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The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession

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Until his death in 4 BCE, Herod the Great's monarchy included territories that once made up the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Although he ruled over a rich, strategically crucial land, his royal title did not derive from heredity. His family came from the people of Idumea, ancient antagonists of the Israelites. Yet Herod did not rule as an outsider, but from a family commit Until his death in 4 BCE, Herod the Great's monarchy included territories that once made up the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Although he ruled over a rich, strategically crucial land, his royal title did not derive from heredity. His family came from the people of Idumea, ancient antagonists of the Israelites. Yet Herod did not rule as an outsider, but from a family committed to Judaism going back to his grandfather and father. They had served the priestly dynasty of the Maccabees that had subjected Idumea to their rule, including the Maccabean version of what loyalty to the Torah required. Herod's father, Antipater, rose not only to manage affairs on behalf of his priestly masters, but to become a pivotal military leader. He inaugurated a new alignment of power: an alliance with Rome negotiated with Pompey and Julius Caesar. In the crucible of civil war among Romans as the Triumvirate broke up, and of war between Rome and Parthia, Antipater managed to leave his sons with the prospect of a dynasty. Herod inherited the twin pillars of loyalty to Judaism and loyalty to Rome that became the basis of Herodian rule. He elevated Antipater's opportunism to a political art. During Herod's time, Roman power took its imperial form, and Octavian was responsible for making Herod king of Judea. As Octavian ruled, he took the title Augustus, in keeping with his devotion to his adoptive father's cult of the divine Julius. Imperial power was a theocratic assertion as well as a dominant military, economic, and political force. Herod framed a version of theocratic ambition all his own, deliberately crafting a dynastic claim grounded in Roman might and Israelite theocracy. That unlikely hybrid was the key to the Herodians' surprising longevity in power during the most chaotic century in the political history of Judaism.


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Until his death in 4 BCE, Herod the Great's monarchy included territories that once made up the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Although he ruled over a rich, strategically crucial land, his royal title did not derive from heredity. His family came from the people of Idumea, ancient antagonists of the Israelites. Yet Herod did not rule as an outsider, but from a family commit Until his death in 4 BCE, Herod the Great's monarchy included territories that once made up the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Although he ruled over a rich, strategically crucial land, his royal title did not derive from heredity. His family came from the people of Idumea, ancient antagonists of the Israelites. Yet Herod did not rule as an outsider, but from a family committed to Judaism going back to his grandfather and father. They had served the priestly dynasty of the Maccabees that had subjected Idumea to their rule, including the Maccabean version of what loyalty to the Torah required. Herod's father, Antipater, rose not only to manage affairs on behalf of his priestly masters, but to become a pivotal military leader. He inaugurated a new alignment of power: an alliance with Rome negotiated with Pompey and Julius Caesar. In the crucible of civil war among Romans as the Triumvirate broke up, and of war between Rome and Parthia, Antipater managed to leave his sons with the prospect of a dynasty. Herod inherited the twin pillars of loyalty to Judaism and loyalty to Rome that became the basis of Herodian rule. He elevated Antipater's opportunism to a political art. During Herod's time, Roman power took its imperial form, and Octavian was responsible for making Herod king of Judea. As Octavian ruled, he took the title Augustus, in keeping with his devotion to his adoptive father's cult of the divine Julius. Imperial power was a theocratic assertion as well as a dominant military, economic, and political force. Herod framed a version of theocratic ambition all his own, deliberately crafting a dynastic claim grounded in Roman might and Israelite theocracy. That unlikely hybrid was the key to the Herodians' surprising longevity in power during the most chaotic century in the political history of Judaism.

