Herod, The Builder

Herod the Great is one of the well-known historical figures from the New Testament. Although he dies just after Jesus is born, his influence continues well after his death.  His sons rule the region of Palestine until the Jewish War in A.D. 66. He was appointed procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar in 47 B.C., and King in 37 B. C.  Since  Herod was only half-Jewish, and was hated by the Jews because he was an “outsider.”  He was an excellent administrator and politician. Since he ruled with the ruthless efficiency respected by Roman Empire he was left to run his kingdom with no interference from Rome.  He began an aggressive building campaign throughout the region, but especially Jerusalem.


Caesarea, Herod’s tribute to the Roman Empire

Despite marrying an Hasmonean princess, Mariamme, he was never accepted by the Jewish people as a Jewish king.  His family was Idumean, forcible converts to Judaism, and therefore not really Jewish. Perhaps in an attempt to win favor with the Jewish people he expanded the Temple mount and re-built the whole complex, making it one of the most beautiful temples in the ancient world.

Herod was increasingly paranoid with a well-documented history of cruelty toward family and friends. This included the execution of his wife, whom he appears to have truly loved and his brother, whom he suspected of plotting against him.   Because of his cruelty, Augustus is reputed to have said “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

Herod wrote a will that divided Palestine between three of his sons (he had ten wives, all of whom wanted their child to succeed him.)  The three remaining sons, each took the title “Tetrarch” (ruler of a fourth) or “Ethnarch” (ruler of people).

Herod is usually remembered as the madman who slaughtered the infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the Messiah. This is true, Herod was a brutal and paranoid man who killed his own wife and children in order to prevent them from rebelling against him.  It is true that Herod was a evil person who ruled with an iron fist.  But early in his reign he was a skillful administrator who was able to control a rebellious province.  What is more, he initiated many building projects which brought Judea respect in the Roman world.

Herod built several fortress-palaces, included Masada and the Herodium.  Masada is a well known desert palace built by Herod, although the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus was the first for fortify the mountain. The Herodium is near Bethlehem and was designed by Herod as a fortress and burial site.

Perhaps Herod’s greatest achievement was this renovation of the Temple in Jerusalem.  When it was finished, it rivaled Solomon’s Temple in glory.   He began in 19 B.C., and finished the temple in 18 months, but took another 8 years to build the courtyards.    Although the complete Temple complex was not finished until A.D.  64,  Herod doubled the size of Zerubbabel’s temple.  Since the design of the Temple is found in scripture, Herod expanded the buildings around the Temple, enclosing the original mountain in a rectangular box and expanded the buildings associated with the Temple area.

The port-city of Caesarea Maritima was marvel of architecture and engineering. Herod built a thoroughly Roman city which was a tribute it his power and wealth.  The artificial port at Caesarea is one of the more amazing structures built by Herod.   Caesarea was built as a Roman city included a theater and hippodrome.

The best text on Herod’s building projects is Ehud Netzer, The Architecture of Herod the Great Builder (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).  This is an excellent description of Herod’s projects.  It is technical, but still readable.

12 thoughts on “Herod, The Builder

  1. Was Herod’s temple built to the specs God gave in the Old Testament?

    • Hey Jeff, it’s been a while. Hope all is well in Zambia. I believe that Herod did not change the design of the actual Temple building, since that was more or less “scriptural.” The whole Temple platform, however, was an addition and all of the courts and colonnades were his.

      The Hasmonean dynasty expanded the mount as well, Herod’s retaining walls are beyond those built by the Hasmoneans. I have a picture of a spot on the Temple mount where you can see the old Hasmonean wall, I should post it here.

  2. Yeah, it has been a while. Our internet connection here is very unreliable.
    Yeah, that would be neat to see that picture. I appreciate the pics to the left of your blog.

  3. At least you have a connection. I will dig out that pic in the next couple of days, Freshmen are arriving today so there are many things to prepare for next week!

