The House of Herod

The New Testament is replete with references to various men called Herod. A king named Herod was ruling in Jerusalem when Jesus was born. This Herod ordered the murder of the baby boys of Bethlehem in an attempt to snuff out the life of the Christ child. Matthew makes a cryptic reference also to this Herod’s son, Archelaus. Who was he? Luke records the machinations of a man called Herod Antipas, who imprisoned and beheaded John the Baptist. Moreover, another Herod, who also was called a king, arrested and murdered the apostle James, and also tried to murder Peter.

Who were these men, and how many Herods are spoken of in Scripture? Why were some of them kings and others tetrarchs? How could anyone serve as king in Judea when Roman governors ruled Judea during Jesus’ earthly ministry and during Paul’s imprisonment at Caesarea? The answer to these questions begins at the close of the Old Testament, and traces the lives of the men who comprised the house of Herod.



Between the Books

When the Jews returned from exile, they settled in Judea under the authority of the Persian Empire. After the close of the Old Testament, but before the coming of John the Baptist, four hundred years passed. During that time Alexander the Great and his army of Greeks and Macedonians swept over much of the known world. When Alexander died, his kingdom was divided under the rule of four of his generals. After years of fighting with each other, two empires emerged, the Ptolemaic in Egypt and the Seleucid in Syria. Judea came under Seleucid dominion.

In the second century before Christ, a particularly ruthless Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, desecrated the Temple at Jerusalem and enacted a series of laws that forbade the practice of Judaism. Led by a family called the Hasmoneans, the Jews revolted. A Hasmonean named Judas proved to be a brilliant general and, being skilled at guerilla warfare, earned the nickname, Maccabee, which means, the Hammer. Several Hasmonean brothers led the Jews through decades of conflict, and Judea ultimately won independence.

Antipater & the Rise of Rome

Nearly eighty years after Judea succeeded in casting off Seleucid rule, the remains of the Seleucid Empire finally crumbled. The Roman Empire, which was expanding eastward, occupied Syria, reorganizing it into a Roman province.

At the same time, struggles for power were consuming the Judean kingdom. A crafty Idumean named Antipater manipulated one of the young princes contending for the Jewish throne. Antipater realized that the future lay with Rome and invited the Roman general Pompey, who had just completed the conquest of Syria, to come to Judea to mediate a dispute between two factions within the Judean royal house. After failing to win Pompey’s support, the losing faction revolted, initiating the beginnings of a civil war. Pompey intervened and, much to Antipater’s delight, forcibly occupied Judea in 63BC, adding it to the Roman province of Syria. The brief Hasmonean Kingdom was ended and Rome controlled Judea.

Antipater worked diligently to prove himself a useful ally of Rome. Rome rewarded him with citizenship, gave him the title, procurator, which was an office roughly equivalent to that of a regional governor. Rome granted Antipater permission to begin rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, which Pompey had torn down.

Years of political intrigue finally caught up to him, however, and in 43 BC Antipater was assassinated. He had, nevertheless, trained his sons well, and thus Phasael and Herod continued their father’s policies and cooperated with Rome.

In 40 BC armies of the Parthian Empire overran Judea and Syria. Phasael was captured and executed. Herod fled to Rome. In Rome, Herod appealed to the Senate which, upon recognizing his loyalty and usefulness, declared him King of Judea and Samaria. Supported by the armies of Rome, Herod set out to reconquer Jerusalem. After three years the task was done and Herod began to reign as king in 37 BC. This is the Herod who is known as Herod the Great.

Herod the Great

Herod the Great was a crafty political figure who, through good sense and loyalty, had won the confidence of the Romans. Of half-Jewish Idumean lineage, Herod was familiar with Judea’s political landscape and ruled effectively for Rome as a satellite king for over thirty years.

Herod the Great helped rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem; created the artificial harbor at Caesarea, which was an architectural wonder of the ancient world; and helped to secure reduced taxes and freedom of religion for his Jewish subjects. It was, however, this same Herod who attempted to murder the Christ child by ordering the execution of the sons of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). Herod’s career of building and murdering and scheming came to an end when he died in 4 BC.

Not unlike many other kings, Herod the Great had wed many women over the course of his reign and had fathered several sons from which to choose an heir. He was, however, a brutal and paranoid man, and murdered more than one of his own children. Three sons ultimately escaped Herod’s paranoia and inherited a piece of his kingdom.

Herod Archelaus

Herod Archelaus, whom Matthew mentions in Matthew 2:22, became ethnarch of Judea and Samaria, which granted him a dignity higher than that of a provincial governor, but less than a king. Archelaus was politically crass, and alienated his subjects rapidly. By AD 6 Judea was near revolt. Envoys to Emperor Augustus assured him that if Archelaus were not removed from power, rebellion would soon begin. Augustus agreed, banishing Archelaus to Germany, while Judea and Samaria were reorganized into a Roman province, which was administered by a Roman governor. Among these governors was Pontius Pilate, who ruled Judea for ten years, from AD 26–36, before being recalled to Rome.

