Review: The Herods

The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession. Bruce Chilton. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021.

Summary: A history of this dynasty, tracing its rise from Antipater, the rule of Herod the Great, and his descendants who struggled to recover control over the territories he ruled amid Roman power and rising Jewish discontent.

Any reader of the New Testament recognizes that one or another of the Herods plays a significant part in the birth of Jesus, the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus, and the beginnings of the Christian movement, and the trial of and appeal by Paul to Rome. What is often not considered is the rise of this family from Idumea amid the power struggles of the Jews to maintain independence amid, first the Seleucids and then the Roman power that came to assert control over the lands that once constituted ancient Israel.

Bruce Chilton traces the history of this family and their shrewdness in maintaining Jewish support and pleasing their Roman masters. It begins with Antipater, who modestly never claimed the title “king” of Idumea but allied with Hyrcanus II as high priest of the Jerusalem temple and leader of Judea and allying himself with Pompey against the Seleucids, securing both Hyrcanus in Jerusalem and securing Roman favor for his own family.

Herod, known as “The Great,” was his son. He married Mariamne, the granddaughter of Hyrcanus, gaining legitimacy with the Maccabees, and works first with Mark Antony and then Octavian, securing kingship over Jerusalem, Samaria, Galilee, and Idumea. Chilton traces his ruthlessness, executing first Mariamne’s brother, then Mariamne, and her sons but leaving his kingship in disarray at his death.

Chilton situates the birth of Jesus and the massacre of the innocents during the brief reign of Herod’s son Archelaus over Judea. while Philip ruled in Gaulanitis and Antipas in Galilee and Samaria. Antipas was the shrewdest, stealing his brother Philip’s wife Herodias and working throughout his reign to regain control of Judea and Jerusalem, only to lose it all to his nephew, Agrippa I, who had cultivated Caligula, who succeeded Tiberius, who had favored Antipas. Antipas was the one Jesus called “the fox” and Chilton has some interesting insights into gospel passages alluding to Antipas, who concurred in the execution of Jesus, as well as the beheading of John.

Agrippa I recovered the realm of Herod the great, persecuted restive minorities, including the followers of Jesus, and, as recorded in Acts, died an early and grisly death just days after being proclaimed as a god. He was succeeded by Agrippa II over parts of Agrippa I’s realm under tight control of Rome, aided by his sister Berenike, perhaps the more ambitious of the two. But affairs among the Jews were spiraling into open rebellion that they could not stop, resulting in brutal Roman suppression and the fall of Jerusalem. It was Agrippa II and Berenike who consult with Felix and hear Paul’s defense and appeal to Rome.

Chilton offers a narrative that underscores the shrewdness and ambition and ruthlessness, when necessary, of the Herods. He also shows the significant roles played by women in this dynasty: Mariamne, Herodias, Salome, and Berenike among them. We learn of other competent, but lesser lights, like Philip, who appears to have led well in Gaulanitis, and Phasael, Herod the Great’s more restrained older brother who administered Jerusalem until Herod took control.

While Chilton provides both a timeline and a Dramatis personae of important figures, it would have been helpful to provide a family tree or genealogy to make clear the relations among the various figures, and the offspring of multiple marriages. It is also evident that Chilton credits other sources like Josephus above the New Testament writers at points of conflict.

That said, Chilton’s account of this dynasty enriches our understanding of the figures who intersect with the New Testament narratives and played a vital role in second Temple Israel during the decisive century before the fall of the temple.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.