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Herod was the name of multiple rulers of Roman client states in the Middle East, situated approximately in modern-day Israel. These rulers are known collectively as the Herodian Dynasty; they ruled Judea as kings from around 40 BCE until 6 CE and then from 41 to 44 CE, holding other titles ("tetrarch", "ethnarch") elsewhere (e.g. Galilee and Calchis) at other times, until they were driven out in 66 CE. Notable Herods included Herod I (Herod the Great) who was king of Judea from approximately 40 BCE to 4 BCE, and his successor Herod Antipas who held the title of "Tetrarch of Galilee" until around 39 CE. Their reigns are recorded in Roman and Jewish histories, and hence they are important for people trying to understand the historical background of Jesus and the Gospels — Herod I was ruler when Jesus was allegedly born and Antipas when Jesus allegedly died. But if you compare the actual historical record with what the New Testament says happened, you rapidly run into major inconsistencies.
The unreliability of the Biblical narrative is coupled with the insanely huge number of Herods in the period, the variety of titles which they held, various divorces and incest, and certain gaps in the historical record, all of which mean it's hard to figure out which Herod was which. This may well have been as much of an issue for the authors of the Gospels as it is today. Nonetheless it is possible to piece together the history, even if it's hard to say where Jesus and other Biblical figures such as John the Baptist came into it all.
Administration of Judea (dates may be approximate as years started at different times back then):
- 40 BCE - 4 BCE: Herod I, king of Judea (initially in name only until establishing power around 37 BCE)
- 4 BCE - 6 CE: Herod Archelaus, ethnarch of Judea
- 6 CE - 41 CE: direct Roman rule, including Pontius Pilate (26/27 to 36/37)
- 41 CE - 44 CE: Herod Agrippa I ,king of Judea
- 44 CE - 66 CE: direct Roman rule
Herod I the Great
Herod I (aka Herod the Great) was the son of Antipater the Idumaean, a politically flexible figure who switched allegiance during the Roman civil wars of the 1st century BCE, managing to curry favor with a succession of generals and leaders. Antipater's son Herod showed similar skills and as a result he was appointed governor of Galilee around 47 BCE. Then in 40 or 39 BCE the Roman Senate appointed Herod as King of the Jews; he overthrew the old king Antigonus and established a new Herodian dynasty, reigning until his death in c. 4 BCE.
Herod the Great is known in the historical record for massive building projects such as expanding the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Christians remember him for the Massacre of the Innocents, when he supposedly decreed the killing of all the children of Israel in order to try to get rid of any potential Messiah. Although it's included in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:16), the massacre did not actually happen: we can be fairly sure that proper historians would have mentioned the killing of every child under 2 in Bethlehem and a large part of the Judean countryside, but they didn't. Another issue with the Massacre of the Innocents is the question of whether it was in character with the rest of Herod's actions: he was a typical leader of the time, with military experience, and was no delicate liberal, but most of the time he was shrewd and able and he had at least some interest in public works and other improvements. On the other hand, later in his life there were suggestions of an almost Stalin-esque paranoia which may have manifested in the execution of several of his sons who were suspected of plotting his death: it's hard to know whether they were really trying to kill Herod or whether he was deluded. This is far from the Biblical narrative of the Massacre of the Innocents, but suggests it may have had a small kernel of truth. There are other internal problems with Matthew's narrative, not least the question of why Joseph/God let all the babies die instead of warning them, but that doesn't really affect the historical truth since God is frequently an asshole.
