Off the Shelf: Herod: master builder or monster?

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

In one of the Christian stories of Jesus, Herod the Great (73-4 B.C.E.) is portrayed as a monster: he’s said to have ordered the death of innocent children in order to kill a prophesied king of the Jews. In the biography “Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World” (Jewish Lives Series/Yale University Press), Martin Goodman, emeritus professor of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford, casts great doubt on the tale, noting that not only don’t the dates match up correctly, but the earliest Christian gospels make no mention of the story. What Goodman finds ironic is that a man so concerned with his posthumous reputation should be slandered after his death.

However, Jewish sources were not always kind to Herod either, something Goodman explores in great detail. Some even question whether Herod was Jewish since his father was an Idumaean, as those who lived in an area south of Judea were called. They did not consider Idumaeans fully Jewish because the group retained its own identity as a community separate from Judea during Herod’s lifetime. To make matters worse, his father and mother (who was a Nabataean Arab) were commoners who had no connection to the royal families that had ruled over Judea. 

Goodman’s work focuses on several aspects of Herod’s life: his gaining of the kingship, his political maneuvering, his problematic relationship with his sons, his political and social connections to Rome and his relationship to Judaism. It is the latter subject that will interest most readers of this review. Although writers have questioned whether Herod thought of himself as Roman or Jewish, Goodman notes that he may have had a dual identity, something that would not have been problematic during that time period: “Neither Herod nor anyone else in the Roman world considered being both Jewish and Roman a problem. Multiple identities were common – provincials thought of themselves as Roman even while continuing to identify as Greeks or Gauls. There was no reason for Herod to consider the idiosyncracies of [Judean] customs a bar to dual identity, particularly when the emperor had shown such favor to the Jews’ central shrine in Jerusalem.” 

However, Goodman notes that Herod did feel a great connection to Rome. Rome made him king, even though he had no royal blood, and Herod greatly admired its culture. The cities and buildings he built resembled those of Rome. When it came to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, though, Herod tried to maintain its Jewish character, except for the golden eagle that was placed above the Temple gate. This eagle offended many Jews because they saw it as a symbol of Rome and the Roman emperor, which did not belong anywhere near their place of worship. In fact, just before Herod’s death, Jews who rebelled against his reign tore the eagle from its place.

The fact that Herod was not related to the former Hasmonaean rulers, who were also members of the priestly class, was actually something positive for his reign. That meant he did not have to take sides on the religious debates of the time. Goodman notes that “Herod could stay above the religious fray. He did not need to be drawn in when religious pressure groups like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenees clamored for their own interpretation of the Torah be followed at the national shrine.” However, the author notes that Herod did suppress religious opposition to his reign, creating what would today be called a police state: people were not allowed to gather and spies watched their every move. While Goodman notes this is an exaggeration, he believes the underlying idea is correct: discontent was suppressed, often with the death of the offender. 

The descriptions of Herod’s marital life – he married several times – read like the worst kind of soap opera, with intrigues and opposing sides. The king’s displeasure with his relatives was the cause of many deaths, making some quip that it was better to be Herod’s pig (which he would not eat because of Jewish dietary laws) than his son (many of whom he punished). However, this soap opera also reads as a tragedy worthy of a Shakespeare play, as Herod often punished the wrong person and was too often influenced by lies and half-truths. Goodman tries to sort out exactly what occurred, but some answers are beyond the author’s reach.

Those interested in Roman history will also find a great deal of detail about the machinations and stratagems of those competing to rule Rome, since what happened there affected the rest of the empire, including Herod’s kingdom. Local rulers were forced to show their loyalty to the ever-changing politics of their conquerors, since many served at the behest of Rome. This often meant deciding which of the many aspiring to rule would succeed and providing armies as needed.

“Herod the Great” is well done and would be of interest to those looking to learn more about this historic period in Judea, although it may not appeal to the general reader. Keeping track of the many names and relationships was difficult at times; a family tree would have been helpful since several relatives of Herod had the same name. The work ended with a chronology highlighting what was happening in Judea, Rome and the East that was extremely useful.