Herod is presented in the Old Testament in several ways, always at the start of the actual story. He is Jacob the ancestor


with the many sons representing the tribes (= regions or successor states to Herod’s kingdom); he is Solomon, builder of the temple, after whose death the kingdom fell apart into a northern and southern kingdom, as it did after Herod’s death.

However, Herod is also the Pharaoh in Exodus 1f, who compelled the Israelites to forced labour on his great building programme (Exod. 1:11), as Herod did in reality, and who was out to kill Moses, as Herod killed both the children in Bethlehem in Matt. 2, and his own sons.

Herod is also Saul, the first king of Israel, chosen by God and later rejected, whose dynasty failed and who lost the kingdom to David (= Jesus).


Roman rule denied Herod the chance to expand his power by military means; the money he saved


through not building up armies and going to war was invested in great buildings in Jerusalem, Caesarea Maritima and other locations in Palestine. The most significant of these projects was the construction of the Herodian temple in Jerusalem, including the expansion of the temple plateau.

Herod was an absolute monarch. He was bound to Rome as a client king in foreign policy terms, but within his kingdom he had absolute power. His historical image is initially based on the positive depiction of him as an active ruler by Nikolaos of Damascus, whose writings are partly preserved as copies in Josephus’ account of The Jewish War. (Bell. 1, 31-2, 116).

When the situation in Rome changed and Emperor Nero appeared as a tyrant, Herod was also presented as a tyrant by Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews) and in Matt. 2.


II  5  The Jewish family: Herod the Great

The traditional narrative portrays Herod

Iraq, Mar Behnam monastery
Iraq, Mar Behnam monastery

as a tyrant in relation to the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem, and mentions the construction of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem.

My theses about Herod the Great: with his kingdom in Palestine, Herod the Great (39 – 4 BC) created the basis for Jewish unity and the Jewish advance as a cultural power.

Before Herod’s kingship, only individual Jewish regions existed. Herod united the Jewish regions in Palestine within his kingdom, as well as paying attention to the Jews in the Diaspora in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

After Herod’s death the political union collapsed, but the cultural unity was maintained.


II  4   The Jews’ secret love: the Parthians

In the traditional narrative about Judaism and early Christianity, the Parthians

Hatra, camel statue
Hatra, camel statue

are only mentioned in passing. In my theses on Judaism and early Christianity, the Parthians have a significant role as opponents to the Romans.

In the 1st century AD the Jews lived under Roman rule but the influence of the Parthians, their powerful Eastern neighbours, was always felt. The Parthians had collaborated with the Jewish nobility in 40 BC to drive out Herod and support his rival Antigonos the Hasmonean. Herod was forced to reconquer his kingdom in 39 – 36 BC.


In pre-Roman times, Judaism was shaped

Hatra, arched gateway
Hatra, arched gateway

by Eastern cultures; it was the encounter and exchange with the superior cultural power of Rome that gave it the cultural and religious dimensions we know today.

The Romans are presented in the Old Testament in various ways. Genesis 32f, the account of how Jacob reconciled with Esau, is a literary treatment of Herod’s subjection to Augustus. Herod had supported Mark Antony in the civil war with Augustus. After Augustus’ victory in the sea battle of Actium on 2 September 31 BC, Herod was forced to offer himself to Augustus as a reliable partner (Ant. 15, 6, 6f).

In the narrative of Samuel’s hunt for a king for Israel in 1 Sam. 8ff, Samuel appoints kings and deposes them. In the political reality, this role was taken by the Romans Pompey and Augustus. In this way, 1 Sam. 8ff shows that the Jews accepted Roman power as being installed by God.


Roman rule over the Middle East resulted in a unified political, economic and cultural area that can only be compared

Ctesiphon, ancient palace
Ctesiphon, ancient palace

to globalisation in modern times. The ban on maintaining a military capacity for the defence of their country resulted in a considerable improvement in living standards in Palestine. Herod the Great’s massive construction programme is typical of this effect.

Initially the new cultural opportunities opened up by the Romans were also eagerly used. This prosperity and cultural boom later led to Jewish nationalism, resulting in the Great Revolt that ended in disaster. In the first decades of the 1st century AD, however, this was far in the future.



The traditional narrative about the origin of Old Testament writings states that the Old Testament texts were written

Cairo, old synagogue
Cairo, old synagogue

during the pre-Hellenistic period of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel, with later additions, and were mostly complete by the time of Jesus. Parallels between Jesus’s story and Old Testament texts occurred because the New Testament writers applied the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament to Jesus.

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