Herod, His Progeny, and the Cutting Edge of Power

Typically, these Herodian rulers have been treated as part of the “background” of the New Testament. From the point of view of power, however, they were in the foreground. Unless their policies are taken into account, many aspects of Judaism and Christianity will not be appreciated.

See Also: The Herods. Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2021).

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Philosophy and Religion
Bard College
Annandale, New York
August 2021

Even serious readers of the New Testament can have problems keeping their Herods straight. There were a good number of rulers from the family, ranging from the father of Herod the Great in the first century BCE to Herod’s great-granddaughter at the end of the first century CE. For those who lived under them, however, the distinctive impact of each and every Herodian was visible in their spectacles and buildings, palpable in the favor or displeasure of their armed officers, and sometimes visceral in the letting of blood.

Because the New Testament cannot be understood apart from the power politics of the Herods, I have written a book about the family as a whole and their governing strategies.[1] A brief indication of how formative an influence they exerted on principal figures and events of early Christianity will explain my motivation.

The greatest Roman leaders of their time, Antony and Octavian, presented Herod to the Senate as socius et amicus populi Romani, “an associate and friend of the Roman people.” Rome needed such a friend, to confront vigorous Parthian incursions in the east. Herod became the king of Judea by means of Senatorial appointment in 40 BCE; he and his family — although dedicated to Judaism on the evidence of their many public acts and displays, some of them heroic — played their Roman advantage with elegant savagery for more than a century.

Herod married into the Maccabean family of the high priests, attempting to create a royal and sacerdotal dynasty. Yet even without a personal claim of lineage to the throne or to authority over the Temple, Herod named high priests at will and arranged to hand on his royal title.

For as long as Herod and his successors ruled, they represented the cutting edge of power in Judea. Judaism and Christianity framed teachings in regard to government during this period; those theologies make best sense in the context of what the Herodians were up to. They were up to different things at different times — and while several of them incorporated the name “Herod” to legitimate his rule, each of them was a personality with an agenda of his own, or her own, in a tangled series of forays for succession that lasted until the end of the first century of the Common Era.

Typically, these Herodian rulers have been treated as part of the “background” of the New Testament. From the point of view of power, however, they were in the foreground. Unless their policies are taken into account, many aspects of Judaism and Christianity will not be appreciated.

After Herod won his endorsement from Rome, he had to take back power on the ground from the Parthians. When he did so after a bloody campaign of conquest, he undertook to cleanse the Council in Jerusalem, called the Sanhedrin, of opponents to his rule. His actions at that time and during the course of his long reign set in motion a dynamic of religious resistance to secular power that echoes through Jewish and Christian literature.

Herod had many children, and his sons vied among themselves to succeed their father as king. Several of them moved too quickly to suit Herod, and he had them put to death. Even Mariamme, his favorite wife, met the fate of execution at his order. The Herodians pursued power without scruple, and whatever the cost.

Archelaus, the son of another of Herod’s wives, was named in Herod’s will to inherit the most important part of his territory (Judea), which Archelaus did in 4 BCE when Herod himself finally died. Other sons, Antipas and Philip, had to content themselves with governing smaller regions parceled out from Herod’s realm. The terms of the will also called for Archelaus to be named king, but such an appointment depended upon Rome. Although Archelaus at first enjoyed the backing of Augustus (as Octavian became known as emperor), his recourse to violence was as legendary as it was arbitrary and ultimately ineffective.

When Jesus wanted to tell a parable about a cruel would-be king, he introduced the example of Archelaus without naming him. In order to seal the royal title, Archelaus had left his realm to travel to Rome, but a competing delegation of objectors protested against his rule; when he returned, he only intensified his policy of bloodletting. Jesus alludes to these well-known facts in his parable, traditionally called the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11-28), which he told years after Archelaus’ removal from power by Augustus, who at last had enough of the young man’s incompetence in 6 CE. That period was more than memorable. It saw a revolt against Rome in reaction to Archelaus’ misrule, and the response of the Roman general Varus: he crucified 2,000 rebels by way of exemplary punishment. Rome took over direct rule of Archelaus’ territory by means of an administrator.

