The Herodian Dynasty in New Testament Times As the Herods Turn

By Marc W. Gibson

It is said that fact is stranger than fiction. History has proven this to be true numerous times. In the Bible we encounter some very interesting and strange people. Most people have heard of Herod the Great, but few realize how many people that impacted New Testament history came from his family. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, wrote a great deal about Herod and his family and their twisted story puts modern-day soap operas to shame. It can be helpful to take a closer look at the individual members of the Herod family tree in order to appreciate the background of some of the events of Jesus’ life and the early church.

Herod the Great was born a Roman, Edomite, Idumaean Jew. The dynasty of his ruling house would impact history from 63 B.C. to A.D. 70. He was the son of Antipater II and Cypros. Antipater II was a friend of Julius Caesar and was procurator of Idumaea and Judea. Herod befriended Mark Antony and Octavius (Augus- tus), and was given the rule of Palestine where he was crowned king of the Jews in 37 B.C. The secret to the success of Herod and his ruling family was their favor with the men who were the emperors in their day, and the loyalty of a majority of their subjects. They were master politicians and ruthless to those who threatened their power. Herod the Great established these principles from the beginning.

Herod built the town of Caesarea with its great harbor on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. He built numerous fortresses but is best known for beginning the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem in 20 B.C. Herod is mentioned in the New Testament as murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem in his vain attempt to kill Jesus (Matt. 2:1-20). His immediate family consisted of ten wives and numerous children. He died in 4 B.C.

Of Herod the Great’s children, four are mentioned in the New Testament: (1) Philip — tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis (Luke 3:1), (2) Archelaus — ruler of Judea upon the death of his father (Matt. 2:22), (3) Herod Philip (Mark 6:17), and (4) Herod Antipas — tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (Luke 3:1).

Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39, was the ruler who had John the Baptist beheaded. John had told him that it was unlawful for him to be married to Herodias, his brother Herod Philip’s wife. Herodias was the granddaughter of Herod the Great through his son Aristobulus. She married her uncle (her father’s half-brother) Herod Philip, and had a daughter, Salome, by this marriage. Herodias then fell in love with another uncle, Herod Antipas. She left Herod Philip and married Antipas. Herod Antipas had earlier married a Nabatean princess, the daughter of king Aretas IV (2 Cor. 11:32). When he and Herodias fell in love, the princess escaped to her father who started a war with Antipas and won. Herodias hated John for his denunciation of her unlawful marriage with Antipas, so when her daughter Salome danced before Antipas causing him to make a rash oath to give her whatever she asked, Herodias had her ask for the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29). Salome later married her great uncle, Philip the tetrarch, making her both aunt and sister-in-law to her own mother. This was a complex and tangled mess of marriages, intermarriages, and adulterous relationships.

Jesus called Herod Antipas a “fox” (Luke 13:32), and Antipas thought Jesus might be John the Baptist risen from the dead (Matt. 14:1-2). Jesus stood on trial before Antipas who hoped to see a miracle, which did not happen (Luke 23:6-12). He was later banished to Gaul by the emperor Caligula in A.D. 39 where he lived out his last days with Herodias.

Herodias’ father was Aristobulus, son of Herod the Great, who had married his cousin, Bernice, the daughter of Herod the Great’s sister, Salome. Along with Herodias, they also had a son Herod Agrippa I. He was a friend of emperor Caligula and made ruler in A.D. 37, he became a persecutor of the early church, killing the apostle James, and imprisoning Peter (Acts 12:1-19). He died in A.D. 44, struck fatally by an angel of the Lord and eaten of worms (Acts 12:20-23).

Three children of Herod Agrippa I are mentioned in the New Testament: Herod Agrippa II, Bernice, and Drusilla. Drusilla married the king of Emesa, but left him to marry Felix, governor of Judea. The apostle Paul spoke before Felix in Caesarea (Acts 24:24-26). Bernice was married to her uncle and second husband, Herod king of Chalcis, when she left him to live with her brother, Herod Agrippa II. When rumors of incest arose, she married Polemo of Cilicia, but soon returned to live with her brother again. The incestuous relationship became the chatter in Rome. Paul spoke before Herod Agrippa II and Bernice in Caesarea (Acts 25:13-26:32). Herod admitted that he was almost persuaded to become a Christian (v. 28). Bernice later became a mistress of the emperor Titus. Herod Agrippa II lived until about A.D. 100.

Without a doubt these facts are stranger than fiction, for who could have ever dreamed up this jumbled and confused family of ungodly people? They obviously had no regard for the law of God or standards of righteousness. Selfish and paranoid in protecting his human power, Herod the Great tried to kill the Savior of the world. Herod Antipas was a coward who had the blood of the murder of John the Baptist on his hands. Herodias was a vindictive adulteress who allowed her daughter to dance seductively for the lustful eyes of leering men. Her brother, Herod Agrippa I, was a persecutor of the church and had the blood of the apostle James on his hands. Herod Agrippa II cavorted with his own sister in ways that caused chatter and rumors of incest. Yet, many today would find all this acceptable and humorous. But not God. He struck Herod Agrippa I dead and will judge each member of this sordid family in the last day. They were all close to someone who would have taught, or did teach, them the way of righteousness, but to no avail. Only one almost became a Christian. We must learn from their sad examples and live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world (Tit. 2:11-12).

From Leader, Lakeland Hills Church of Christ, Lakeland, Florida

Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 6  p16  March 15, 2001