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The Christian world has inherited a wholly negative image of king Herod (74/72-4 BCE), during whose reign Jesus was born (Matthew 2:1, Luke, 1:5). Matthew's legendary account, Nativity plays and Christian imagination have turned Herod into the Ivan the Terrible of antiquity. When the three wise kings, or rather oriental magicians (magoi in the Greek Gospel), arrived at the royal palace in Jerusalem and asked about the recently born king of the Jews, Herod pretended to be helpful and directed them to Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of the Messiah, on condition that they promised to let him know the whereabouts of the babe. He, too, wished to greet him, he lied, when in fact he planned to murder the potential rival. So when the magi failed to return, he let loose his soldiers on the infants of Bethlehem. 

The extensive secular chronicles provide a more nuanced biography, one that is almost as detailed as those of Roman emperors. Our chief informant is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-c.100CE), who devoted most of Book I of his Jewish War and Books XIV to XVII of Jewish Antiquities to the life and times of Herod. Josephus uses as his main source the universal history of Nicolaus of Damascus, the well-informed teacher, adviser and ambassador of Herod. The fact that Josephus often criticises the king suggests that beside the court historian's pro-Herod chronicle, he had also at his disposal another account sympathetic to the Hasmoneans, the Jewish priest-kings, who from 152 BCE ruled the Holy Land, first independently and after 63 BCE under the aegis of Rome, until Herod took their throne in 37 BCE. 

We do not know what Herod looked like. In obedience to Jewish law, he did not allow his effigy to appear on coins. Nor has any statue of his survived away from home. The nearest we come to a Herodian face is through the coins of his more liberal grandson, Agrippa I (10 BCE-44 CE) and great-grandson Agrippa II (27/28-92/93 CE). Josephus depicts Herod as a strong, attractive, and sensual man. He was outstanding as rider, hunter and soldier. Few could match the precision of his javelin or arrow. Extremely ambitious, he wished to be second to none. This eagerness probably stemmed from an inferiority complex implanted in him by two women of royal descent: his haughty wife Mariamme and mother-in-law Alexandra. One of his cheeky sons by Mariamme gossiped that standing beside his father he had to stoop as he was taller than him, and felt obliged to miss at hunting to make Herod appear the better shot. He also let it be known that to disguise his age, Herod was dying his hair black. 

Behind every great man: "Mariamme Leaves the Judgment Seat of Herod" by J. W. Waterhouse (1887) 

Gladly availing himself of the Mosaic privilege of extensive royal polygamy, Herod took altogether ten wives. Apart from Mariamme, who was both beautiful and princely, they were all chosen for their looks rather than their rank, according to Glaphyra, Herod's sharp-tongued daughter-in-law, herself daughter of the king of Cappadocia. Family prattle had it that Herod fancied Glaphyra. We learn from Josephus that Herod had at least one male lover, Karos, "a young man of unrivalled beauty", who later came to a sticky end.

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June 12th, 2012
12:06 PM
Vermes has too much speculation and opinion, and not enough historical reasoning. There is plenty of reason to believe the massacre of the innocents was a historical event.

