The Herod We Never Knew

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Herod was a larger-than-life figure in Judaea. No king since Solomon had demonstrated such grand ambitions for his realm. And his lofty ideas were no mere daydreams — he was in fact the greatest builder in Jewish history. Herod was a Jew (at least half-Jew, his mother being an ethnic Arab) and lived all of his life in Judaea. His earliest memories were filled with intrigue, his family being embroiled in both civil and international power struggles fighting for control of Palestine. These were turbulent times in the Roman Empire — the days of Julius Caesar, of Brutus and Cassius, of Anthony and Cleopatra. Early in life Herod developed keen instincts in navigating complex political cross-currents, skills that proved to serve him well as an adult. When he was thirty, he witnessed the murder of his father, a military general and national advisor who fell prey to a covert poisoning plot. Undaunted, he rose in political prominence, escaped several fatal coups and was eventually propelled into national leadership — and to his ultimate crowning appointment: King of Judaea. Because of his alignment with the Roman occupation, he found himself at odds with members of the Jewish establishment. Thus he was never fully embraced by the religious leadership. In many respects Herod was a good leader. He ruled his country with imagination and foresight. The northern coast of Judaea, for instance, had no deepwater seaport to connect it with the lucrative Mediterranean trade routes. So he built a new city from the ground up, a modern metropolis complete with a harbor protected by an enormous breakwater of massive concrete blocks and a spectacular amphitheater to attract world-class entertainment and sports events. Both were engineering marvels. He named this new city Caesarea for the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, who paid a royal visit to honor him and his remarkable achievement.

And who could forget his construction of the magnificent Second Temple in Jerusalem? Its grandeur far exceeded Solomon’s Temple. Its gargantuan foundation stones, some more than 40 feet long and weighing over 600 tons, remain in place to this day forming Judaism’s most sacred place — the Western Wall — as well as supporting Islam’s third holiest site, the Dome of the Rock.

While Herod’s building projects were remarkable in scope, ambition and creativity, it was his vision for cultural enhancement that put the Judean King on the map of the civilized world. For nearly three decades of his reign, his subjects enjoyed economic prosperity and political stability, during which time he welcomed leading scholars, poets, sculptors, painters and architects from around the known world. He gave grants with kingly generosity, not only to his own subjects in times of famine and natural disaster, but far beyond the boundaries of his kingdom, in Greece and Asia Minor. The citizens of Olympia were so grateful for his lavish donations that they elected him president of the Olympic Games. He would become known as Herod the Great. According to historian Josephus, many of his loyal subjects had such great respect for him, even reverence, that when he died four years after the birth of Christ crowds followed his royal funeral procession, his purple-draped body, scepter in hand and gold crown on his head, for 25 sweltering miles from Jericho to Herodium — his home and final resting place.

But for all his generosity and civic benevolence, there was a darker side to Herod’s personality. A deep-seated paranoia, probably rooted in his childhood fears, stalked him relentlessly. The slightest rumor of political threat touched off terror within him and provoked violent, irrational outbursts. Anyone in the path of his rage was endangered — including his own family. Questionable loyalty, whether real or imagined, was detected among three of his sons, his mother-in-law, and even his beloved wife. All he put to death. Little wonder that “Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him” at the arrival of three foreign dignitaries inquiring as to the whereabouts of the newborn King of the Jews. It triggered another ruthless tirade! Indeed, more than a tirade — a holocaust! It is probably due to Herod’s adeptness at suppressing unfavorable press that the word never got out of his slaughter of infant males in the Bethlehem area. One lone voice in all the annals of history — Matthew, a Roman collaborator (tax collector) — documents the massacre. Even meticulous historian Josephus fails to reveal the tragic event. Herod the Great retained his throne and his splendid reputation until his natural death at age 69.

Oh, if only that one lone voice had remained silent. If only the grieving mothers of Bethlehem had grown old and died off, taking with them their hushed pain. Herod the Great might then have been remembered as the greatest builder in Jewish history, the revered rebuilder of the Jerusalem Temple, the king who led Israel into prosperity and prominence in the modern Roman world. He might have been enthroned forever alongside the greats on the stage of world history. Instead, his name will be forever remembered as the madman who butchered Bethlehem’s babies and drove the Prince of Peace from his land.

Bob Lupton

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