The other obvious problem for the Bible is the question of how Herod was alive at the time of Jesus's birth, which requires either an early date for Jesus's birth or the Bible narratives (especially Matthew) to be wrong. Matthew 2:1 explicitly refers to Herod the King, which would be Herod I (his successors were not titled "king"), and Matthew 2:22 says that when Herod I was dead and Archelaus took the throne, only then could Jesus, Mary and Joseph return from Egypt; Luke 1:5 mentions a Herod as being in control but isn't specific. By this reckoning Jesus would have to be born before Herod's death in c. 4 BCE. The Census of Quirinius, which the Gospel of Luke gives as the reason for Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem, happened in 6 CE which was certainly after Herod I's reign ended and possibly after Herod I's successor Herod Archelaus was removed from power: under Herod I, Judea was exempt from taxation and hence no census was required; it's unclear if taxation was imposed during the reign of Herod Archelaus or after he was deposed, but the census could not have occurred during Herod I's reign, and it's unclear whether there were grounds for it during the reign of Archelaus. Yet Luke claimed it took place under a Herod, identified by Matthew as Herod the Great's reign, which makes no sense — the only way to save this is to say that Matthew was wrong. (There are minority claims that Herod's traditional date of death was incorrect and he actually died around 1 CE, but this conflicts with all the actual evidence and is only motivated by faith.)
Herod's children included Aristobulus IV, who was father of several important Herods, but he himself died in c. 4 BCE without becoming any kind of king (or even tetrarch). Herod I was also the father of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and Herod Archelaus, ethnarch of Judea - see below.
When Herod I died, his kingdom was split between three of his sons, Antipas, Archelaus, and Philip (Herod I has a lot of children but executed three of his other sons for trying to murder him on various occasions), with Antipas gaining control of Galilee and Perea, though not the title King, under the rule of the Roman Emperor Augustus. (Galilee referred to an area west of the sea of Galilee, while Perea was east of the river Jordan, as shown in purple in the map.) He was in charge of this region from c. 4 BCE to 39 CE. His title (as appointed by the emperor Augustus) was tetrarch, which refers to a subordinate ruler (usually but not always the ruler of one of 4 parts of a realm).
Antipas was married to his niece Herodias but they didn't have any children (Salome was her daughter by her previous marriage to his half-brother as explained below). He didn't get on with Caligula and was deposed in 39 CE and replaced by his nephew Herod Agrippa I.
He was in charge of Galilee and Perea when John the Baptist was killed, and probably when Jesus was executed: according to Luke 23:6-12, once Pontius Pilate found Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate sent Jesus to him. Hence he is the Herod portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar and one of several prominent Jews blamed for Jesus's death. Luke's portrayal of Herod is quite brief and shows him as a changeable character: initially he's keen to see this famous agitator and demands Jesus perform a miracle (Luke 23:8). When Jesus refuses to respond, Herod gets angry and mocks him (Luke 23:11) then Herod sends him back to Pilate, and this provides a pretext for Herod and Pilate to mend their differences and become friends, which is nice (Luke 23:12).
However we don't have much external evidence for the Biblical account of Herod's role: even if we accept that the best Jewish account, in Josephus, is true (which is very unlikely as most scholars believe it a later interpolation), Josephus's account of the crucifixion (the "Testimonium Flavianum") mentions Pilate and the Jewish priests but not Herod Antipas. All the Gospels mention that Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee, with Luke particularly keen to establish Jesus's connection as in his distinctive account of the Nativity of Jesus which begins there (Luke 1:26), so putting in a reference to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, fits with that; it is argued that Jesus probably was from Nazareth because that's the sort of detail you wouldn't make up on account of it being a crap town in the middle of nowhere. But Luke may have simply supposed that Herod Antipas would be involved based on Jesus's link with Nazareth, and whoever updated Josephus maybe didn't think it was important.
Luke 3:1 mentions Jesus's ministry starting while Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, the 15th year of Tiberius's reign as Roman emperor. Mark 6:14 refers to Herod as king ("basileus" in Greek), which as we have seen was wrong (maybe he doesn't understand the Roman administrative system, but that doesn't help if we assume the Bible is infallible or want to claim it is otherwise true).
Josephus (in a passage that is not disputed) refers to Herod Antipas as having John the Baptist executed because Herod was afraid that John's "strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt". This is recounted in a more colourful way in Matthew 14:1-12. Hence we can be reasonably sure that Herod Antipas was involved in John's imprisonment and death.
Herod Archelaus was the son of Herod the Great and ruler (ethnarch) of Judea (the region around Jerusalem) from around 4 BCE to 6 CE, while his brother Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea; Herod seems to have been used as a sort of royal title, much as Caesar was later. Archelus was deposed in 6 CE and the Romans imposed direct rule on Jerusalem and the surrounding area, although the kingdom was later restored.