Geoffrey Hudson
February 1st, 2011
2:02 PM
The second letter of The Acts of Torah was a real slap in the face for Herod. The references to women, violence, betrayal, fornication, and perished are all words that have resonances with Herod’s family life: his many wives and their jealousies, the murder of Mariamne, the betrayals by his sons, and the putting to death of two of his sons Alexander and Antipater are a few examples. The writers (priests), were telling Herod that his acts were abominable and detestable to God, and that he should not come into his house (the Temple). They vainly declared that they had kept themselves separate from all these goings-on. They had separated themselves from the people, and thus from Herod and his family. They had washed their hands of the whole business, and their hands were clean. They believed that only they fully understood what was in the Book of Moses (the Pentateuch), and the Books of the Prophets and David, implying that Herod’s knowledge of them was inferior. Furthermore, they believed that the Book of Moses described Herod as one of those kings who would fall from the “way” (the Law) and that there would be consequences of that disobedience. There was an allusion to Herod being at the end his days, when he would recognize that some of the blessings written about king Solomon, and some of the curses written about king Jeroboam and king Zedekiah, had been repeated during his reign. Thus here was a direct comparison of Herod with previous kings, showing that a king was being addressed. And they expected that king Herod would know all about these earlier kings, and about the Law. The writer says: “Remember the kings of Israel and understand their works that each of them who feared the Torah was saved from troubles, and to those who were seekers of the Law, their iniquities were pardoned”. The priests implied that king Herod had not sought to obey the Law and that he needed to repent. Yet they recognized that Herod had observed the Law to a certain extent, but not to the standards that they set. They wrote, condescendingly: “Understand all these (matters) and ask him to straighten your counsel and put you far away of evil and the counsel of Belial. Consequently, you will rejoice at the end of time when you discover that some of our sayings are true. And it will be reckoned for you as righteousness when you perform what is right and good before Him, for your own good and for that of Israel.” I think when Herod read this, he had had enough of these priests.

Geoffrey Hudson
January 28th, 2011
2:01 PM
THE ACTS OF TORAH (3) The second letter is critical of king Herod, however you dress this up. The following is based on a translation by Vermes taken from The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, p226. Some words are Vermes’s best guesses. “And concerning the women … violence and betrayal …For in these … on account of the violence and fornication they perished … places. And furthermore it is written in the Book of Moses that you shall not bring an abominable thing into your house (cf. Deut. 7.26) for an abominable thing is detestable. And you know that we have separated from the mass of the people … and from mingling with them in these matters and from being in contact with them in these (matters). And you know that no treachery or lie or evil is found in our hands for we give for these the … And furthermore we have written to you that you should understand the Book of Moses and the Books of the Prophets and David and all the events of every age. And in the Book is written … not for you and the days of old. And furthermore it is written you will depart from the way and that evil will befall you (cf. Deut. 31.29). And it is written: And it shall come to pass when all these things befall you in the end of days, the blessing and the curse, then you will call them to mind and return to Him with all your heart and all your soul (Deut. 30:1,2) at the end of days. And it is written in the Book of Moses and in the Books of the Prophets that there shall come …and the blessings came in the days of Solomon the son of David. And the curses came in the days of Jeroboam the son of Nebat until Jerusalem and Zedekiah king of Judah were exiled that He will bring them to … And we recognize that some of the blessings and curses which are written in the Book of Moses have come. And this is the end of days when they will come back to Israel for ever … and shall not turn backwards. And the wicked shall act wickedly and … Remember the kings of Israel and understand their works that each of them who feared the Torah was saved from troubles, and to those who were seekers of the Law, their iniquities were pardoned. Remember David, that he was a man of piety, and that he was also saved from many troubles and pardoned. We have also written to you concerning some of the observances of the Law which we think are beneficial to you and your people. For we have noticed that prudence and knowledge of the Law are with you. Understand all these (matters) and ask him to straighten your counsel and put you far away of evil and the counsel of Belial. Consequently, you will rejoice at the end of time when you discover that some of our sayings are true. And it will be reckoned for you as righteousness when you perform what is right and good before Him, for your own good and for that of Israel.”

