The Dynasty of the Herods

As administrators, the Herods were effective but they were resented as outsiders: not only had they not descended from any priestly family but they were Idumeans who had only recently converted during the territorial expansions under the Maccabeans. Moreover, they had supplanted the legitimate dynasty of Maccabean priest-kings and they served the interests of the Roman overlords as client kings.

We have a good account of the Herods from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 C.E.) whose two principal works—the War of the Jews (Bellum Iudaicum) and the Antiquities of the Jews (Antiquitates Iudaicae)—cover the Maccabean period through 70 C.E., the First Jewish War. Alternately described with praise and with hostility, the first of the Herods, Antipater, was a politically astute opportunist. He had been appointed as royal governor of Idumea under the Hasmonean Alexander Janneus, and he had formed an independent alliance with the neighboring Nabateans by marrying the king's daughter, named Cyprus. During Rome's civil war between Pompey and Caesar, Antipater successfully aligned himself first with Pompey and then with Caesar, earning for himself Roman citizenship, immunity from taxation, and secular authority over Jerusalem. When Caesar recognized him as the official administrator of Judea in 47 B.C.E., Antipater immediately appointed his son Herod as the local governor of Galilee.

It was on the clear understanding that he would champion Rome against the Parthians that the triumvirs Antony and Octavian appointed Herod tetrarch and then, in 40 B.C.E., King of the Jews. At the death of Cleopatra just after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., Octavian confirmed Herod's throne and enlarged his kingdom considerably. He enjoyed great political favor as a client-king when Augustus became emperor, and despite his family intrigues, rivalries, and murders, his three sons were formally recognized as his heirs at his death in 4 B.C.E. Of the three, Herod Antipas ruled longest, until 39 C.E.; Herod's grandsons, Agrippa I and Agrippa II, ruled until 44 C.E. and 93 C.E. respectively, but no one of his heirs achieved the broad territorial expansion and power of Herod the Great.

Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee was born into this Semitic milieu under Herod and in the reign of the emperor Augustus (31 B.C.E.—14 C.E.) probably in, or shortly before, 4 B.C.E. (The sixth-century Greek monk Dionysius Exiguus, which means "Denis the Small," was the first to calculate dates from the birth of Jesus labeling them accordingly A.D., which is the abbreviation for Anno Domini, "in the year of the [our] Lord.") The ministry of Jesus, that is, the time between his baptism and his death, when he traveled and taught in the area of Jerusalem that is now called the Holy Land, spanned a two- to three-year period between 30 and 33 C.E. entirely in the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14-37 C.E.) and the tetrarch Herod Antipas (4 B.C.E.-39 C.E.). It ended with his crucifixion after two separate trials: Jesus was first charged with blasphemy by the Jewish Council called the Sanhedrin for claiming to be the Son of God; in a second trial, before the Roman prefect of Judea Pontius Pilate (26-37 C.E.), Jesus was charged with treason for calling himself the King of the Jews. Although Jews could try and convict criminals, they did not have the right to condemn anyone to death. If a crime carried the death penalty, it had to be brought before the Roman tribunal. Thus, it was ultimately Pontius Pilate rather than the Sanhedrin or the tetrarch Herod Antipas who condemned Jesus to death.

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