In Herod's Footsteps

In Herod's Footsteps

Herod lay dying in his opulent palace in Jericho. He had been seriously ill for a long time. From the description in Josephus' writings, Herod had gangrene, severe itching, convulsions, and ulcers. His feet were covered with tumors, and he had constant fevers. The stadium of Jericho was filled with loved and important people from around his land who were to be killed at the moment of his death, lest no one mourn when he died. It didn't seem to matter that they would not be mourning for him.As he lay on his deathbed, Herod's thoughts may have turned to the rabbis and their students whom he recently had executed for tearing down the Roman eagle from the Temple gate because it violated God's law against images. Perhaps he reflected on his beloved wife Miriamne's two sons whom he had drowned in the palace swimming pool next door. He could have remembered the execution of his favorite son, Antipater, only days ago for plotting against him? Antipater, the one who was to take his father's place. Or maybe he thought about the 45 members of the Sanhedrin whom he had murdered, the hundreds of family and staff whom he had suspected of plotting against him, or the thousands of subjects who died in his brutal campaign to claim a country they believed he had no right to rule. It is possible Herod also recalled, though only briefly, the massacre of a few boy babies in a town near his massive fortress Herodion, soon to be his tomb.


As he lay dying in Jericho, Herod revised his will to reflect the execution of his son Antipater. Archelaus, his son by Malthace, his Samaritan wife was given the best territory: Judea, Samaria, and Idumaea. Herod Philip: son of Cleopatra, his fifth wife was to rule the area northeast of the Sea of Galilee: Gaulanitis, Batanea, Trachonitis, and Auranitis. Herod Antipas, another son of Malthace, was given Galilee and Perea. Shortly after completing this will, Herod died and was buried with pomp and circumstance in the Herodion, overlooking the fields of Bethlehem.

Greedy for more territory, Herod's sons went to Rome to ask for additional lands. A delegation from Judea and Jerusalem, fed up with the Herod dynasty, also went to Rome to request that the emperor, Augustus, appoint someone else to govern them. While they were gone, the country was in turmoil. Still upset over Herod's assassination of the rabbis and their students, Jews rioted in Jerusalem on Pentecost. The Roman governor from Syria came with soldiers, and fighting flared around the country. Judah, a Zealot from Gamla, seized Sepphoris and plundered the armory and palace.

Roman troops brutally put down the revolt. Jerusalem was reclaimed from the rebels, and more than 2,000 of them were crucified. Sepphoris also was retaken, and the inhabitants:those who survived, at least, were sold into slavery.

Finally Augustus made his decision. To the great disappointment of nearly everyone, he honored Herod's will. The land would belong to Herod's three sons, though none of the brothers was made king. Archelaus was made an ethnarch, a position slightly higher than tetrarch, which his brothers received.

It was 4 BC, and Joseph and Mary learned this news in a dream (Matt. 2:19-23).


Archelaus ruled in Jerusalem for 10 years. He hunted down the delegation that had gone to Rome, and as a true son of his father, he executed them and their families and confiscated their property. Archelaus had all of Herod's evil qualities, and his reign was as bloody as his father's had been. In AD 6, another delegation of Judeans risked their lives and went to Rome to accuse Herod of breaking the emperor's command to govern peacefully. Archelaus was summoned to Rome and exiled to Gaul, at which point he promptly disappeared from history. Judea, Samaria, and Idumaea were named the Roman Province of Judea, to be subject directly to Rome under a military prefect ominously given full power to inflict the death penalty. Coponius was appointed the first prefect; Pontius Pilate came later. Judea no longer gave allegiance to the Herod family.

During Archelaus's short, bloody reign, Joseph and Mary, who had fled to Egypt during Herod the Great's reign because he had tried to kill their baby, were told by God that Herod was dead (Matt. 2:1-23). It was safe for them to return home. When they came to Judea, where they apparently planned to settle (maybe in Bethlehem?), they heard about Archelaus and decided they would not risk facing another bloodthirsty Herod's fear of losing his throne (Matt. 2:22). They skirted his territory and settled in Nazareth, under Herod Antipas' rule, thereby fulfilling prophecy (Matt. 2:23).

People did not soon forget the cruel Archelaus. Years later, the bloody beginning of his reign would provide the basis for a clever though probably dangerous parable (Luke 19:11-27). Jesus, however, would conduct his ministry under the watchful eye of Archelaus' younger brother.


Herod Philip received the territory north and east of the Sea of Galilee. This area was large but fairly pool; Philip was a peace-loving tetrarch, an excellent administrator, and a just ruler. The majority of his subjects were Gentiles, which may have spared him the burden of having to deal with the internal struggles of the Jewish people and the constant appearance of one self-proclaimed messiah after another.