  4. Reading both this blog and Strauss’ writings on Herod has been very interesting. It is hard to reconcile Herod and his cruelty with his many architectural accomplishments. Having visited both Caesarea Maritima and Masada, it is astonishing to not only see firsthand the things he had built (and are still standing), but to associate those same accomplishments with the ruler who ordered infants to be slaughtered. I remember standing underneath the remains of the aqueduct at Caesarea and marveling at just the sheer ingenuity that was necessary to build these massive structures. How could someone who was so evil also do so much for the prosperity of Judea? To me, it truly emphasizes his madness. Herod “presented himself as the protector of Judaism and sought to gain the favor of the Jews” (Strauss p.134) in tangible ways including rebuilding the temple “to a greater splendor than even in the time of Solomon” (Strauss p. 134). But he was a horrible, paranoid ruler. In the end, no amount of great works can atone for the atrocities he committed. I find it interesting to see how someone’s obsession with not only greatness, but a need of acceptance by the Jews, led to such a desire to prove his worth. Strauss embodies his sheer insanity in this one sentence, “Herod the Great was a volatile combination of a clever and efficient ruler and a cruel tyrant” (p. 133). Looking back in history at the many ruler’s that could be defined similarly, there is a part of me which struggles to understand just why God allows people such as Herod to be put in a position of power and control. Yet in the end, I know that God is in control of all things. This knowledge, while admittedly hard to fully understand at times, is what can bring comfort when faced with difficulties that seem defeating.

  5. This is all very interesting information, I only know herod as the one who killed the baby boys in Bethlehem like you stated. I did not realize the great feats he has accomplished and how much of an impact he had in his Kingdom. I would love to see some of the buildings that Herod had built during his reign. After just reading chapter 9 in Judaism Before Jesus written by Anthony J. Tomasino talked about how ruthless King Herod was. Killing his own wife and a whole group of people after word of an assasination coming his way. He had people put to death just out of suspicion for trying to assassinate him, possible innocent people. Herod had suspicion that his wife Mariamne was cheating on him so “had Mariamnes’s eunuch tortured” (Tomasino,264). It seemed that he did not like to mess around especially when his spot on the throne was in trouble. It is crazy to think that such a ruthless horrible man set up something great for his kingdom to come. It seems that some hated him like the Jews and some loved what he was doing and all of the projects that he was accomplishing. He was a very skilful man, and did his job well. I am surprised by how confident and ruthless this guy was that he was so insecure in his role and was paranoid consistently about being killed and having the throne be stolen from him.

  6. Herod is what I would say a mix of a good king and not so good just based on the mixture of stories. He did kill a great number of people and was also very paranoid about someone taking the throne from him which caused great problems for others. This alone is enough for me to wonder if he was a great ruler. As you stated in the post he did help rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and also was a good administrator and politician. With these two things, I could see how he reigned but seemed to lack the empathy that should go along with being in power. Slaughtering children and humans out of fear is not a sign of a good leader. There is the story of the baby boys in Bethlehem and I think that is what most people think about when they hear the name Herod in this time period. Tomasino had a lot of different stories regarding Herod that some seemed so far out there I wondered if it was true, but digging deeper into the history and what facts there are, it’s a mixture of good and bad. He did try to help in what he thought was good so because of that, I don’t think it is fair to just dismiss the things he has done but to take into account that everyone has their own perception of what they think was good and bad.

  7. Growing up I only knew Herod as the “monster” that killed so many innocent babies and seemed a bit crazy, but I never really knew why and a lot of background on how he was as a king or how he got there in the first place. I really wonder why he even got into power if he was known as crazy, but reading through the chapter for this week it was really interesting to learn the influence he had in the history of the Roman Empire and the Jews at the time. He clearly had his downfalls, but I feel like he had done so much more than most would have expected. “He also worked hard to secure the rights of Jews throughout the Roman Empire so that Jewish people everywhere would be free to observe their customs unmolested” (Tomasino, 267). This was so contradicting to what I knew of Herod. I didn’t know that he put in such an effort to take care of the Jews by trying to respect their customs. He also built temples that respected them and he was part Jew. I think that this shows how important it is to learn about the history and culture of the people in the Bible.

