Herod The Great and The Jew’s Persecution

Herod The Great Persecuted The Jews

Herod The Great by James Tissot (1836-1902)

Herod The Great by James Tissot (1836-1902)

























Herod was born in 73 B.C., as the son of a man from Idumea, which is also known as Edom. His father was Antipater and his mother was Cyprus, the daughter of an Arabian sheik. Antipater was close to Hyrcanus, one of the two princes struggling to become Judean king of the Hasmoneans. Since general Pompey intervened in Hyrcanus’ favor and Antipater favored the winning side in the conflict, Antipater rose in favor, especially since he cooperated with the Romans. In the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, Hyrcanus and Antipater sided with Caesar. In 47 B.C., he was appointed epitropos (regent) and received the Roman citizenship.[1]

Antipater was the real power behind Hyrcanus’ throne. He managed to secure the appointment of his young son Herod to be governor of Galilee. The boy, who was only sixteen years old, launched a small crusade against bandits, which made him very popular with the people and unpopular with the Sanhedrin because he took control of Israel away from them. It now appeared to the Jews that in addition to the Romans occupying them, now this man from Edom would too.

On March 15, 44 B.C., Caesar was murdered. The new leaders in Rome were Caesar’s nephew Octavian and Caesar’s powerful second-in-command Mark Antony. They announced that they would punish Caesar’s murderers, Brutus and Cassius, who fled to the East. Cassius ordered all provinces and principalities to be taxed in order to pursue their struggle against Octavian and Mark Antony. Judea was required to pay some fifteen thousand kilograms of silver. Antipater and his sons had to take harsh measures on the Jews to get the money, and in the ensuing troubles, Antipater was killed. With the help of the Romans, Herod killed his father’s murderer.

In 43 B.C., Hyrcanus’ nephew, Antigonus, tried to obtain the throne. Herod defeated him, and secured the continuity of the line of Hyrcanus by marrying Hyrcanus’ daughter, Mariamne. Politically astute Herod realized that this marriage enhanced his own claim to the throne.

Meanwhile, Octavian and Mark Antony had defeated Brutus and Cassius (at Philippi, in 42 B.C.). Herod managed to convince Mark Antony, who made a tour through the eastern provinces that had supported Caesar’s murderers, that his father had been forced to support their side. The Roman leader was convinced, and awarded Herod with the title of tetrarch of Galilee, a title that was commonly used for the leaders of parts of Roman vassal kingdoms. (Herod’s brother Phasael was to be tetrarch of Jerusalem; Hyrcanus remained the Jewish national leader in name only.) This appointment caused a lot of resentment among the Jews because Herod was not a Jew. He was the son of a man from Idumea; and although Antipater had been a pious man who had worshipped Jehovah God sincerely, the Jews had always looked down upon the Idumeans as racially impure. Worse, Herod had an Arabian mother, and it was commonly held that one could only be a Jew if born from a Jewish mother.

When war broke out between the Romans and the Parthians (in modern Iran and Iraq), the Jewish populace joined the latter. In 40 B.C., Hyrcanus was taken prisoner and brought to the Parthian capital Babylon; Antigonus became king in his place; Phasael committed suicide. Herod escaped to Rome, where he persuaded Octavian and the Senate to order Mark Antony to restore him. After Mark Antony and his lieutenants had driven away the Parthians, Herod was brought back to Jerusalem by two legions (37 B.C). Antigonus was defeated; Herod captured Jerusalem and defeated his last known opposition. He could now start his reign as sole ruler of Judea. He assumed the title of “basileus”, the highest possible Roman title.

The start of Herod’s reign was marked by bloodshed. His first aim was to establish his rule on a more solid base, using political acumen. Almost immediately, he sent envoys to the Parthian king to get Hyrcanus back from Babylon. The Parthian king was happy to let him go, because he was becoming dangerously popular among the Jews living in Babylonia. Although Hyrcanus was unfit to become high priest again, Herod kept his father-in-law in high esteem. The support of the old monarch gave an appearance of legality to his own rule.

The new king started an extensive building program: new walls of Jerusalem and the citadel, which guarded its Temple. (This fortress was called Antonia, in order to please Herod’s patron Mark Antony.) Coins were minted in his own name and showed an incense burner on a tripod, intended to signify Herod’s care for the Mosaic Law. And the new king continued to please the Romans, to make sure that they would continue their support. He sent lavish gifts to their representative in the East, Mark Antony, and to his mistress, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. These gifts almost were Herod’s demise . The relations between Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the East and on the other hand Octavian and the Senate in the West became strained, and civil war broke out in 31 B.C. It did not last very long: in August, the western leader defeated the eastern leader, who fled to Alexandria. For the first time in his life, Herod had aligned himself with a loser.

