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Who is King Herod in the Bible?

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His books include the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology: Fuel for Effective and Faithful Disciple Making (co-general editor), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

Who is King Herod in the Bible? He was a great builder, dynasty namesake, skilled politician, and paranoid king who killed any perceived threat. Although an Idumean, he married into Jewish royalty and was proclaimed “king of the Jews” by Rome. This explains King Herod’s unease at hearing about a baby “born king of the Jews.” 

In the opening pages of the New Testament, King Herod is just there. He’s the tyrannical leader who provides a scary outer backdrop when you zoom out beyond the serene nativity scene. But who was he? How was it that Herod was called king of the Jews? Hadn’t the Jewish kingdom already crumbled in the Old Testament? Was Herod even Jewish, or some other ancestry? To answer who King Herod was, we need to back up a few centuries to get some context. The story of how Herod came to power is fascinating,  and, to tell his story, we begin with Jewish kings, foreign empires, and the Maccabee revolt.

Who is King Herod in the Bible? We need to first learn about the Jewish kingdom.

Around a thousand years before the first Christmas, Israel was getting its first king. The first king was Saul, a jealous king with a fragile ego. He was replaced by David, a “man after God’s own heart” who wrote roughly half the Psalms. David’s son Solomon was the next king of Israel, and although his heart was often divided, he is credited with having built the first temple for God. Solomon’s son Rehoboam proved unfit to lead, and under his tyrannical kingship, the nation divided, with the northern tribes splitting off and forming their own kingdom.

Thus, the original kingdom divided into north and south, with the North eventually succumbing to the Assyrian Empire and the South being overrun by the Babylonians and scattered into exile. Yet, as empires eventually do, the Babylonians fell to the Medo-Persian empire, and it was the Persians who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild. Notably, it was at this time that the Jews rebuilt the temple, although it was far smaller than the original temple built under Solomon. Eventually, the Persian Empire itself fell to Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire. After Alexander the Great died, his empire was divided into four parts, corresponding to his four generals. The general in charge of Western Asia was named Seleucus I Nicator; thus, his fourth of the empire became known as the Seleucid Empire.


Israel was eventually conquered by the Seleucids, and the Seleucids made merciless overlords. 


After initially being ruled by the Egyptian quarter of the empire, Israel was eventually conquered by the Seleucids, and the Seleucids made merciless overlords. They tried to force the Jewish people to abandon their Jewishness and become Greek in culture and religion. A revolt was in the works, however, which came to a head during a pagan sacrifice in a Judean (southern) village called Modin.

Who is King Herod in the Bible? We need to first learn about Maccabee family.

One of the village leaders in Modin was a father of five sons named Mattathias. During the pagan sacrifice in Modin, Mattathias disrupted the proceedings by spearing the Seleucid official in charge as well as the Jewish citizen performing the sacrifice. Then he called to the gathered crowd, “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” Mattathias made his headquarters in the hill country of Judea, from where he, his sons, and his followers executed raids on Seleucid soldiers.

When Mattathias died, leadership passed onto the son named Judas Maccabeus, who continued attacking the Seleucids. It was from Judas Maccabeus that the family derived its historic name (the Maccabees), and it was under Judas that the temple was recovered from the Seleucids and rededicated to God—an event in 164 BC celebrated in an annual festival called Hannukah.


The Jewish people finally won independence from the Seleucids. 


Although many Maccabee leaders, including Judas, died in the process, the Jewish people finally won independence from the Seleucids. Although a monumental achievement for Jewish people, Maccabee rule (also known as the Hasmonean dynasty) turned out to be a mixed bag as some Maccebee leaders turned out to be as tyrannical as the Seleucids had been. Maccabee infighting would prove to be fatal for the Jewish nation.

Foot in the Door…

By the time of Jesus’ birth in the first pages of the New Testament, it’s not the Maccabees who are in power. The Jews are no longer ruling their own country. Who is the political power in New Testament times? It’s the Romans. So where did the Maccabees go? It was actually two Maccabee brothers fighting each other who explain why power shifted to the Romans. Two Maccabee brothers, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, fought each other for the throne, and it was their unfruitful fight that led to the imperial backdrop to the New Testament.

While she lived, the queen mother had brokered a peaceful arrangement: her son Hyrcanus II as the nation’s high priest (and her eventual successor), and her son Aristobulus II as the nation’s military commander. When the mother died, however, the ambitious younger brother, Aristobulus II, took an army and subdued his elder brother three months into his reign to become king.


Hyrcanus II was approached by an Idumean named Antipater. 


In retirement, Hyrcanus II was approached by an Idumean (Edomite) named Antipater who had served as governor of Idumea under Hyrcanus II’s father. Antipater convinced Hyrcanus II that, with Antipater’s help, he could be reinstated as king. In the ensuing Civil War between the two brothers, both brothers appealed to Rome for help. The Roman general put Jerusalem, under Aristobulus II’s control at this time, under a 3-month siege, eventually breaking through and slaughtering people—including priests as they went about their duties. Rome deposed Aristobulus II and installed Hyrcanus II as high priest and eventually as Ethnarch. Hyrcanus II continued to rely heavily on Antipater so that many saw him as the de facto leader.

