A Bad Boy in Perspective
With the exception of Jesus, possibly the most misunderstood of all Biblical identities is that villain of the Nativity, Herod the Great.
Despite the fact that Herod’s life is better documented than any other figure from classical antiquity apart from Alexander of Macedon, he is continually misrepresented as a sinister figure of great evil, synonymous with the powers of darkness that supposedly opposed all that the Incarnation symbolized. From traditional images in children’s Bible stories to the absurdities of cinematic portrayals, Herod, the most outstanding of all Judaea’s many kings, is seen as a crazed baby killer.
We have only Matthew’s Gospel to account for this although the detailed history of the Herodian dynasty as given by the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, makes it clear that in the latter stages of his life, appalling diseases affected that aging king’s reason and stained the record of his reign with a catalogue of atrocities. But by the standards of his day he was no worse than many another. His close friend in the west, Augustus Caesar, had a worse record in terms of judicial slaughterings and could not blame his ill health for deranged decision making.
Historians have long recognised that Matthew depicts Herod as a counterpart to the Egyptian pharaoh in Exodus decreeing the death of all Hebrew male babies. This was part of the Evangelist’s attempt to draw parallels between Moses and Jesus in order to persuade early Christians that the old order had been superseded by the coming of the Lord; his life had mirrored that of the Law-giver himself. Matthew has the parents of Jesus flee with him into Egypt to escape the tyrannical king’s decree. Subsequently, like Moses, Jesus comes out of Egypt to enter the Promised Land and throughout his career, a variety of events have resonances of the Exodus, from miraculous feeding of a multitude in the wilderness to instructions on how to live a good life, given from a mountain top.
A life-long fascination with the Herods meant that when called upon recently to address a U3A history group, I willingly did so with the first of that line as my subject. I ventured to suggest then that there may well have been an authentic element to the boy-killing tradition that has nothing to do with Matthew’s tale.
According to Josephus, Herod ordered the execution of at least three of his several sons. The strangling of two young men, his much-loved twin heirs, Aristobulus and Alexander, supposedly for treason, shook Judaea and regions beyond when the news spread. When his first-born, Antipater, was also condemned, shortly before the old king died in agony at Jericho, the shock waves of this may well have meant that Herod was being muttered of as, “boy killer.” His notoriety was enhanced by a final crazed order that he gave when he realised that his own demise was imminent.
Josephus describes how one son of each of Judaea’s most prominent families was to be imprisoned in the amphitheatre at Jericho and the whole lot to be butchered when the king’s death was announced. This would ensure that when Augustus learned that his chief ally in the east had died, it would be truthfully reported that there had been great lamentation throughout the land. Fortunately for the young men awaiting their fate in a state of dire apprehension, the king’s sister, Salome (not the one who danced for John the Baptist’s head) had them all released. A manipulative and calculating individual, she was also thoroughly practical and knew that her dearest friend, the emperor’s wife, Livia, would not have viewed such a massacre with any favour. Neither would Augustus who had put great emphasis on the maintenance of the Pax Romana throughout his empire.
By the time Herod’s corpse was being borne in procession to burial at his fortress of Herodium very near Bethlehem, he was in all probability being recalled as the killer of sons. Matthew, writing some eighty years later, found this a convenient element to weave into his riveting account of Jesus’ early life and a most convenient way of linking the Messiah with the Law-Giver.
Do such acts of violence make Herod a monster? He was indisputably cruel and violent in an age that is indelibly stamped with such but he was also losing all reason according to Josephus. Furthermore, he was paranoid and convinced by his appalling sister, Salome, that he was being plotted against by other members of his family. When compared with the illustrious Julius Caesar - great uncle of Augustus - Herod was comparatively mild. Caesar managed to win fame for his conquest of Gaul with the slaughter of at least one million. Unknown thousands of Gallic prisoners of war flooded the Roman slave markets thereafter.
Herod’s legacy was a series of architectural marvels throughout his dominions, chief among them being the temple at Jerusalem, the largest and most spectacular place of worship in the entire empire with its thirty-five acres of glittering courtyards, porticos and the colossal sanctuary that supposedly housed the Holy One of Israel behind its elaborate tapestry.
It is likely that Herod was already being admiringly spoken of as Great by the time he had been appointed agonothete – president of the Olympic Games - a role he held for twenty-four years. An ardent philhellene, he adorned his cities with the finest of Greek architectural forms and décor, dressed like any aristocratic Athenian or member of the Roman nobility, went clean-shaven except when the growing of a token beard was expected for major Jewish festivals and hob-nobbed with everyone from Cleopatra and Mark Antony to client kings of the near-East. A far cry from the hideous and scowling caricature, black-bearded and dripping with gold medallions as portrayed in every Hollywood movie.
But the killing of sons, of other family members? Again, we should see such acts in the context of antiquity. The Macedonian family of Alexander - a greater Great than Herod - is littered with incidents of sudden death that scarcely suggest anything resembling what we casually accept as family love. Josephus who makes plain his contempt for much that occurred under Herod, nevertheless permits a degree of sympathy to permeate his writing when he describes the dying king racked by agonies that were beyond all treatment and so fouled by disease that the stench of his breath meant his servants had to be put on an hourly rota to cope with its effects.
We may well assume that the Galileean healer, Jesus, would have looked on him with both pity and compassion had the opportunity of visiting him ever occurred.
From a talk to a U3A group by Norman Maclean