The Nativity Explained: Herod the Great
Today we are looking at one of the most significant figures in the Nativity story: Herod, the man who was shaken by the visitation from the Magi, who ordered the massacre of the innocents, and who was the first of many to try and stop Jesus's rise before his time.
Description: Herod the Great was a Roman puppet king in the province of Judea. He was elected to the post of "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate in approximately 40BC. This was just after a coup against the former king of the province, Hyrcanus II which had been led by that King's nephew. Herod ruled the province from between 37-4 BC.
Herod was not a Jew by birth, but was instead what was known as a Judaised Edomite. Although he adopted the customs and practices of the Jews, he was not considered Jewish by the Pharisees of the time.
Herod was also responsible for the construction of the great temple in Jerusalem. A temple which the Romans would later destroy in the 70AD Jewish revolt.
Significance: It was Herod who hosted the Magi, and his advisors who directed them towards Bethlehem, the city of David. And it was Herod who ordered what has become known accurately as the "Massacre of the Innocents" when he had every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem killed.
First Sighting: Herod is only mentioned in Matthew's second chapter, in reference to his dealings with the Magi.
"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.'
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 'In Bethlehem in Judea,' they replied…
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.'…
And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route."
"When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi."
(Matthew 2, Verses 1-5, 7-8, 12, 16-17)
This section also includes a mention of the prophecy from Jeremiah. Chapter 31 and verse 15 of that text says the following:
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more."
(Matthew 2, Verse 18)
The reference to Rachel in this section is not only for her connection to the Jewish people as Jacob's favoured wife, but also because her tomb is to be found in Bethlehem.
Herod's death is later marked the beginning of safety in Israel for Jesus and ending his exile in Egypt.
"After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 'Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead.'"
(Matthew 2, Verses 19-20)
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This exile was also predicted in the Old Testament
"When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son"
(Hosea 1, Verse 11)
Explanation: Historically, the presence of Herod has been seen as many to be a problem when talking about the historicalness of the gospels. The first question that often emerges is "If Herod died in 4BC, how could he be on the throne when Jesus was born?"
There are two answers to that. Firstly, the system that marks Jesus's birth as the dividing point of the western dating system's calendar began in the middle of the sixth century. Dionysius Exiguus was an Abbot who decided he wanted to make Jesus's birth the central date of the calendar system. His calculations placed Jesus's birth at 753 AUC, the old system which was known as Ab Urbe Condita, which translates from Latin as "From the founding of the City". Being in Latin, the city they were referring to was of course Rome.
Historian Edwin Tait, contributing editor to Christian History Magazine, explained Exiguus's motives to Christian Post: "He wanted to date the calendar from Jesus' birth because the existing system had Diocletian's name on it, and Diocletian had persecuted Christians."
However, with only sixth century tools available to him, it's understandable that he may have gotten his counting a little less than 100% accurate, and it may well be the case that Jesus was born earlier than Exiguus believed.
There is also the other theory (the truth may include a combination of both of these) which says that the dating of Herod's death in 4BC is inaccurate. Tait said: "Most scholars think that Herod the Great died in 4BC, though this is based on evidence from Josephus and I've seen alternative interpretations of the evidence arguing that Herod actually died later than that."
There are some historians that argue that the massacre of the innocents did not happen. They cite the fact that, outside the gospels, there is no specific reference to those events. The main player in this incident is Josephus, the Jewish historian who covered Herod's rule in some significant detail.
One critical historian, David Hill accepts that the incident "contains nothing that is historically impossible", but adds that when Matthew was recording it, his "real concern is ... with theological reflection on the theme of OT fulfilment".
However other historians have pointed out that, as brutal as the massacre of the innocents was, it was also relatively small. Herod's brutality was widespread across his reign. He is even known to have had several members of his immediate family executed, including his wife Mariamne I. At the time of the massacre of the innocents, the dead probably numbered between 5 and 15.
Historian RT France argues for plausibility on the grounds that, "the murder of a few infants in a small village [is] not on a scale to match the more spectacular assassinations recorded by Josephus."
Rabbi Ken Spino described him as "a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis … the evil genius of the Judean nation … prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition".
He also called him "the greatest builder in Jewish history" and it is true that Herod is often remembered not only for the massacre of the innocents, but also for the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, massive fortifications at Masada and Herodium, and of course the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In Christian history however, this temple would not go down well as it was the sight of Jesus's great overturning of the tables, as he forced the swindling money changers out of the building.