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Herod the Great: Biography and Significance with Relation to the New Testament

Herod the Great was the famous Roman client-king of the province of Judea who ruled from 37 BCE to 4 BCE. Also known as Herod I or Hordus, Herod the Great began his career as a military general, which garnered him the support of Roman officials. He came from a wealthy family and was the son of Antipater, an affluent man from Idumea and a woman named Cyprus, the daughter of an Arabian sheik.

During 140 to 130 BCE, the Maccabean John Hyrcanus took control of Idumea, located in southern Judea, where the Idumeans had settled. Hyrcanus required that the Idumeans follow Jewish law and most Idumeans subsequently converted to Judaism. Herod identified himself as Jewish and was recognized as such by the Roman Senate, which appointed him as king of the Jews in 40 BCE. However, according to Jewish law, he was not considered Jewish because his mother was not of the Jewish faith.

The Reign of Herod the Great

The Roman Senate appointed Herod the Great a king in 37 BCE. This title enabled him to establish his own domestic policies.

The reign of Herod the Great can be divided into three periods:

  • 37 BCE-25 BCE
  • 25 BCE-13 BCE
  • 13 BCE-4 BCE

Between 37 BCE and 25 BCE, the rule of Herod was marked by the kingís desire to properly enforce his authority. As such, Herod had his rivals executed, including Hyracnus, the grandfather of his wife, Mariamne, as well as his brother-in-law Aristobulus, whom he had made high priest.

Conversely, the second period of Herodís reign was marked by relative stability, as well as splendor. He ordered the construction of opulent temples and cities in honor of the Roman Emperor, and also appointed the construction of lavish theaters and hippodromes.

Between 13 BCE and 4 BCE, Herodís rule was characterized by domestic strife. Herod had ten wives and many children by them, a fact that led to much discord in the latter years of his rein as king of Judea. He put to death his sons Aristobulus and Alexander, whom his son-in-law Antipater accused of plotting to kill Herod. Herod eventually also had Antipater executed after he was accused and convicted of plotting against him.

Herod the Great and the New Testament

Herod the Great is mentioned in reference to the birth of Jesus in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew recounts Herodís fear that the birth of Jesus, who was heralded upon his birth as a king, would lead to the decline of his power. Herod the Great requested that the three Magi tell him of the location of Jesusí birth. The Magi were warned in a dream not to obey Herod and when Herod realized this, he ordered the slaying of all infant boys 2 years of age and under in the town of Bethlehem.

This request was similar to that made by Pharaoh during the time of Moses (Exodus 1: 8-22). Like Moses, Jesus escaped slaying because his parents escaped to Egypt after Joseph had a dream in which an angel appeared to him and instructed him to do so.

Herod the Great is also associated with the birth of John the Baptist.


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