Geoffrey Hudson
January 27th, 2011
10:01 AM
THE ACTS OF TORAH (2) In the first letter, the priests who had resigned from the Temple, and had separated themselves from the people, wrote something like the following, based on a translation from Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, p193 – who have filled-in most of the text missing from the manuscript with their best guesses to make sense. The text is a series of Laws or rules, mostly about Temple practice, which the writers thought in their opinion should apply. It was an early form of Jewish rule or Law writing (halakah) – the “idiom” referred to by Milik and Golb: “These are some of our words concerning the Law of God, that is some of the works that we reckon as justifying you. All of them have to do with holy gifts and purity issues. Now concerning the offering of grain by the Gentiles, who…and they touch it…and render it impure…One is not so to eat any Gentile grain, nor is it permissible to bring it to the Temple. Concerning the sin offering which is boiled in vessels of Gentile copper, by means of which they (the priests remaining) render impure the flesh of their offerings, and further that they boil in the courtyard of the Temple and thereby pollute it (the Temple) with the soup that they make (we disagree with these practices). Concerning sacrifices by Gentiles, we say that in reality they sacrifice to the idol that seduces them; (therefore it is illicit). Further, regarding the thank offering that accompanies peace offerings, that they put aside one day for the next, we reckon that the grain offering is to be eaten with the fat and the flesh on the day that they are offered. It is incumbent upon the priests to assure that care is taken on this matter, so that the priests will not bring sin upon the people. Also, with regard to the purity of the heifer that purifies from sin: he who slaughters it and he who burns it and he who gathers its ashes and he who sprinkles the water (of purification from) sin - all of these are to be pure from the setting of the sun, so that only the pure man will be sprinkling upon the impure. The sons of Aaron must give warning in this matter… Concerning the skins of cattle and sheep…their skins vessels…One is not to bring them to the Temple.” This is about one quarter of the letter. I have given sufficient for you to get some idea of its content. These were important priests, no longer within the Temple fold, telling Herod that he wasn’t doing things correctly. If I had been Herod, I would have been enraged – my Kregel translation of Josephus has “distemper”, making out Herod was going crazy, when really it should be “temper”, a word that occurs just a little later. And we know that Herod’s temper boiled over, but it WAS NOT ABOUT the ridiculous tearing down of the “eagle”.

Geoffrey Hudson
January 26th, 2011
10:01 AM
THE ACTS OF TORAH (1) Imagine if you were king Herod and you were near life’s end. You had generally kept the Jewish Law. You had not stamped your image on coins, put up no statues of yourself, observed the Laws on diet, required the circumcision of men who wanted to marry Jewish women, obeyed the Law regarding ritual purification, reconstructed the temple and associated the priests with the project, and bought 1000 of the Jewish priests sumptuous robes, to name a few things. Then two letters (4QMMT) land on your desk from some of the priests who must have held important positions, but had resigned their responsibilities to the Temple. In effect, they told you that your Jewish ways of behaving were not up to their standards - these priests had moved the goalposts by their interpretation of Jewish Law.

Geoffrey Hudson
January 25th, 2011
11:01 AM
Vermes wrote: “The Talmud, ignoring Herod's ancestry and attainments, downgrades him to the status of a "wicked slave of the Hasmonean kings". Why does the Talmud say that? Was it because Herod switched his allegiance from the priests to the prophets towards the end of his life? It wouldn’t have been the first occasion in Jewish history that a king did that. Josephus saw himself as a Hasmonean prophet, not a priest. The Hasmoneans were linked to prophets who were not strict in applying the Law. The two “teachers” along with their “40 pupils” who took down the “golden eagle” from the “temple wall” were prophets, or rather a school or company of prophets. And of course they didn’t really take down an “eagle”. Prophets have been carefully edited out of Josephus’s writings. They have been obfuscated by the retrospective introduction of Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes who are later and not mentioned anywhere in the vast quantity of scrolls which have been buried for 2000 years. The opposition party mentioned in the scrolls “are the congregation of those who seek smooth things in Jerusalem”…”who despise the Law and do not trust in God” (Vermes). the priests who wrote most of the scrolls could not bring themselves to name them. These were prophets that the priests were writing about. Prophets are legislated for in the laws of Moses.