31 review for The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession

  1. 5 out of 5

    Joel Mitchell

    If you are acquainted with the Gospels & Acts, you probably remember multiple members of the Herod dynasty putting in less than flattering appearances (starting with Herod the Great’s attempt to murder the infant Jesus in Matthew 2). In this book, Bruce Chilton tells the full story of the Herodian dynasty’s rule over Israel. It is a convoluted tale of political & religious maneuvering, egomania, paranoia, sexcapades, and violence. Chilton portrayal of the Herods seems fairly balanced. He frequent If you are acquainted with the Gospels & Acts, you probably remember multiple members of the Herod dynasty putting in less than flattering appearances (starting with Herod the Great’s attempt to murder the infant Jesus in Matthew 2). In this book, Bruce Chilton tells the full story of the Herodian dynasty’s rule over Israel. It is a convoluted tale of political & religious maneuvering, egomania, paranoia, sexcapades, and violence. Chilton portrayal of the Herods seems fairly balanced. He frequently gives them credit for savvy political moves but does not downplay the cruelty, hubris, and mania that characterized this ruling family. I appreciated getting the full picture of who these people were and how they (and Israel) fit into the broader history of the Roman Empire. If that is what you are interested in, I would definitely recommend this book (especially if you don’t want to wade through Josephus’s Antiquities and Jewish War on your own). However, I would not recommend coming to this book to learn about the Herods’ interaction with John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church leaders. The author’s views in this regard are steeped in higher criticism, the “historical Jesus” movement, and all the related academic jargon. He treats the Bible (especially the Gospels and Acts) as distorted legends and propaganda to be sifted through for tiny grains of truth. Jesus is recast to suit a purely naturalistic/sociological/political understanding of religion devoid of true divine revelation. Call me unenlightened, but the “historical Jesus” is a pathetic, unconvincing substitute for the Son of God. As a follower of Jesus who takes the Gospels as divinely-inspired Scripture, I am probably not the intended audience for this book. Nevertheless, it did increase my overall understanding of these people and their time period, and I am glad that I read it (even if the “historical Jesus” parts made me cringe).

