The most recent National Geographic (December 2008) arrived this past week with a cover story announcing the “Real King Herod.” During the Christmas season, we often reflect on Herod because of the story preserved in Matthew: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men” (Matthew 2:16).
While I found the article insightful, I challenge a few claims. Although the National Geographic author argues that Herod was “almost certainly innocent of this crime” (40), there is significant evidence that Herod, like other Hellenistic kings and the Roman emperors themselves, killed anyone thought to be a threat to the political stability of the kingdom. Matthew’s account is a firsthand, early Jewish source for some of the events in the first century, recorded well before Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, began writing the story of the First Jewish War against the Romans (AD 66—70). Matthew’s story highlights Herod’s motives and tactics that accord with other primary sources, so historians should certainly be cautious about rejecting him while reconstructing the life of Herod.
Nevertheless, this article does provide some important insights to Herod’s reign beyond the few incidents noted in the New Testament. First, it brings to a much larger public the details of the discovery of Herod’s tomb earlier this year. Ehud Netzer, a prominent Israeli archeologist, had been looking for Herod’s tomb for thirty years before its monumental discovery. Second, this interesting article reveals, through word-pictures and reconstructed drawings of some of Herod’s most significant construction projects, that Herod was a master builder. His greatest achievement for his nation and for Judaism was the reconstruction and expansion of the temple, later known as Herod’s Temple, in Jerusalem.
This article helps us picture the world of Jesus as we become familiar with the people and places he visited. Shortly after Christ was born, Joseph and his mother Mary presented him to the Lord, according the Torah commandment, in the temple at Jerusalem (see Luke 2:22-40). There, a godly man and woman found him in the temple built by Herod and identified him as the long-promised Messiah. Herod the Great ruled Judea and adjacent territories as a client-king of the Roman Empire—the world that witnessed the birth of God’s Son, a world that has nearly vanished away. Only through the efforts of archaeologists and scholars like Ehud Netzer has that world become partially visible again. The recent discovery of Herod’s tomb southeast of Jerusalem adds another tile into the reconstructed mosaic of the world of the New Testament.