs and successors.
While on his deathbed, Herod worried that no one would mourn his death, so he had 1,000 Judeans arrested and ordered them executed on the same day he died, to ensure there would be a great deal of mourning. Shortly thereafter, Herod died in his winter palace in Jericho from what is believed to have been arteriosclerosis.
From there, his overweight body was carried to his final resting place in Herodium. Upon his death, the 1,000 detained Judeans were released unharmed by his son and his sister.
The date of Herod’s death in generally accepted as 4 BCE, which creates a discrepancy in relation to the birth of Jesus and thus Herod’s role in the “slaughter of the innocents,” if Jesus was born in the year 0. This subject has been robustly debated by historians and scholars for centuries, with some questioning the accuracy of the Gospel accounts and others responding that Herod’s successor was likely behind the massacre.
However, most Christian scholars of the Bible place the birth of Jesus around 4 to 6 BCE, and attribute the discrepancy to human error in calculating dates made when the Gregorian calendar was established. Interestingly, one leading member of this school of thought today is the just retired pontiff and theologian, Pope Benedict XVI.
In his newly released book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Emeritus Benedict cites a 6th century monk as the father of the Anno Domino dating system, and claims that he made a mistake when calculating the timing of the Incarnation.
“The calculation of Jesus’s date of birth goes back to the monk Dionysius Exiguus, who evidently miscalculated by a few years. The historical date of the birth of Jesus is therefore to be placed a few years earlier,” the former pope wrote, gauging that it could have occurred as early as 7 BCE, thereby preceding Herod’s death by several years.
Meanwhile, the quest for a more accurate picture of the historic figure of Herod the Great continues.
Idumean by birth, Jewish by religion and Roman by culture, was he a cruel madman, an architectural genius, a benevolent monarch, or perhaps a little of each? Two thousand years later, the search for the real Herod goes on.