Philip established his capital at Caesarea Philippi, expanding a largely pagan town and building a temple to its gods. Jesus later brought his disciples here to impress upon them the reality that his church would become the dominant community in the world (Matt. 16:13-20). It was in this pagan setting that Peter professed Jesus as the Messiah.

Philip also built a city:named Julias, near or on the site of Bethsaida, close to where the Jordan River enters the Sea of Galilee. Jesus' disciples Peter, Andrew, and Philip came from this town (John 1:43-44).

Herod Philip married his niece Salome, daughter of Herodias and a noted dancer, according to his brother (Matt. 14:1-12). After a reign of 37 peaceful years, Philip died and was buried at Julius.

The rule of his half brother, Herod Antipas, wasn't as peaceful. Antipas was the only Herod to meet the Messiah.


History's ViewAntipas is remembered as an outstanding ruler who brought peace and prosperity to his land for more than 40 years. His territories of Galilee and Perea were among the most religious in Israel. Antipas tried to avoid offending his Jewish subjects and their commitment to the Torah: for example, by refusing to mint coins with images on them. Both the Pharisees and the Herodions (a largely upper-class, secular group that probably formed during his reign) supported him.Just three miles from Nazareth, Antipas built the magnificent city of Sepphoris, which functioned as his capital. The boy Jesus certainly must have watched Sepphoris being built on a hill north of his hometown. Perhaps he even worked there, since many of the builders (carpenters) in the area contributed to Sepphoris' construction.

Herod Antipas' greatest project was the city of Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Constructed near hot springs, it was one of the most beautiful cities in Galilee. It had the best of everything, including a stadium, hot baths, and a great palace. The religious Jews of the area (where Jesus ministered) were unwilling to enter Tiberias because it was supposedly built over a cemetery and was therefore defiled according to Old Testament law (Num. 5:2). The city was probably completed shortly before Jesus moved to Capernaum a few miles away. Tiberias was clearly visible to the citizens of Capernaum (as well as to the Zealots at Gamla, who hated Herod with a passion that only religious commitment can create).

Throughout most of his life, Antipas had the support of Tiberius, the Roman emperor for whom his capital was named. When Tiberius died, Antipas' rival and relative Herod Agrippa (Agrippa was Antipas' father's grandson) accused him of plotting against Rome. Caligula, the new emperor, exiled Antipas and claimed his property. At this point, Herod Antipas passed quietly from history.

The Bible's View' 

The Bible presents a very different picture of this son of Herod the Great. According to New Testament writers, Antipas was a scheming weakling who was the archenemy of Jesus of Nazareth. Antipas had married the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas. During a visit to his brother Philip (not the Herod Philip who was king in the north), Antipas fell in love with Herodias, Philip's wife. Antipas divorced his wife and married his brother's wife while Philip was still alive. Because this was forbidden by law (Lev. 18:16), Herod Antipas incurred the bitter opposition of the religious Jews he ruled, including a desert preacher named John whose mission, to prepare a way for the Lord in the wilderness, had no room for such blatant disobedience and by the king, no less (Matt. 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29). John's call for turning from sin, symbolized by baptism, was popular with religious Jews, who expected the Messiah at any time. If the way (i.e., everyone living by God's law) was prepared, Messiah would certainly arrive.John's harsh criticism of Antipas struck a nerve. He was arrested and imprisoned. On the occasion of Herod Antipas's birthday, Herodias' daughter Salome (who would later marry Herod Philip) danced provocatively and obtained Antipa's favor. Her mother encouraged Salome to ask for John's execution, for she, too, was tired of being publicly criticized by this popular figure. Trapped, and probably not entirely sober, Herod Antipas concurred, and John was beheaded. (Some scholars place the execution at Tiberias, barely five miles from Jesus' town of Capernaum.) The event was to haunt Herod. The Jewish people loved John and hated Antipas. The king, believing John was a genuine prophet, feared the consequences until nearly the end of his life (Luke 23:6-12).

To make matters worse, his divorced wife fled to her father, King Aretas, who declared war on his unfaithful son-in-law. Herod was defeated, an event his subjects attributed to his breaking God's law. Caligula sent an army to rescue him and protect his kingdom. But this was the beginning of the loss of Roman support. Herod Antipas' ungodly marriage eventually led to his downfall despite the execution of his critic. John's execution also brought opposition from another, greater Jewish Rabbi.


Herod Antipas was the only member of his family to come face-to-face with Jesus. His father, Herod the Great, had lived close to Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem and had even searched for the baby (Matt. 2:1-18). But apparently Herod had never met Jesus. Philip lived only a few miles from the area where most of Jesus' miracles were performed (Matt. 11:20-21), but there is no record of the two men meeting. Antipas, on the other hand, spent years trying to meet Jesus and finally had an opportunity.