Rome recognized Antipater as administrator under Hyrcanus II, and although he remained publicly loyal to Hyrcanus II, Antipater showed his own political ambitions by appointing two of his sons to high positions: Phasael as governor of Jerusalem and Herod as governor of Galilee.

Who is King Herod in the Bible? King of the Jews, or so he thought…

When Aristobulus II’s son Antigonus marched into Jerusalem to reclaim the throne that had been his father’s, Antigonus exiled his uncle Hyrcanus II. By now, Antipater had died and Antipater’s son Phasael died during Antigonus’s takeover. Antipater’s other son Herod tried to stop Antigonus. Though unsuccessful, Herod fled Jerusalem to Rome, where the Roman Senate proclaimed him King of Judea. With the backing of Rome, Herod returned to the land, recaptured both Galilee and Judea, and had Antigonus beheaded.

To further solidify his reign, Herod married into the Maccabee family, marrying a granddaughter of Hyrcanus II named Mariamne. Herod himself was not Jewish, being the son of an Idumean (Antipater) and a Nabatean princess named Cypros, both from what is modern-day Jordan. However, Herod was raised in the Jewish religion with his people converting to Judaism in the second century BC. When he was already the governor of Judea, Herod’s favor with the Roman governor of Syria had led to Herod becoming general of Samaria too. Now, Herod’s reign extended all throughout Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. This son of an advisor to a Jewish king clearly saw himself as king of the Jews.


This son of an advisor to a Jewish king clearly saw himself as king of the Jews.


Remembered in history as Herod the Great, it ought to be acknowledged that Herod was indeed a great builder. He built theaters, fortresses, aqueducts, entire cities. He took the meager second temple rebuilt centuries before and expanded it into one of the wonders of the ancient world. He also rebuilt Samaria, the ancient capital of the Jews’ northern kingdom, and built the coastal city of Caesarea.

Who Is King Herod in the Bible? Political Survivor, Child Murderer.

Herod proved himself to be an adept political survivor, having successfully won favor in the eyes of such political enemies as Cassius, Mark Antony, and Octavius. His long reign lasted from 40-4 BC and was quite an accomplishment when set against the regular backdrop of royal assassinations and short reigns. The upshot was that he ruled through paranoia and tyranny. By the time of his death, Herod had ordered the death of three sons as well as his Jewish wife Mariamne, one of ten wives. His family troubles were notorious enough to where Caesar Augustus claimed that he would rather be Herod’s pig (Gk. hys) than his son (Gk huios). Herod had several large groups of conspirators killed throughout his reign (some only suspected), and he ordered one member of each family executed at the time of his own death so that there would be mourning when he died (a command mercifully not carried out).

It is against this backdrop of political paranoia that we read of Herod taking rumors of “the one who has been born king of the Jews” as a threat to squash (Matt. 2:2). Herod, after all, could never be said to be born king of the Jews. Hearing from magi that the Jewish king had been born, Herod inquired from his scribes where the Old Testament prophets had said the messiah would be born. When he learned that the destined location was Bethlehem, Herod sent the magi on to find the baby and report back to him. When they never returned to him, Herod sent soldiers to the town to “kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16).


He sent soldiers to the town to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. 


Although Herod was deeply paranoid even of his own family, enough of Herod’s sons and other descendants survived to where, after Herod died in Matthew 2, much of the New Testament would go on to be narrated with other Herod’s as their political backdrop. After his death, Herod’s son Herod Archelaus ruled Judea and Samaria; he was the tyrant whose rule prompted Joseph and Mary to relocate to Galilee when they returned from Egypt. Herod’s son Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea and was the ruler responsible for killing John the Baptist as well as playing a part in Jesus’ trial. Herod’s son Herod Philip the Tetrarch ruled north and east of Galilee. Herod’s grandson King Agrippa I ruled Judea, and his great grandson King Agrippa II ruled territories around Judea. Both Agrippa’s are described in Acts. The former unsuccessfully put Peter in jail, and the latter unsuccessfully listened to Paul’s plea to become a Christian.

Who Is King Herod in the Bible? Sadly, a Mentor for Many.

Herod the Great was so invested in preserving his throne that he did what a lot of people do: they see Jesus as a threat and seek to remove his presence from their lives. We don’t have to be paranoid killers to nonetheless have a Herod-like defensiveness when we see a rival king. All it takes for me to be a tiny Herod is kinglike pretensions.

One can see opportunism in ingratiating a Mark Antony or an Octavius because their power can fuel my power. But when it comes to Jesus, Herod was viewing things realistically: Jesus is a direct threat to our pretensions.


Jesus is a direct threat to my pretensions. 


As C.S. Lewis remarked in another context about Jesus, “You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.” Jesus belongs squarely in the categories of either threat or throne. By trying to straddle the options and view Jesus opportunistically, we’re missing the bullseye of the gospel: Jesus is the saving king.