In seminary, one of my favorite classes was entitled “New Testament Backgrounds.” Unless you understand the context that shaped and informed first-century Israel, a great deal of the New Testament will be like cardboard. Of course, you don’t have to know any background context at all to hear, understand and respond to the Gospel. But, this context does give color, flavor and three-dimensional shape to the Gospels.
In 1971, the late Michael Grant (an eminent classicist who taught at Cambridge and Edinburgh University), published a biography of Herod the Great. It’s an excellent volume that frames the political climate that informed Jesus’ ministry. In this excerpt, Grant offers some comments on Herod’s legacy:1
Herod’s ambition was to keep the Jews intact and prosperous, in their own country, without losing the cooperation and protection of the Roman empire. He devoted his life to this task, and since he was a man of extraordinary gifts his achievement was greater than could have been reasonably expected of any man … In order to achieve and maintain the equilibrium with which to prevent such disasters, Herod had to walk, for forty years, the most precarious of political tight-ropes. He had to be enough of a Jew to retain control of his Jewish subjects, and yet pro-Roman enough to preserve the confidence of Rome. Moreover, since his kingdom was in the eastern, Hellenized part of the Roman world, he had in effect to be (and longed to be) a Graecophile, in order to impress his numerous non-Jewish subjects and neighbors.
And if it proved beyond his powers (was it perhaps beyond anyone’s powers?) to solve his ultimate, long-term national problem, it is hard to blame anyone with assurance for events that take place a number of generations after he is dead. While he lived, he did very great things for the Romans, Greeks and Jews alike. To the Romans he was the most loyal of dependent allies. For the Greeks and others he was a benefactor and builder of public works on a scale scarcely precedented in the area. The Jews in other parts of the Roman empire gratefully remembered him long after his death, and for all Jewry he built a Temple at Jerusalem which outdid Solomon’s. He spent gigantic sums of money. And yet such was his efficiency that, without an extortionate system of taxation, he left the country rich.
Herod’s policy, above all, was pro-Roman. He was deeply convinced that there was no possibility of complete Jewish independence, and he regarded collaboration with Rome as the price of survival and prosperity. This view, exactly opposed to the low flash-point nationalism of his Hasmonean foes, was a product of an accurate diagnosis and prognosis.
It is incorrect to see Herod as a quisling collaborating with the national enemy when he should have been fighting against them. Such a view neglects the fact that the Romans were not only in complete control of the entire Mediterranean area, but would certainly retain this control for as far ahead as the imagination could envisage. There was no ‘other side’ which could prevent this. Certainly the Jews could not.
There was not one chance in a million that rebellions would succeed: when they came, they achieved nothing but a gigantic and frightful toll of Jewish casualties, together with the obliteration of the Jewish national home which has not been revived until recent times. Herod was right, just as Johanan ben Zakki and even the turncoat Josephus was right, in counseling peace with Rome as the only salvation. It is fallacious to condemn Herod on the grounds that he placed prudence and safety before honour and freedom. These were not the real alternatives. In realistic terms the second alternative was not honour and freedom at all, but destruction of self, home, family and country.
This was the alternative that the Jews twice chose after Herod was dead. Herod himself had made the other choice. And his solution need not be criticized on the grounds that it would have led to Jewry being engulfed. As Abraham Schalit declares: ‘Its spiritual concession would have been nothing compared to the enormous advantage of the continued possession of the land of its forefathers.’
To say all this is by no means to excuse the Romans for the lamentable mistakes they continually made, and the cruelties they committed, when dealing with the Jewish problem. These blunders naturally exacerbated the Jews. And they invite a second criticism of Herod which is perhaps more serious than the first: was he attempting the impossible?
Those who believe this to be the case maintain that no one, not even a more acceptable sort of Jew capable of earning whole-hearted loyalty from the main Jewish groups, could have stemmed the rising tide of nationalism and fanaticism, the inevitable oriental reaction against alien Hellenism. But this conclusion is more than doubtful. For example Herod’s grandson Agrippa I, to whom Rome gave back his kingdom, managed to be popular, on the whole, with Jews and Romans alike. In spite of a few inevitable criticisms, most Jews did not even hold it against him that he was of Idumaean origin. True, people had by that time got used to Idumean rule, which had been a greater shock to sensibilities in the earlier days of Herod and his father. In any case, the task Agrippa I set himself was perfectly possible: and the policy of his grandfather Herod, though harder, had been practicable too.
But here a third criticism of Herod can be heard, and it is harder to answer than the others. He allowed it to become too clear, amid his Hellenizing enthusiasm, that he did not feel wholeheartedly a Jew. By revealing this he inflicted a handicap on his own conduct of affairs. But that did not mean his policy was wrong.
Herod can also be blamed for the repressions which he embarked upon so as to push this policy through. To us, who are not ruling Judea during the first century BC, they appear inexcusably savage. To him, it seemed absolutely essential to annihilate those who were trying to sabotage the policy on which the whole future of their country depended. Those who felt his heavy hand, operating for the sake of this cause which he regarded as so urgent, ensured his future infamy.
And so he became Herod the Wicked, villain of many a legend, including the Massacre of the Innocents: the story is invented, though it is based, in one respect, on what is likely to be a historical fact, since Jesus Christ is probably born in one of the last years of Herod’s reign. The supposed day of the massacre, 28 December, passed into the Christian calendar; and as for the Jews, they began to celebrate the day of Herod’s death as a festival.
Nevertheless, the Jews in other countries acted in a contrary fashion, holding festivals which did honor to his memory. And even in Judea itself, as we have seen, his political followers were still proud to call themselves Herodians. Already during his lifetime, there had been many leaders among the Sadducees and Pharisees alike who were willing to give him at least passive support, because it was so abundantly clear that Judaism, classified by the Romans as a tolerated and accepted faith, had little to gain and everything to lose by revolution.
And the same favorable verdict could have been obtained in more humble Jewish circles, too. Apart from small groups of ruined noblemen and Messianic extremists, the Jews had never had it so good.
1 Michael Grant, Herod the Great (New York: American Heritage Press, 1971), 13-14; 225-230.