Was the notorious King Herod from the New Testament anything like today’s political leaders?
We learned a lot about King Herod from reading New Testament stories about Jesus’ birth, including his encounter with the wise men, his massacre of the children in Bethlehem, his beheading of John the Baptist and his role in the trials of Jesus before the crucifixion.
Scholars tell us there were several different Herods who are featured in the New Testament accounts. But they agree that the most important Herod was Herod the Great, who is the most interesting character in UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Jody Magness’s new book titled Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth.
Masada is a rocky promontory rising above a bleak desert landscape near the Dead Sea. It is, notwithstanding its remote location, one of the most visited tourist attractions in Israel today.
After the Romans defeated a Jewish rebellion and destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D., a group of Jewish zealots and resisters of Roman rule held out at Masada against Roman soldiers who surrounded the mountain and prepared elaborate siege works.
According to the historian, Josephus, when it became apparent in 73 A.D. that Romans were going to overcome them, the zealots, rather than being captured or killed by the Romans, committed mass suicide. Their resistance and sacrifice is an important part of the culture of today’s Israel. Israeli patriots and soldiers voice their determination never to surrender by adopting the rallying cry, “Masada, never again.”
Professor Magness is an internationally-known archaeologist whose recent excavation at a fifth century synagogue in Galilee has uncovered beautiful and historically significant mosaics.
In earlier times she led archaeological activities at Masada. She also served as a guide there, taking more than 100 groups to visit the top of the mountain and the ruins of the expansive complex developed by Herod.
Herod the Great was long dead when the Jewish resisters faced the Roman siege. But when in power, he had fortified it and used it as a safe getaway. On the top of the mount, he built a complex of palaces, synagogues, storage rooms, and cooking facilities. It was one of his safe and secure Camp Davids or Mar-a-Lagos.
Herod was born in about 73 B.C. into a family that had been loosely connected to the ruling family of the Jewish territory. But Herod’s family was not royalty, and in fact, was not even Jewish.
He was not an insider and, strictly speaking, not eligible to become king. But with the help of Romans who were ambitiously expanding their presence in the area, Herod defeated his rivals for the kingship in about 40 B.C. Over the next 20 years he gained control of much more territory. By the time of his death in 4 B.C., he was reigning over more land than any other Jewish ruler including David and Solomon.
On the positive side Herod was a great builder of ambitious projects in addition to the works at Masada. Development of a vast port complex at Caesarea, renovation and expansion of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and construction of ornate palaces and strongholds in Jerusalem and Jericho are just examples.
Many of his Jewish subjects hated Herod because of his non-Jewish ancestry, his cooperation with the growing Roman presence of occupation forces, and his harsh rule.
Herod was paranoid. Fearing plots against him from family members, he ordered the execution of his wife and two of their sons.
He was also an egomaniac. Four of his surviving sons were named Herod, creating some of the confusion in the New Testament.
When you think about the character failings of some modern political leaders, just remember that it could have been worse.
We could have had Herod the Great.
D.G. Martin is the host of North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on WUNC-TV.