Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Historians, Fans Defend the 'Real King Herod'

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Historians, Fans Defend the 'Real King Herod'

Article excerpt

He ruled over the ancient Jews for 37 years, and when it comes to bad publicity, King Herod has reigned supreme ever since.

Annually vilified in Christmas pageants as the tyrant responsible for the slaughter of Bethlehem's baby boys and for chasing Mary, Joseph and Jesus into Egypt, Herod the Great should receive more balanced treatment, some historians and academics argue.

Like most biblical villains--Judas, Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, take your pick--Herod has simply gotten a bad rap, some say.

For example, historians say Herod probably never ordered the Massacre of the Innocents that Christians commemorate in late December. The account from the Gospel of Matthew may be derived from the execution of three of the king's own sons and the author's desire to convey that even as an infant, Jesus was an acknowledged threat to the establishment.

"Dramatically, it's a story with tremendous power, but there's a kind of irony that the one thing that most people know about Herod is probably wrong," said Peter Richardson, author of Herod: King of the Jews, Friend of the Romans, who is a professor at the University of Toronto.

Basing their views on recorded history and continuing archaeological discoveries, Richardson and other academic experts contend that Herod's brutality and heavy taxation should be taken in the context of the violent Roman Empire and his skills as a diplomat, master builder and enlightened economist.

Herod was born in 74 B.C. to an Arabian princess and a politically active father whose family had converted to Judaism. As a young man, Herod was appointed governor of Galilee. When his father was poisoned in 43 B.C., Herod had the murderer executed, launching a lifelong reputation as a ruler to be reckoned with.

The Roman Senate named Herod "King of the Jews" in 40 B.C., despite controversy at home over his religious lineage. But Herod always claimed to be an observant Jew, evidenced by the discovery of ritual baths in his palaces and records of a joke told by Emperor Caesar Augustus that he'd rather be one of Herod's swine--safe from slaughter because the king kept kosher--than one of his sons.

Convinced by their research, members of the Progressive Jewish Bet Tikvah Synagogue in England formed a King Herod Appreciation Society in 2001. Rigid concepts of Jewish identity were used to downplay Herod's accomplishments, they argue, which included rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, building the largest harbor in the Roman world, alleviating a famine by lowering grain prices and supporting the cash-strapped Olympic Games.

"He was not just a paranoid tyrant, but an idealist and financial genius, way ahead of his time," said Anthony Kerstein, a cofounder of the group. …

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