  2. 5 out of 5

    Thomas West III

    When I was in my teens, I developed a fascination with the Herods of the Bible, arguably the most infamous dynasty to have ruled over Judaea. There was something luridly fascinating about these men and women that clung to power for so long, despite the many bouts of unrest that convulsed the region during their reigns. Thus, when I saw Bruce Chilton’s new book about this infamous biblical dynasty at my local Barnes & Noble, I knew that I was going to have to read it. Chilton gives us a fascinatin When I was in my teens, I developed a fascination with the Herods of the Bible, arguably the most infamous dynasty to have ruled over Judaea. There was something luridly fascinating about these men and women that clung to power for so long, despite the many bouts of unrest that convulsed the region during their reigns. Thus, when I saw Bruce Chilton’s new book about this infamous biblical dynasty at my local Barnes & Noble, I knew that I was going to have to read it. Chilton gives us a fascinating overview of the most important members of this turbulent family, focusing in particular on Herod the Great, his sons Archelaus and Herod Antipas; his grandson Herod Agrippa I; and his grandchildren Agrippa II and Berenike. Though they attained very different levels of political success — Herod the Great, for all of his cruelty, was a surprisingly skilled politician, while his son Antipas found his loyalty to Rome rewarded with exile to Gaul — as Chilton points out they all possessed an extraordinary ability to use political imagery and power to their own advantage. The book also excels at providing two important contexts for the Herodians. First, there’s the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire. Herod the Great’s rise to political power intersected with some of the major developments of the Mediterranean world, most notably the civil wars that swept through Rome, culminating in the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Likewise, the fates of his sons and grandsons would be very much bound up with Roman imperial politics for both good and ill, particularly under the successors to Augustus. Time and again, the Herodians would have to grapple with the ugly and often violent politics of the imperial family. Rome was the one inescapable reality that all of the Herodians had to deal with, and it affected every aspect of their rule and their relationships with their Jewish subjects. Likewise, The Herods also gives us the biblical context in which these events took place, allowing us to see how understanding the actions and personalities of the Herods would impact the events of the Bible. As Chilton demonstrates again and again, it is impossible to truly grasp the import of the Gospels, and of Jesus’ ministry, without understanding the milieu in which it emerged. Several members of the dynasty make appearances in the biblical narratives — most notably Herod the Great (who allegedly ordered the slaughter of the innocents, though this was likely undertaken by his son); Antipas (notorious for persecuting John the Baptist and putting Jesus on trial); Agrippa I (consumed by worms); and Agrippa II and Bereniké (who presided over the trial of Paul). Of course, Herod the Great is arguably the most important figure in the book, and Chilton demonstrates that, whatever else he might have been, he was a canny ruler who managed to keep the approval of Rome and (at least to a degree) that of his subjects. Unfortunately, Herod’s legacy would be forever tainted by his later actions, his political shrewdness and brilliance overshadowed by a paranoia that would see him destroy several members of his family, including several of his sons. From the ashes of Herod’s last days several of his progeny would emerge largely unscathed, though none of them would ever attain the power that their father had, since Augustus responded to the chaos by splitting up his domains. Herod Antipas is probably best known to most readers as the tetrarch responsible for the execution of John the Baptist — an event that Chilton reminds us was more politically than erotically motivated, regardless of the popular myth that he was spurred on by his wife’s daughter — but in the book’s telling he was a savvy and canny strategist who worked assiduously to reclaim his father’s monarchical mantle. Unfortunately, his efforts were always doomed to failure, both because the notoriously megalomaniacal Caligula was almost impossible to predict and because Antipas fell afoul of his own nephew, who played a key role in securing his banishment. Indeed, Herod Agrippa would be one of the major beneficiaries of his uncle’s fall, and he proved as adept at navigating the fraught waters of Roman imperial politics as his grandfather had been. He was fortunate that his mother happened to be very good friends with Antonia the Younger, the mother of the later Emperor Claudius and the grandmother of Emperor Caligula. And, though he would be rendered into another infamous despot as a result of his persecution of several key Christian leaders, he was also a passionate defender of the rights and privileges of his Jewish subjects. Lastly, Chilton looks at Herod Agrippa II and Berenike, who attained significant success as rulers until they were caught up in the increasingly hot conflict between Rome and Judaea. Bereniké is an especially fascinating figure in Chilton’s telling, not only because of her political survival during one of the most fraught and dangerous times in her homeland but also because she famously became lovers with none other than Titus, the son and heir of the Emperor Vespasian. It was a canny move on her part, especially considering the inevitability of the Roman defeat of the Judaeans, and it’s her misfortune that Titus died so early in his reign. Her brother likewise died early, bringing an end to this illustrious dynasty. The Herods is a brisk biographical narrative that helps us understand, and even appreciate, the genius of this infamous family. Flawed and dangerous and murderous they might have been, but the Herods were undeniably skilled at maintaining power at one of the region’s most tumultuous moments and in a milieu that was repeatedly riven by sectarian and political differences. A dynasty less capable would have fallen into ruin far earlier, but the Herodians used a mix of murder, manipulation, and propaganda to ensure their survival. The fact that they remain so notorious even today is an indication of just how influential they were and how strong a hold they maintain over our collective imagination.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Tony Jones

    A masterful book on the first centuries BCE and CE and the characters who play a secondary role in the New Testament.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Robert St cyr

  5. 5 out of 5

    Paul Vittay

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jerome

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  8. 4 out of 5

    Zachary Adams

  9. 4 out of 5

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  10. 5 out of 5

    Jenny

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    Edward Weiner

  14. 4 out of 5

    nap385

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    NAP

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ingmar Weyland

  17. 5 out of 5

    Tiffany Foster

  18. 5 out of 5

    Elisabeth

  19. 5 out of 5

    Annelisa Burns

  20. 5 out of 5

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  21. 4 out of 5

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  28. 4 out of 5

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  29. 5 out of 5

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  30. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Williams

  31. 5 out of 5

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