A repeating theme in Second Temple Judaism is the expectation for a political messiah that would rule Judea. While Christians are aware of this primarily through the expectations that Jesus of Nazareth encountered during his ministry, there are many other people who tried to fulfill that role. Herod the Great may have been one of these people who claimed messiahship. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jodi Magness discussed Herod the Great. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
First, it is important to note who Herod the Great was. As Jodi Magness explained:
King Herod ruled Judea as client king on behalf of Rome from 40 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. He was the son of an Idumaean Jew named Antipater and a Nabataean woman named Cypros. …
For most people, Herod is probably most known for the massacre of the innocents described in Matthew 2:16, according to which he ordered all boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem put to death after being informed that the Messiah had just been born. …
Among archaeologists who work in Israel, Herod is known as the greatest builder in the country’s history.
So, Herod the Great has a few things for which he is known, even today. And his descendants are also found throughout the New Testament time—such as Herod Agrippa, Herod Antipas and Philip the tetrarch—leaving a further legacy from King Herod.
Speaking of the New Testament, Herod and his followers show up a few times throughout. Jodi Magness discussed some of who they may have been:
Most scholars nowadays believe the Herodians were prominent and influential members of the (Jerusalem) elite associated with Herod’s court.
However, a long list of ancient and modern writers (from the third century CE on) identified the Herodians as a Jewish sect that considered Herod (or his son Herod Antipas or his grandson Herod Agrippa I) to be the Messiah. …
The authors of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew present the Herodians as a Jewish group who conspired with the Pharisees against Jesus.
So, Herodians appear from time to time as a group who opposed Jesus and who may have regarded Herod the Great as the Messiah.
Part of this movement’s feelings may have been captured in a biography written about King Herod that has not survived to modern times and in Herod’s tomb. As Magness wrote:
The massive tumulus, apparently added after Herod’s visit to Rome in 12 B.C.E., recalled the Mausoleum of Augustus, through whose agency Herod claimed to have fulfilled Jewish messianic expectations.
In support of these claims, Herod asserted Babylonian Jewish origins, rebuilt the Jerusalem temple, announced the arrival of a period of peace and prosperity that heralded the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, and tied himself to the birthplace of David by situating his final resting place—a royal, dynastic monument and victory memorial – overlooking Bethlehem.
Literary traditions about the Herodians support the possibility that some ancient Jews accepted Herod as the Messiah. The mountain of Herodium, which bears Herod’s name and was planned as his final resting place and everlasting memorial, is a visual expression of these claims and the closest we come to hearing directly from the man himself.
Of course, the Christian tradition (and the New Testament) would say otherwise and Matthew may have portrayed Herod as being threatened by the birth of Jesus as being an expression of insecurity about his own claims and facing someone who might have a more legitimate claim to the title.
For more about Herod the Great and Herod’s Tomb, head on over and read the full interview with Jodi Magness at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.