His political acumen enabled him to pull himself out of this problem. First, he had Hyrcanus executed; making sure that no one else could claim his throne. Then, he sailed to the island of Rhodes, where he met Octavian. In a brilliant speech, Herod boasted of his loyalty to Mark Antony, and promised the same to the new master of the Roman Empire. Octavian was impressed by the man’s audacity, confirmed Herod’s monarchy, and even added the coast of Judea and Samaria to his realm. Actually, Octavian did not have much choice: his opponents were still alive, and if he were to pursue them to Egypt, Herod could be a useful ally. As it turned out, Mark Antony and Cleopatra preferred suicide to surrender, and Octavian became the only ruler in the Roman world. He changed his name to Augustus and became the first emperor. He rewarded his ally with new possessions, Jericho and Gaza, which had been independent entities.

Herod’s position was still insecure with the Jews. He continued his building policy to win them over.[2] (A severe earthquake in 31 B.C. had destroyed many houses, killing thousands of people.) In Jerusalem, the king built a new market, an amphitheater, a theater, a new building where the Sanhedrin could convene, a new royal palace, and lastly, in 20 B.C. he started to rebuild the Temple. And there were other cities where he ordered new buildings to be placed: Jericho and Samaria are examples. New fortresses served the security of both the Jews and their king: Herodion, Machaereus and Masada are among them.

But Herod’s crowning achievement was a new port, called Caesarea in honor of the emperor (the harbor was called Sebastos, the Greek translation of Augustus). This magnificent and opulent city, which was dedicated in 9 B.C., was build to rival Alexandria in the land trade to Arabia, from where spices, perfume and incense were imported. It was not an oriental town like Jerusalem; it was laid out on a Greek grid plan, with a market, an aqueduct, government offices, baths, villas, a circus, and pagan temples. (The most important of these was the temple where the emperor was worshipped; it commanded the port.)

Although Herod was a dependent client-king, he had a foreign policy of his own. He had already defeated the Arabs from Petra in 31 B.C., and repeated this in 9 B.C. The Romans did not like this independent behavior, but on the whole, they seem to have been very content with their king of Judea. In 23 B.C., Iturea and the Golan heights were added to Herod’s realms.

With building projects, the expansion of his territories, the establishment of a sound bureaucracy, and the development of economic resources, he did much for his country, at least on a material level. The standing of his country, foreign and at home was certainly enhanced. However, many of his projects won him the bitter hatred of the Jews, who disliked Herod’s Greek taste, a taste he showed not only in his building projects, but also in his transgressions of the Mosaic Law.

The orthodox were not the only ones who came to hate the new king. The Sadducees hated him because he had terminated the rule of the old royal house to which many of them were related; their own influence in the Sanhedrin was curtailed. The Pharisees despised any ruler who despised the Law. And probably all his subjects resented his excessive taxation. According to Flavius Josephus, there were two taxes at annual rates equivalent to 10.7% and 8.6%, which is extremely high in any preindustrial society.[3]

Clearly, Herod was not a Jewish but a Roman king. He sometimes would revert to violence, employing mercenaries and secret police to enforce order. He had become the ruler of the Jews with Roman help and he boasted to be “philokaisar” (the emperor’s friend). On top of the gate of the new Temple, a golden eagle was erected, a symbol of Roman power in the heart of the holy city resented by all pious believers. Worse, Augustus ordered and paid the priests of the Temple to sacrifice twice a day on behalf of himself, the Roman Senate and the people. Herod clearly added to the chaos and occupation of Israel.

He was hated by the Jews, as were his sons after him. Herod evoked the hatred of the Jews because:

He was appointed their king as a non-Jew.

He took additional control away from them in terms of their affairs.

He took their money.

He built Greek like buildings & dedicated them to the Romans.

He transgressed the Mosaic Law.

He employed violence including secret police to persecute them.

 Jesus the Christ predicted the Roman persecution in 70 AD:

And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it,

Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things [which belong] unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.

For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side,

And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation. (Luke 19:41-44)


The persecutions of the Jews since the time of Christ have lasted to date at least two thousand years. From about 32 A.D. until Jesus the Christ returns, the persecutions the Jews suffered are a direct result of their failure to accept Jesus Christ as their Messiah. When they do accept Him it will be at the end of the Tribulation and they will cry out to Him:


Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until [the time] come when ye shall say, Blessed [is] he that cometh in the name of the Lord. (Luke 13:3-5)

The persecutions that have occurred since Christ left the earth are described outside of the Biblical text. They all  have the same root cause: primarily the non-belief of the Jews to believe in Jesus the Christ as their Messiah, which results in God’s righteous judgment.

[1] Unger, Merrill F., Harrison, R.K., ed. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Chicago, IL:

Moody Press, 1988. 556.

[2] Unger, Merrill F. Harrison, R.K., ed. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988, 556.

[3] Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Josephus. Translated by William Whiston. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987, 202-206.