Geoffrey Hudson
January 24th, 2011
12:01 PM
Golb wrote (p183 of Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls): "The importance of Milik's observations about the idiom of the Acts of Torah resided in the necessary implication that the work was written during the early or middle first century A.D., before which no evidence could be found for the existence of such an idiom. Indeed Milik made use of passages FROM (capitals mine) the Acts of Torah to elucidate his discussion of a first-century A.D. documentary work in the same idiom - the Copper Scroll....The idiom appears in no written testimony before the turn of the era," Up until now I have taken the last sentence at face value, and thought that we were looking for a date post the turn of the era. Herod died in 4 B.C. So could we squeeze 4QMMT back into the end of first century B.C. just before Herod died? I don't see why we shouldn't. The two letters that form the "Dead Sea" scroll 4QMMT then begin to make sense. They were addressed to Herod himself.

Geoffrey Hudson
January 21st, 2011
4:01 PM
Vermes wrote: "In obedience to Jewish law, he did not allow his effigy to appear on coins. Nor has any statue of his survived away from home." And this: "Herod considered himself a Jew and at home he behaved as one…” He also observed Jewish dietary laws." And this: "He strictly adhered to Jewish rules governing mixed marriages and required circumcision of non-Jewish men before they were allowed to marry into his family." And this: "Some of the pools discovered in Herodian palaces served for ritual purification, according to archaeologists." And this: "The jewel in the crown of his exclusively Jewish creative activity was the reconstruction of the Second Temple." And this: "To allay religious worries, he associated the Jewish clergy with the project, and to please them he ordered sumptuous robes for 1,000 priests." "And this: "His formal adherence to the Jewish religion...." And he also wrote this: "His unpopularity reached boiling point when he sentenced to death two respected religious teachers and 40 of their pupils for destroying the golden eagle, symbol of Rome, attached to the new Temple." So why would Herod attach an eagle to the outside of the temple knowing this would break the Law and offend ALL Jews. It wouldn’t have made him very popular right from the opening of the temple. Clearly, Herod did no such thing as to put up a golden eagle on the temple wall. This story about "two teachers" and their "40 pupils" "pulling the eagle down" from the temple wall is garbled in the writings attributed to Josephus. It was a story about something else.

Geoffrey Hudson
January 20th, 2011
10:01 AM
The incident of the “shields” in Philo, Embassy to Gaius, 300 has rung a very loud bell, at least in my ears. This was really a complaint made to a king by priests about some goings-on in the temple that was against the Law, and what the Embassy to Gaius was all about. The story (if you read between the lines of propaganda) has a strong resemblance to a scroll, 4QMMT- Acts of Torah, which was a list of complaints made by one group who had separated themselves from the temple against a second group who the first group reckoned were not keeping the Law. The complaint was made to a royal person whose name just happens not to be there by virtue of the wear and tear of the scroll. Professor Norman Golb of the University of Chicago has considered for a very long time (along with others such as Joseph Milik, and Professors Robert Eisenman, and Michael Wise, see that 4QMMT was an early first century document written in a first century idiom or style. They say that the copper scroll was written in a similar first century idiom.

Geoffrey Hudson
January 19th, 2011
10:01 AM
And finally who do you think the “people” were. I mean, who would object to a certain “name” on “shields”. On p196 of The Herodian Dynasty, Kokkinos has: “For example, under Gratus (CE 15-26) the only information he (Josephus) adduces is the succession of four high priests in the space of three years. Naturally such a bare narrative gives the false impression that besides the Roman governor, the power in Judaea was monopolized by the high priesthood. Although there was an enhancement compared to Herod’s time, the ‘priestly class’ as the sole ruling class in Judaea under Rome is a myth, certainly for the period before Agrippa I. The evidence known to us shows that in political disputes with the Romans the Jewish embassies dealing with the case were ‘aristocratic’, but headed by Herodians not high priests.” So it seems as though the high priests were in the background and the real wheelers and dealers were the “Herodians”. Or, is the word “Herodian” for this period before Agrippa I, a misnomer? Have we been duped? And what were the high priests doing?

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