The History of Herod

Sermon Title:  The History of Herod
Sermon Title:  The Last Days of B.C.
Sermon Text:  Matthew 2:1-18
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity 3rd. ed.
Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah 1993 ed.
Holman Bible Atlas
Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary
We have probably read Matthew 2:1-18 countless times at Christmas and simply glossed over the question of the wise men, "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?"  The Bible says that Herod was troubled by their inquiry, and all of Jerusalem with him?  Why so much trouble?

When Judas Maccabee rededicated the Temple in 164 BC he found only enough ceremonially clean oil to light the lamps for one day.  One version of the story is that one lamp miraculously burned for 8 days, thus giving us the 8 days of Hanukah.  Yet, as the priests procured more oil the number of torches they lit each night increased.  Against the darkness of the Jerusalem winter the ever increasing light that emanated from the Temple mount gave hope that in the Hasmoneans a new day of sovereign independence was dawning for Israel.  This hope was only briefly realized.  The corruption of the Hasmoneans was only magnified when they successfully united the offices of priest and king in John Hyrcanus.  In a very real sense their absolute power corrupted them absolutely.  After John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.) the dynasty declined considerably.  Alexander Janneus (103-76 B.C.)  was the worst of them.  He became an enemy of his own people exacting revenge upon his opponents by hanging 800 of them on crosses and butchering their wives and children at their feet.  After Alexander’s death his wife Salome Alexandra (76-67 B.C.) ruled.  Because she was female she appointed her son Hyrcanus II as high priest thus preserving her influence as essentially the priestess/queen.  Upon her death her younger son Aristobulus II (67-63 B.C.) allied himself with the Sadducees and defeated his brother Hyrcanus II.  Civil war soon broke out between the brothers.  The flames of strife were flamed by competing interests in surrounding states, each ultimately hoping to control Israel in time.  The strife was finally settled by Pompey who was sent by Rome to intervene.  Each of the brothers were given a chance to present their case.  Pompey quickly sided with Hyrcanus II.  Israel was once again under Roman control.
The years that follow are full of strife, shifts of power, and brokering for power.  It is during these confusing times that the Herodian dynasty is born.  Under Pompey, Hyrcanus II’s control was severely limited and delegated mostly to Antipater of Idumaea.  Idumaea was an Edomite settlement conquered by Hyrcanus I and forced to adopt Judaism.  Under Hasmonean rule, Antipater became a chief official.  When Antipater helped Caesar to defeat Pompey in Egypt (48 B.C.), Caesar in turn appointed Antipater as Procurator of Judaea.  Antipater’s two sons, Phasaelus of Jerusalem and Herod of Galilee, were appointed governors.  At the time Herod was 25 years old.  Though young, Herod was a proven leader and promoted quickly by Caesar. 
Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.  Antipater, Herod’s father, was poisoned by a rival in 43 B.C.  In the meantime Herod and Phasaelus, as they had done throughout their careers, easily aligned themselves with the new powers, Antony and Octavius (soon to be Augustus Caesar).  Upon their father’s death, Antony appointed Herod and Phasaelus joint tetrarchs of Judea.  Hyrcanus II subsequently lost all real power and was named ethnarch, a much inferior position. 
In 40 B.C. Antigonus, son of Aristobulus II returned to Judea taking advantage of the Parthian invasion.  Phasaelus was killed.  Hyrcanus II was imprisoned and Josephus tells us that Antigonus bit off his uncle’s ears thus disqualifying him from serving as high priest “since according to the Old Testament the high priest must be without physical defect (Ferguson, 412).”  Antigonus thus ruled Judea for about 4 years.
Herod responded by fleeing to Rome.  There he gained the consent of Antony and Octavius and was proclaimed by the Roman Senate as King of Judea.  After making sacrifice and holding a banquet at the capitol Antony celebrated Herod as the “new successor of David (Edersheim, 88).”
Though he had the Senate’s blessing, it was not until 37 B.C. that Herod succeeded at the hard work of securing control of his kingdom over Antigonus.  Herod convinced Antony to have Antigonus bound to a cross, flogged, and killed.  This left Herod alone as client king of Judea.  It was then his duty to carry out the will of Rome in Jerusalem.  The Herodian dynasty was officially underway.
As part of his final play to secure Jerusalem, Herod married the teenage Mariamne.  Though he was lauded in Rome as the Davidic king of Jerusalem, Herod could not escape his ancestry.  He was Edomite and as such closer by blood to the throne of Esau than that of Jacob.  Mariamne had an interesting lineage being the granddaughter of both Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II.  In her the rivals of the Maccabean family were united.  Herod had not only defeated the last of the Maccabees in Antigonus, but he also became the heir of the ancestral pool in marrying Mariamne.  Herod had great affection for Mariamne, but she despised him.  Initially she despised Herod not only because of the execution of her uncle, but also because at the time of their marriage Herod was already married to Doris.  Herod’s madness began to first manifest itself when Herod ordered Mariamne to be executed should he die so that she would not marry another.  Yet her disdain for him grew as he attempted feverishly to destroy any distant remnant of the Maccabees that remained after Antigonus.      
The carnage that ensued resulted in the extermination of the rest of the Maccabees including Aristobulus, brother of Mariamne whom Herod had appointed as high priest at age 17 so that he may gain some favor with his wife.  Herod later ordered Aristobulus killed and he was drown while bathing.  Herod also executed Mariamne’s mother Alexandra who conspired against Herod with Cleopatra of Egypt, who also hated him.  But Herod did not kill Alexandra before he had fallen so mad with paranoia over his rivals that he had Mariamne executed as the penalty for being found guilty in a highly questionable trial.
