Updated: Apr 25, 2020
Do you ever find Biblical history a little confusing? Me too!
This is some of the research I used for my upcoming novel. I thought I would share it here with you.
Reading the New Testament you meet a few rulers by the name of Herod, and without a little background, it can be easy at first glance to think they are all the same person. We've actually got four Herods that are intertwined in New Testament history.
The Four Herods of the Bible
Herod (the Great)
Herod Agrippa I
Herod Agrippa II
Let's take a quick peek into these power-hungry rulers and some of the highlights of their careers.
Antipater - the head of the family
First, we start with Antipater, the shrewd beginning of this ambitious lineage.
He was not a Jew, a big no-no for someone wanting to rule the people of Israel. He was from a neighboring country, north and east of the Sea of Galilee.
He had two sons: Phasael and Herod.
He showed up with an army at a key moment of battle, and Julius Caesar awarded him Roman citizenship and gave special favors to the Jews, including some religious freedoms.
Antipater saw which way the wind was blowing, and at the crucial moment, dropped Julius Caesar to side with Mark Antony.
He died by poison. All that political scheming caught up to him I guess!
Mark Antony gave Phasael and Herod joint power over the Jews.
Antipas' son, Phasael, was killed in an uprising.
His remaining son, Herod, fled to Rome to enlist support for his right to rule.
Herod the Great (and power-crazed)
Mark Antony named Herod the 'King of the Jews' in 40 BC. Despite how grand the title sounds, he was still subject to Rome.
It took Herod three years to actually wrestle control, and begin to rule.
Once he had power, he actually did some great things for the economy.
Herod shared his father's political cunning, When he saw the change in the wind, he transferred loyalties from Mark Antony to Octavian during a civil war. (Octavian won, and changed his name to Augustus Caesar).
Herod rebuilt the small Jerusalem Temple into a magnificent marble and gold structure with a vast complex of courtyards and buildings, a project that took decades, and wasn't completed until after his death. This won him some begrudging praise from his Jewish subjects.
However, he also built pagan temples for his Gentile subjects.
Herod loved the popular Greek culture and added a theater and a hippodrome (a place for chariot races) and a fancy palace to Jerusalem.
He improved many other cities and ports.
He took up the Jewish religion (to some extent), but he was never considered a “true Jewish king” by most of his subjects, who were still waiting for a king from David's line.
Herod was very power-hungry and cruel. He killed two of his own sons, and one of his wives when he suspected treason. (He had several wives and many children.)
In scripture, this is the King that ordered the baby boys in Bethlehem to be killed. (Matthew 2:16)
When King Herod died in 4 BC, his once united rule was divided up between three of his sons: Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip.
-Archelaus ruled the province around Jerusalem. (Matt 2:22) He was unnecessarily cruel, so the Jews cried out to Rome, and Rome took his authority away and put a Roman Governor in his place. (Pilate, from Jesus' trial, was one of those governors.)
Philip ruled the area around the north and east of the Sea of Galilee, and he was actually a pretty decent ruler.
Herod Antipas was in charge of Galilee and Perea, which included Jesus' hometown.
Herod Antipas - the murderer of John the Baptist
He was granted power in 4 BC and held it for some forty years, through the reigns of two Roman Emperors: Augustus and Tiberias.
Herod Antipas was, in general, a successful ruler, with had much of his father shrewd diplomacy. He also inherited his father's love for Greek culture, and building projects.
He foolishly divorced his wife, the daughter of an ally, to marry his brother's wife, Herodias, which later brought on a war from his snubbed ex-in-laws.
This is the Herod who beheads John the Baptist, (Matt 14:1-11) and is in power during Jesus' trial. (Luke 23:7-12)
Herod Agrippa - who has friends in high places
The next Herod is a grandson of Herod the Great, some sort of half-nephew to Herod Antipas and his brother, Philip. His name was Herod Agrippa. He was sent away to Rome for his education, (and probably to keep him safe in this power-hungry family) and lived a life of a rich aristocrat.
His fortune rose when he became friends with the future emperor, Gaius Caligula. This friendship showed its fruit when Gaius became Emperor of Rome.
In 37 AD Gaius set his buddy in power in Israel, sweeping aside first Philip, and then—with a few well-placed words from Agrippa—Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas is sent into exile.
Herod Agrippa is the one who beheaded James the son of Zebedee and had Peter thrown in jail. (Acts 12)
He died a disgusting death in 44 AD, being struck down by God, and then eaten by worms. (Acts 12:23)
Herod Agrippa II - dwindling power
Herod Agrippa's son was only seventeen when his father died, so an uncle stood in until Herod Agrippa II took over in about AD 53
Herod Agrippa II ruled north and east of the Sea of Galilee, but he was granted the right to appoint the High Priest and oversee the Temple proceedings in Jerusalem.
Also, the Romans sought his advice on how to handle the Jews because the Romans seemed to have had quite a time understanding their vastly different culture.
When Paul was arrested, this Herod Agrippa II heard his defense. (Acts 25 and 26)
When he died in AD 92 or 93, the Herodians disappeared from history.
Understanding the rank of the Herod rulers
I didn't use all the proper titles above, because it can get confusing. So here they are now:
Herod the Great was called a king, but he was still subject to Rome and paid tribute.
Archelaus was titled an ethnarch, which ranks below the king and just above being a tetrarch.
Herod Antipas, his brother Philip, and Herod Agrippa I were called tetrarchs.
Ethnarchs and tetrarchs both oversaw provinces within a country. They only held authority at the whim of Rome, paid tribute to Rome, and were charged with keeping the peace.
This was just a quick overview. The politics and maneuvering of these men influenced Rome, Egypt, and other countries surrounding the land of Israel, and they are well worth reading.
I hope that this peek into history helps you understand the world of the New Testament a little better! You can read more on the culture of the New Testament in my series 'How to live as a woman in first-century Israel'.
Sourced from Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson, pages 411-420 and 488