History of King Herod: Why was he called Great?

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Herod the Great

Young Herod

By this time, Herod had been ruling for over 30 years. First as governor of Galilee when he was a young man in his twenties, then as tetrarchs under the Roman leader Marc Antony. Due to a local disagreement with his uncle, Herod fled to Rome. While some might think that Judea was a third rate province on the edge of the Roman Empire, it played a role in Roman politics due to General Pompey having conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C. While in Rome, Herod was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate itself. Judea was not quite a Senatorial province, nor was it an Imperial province ruled by the Emperor, rather it was considered a satellite of nearby Syria, a more important province at the time, ruled by a prefect. This distinction would play a significant role in the Easter story and the fate of Pontius Pilate.

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Second Temple

Older Herod

Later in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities we see a different, older Herod. Both the Sadducee and Pharisee sects opposed him. As a Nabatean and Edomite, though he converted to Judaism, he was considered no more than a half-Jew, too Roman for his people, from whom he extracted a heavy tax toll. He’d introduced foreign forms of entertainment and games and sponsored the building of pagan cities. His own family opposed him, and he killed three of his sons, his favorite wife, her grandfather, her mother, his brother-in-law, not to mention some his own subjects. He frequently wrote to Rome requesting permission to execute one or more of his sons for suspected treason. Eventually, even his patron and friend Augustus admitted, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” It was not only a play on the similar sounding Greek words for son and pig but a wry observation that the Jews, at least, do not eat pork.


As he neared the end of his life, Josephus tells us that the pain of his illnesses — chronic kidney disease complicated by Fournier’s gangrene which ran in the family — led Herod to attempt suicide, but his cousin prevented it. He was anxious that no one would mourn his death, which was a good guess. To that end, he commanded a large number of disinterested men to come to the great hippodrome at Jericho where, on the announcement of his death, archers would kill them all and grant his wish of mourning associated with his death. Instead, his son Archelaus and sister Salome declined to carry out his wish. He failed in this plan, as he did in the Massacre of the Innocents to kill “he who has been born king of the Jews.”

Silicon Valley Tech Exec: Cloud, Data Storage, Automation. Author of fascinating articles about history, tech trends, andpop culture. Blog: http://billpetro.com

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