Philip the Tetrarch

Philip ruled over the regions north and east of the Promised Land, called Trachonitis and Iturea, carrying the title, tetrarch, which conferred a dignity lower than that of ethnarch. Philip was far more affable than his half-brother Archelaus, and ruled for thirty-seven uneventful years.

For his wife, Philip took Salome, the daughter of his half-brother, Herod Philip. As a child in the court of her stepfather, Herod Antipas, Salome so delighted Antipas that at her request he beheaded John the Baptist.

Philip the Tetrarch died without an heir in AD 34. Upon his death his tetrarchy was subsumed into the Roman province of Syria.

Herod Antipas

Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee and Perea as tetrarch. Antipas, whom Jesus, in Luke 13:32, referred to as “that fox,” ruled for forty-two years.

It was this Herod who married his niece, Herodias. Herodias had previously married her uncle, Herod Philip, who was half-brother to the Philip the Tetrarch. She left him in order to marry her uncle, Herod Antipas, who was half-brother to Herod Philip. Herodias’ daughter with Herod Philip, Salome, who delighted Herod Antipas with her dancing, ultimately married her great uncle, Philip the Tetrarch. These brazenly incestuous marriages, divorces, and remarriages brought a stern rebuke from John the Baptist, whom Herod Antipas subsequently arrested and beheaded (Mark 6:17–29). Herod Antipas also sought miracles from Jesus, who, much to Antipas’ chagrin, remained silent during his interrogation. Antipas therefore ordered his soldiers to mock Jesus before sending Him back to Pontius Pilate (Luke 23:6–12).

Whereas Herod Archelaus was quickly banished to Germany, and Philip the Tetrarch lived out his long reign in peace, Herod Antipas experienced both a long reign and a swift banishment. The later event was bred in the mind of Antipas’ nephew, Herod Agrippa.

Herod Agrippa

Shortly after he had become King of Judea, Herod the Great married a Jewish princess of the Hasmonean line named Miriamme. She bore him two sons, Aristobulus and Alexander, whom Herod later murdered. Prior to his death, Aristobulus married his cousin Bernice and fathered a son, Herod Agrippa.

Agrippa was sent to Rome and educated in the royal court. Although a gifted politician, Agrippa was not blessed with his grandfather’s financial sense. He ran up enormous debts and, after the death of his patron in Rome, retired to Idumea. Unhappy in Idumea, Agrippa contemplated suicide, but Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas, who was also Herod Agrippa’s sister, dissuaded him from taking his life.

Herodias appealed to her husband, Antipas, asking him to help her brother, Herod Agrippa. This he did. Agrippa was given a house, a stipend, and a minor position in Antipas’ court. But the two men did not get along. Their troubles came to a head at a feast one evening when Antipas, in a drunken speech, made known publicly the nature of Agrippa’s debts. Disgraced and enraged, Agrippa left for Syria, eventually making his way back to Rome.

After securing new loans in order to pay off old debts, Herod Agrippa was appointed the guardian of Emperor Tiberius’ grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. It was at this time also that Agrippa befriended Caligula, the emperor’s grandnephew. Either Gemellus or Caligula would succeed Tiberius as emperor and therefore Agrippa regularly flattered them both. After declaring a bit too loudly, however, that Caligula would make an even better emperor than Tiberius currently was, Tiberius imprisoned Agrippa. Fortunately for Agrippa, Tiberius died six months later, in AD 36.

After Tiberius’ death the Roman Senate chose Caligula as his successor. Caligula released Agrippa from prison, and gave him the tetrarchy his uncle Philip had ruled prior to his death two years earlier. Rather than bestowing on him the inferior title of tetrarch, however, Caligula made Herod Agrippa a king.

After hearing that Agrippa would be a king, his sister, Herodias, was terribly jealous. Although her husband, Herod Antipas, had ruled his tetrarchy for over forty years, ably serving the interests of Rome, he was only a tetrarch. She therefore pleaded with Antipas to go to Rome in order to seek the title she felt he had earned. Antipas believed it best to leave well enough alone, but after continued prodding from Herodias, he agreed to try. They departed for Rome.

Herod Agrippa still harbored an angry grudge against Antipas for the drunken insult issued years before. He therefore wrote to Caligula, accusing Antipas of fomenting rebellion against Rome. When Herod Antipas arrived in Rome, Caligula was reading Herod Agrippa’s letter, the vast majority of which was false. Caligula’s eyes, however, were fixed upon the number, seventy thousand. That, he read, was the number of men Antipas could equip for war from his armory. Although true in and of itself, Antipas had never thought of using those weapons against Rome. Caligula asked Antipas if the number were true. Given no reason to fear the truth, Antipas replied that, indeed, it was true. Caligula immediately banished him to France. To Herodias, Herod Agrippa’s sister, Caligula offered asylum. She declined and went into exile with her husband Antipas. For his “loyalty” in providing information about Antipas’ supposed rebellion, Caligula added Antipas’ tetrarchy to Herod Agrippa’s kingdom.