Herod’s execution of his love Mariamne seemed to push him over the brink of insanity.  He so desired to secure his role as king that he placed spies throughout the land of Judea, he hemmed in the Jews by placing mercenary outposts in various fortresses around her border, and he immediately executed anyone perceived to be a rival.  The bloodshed is endless and includes the deaths of all the sons of the first two of his eventual ten wives, Doris and Mariamne.  Herod’s rule was so notorious that  Augustus said that it is better to be Herod’s pig than his son (Ferguson, 414). 
This being the case it is not difficult to believe the account of Matthew of Herod’s murder of the innocents.  Because the account is recorded only in Matthew and not in Josephus or any other historical source of the period, many historians doubt the validity of Matthew’s account.  However, the story does appear in some early historical documents in the 3rd and 4th centuries and many historians argue for its validity based on the Herod’s profile.  At the very least, no one can deny, based on history, that Herod was fully capable of such cruelty.
Herod not only tried to secure Judea by intimidation and brute force, but he also tried to do so through building.  If Herod is notorious as a bloodthirsty madman, he is even more so as an architect.  He was seemingly addicted both to blood and brick.
(Copied from Holman Bible Atlas, Logos electronic ed.)
Herod ranks as one of the greatest builders in the ancient world, second only to Tiberius. He embarked on a grand building program during the middle years of his reign. As a Roman client-king, Herod was expected to act as a benefactor within his own kingdom and beyond. Several projects honored his patron, Augustus. Samaria was rebuilt and renamed Sebaste, the Greek equivalent of Augustus. A massive temple dedicated to the emperor reflected the new city’s pagan character. Herod’s most ambitious project outside of Jerusalem was a new port at Caesarea Maritima (see below). Herod’s engineers created a large protected harbor by utilizing quarried stone and hydraulic cement to build a massive mole. Caesarea became Herod’s “window to the world,” a cosmopolitan city that linked Palestine commercially and culturally to the Roman Empire.
Herod transformed Jerusalem during his reign. He built a new palace on the western side of the city protected by three towers on the north named after friends and relatives: Mariamne, Hippicus, and Phasael. His architects constructed the Antonia fortress with its four distinctive towers on the north side of the temple complex. According to Josephus, Herod added a theater, hippodrome, and stadium to the city, but their locations have not been confirmed by archaeology. Herod increased Jerusalem’s water supply by erecting aqueducts that brought water from the Bethlehem region into Jerusalem. Herod’s crowning achievement was the building of a new temple to replace the unimpressive structure dedicated by Zerubbabel in 515 b.c. Begun in 19 b.c., the project was not completed until a.d. 64. The size of the temple complex was doubled by massive earthfills and retaining walls. The temple building was expanded, its marble facade overlaid with gold trim. Herod accomplished the task with scrupulous attention to Jewish law, including the use of priests trained as stonemasons (see further “Jerusalem in the Days of Herod and Jesus” pp. 228–33).  (End Copy)
If any building project aptly represented the personality of Herod it was the fortress of Herodium.  The site chosen for Herodium was the site of his final victory over the Hasmoneans when he defeated Antigonus in 40 B.C.  Herodium was built 4 miles southeast of Bethlehem (7 miles south of Jerusalem), took 9 years to construct (24-15 B.C. and featured seven buildings that stood atop a man made mountain that’s height reached 2,500 ft above sea level. 
Though Herod so desired to be the King of the Jews the people despised him as nothing more than an Edomite King, a pawn of the Romans, and a man associated with taxation (as a means to fund his massive building projects) and with blood.  It is in this context that the birth narratives of Christ are written.  Knowing Herod in context we now realize just what Matthew meant when he said Herod was troubled (Matt. 2:3); for the wise men had asked a poignant question of such a paranoid, pompous King, “Where is he who has been BORN king of the Jews?”  Herod had bought, built, and bloodied his way to the throne, but he would never be the king of the Jews, for he could not erase his birth.  A rightful King, a true son of David was born.  The announcement the birth of the heir to the throne nullified all Herod had tried to accomplish by brick and by blood.  Matthew notes his trouble.  If Herod is troubled all of the land would suffer with him.  
Herod’s legacy is merely history and archeological ruins.  His kingdom, immediately carried on by his sons Herod Antipas and Philip, would end under Agrippa II, who brought Paul to trial in 59 AD (Acts 25-26).  It is said that Agrippa II was so twisted that he celebrated the destruction of his own people when Jerusalem was sacked in 70 A.D.  There are not many who would not consider each of the Herod’s to be madmen.  Egos larger than life they destroyed lives trying desperately to be kings when in reality, kings they never were.  They were pawns of Rome, client kings of the state, nothing more than glorified tax collectors.
If a history were written of us, would it excuse us of our own insanity?  We think of ourselves more civilized and sane than Herod, but how can we ignore the holocaust of America’s infants taking place by abortion?  The last 100 years of world history have been the bloodiest by far of any historical era.  Are we any better than they?
We desperately try to build our own kingdoms when in reality we have never been given the sovereignty to do so.  In Christmas we observe the birth of a King.  In Christmas we are also called to come to grips with what we are not, born kings.  We do not have the ability to save ourselves.  If anything we have proven it is that we are sovereigns only of the mess we have created in sin.  Thus Christmas calls us to salvation.  But there will be no salvation without surrender.
If we are to be saved from our own insanity we must surrender to King Jesus by repentance and faith.  By birth we are sinners.  The good news is that He was born the savior.  In Him we have new life.  In Him we are born again (John 3).  If we are to experience the glory of His Kingdom, we must come into it by the new birth (John 3:3). 
The birth of Christ marked the end of an era, the last days of B.C.  If we will repent of sin and surrender to Christ a new era begins in us.  2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV), “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”  May this Christmas represent for us a new beginning in Christ.


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