Written by Stewart Perowne

I acquired and read this book mostly because I wanted a clear idea of the identity of each of the Herods mentioned in the New Testament.   Laurie W

This is a complicated story involving four generations of the same family. The family history is covered by the book under review but for ease of reference I have listed the Herods immediately below with appropriate Bible references and notes.  It might be useful to know the ‘ethnarch’ is the title of Archelaus who ruled only Judea and Samaria after his father Herod the Great and ‘tetrarch’ is the title of two other sons of Herod who inherited different parts of his Kingdom. ‘Herod’ is the family name and it isn’t always used in the Bible.

Herod the Great. King of Judea and neighbouring lands. (Matt 2:1-22, Luke 1:5). He was the client king of Judea and other territories under Roman protection.  It was this Herod who ordered the massacre of the boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus. He died in the year 4 BC which is also the estimated year of the birth of Jesus using scholarly analysis of known dates during and after this time.

Archelaus.  Ethnarch of Judea. (Matt 2.22). He was the youngest son of Herod and under his will, later ratified by Caesar Augustus, he inherited only Judea and Samaria. Augustus deposed him in AD6 after ten years of misrule. Judea then became a Roman province run by a procurator, not a client king. Pontius Pilate became procurator in AD27.

Herod Antipas. Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea under Herod’s will. (Matt: 14 1-10, Mark 6:14-28, Like 3:1, Luke 8:3, Luke 9:7-9, Luke 13:31-32, Luke 23:7-15). Antipas was a brother of Archelaus and he was the Herod who imprisoned then beheaded John the Baptist.  His wife was Herodias who was formerly married to another brother of Antipas.

Philip. Tetrarch of the lands to the east of Galilee under Herod’s will. (Luke 3:1). Philip was married to his niece Salome. She was the daughter of Herodias by her first husband who was another brother (called, confusingly, Herod-Philip). This was the Salome who danced for Herod Antipas and demanded the head of John the Baptist at her mother’s suggestion.

Herod Agrippa I. (Acts 12) Agrippa was the nephew of the aforementioned brothers.  He eventually ruled all of Herod the Great’s kingdom with Roman approval.  He was the Herod who executed James the brother of John and attempted to kill Peter too.

Agrippa II (Acts 25:13-27 and 26). He was the son of Agrippa I.  He was king of Chalcis in Syria but he later exchanged it for Philip’s lands.  He was the Agrippa who heard Paul the apostle with Governor Festus in Caesarea.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HEROD THE GREAT begins by tracing Herod’s ancestry to the time when Judas the Macabees led the Judean revolt against the Seleucids (the Greek dynasty descended from Alexander the Great’s general Seleucas). One of the results of this was that Herod’s grandfather, Antipater, was appointed governor of Idumea to the south of Judea.

His son, also called Antipater, married an Arab from Petra and their son Herod was born in 73 BC. As the Roman army made its first appearance civil war broke out in Judea and Herod’s father Antipater was on the winning side. Antipater was loyal to the Roman conquerors, becoming procurator of Judea while Herod became governor of Galilee. Later Rome itself fought a civil war and the victors, Anthony and Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) persuaded the Senate to appoint Herod king of Judea in 40 BC.

Herod’s reign in Judea is a story of war, rebellions, assassinations and executions. Stewart Perowne, the author of the book, has a firm grip on his subject and gives an excellent account of the complex series of events which marked Herod’s life. He began his reign by fighting a three year war to wrest his kingdom from rebels and invaders. He always had to deal with a scheming rivals and capricious Romans to say nothing of the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Pharisees.  

He married ten wives and had fourteen children, nine of them sons, but this was a mixed blessing and he executed his second wife and three of his sons because of their treachery. Overall, however, his experiences enabled him to develop political genius and diplomacy which carried him through the dangerous times in which he lived. There seems to be  no easy answer to the question “Why was Herod great?” but perhaps it was partly because he kept his throne and managed to die in bed!

Undoubtedly he was a cruel man too but this behaviour mirrored the age in which he lived and he was no worse than any other leader. The author makes the point that Herod was undoubtedly capable of killing the boys in Bethlehem and nobody in authority would have condemned him. The last ten years of Herod’s reign were marked by illness and occasional madness. At the end of his life he was bedridden and suffering greatly.

The book includes an account of Herod’s building record. Many towns and cities benefitted from his building ambitions but he was remembered mostly for the constructions of the temple in Jerusalem. Work on the temple took eight years from 18 BC to 10 BC and finishing touches continued until AD 64. Finally the temple was destroyed following the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70- as prophesied by Jesus in three of the gospels.