  8. Before learning more about him in class and after reading this blog, I did not know that Herod did all of these things. When I think of Herod, I automatically think of him as being a bad guy from what I did know about him. Though I know more about some of the good things that he did, I still lean more on the “bad guy” side of things. Killing the Innocents is something that makes it very hard for me to side with Herod because that is something that is very cruel and should never have happened. I get very upset when I read about that story because I can only imagine how terrible that would have been. I also think in my personal opinion, that the murder of his wife should not have happened. The main thing that i do like about Herod however is that he did rebuild the Temple. I think that this was a smart thing for him to do. I find it interesting that a lot of the Jewish people were not happy with him because he was not fully Jewish. It makes sense that he would want to build the Temple again because of this, though maybe it should have been someone else because of everything that Herod did. I think it is very interesting to learn about Herod because there are a lot of mixed views on him. Whether or not you like him, you cannot say that he did not make a huge impact in the history of Christianity.

  9. I have always heard of Herod “the Great” as this big great builder/ruler who built the “seven wonders of the world”. Oh, and the fact that he tried to murder Jesus as an infant! Herd the Great was not all great. He murdered “his wife and children to prevent them from rebelling against him” (Long, 2010). However, “he restored and expanded the Jerusalem temple into one of the great buildings of the ancient world” (Strauss, p. 154). It is funny how it seems Herod had two different faces. On one side he was this great ruler who built marvels; even to today’s standards. Then if we flip it over we have this baby killing, family murdering lunatic who was somehow in charge of a nation!

    Believe it or not, I think Christians can learn from Herod. I mean, let’s face it. Do most Christians today have this two-faced nature? Yes. We say we are Christians, go to Church on Sunday, and build up this great foundation. But then go about our week tearing that foundation away out of fear. When in reality, Herod the Great should have been the first one celebrating in the temple that he rebuilt! After all, its purpose was to worship the Lord!

    Another point is, Herod the Great was not a Godly ruler. This could be the case in many of our modern-day situations. This does not mean we have to agree/follow what he does. Rather in what he does, know God has a hand in all of it and it is happening for a reason that you may not see yet!

  10. King Herod, while primarily known by Christians for his ruthless degree to kill all infant boys in Bethlehem, he was also a skilled administrator and masterful builder who engaged in several notable building projects, including the renovation of the temple. Herod, from the beginning of his reign, suffered from a lack of support from the Jewish people, as he was an Idumean, who were considered not truly a Jew since they were a forcibly converted people. Yet, he still found success in navigating ruling Israel under the dominion of the Roman Empire, being recognized as a respected administrator that required little interference from Rome. His renovation of the Temple in 19 B.C. vastly expanded the dimensions around the temple, as by AD 64 it doubled the size of Zerubbabel’s temple. Herod respected the description of the dimension of the temple found within Scripture, as he did not desire to upset the already weary Jewish population, only constructing around the temple.
    As Christians, we tend to only remember certain figures or groups from their descriptions in the New Testament, without acknowledging the broader context that these figures and populations existed in the first century. Herod, while truthfully a ruthless ruler, was not only a sinister figure, but someone who was able to navigate the political scene quite gracefully, and constructed many wonderous buildings. A similar phenomenon is experienced by Pharisees, who are often perceived as legalists who were more concerned with public image then true observance of Scripture. While for many Pharisees this description may be accurate, we must be willing to pull back the curtain of the first century and continue to study this group, as from this limited knowledge many Christians have held misconceptions about the beliefs and motives of the Pharisees. Similarly, we must not only see King Herod in relation to his actions towards baby Jesus in Bethlehem, but also his broader administration and contributions to Jewish culture and life under Greco-Roman rule.

  11. I have always found Herod the Great to be an interesting figure in Second Temple Period history. Some Herod managed to be a horrible king and a good administrator at the same time. During his reign, he did some notable things such as renovating the Temple in Jerusalem which was viewed as a positive thing to the Jews. However, he did many terrible things during his reign like killing both his wife and brother and many many babies.

    It is clear that Herod definitely was not the greatest king that Judea ever had, but not all of what he did was terrible. When you compare how Christians and the Jewish people view Herod the Great compared to how the Romans viewed him, it really shows the depth of who he was as a ruler. Christians view Herod the Great as a monster, and I would say that this view is justified. After all, he did order for all babies in Bethlehem to be killed in an attempt to kill baby Jesus. The Jews were opposed to Herod throughout his entire reign despite his efforts to get them to accept him. However, the Roman Empire respected him since he was a ruthless yet efficient ruler. Overall, I would not say that Herod the Great was a great ruler by any means, but it is important to give credit where it is due for the few good things that he did do.

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