Although Archelaus was exiled, his brother Antipas continued to rule as governor of Galilee. He constantly maneuvered for more power, angling to inherit his father’s title, throne, and territory. He never succeeded, but in his quest for the prize, he had detractors such as John the Baptist put to death. Jesus, a disciple of John’s, proved an elusive target, but Antipas found a way to get at him in Jerusalem, outside his officially designated realm. By this time, Jesus’ last year (31-32 CE), the Roman administrator had taken over the authority to name high priests; Antipas found a way to help both Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate by agreeing to the execution of Jesus. A conspiracy that allied a Herodian governor, the high priest, and Rome’s representative typified that period of the emperor Tiberius’ reign. Roman intrigue had become the norm in Judean politics.

Despite all his efforts and a considerable degree of ability, Antipas proved unlucky. The emperor who replaced Tiberius, Caligula, was a great friend and drinking companion of Agrippa, Herod’s grandson and Antipas’ nephew. Agrippa was an astounding success, winning preferential appointment from Caligula, to the point that Antipas’ territory was assigned to him, while Antipas himself was exiled! Agrippa even managed to convince Caligula not to have a statue of himself erected in the Temple in Jerusalem, a proposal that Tacitus commented would have made open war inevitable (Histories 5.9). Then — after Caligula’s assassination in 41 CE — Agrippa helped Claudius to power. Like Claudius, Agrippa also found it convenient to mete out exemplary punishment to the group that came to called Christians (Acts 12:1-2), seeing them as apocalyptic threat that disturbed public order. He ruled as king of the lands of his grandfather, arguably representing the apogee of Herodian power.

Agrippa, today known as Agrippa I or Herod Agrippa I, was not favored with the Herodian trait of robust health. He died of a condition involving gangrene in 44 CE, and his death left a vacuum of power. Judea had become increasingly difficult to govern, and Agrippa I’s son, Agrippa II, was as yet inexperienced; he gradually inherited only a fraction of his father’s territory, although with royal title. Rome ruled Judea proper by administrators again, and over time the results were catastrophic. Agrippa II famously governed with his sister Bereniké as his consort; together they advised successive Roman administrators of Jerusalem in matters including the case against Paul (Acts 25:13-26:32), but the slide into war was by now unstoppable. The Roman general Vespasian invaded what had been the realm of Herod the Great to crush widespread rebellion.

Once the war had begun the official influence of brother and sister was as nothing compared to the personal attraction between Bereniké and Titus, who was Vespasian’s son. He replaced his father in the final phase of the war in Judea, which saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, and then succeeded his father as emperor in 79 CE. Dio Cassius complained that Bereniké behaved as if she were married to Titus, intervening in legal processes in Rome (Roman History 65.15.3-5). Despite resistance to her liaison with Titus, that relationship only ended with his premature death. Until that moment, through Bereniké Judaism was poised to find in Rome the sort of preference that Christianity would later enjoy under Constantine.

The ins and outs of power politics are intriguing in themselves, and often fundamental to understanding their results in terms of the policies that derived from them, and the alternative ideologies that emerged in reaction to them. The Herodians need to be taken as a whole in order to be assessed, especially in their relationship to Roman hegemony, but they also need to be identified as individuals, despite the tendency in the New Testament and modern discussion to conflate one “Herod” with another.

The Herodians have left traces, not only in the New Testament and Rabbinic literature, but among coins and archaeological remains, and within Roman histories. By a wide margin, however, the most intense consideration of the dynasty in antiquity is that of Josephus (seconded, to some extent, by Philo). He, of course, is one of history’s most famous turncoats, since by his own account he had commanded forces against Rome, and then became a propagandist for Vespasian and Titus. In addition, he often tells the same stories in different ways, sometimes to the point of contradicting himself, and freely borrows from earlier and contemporaneous sources.

In days past, when history was supposed to be “objective,” Josephus exemplified how historians should not behave. But egregious faults and all, he remains a well-informed, although thoroughly partisan, reporter. Today, the historical task is regularly recognized as including the evaluation of sources as well as merely citing them. (An exception to this stance occasionally crops up in the New Testament guild, when positivist historiography is deployed to protect the fruits of Fundamentalism.) Once it is understood that Josephus is, above all, a partisan for Josephus, and that his great desire was to see a restored Temple that would empower those of priestly descent such as himself, those who wish to assess the impact of the Herodians on Judaism and Christianity are in a good position to do so. Since the political teachings of New Testament arose largely in response to Herodian government in different forms, sorting out each “Herod” from the others, identifying the particular policies he or she pursued, and understanding how Rome’s imperial grip reached through its Herodian clients are all basic requirements in pursuing the political theologies of earliest Christianity.


[1] The Herods. Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2021).

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.