Who Was King Herod?
Other than the looming, shadowy presence of the Roman Empire, the Sadducees and their allies, and the brief direct mention of Satan himself, there are few entities in the New Testament that can be thought of as villains. But one such historical figure managed to preserve his legacy among Christians even to this day, not through discipleship, but through opposition to the works and teachings of Jesus. King Herod, the Roman-sponsored ruler of Judea and much of the surrounding area is mostly remembered today as a tyrant and a monster. But who was King Herod, exactly?
Here, we take a look at the man who became known as Herod the Great, discuss another bore the name ‘Herod’ in the Bible, and consider the roles each played in the life and death of the Savior on earth.
King Herod Background Information
To understand Herod, it’s first important to consider his family. The Herodian Dynasty of kings and rulers may be traced back to Herod’s father, Antipater. Antipater was an Edomite, meaning that his people were believed to have descended from Esau, the older brother of Jacob whom the Lord renamed Israel. Although Antipater and his family followed Judaism, their origin as Edomites often set them at odds against the more traditional Israelites of the time.
Antipater became a powerful and influential person, and by endearing himself to the Romans, he was made Procurator of Judea. He in turn appointed his sons, Herod and Phasaelus as Governors in the region. His political career (and his life) came to an end when he was assassinated. His son, Herod, took advantage of his father’s legacy to secure a marriage with the Hasmonean Princess Mariamne, greatly increasing his own political influence. His skill in politics, diplomacy, and military tactics set him apart from his rivals, and he was eventually appointed King of Judea under the authority of Rome.
Herod the Great is believed to have ruled for approximately 30 years, and in that time, he made many noteworthy contributions to history. King Herod ordered the building of massive fortresses and cities, and even completely rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and expanded the Temple Mount. History also records that he enacted relief programs for his people during times of drought or famine, and even persuaded Rome to protect the rights of Jews living outside of their homelands.
But these accomplishments notwithstanding, it was King Herod’s paranoia and cruelty for which he is most often remembered. Either for political or personal reasons, he eventually ordered the execution of his wife Mariamne, followed by the executions of her brother, grandfather, mother, and even several of his own sons.
And his brutality didn’t end with his own family; it extended to those of his subjects. He had many of his own people tortured and executed for perceived treason or other crimes, possibly including several Pharisees and their supporters who foretold that his throne would be taken from him. Finally, near the very end of his life, he ordered 40 young students of the Torah and two of their teachers burned alive for smashing the golden roman eagle that stood over the main entrance of the Temple.
Herod the Great died after suffering a long and painful illness of unknown type. Some accounts suggest that he took his own life. Certain records suggest that Herod was afraid that he would not be mourned, so he ordered that a large group of beloved and distinguished men be killed at the time of his own death. Fortunately, his surviving relatives ignored this order.
Who Was King Herod in the Bible?
King Herod’s jealous grasp of his own power can be best and most terribly demonstrated by his actions as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. Upon learning that one who might be the prophesied Messiah had been born in Bethlehem, Herod ordered that all of the boys in the city and surrounding areas aged two years or younger should be killed. At that point, Mary and Joseph had already escaped and journeyed into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18).
It is believed that King Herod died not long after the birth of Jesus. The Bible recounts that once he was no longer a threat to his family’s safety, Joseph was told by an angel to return to the land of Israel (Matthew 2:19).
But the Herod dynasty would continue to create problems for the faithful long after Herod the Great was no more.
Who Was Herod Antipas in the Bible?
King Herod had a son, Herod Antipas, who inherited part of his father’s kingdom to become the tetrarch of Galilee. It was this Herod who reigned throughout Jesus’ ministry. Although sometimes called ‘King Herod Antipus,’ this Herod never actually became a king, and never reached the historical renown of Herod the Great.
It was Herod Antipus, however, who played a more significant role in the New Testament. At the urging of his niece (whom he lusted after), Antipus had John the Baptist beheaded (Matthew 14:6-11; Mark 6:21-28). The arrival of Jesus, who began preaching similar doctrine to John, caused Herod Antipus to worry that John the Baptist had risen from the dead (Mathew 14:1-2; Mark 6:14; Luke:7-9).
As Jesus’ following grew, it became apparent to Herod Antipus that this supposed disciple of John represented a threat to his rule. According to the Gospel of Luke, a group of Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was plotting to have Jesus killed. But Jesus waived these concerns aside, fully aware of when and how His mortal life would eventually end (Luke 13:31-32).
Finally, Herod Antipus himself became directly involved at the time of Jesus' trial. Pontius Pilate, eager to pass the responsibility of judgment onto someone else, learned that Jesus was a Galilean. Pilate argued that this placed Jesus under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipus, who just so happened to be in Jerusalem at the time. Jesus was sent to Herod, and although Herod was hoping to witness one of the miracles that had become such a part of Jesus’ reputation, He simply refused to answer his questions or the taunting of his court. Instead, Herod and his soldiers mocked Jesus, dressed Him in an elegant robe, and sent Him back to Pilate (Luke 23:4-12).
In the years following the Jesus' execution, resurrection, and establishment of His Church under the surviving apostles, Herod Anitpus eventually fell out of favor with Rome. He later died in exile.
Herod: An Unwilling Testament to the Power of Jesus
Both King Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipus reigned at different times during the Jesus' mortal life, and each attempted in their own ways to thwart His work. But despite their earthly power and influence, each failed to do more than register as minor characters in the great story of the Gospel. As such, it is worth understanding who they were, and what they represented and continue to represent.
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