Caligula was, however, rapidly going insane. When he was assassinated by his own guards in AD 41, the leadership of the Roman Empire passed into the hands of Claudius. Claudius and Agrippa were born the same year and had grown up childhood friends. Agrippa happened to be in Rome when Caligula was killed, and argued on Claudius’ behalf before the Roman Senate in order to secure Claudius’ path to the throne.

The new emperor was grateful and also wise. Claudius had seen the troubles Roman governors had caused while ruling over Jewish subjects and believed that a Jewish king would rule the Jews better than a Roman governor. He therefore added Judea and Samaria to Herod Agrippa’s kingdom in AD 41. Agrippa then ruled almost the identical area that his grandfather Herod the Great had governed at his death nearly fifty years earlier.

King Herod Agrippa

The Jews rejoiced. Herod Agrippa’s father was Aristobulus, the son of Miriamme, of true Hasmonean blood. Agrippa’s Jewish subjects therefore considered Agrippa a Jewish king. Unfortunately, he was a Jew in name only. Although Agrippa routinely performed the ceremonial functions of a Jewish head of state, even participating in Temple sacrifice, he was no son of Abraham. In his Gentile territories Herod Agrippa acted like a pagan, issuing coinage with his own image, and erecting statues to himself and his family in Greek cities. Luke records that, after murdering the apostle James, Agrippa arrested, and was attempting to murder Peter simply because these actions pleased his Jewish subjects (Acts 12:1–3).

In August of AD 44 Herod Agrippa was presiding over the athletic games at Caesarea. The people of Tyre and Sidon attended as his guests, having recently been reconciled to the king after a brief spat. Herod Agrippa sat upon his throne, the setting sun shining brilliantly off his robe, which was woven with threads of pure silver. Standing to address those gathered, his image and words were so magnificent that the Gentiles present declared him a god. Luke records in Acts 12:22, “And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god and not of a man!’”

As he basked in the glow of their words, Agrippa was struck with a sudden pain in his abdomen. Luke writes, “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:23). The Jewish historian, Josephus, records that Agrippa was taken away in anguish, suffered for five days, and died. Luke expressly says that this event took place as punishment from God because Agrippa had not rebuked his subjects when they called him a god.

Herod Agrippa’s kingdom was reorganized into a Roman province, which Roman governors ruled until the eve of the Jewish War in AD 66.

Herod Agrippa II

Herod Agrippa’s brother, who, not surprisingly, was named Herod, ruled a small kingdom in present day Lebanon, called Chalcis. This other Herod died in AD 48, and Herod Agrippa’s son, Herod Agrippa II, inherited his uncle’s kingdom two years later.

The younger Agrippa followed his father in serving the interests of Rome, and in AD 53 Claudius made him king over the former tetrarchy of his great uncle Philip, which was a larger and more influential position than Agrippa held at Chalcis. Upon coming into power in AD 54, Nero added to Agrippa’s kingdom parts of the tetrarchy his great uncle Antipas previously had ruled.

Herod Agrippa II never came to rule over Judea or Samaria, but nevertheless reigned longer than any other member of his family, dying in AD 100.

It was this younger Herod Agrippa before whom the Apostle Paul testified while he was imprisoned in Caesarea. Arrogantly, Agrippa said to Paul, in Acts 26:28, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

The End of an Age

Herod Agrippa II was the last of the house of Herod to exercise real political authority in and around Judea during the New Testament era. From the back room maneuvering of Antipater, to the kingdom of Herod the Great, to the brief reign of Archelaus, to the peaceful rule of Philip the Tetrarch, to the wicked marriage and power struggles of Herod Antipas, to the arrogant death of Herod Agrippa and the arrogant unbelief of Herod Agrippa II, the house of Herod was a family born and bred of wickedness and unbelief.

Biblical References

Each Herod that is mentioned in the New Testament, along with his reign or role, is listed below. Every verse or passage in the Bible that mentions a member of the house of Herod is listed with the particular man to whom that text is referring.

Herod the Great, King of Judea and Samaria (37 BC–4 BC) Matthew 2:1–23; Luke 1:5

Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judea and Samaria (3BC–AD6) Matthew 2:22

Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (3 BC–AD 39) Matthew 14:1–12; Mark 6:14–29, 8:15; Luke 3:1, 19–20, 9:7–9, 13:31–32, 23:6–12; Acts 4:27, 13:1

• Philip the Tetrarch, Tetrarch of Trachonitis and Iturea (3 BC–AD 34) Luke 3:1

Herod Philip, (private citizen) Matthew 14:3; Mark 6:17-18

Herod Agrippa, King of Trachonitis and Iturea (AD36–41) and of Judea and Samaria (AD41–44) Acts 12:1–23

Herod Agrippa II, King of Chalcis (AD50–53) and of Trachonitis and Iturea, with parts of Galilee (AD53–100) Acts 25:13-26:32

Note: Revelation 2:13 also refers to a man named Antipas. He was not, however, of the house of Herod.

Rev. Russell St. John is the pastor of the Grace united Reformed Church in Kennewick, Washington.