After John's murder, Herod and Jesus were in constant opposition. Jesus criticized Antipas by name (Mark 8:15; Luke 13:31-33), calling him "that fox" the cultural equivalent of "wimp." When the two men finally did meet in the courtroom where Jesus was on trial for his life, Jesus refused to speak to Herod (Luke 23:9). Herod mocked and abused him (Luke 23:11; Acts 4:27), thereby missing his opportunity for salvation. In the end, Antipas was no better off than his father or brothers.

His execution of John and the appearance of Jesus haunted Antipas's life. He feared that Jesus was John raised from the dead (Mark 6:14-46; Matt. 14:1-2; Luke 9:7-9). Nevertheless, he plotted Jesus' death (Luke 13:31-33), of which the Pharisees warned Jesus.

Jesus' execution proved to be far more earth shattering than John's, but Antipas didn't live long enough to learn that reality.


Herod Agrippa IHerod the Great loved his wife Miriamne more than anything. When he had her executed for a supposed affair, his grief knew no bounds. Yet he executed her son without a second thought. Ironically, her grandson, Herod Agrippa I, continued the Herod dynasty: He governed territory formerly belonging to Philip (the area north and east of the Sea of Galilee) from AD 37-41 and was king of Judea from AD 41-44. While in Rome for his education, Agrippa became friends with Caligula, who as emperor was Agrippa's supporter. When Caligula died, the new emperor, Claudius, continued to support him, and for a short time, Agrippa's territory was nearly equal to that of his grandfather.Agrippa also knew about Jesus. He determined that the followers of Jesus, his uncle Antipas's nemesis, must be stopped. Agrippa killed the disciple James and imprisoned Peter and others (Acts 12:1-19). Agrippa's frustration must have been as great as Antipas's, because Peter disappeared. Proving he was a full-blooded Herod, Agrippa had the guards executed.

Later, Agrippa went to Caesarea to celebrate a festival in honor of the emperor Claudius. Receiving the adulation of the admiring crowds, Agrippa was struck down: a victim of family pride (Acts 12:19-23).

Herod Agrippa met Jesus' disciples and heard the gospel. His son, Agrippa II, refused to go even that far.

Herod Agrippa II' 

Herod Agrippa II was 17 years old when his father fell down dead in Caesarea. Like his father, Agrippa II was educated in Rome. In AD 50, Caesar appointed him king over a small fraction of his father's territories. He had some authority over Jerusalem and was allowed to appoint the high priest.Agrippa II did much to advance the Hellenistic culture in his kingdom. When the Jewish revolt against Rome began in AD 66, he tried to persuade his subjects not to fight the Romans. At that point, he frilly supported Rome and was even wounded in the battle for Gamla, near Jesus' town of Capernaum. When the Romans finally defeated the Jewish rebels, Agrippa II invited the legions to Caesarea Philippi to rest and celebrate.

In Acts 21, the Roman commander of Jerusalem. arrested a rabbi, Paul, who had created a riot on the Temple Mount. To make sure that Paul, a Roman citizen, received a fair trial and was not lynched by an angry mob, the officer sent him to Caesarea (Acts 24). Governor Felix, who was married to Agrippa's sister Drusilla (granddaughter of Herod the Great, daughter of Agrippa I), left office before a sentence was passed. He was succeeded by a man named Festus. When Agrippa II and his sister Bernice (granddaughter of Herod the Great, daughter of Agrippa I) came to Caesarea, Festus invited them to Paul's arraignment (Acts 25). Agrippa asked to hear Paul's defense (Acts 25:22). Both Bernice and Agrippa heard a ringing proclamation of the good news of Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, had been born near Herod the Great (who tried to kill him), had preached near Herod Antipas (who tried to kill him), who had been tried by Antipas (who sentenced him to die), and who had founded a new movement of Jews and Gentiles (whom Agrippa I tried to kill). Festus thought Paul was mad (Acts 26:24), and Agrippa II, though fascinated, was not persuaded (Acts 26:28). He and Bernice determined that Paul was not guilty but allowed him to be sent to Caesar in Rome (where Paul, too, would be killed).


There have been few families in history who came so close to the greatest message the world has ever heard. One after another, the Herods met or knew of Jesus and his followers. One after another, they killed or tried to kill anyone connected to him. How anyone could be so close and yet so far is hard to understand. Maybe the Herod family, who were descended from Esau and Edom, simply fulfilled the prophecies (Gen. 25:23; Num. 24:17; Obad. 8-21).

The most powerful family of kings Israel had known for many years had the opportunity to meet and serve the King of the universe. Instead, they exemplify the ultimate fate of those who do not recognize the Messiah. They lived only for themselves and not so that the world may knowthat there is a God in Israel (1 Sam. 17:46).