Philip the Tetrarch
Occasionally called Herod Philip II, Philip the Tetrarch was brother of Herod Archelaus and Herod Antipas, and ruled a small region east of the Sea of Galilee from 4 BCE to 34 CE, in which position he did little of interest. It is said that he married Salome, daughter of Herodias, although some sources also say Herodias was married to a Philip (probably Herod II, who was sometimes called Herod Philip I, although it's questionable that he was called Philip at all). Maybe now you're less judgmental about the evangelists getting confused.
This is where it starts to get complicated. Herod II was a son of Herod I, and was married to Herodias (a granddaughter of Herod I), but she divorced him and married Herod Antipas (Herod II's half-brother). He wasn't actually king of anything and seemed to have lived a quiet life in Rome for much of the time (hence why his father didn't kill him). However, his and Herodias's daughter Salome was more famous. The Gospel of Mark says that Herodias's first wife was Philip, so he is sometimes called Herod Philip I, but this is probably a mistake by Mark. Never trust the Bible!
Herod Agrippa I
King of Judea from around 41 to 44 CE, replacing Herod Antipas. He was grandson of Herod I, son of Aristobulus IV (who spent most of his life in Rome), and father of Herod Agrippa II. Sometimes called "the Great". According to the Acts of the Apostles, God smote him for his lack of piety and he was eaten by worms (Acts 12:21-23). Josephus broadly corroborates this: he dressed in a silver outfit and pretended to be a God, being called immortal by his followers, but almost immediately he fell ill and died.
Herod V (aka Herod of Chalcis), on account of being king of Chalcis north of Jerusalem 41 - 48 CE; he is called Herod II by some sources. He was another son of Aristobulus IV (himself son of Herod the Great) and brother of Herodias and Herod Agrippa I. He was succeeded by Herod Agrippa II.
Herod Agrippa II
The last of the Herodian dynasty, Herod Agrippa II was officially Marcus Julius Agrippa and is sometimes called Agrippa. He was initially tetrarch of Chalcis (48-53 CE), which also gave him the power to appoint the high priest in Jerusalem. In 53 he was removed from that post and made king of various other territories in the area. He was driven out of Jerusalem in the Jewish revolt of 66, after which he remained loyal to Rome. In the New Testament he is notable as the ruler before whom Paul of Tarsus pled his case.
Herodias was a daughter of Aristobulus IV, himself a son of Herod I. She was mother of Salome, who is famous for dancing a lot and getting John the Baptist killed, although this is probably not historically accurate: Josephus says Herod Antipas had John the Baptist killed for being too powerful and threatening his rule. Matthew 14:3-4 says that John was imprisoned for saying that Herod's marriage to Herodias was unlawful which supports this theory of John threatening Antipas's authority, even if the nonsense about Salome dancing is less likely (Matthew 14:6-11). Various places in the Bible such as Luke 3:19 suggest that Herodias was married to Philip, another of Herod's sons, but this isn't supported by other sources.
- See the Wikipedia article on Herod the Great. It has some useful family trees
- See the Wikipedia article on List of biblical figures identified in extra-biblical sources.
- The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?, Gordon Franz, Bible Archaeology, Dec 8, 2009
- Why I'm Glad Matthew’s Infancy Narrative Isn't Literally True, James F McGrath Patheos, Dec 2012.
- When was Jesus born?, Live Science, January 30, 2014
- Herod Antipas, Encyclopedia Britannica
- Non-Christian Testimony for Jesus?, Kenneth Humphreys, Jesus Never Existed
- Jesus's Birthplace And Hometown, Dummies, 16 April 2019
- What was the “Fifteenth Year of Tiberius”?, Bible Archaeology, 30 May 2018
- Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119, quoted in "John the Baptist and Josephus", by G. J. Goldberg, josephus.org
- Herod Archelaus, Jona Lendering, Livius.com, 2000
- Herod Agrippa I, Jona Lendering, Livius.com, 2000