Updated: May 5, 2021
Archelaus gets one mention in the Bible, in the book of Matthew. Who was he? Why was Joseph afraid of him? What was his rule like? Let's find out!
Archelaus in the Bible
We read about Archelaus in Matthew 2:22. Shortly after the visit from the Magi, Joseph is warned in a dream that Herod wants to kill Jesus. Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to keep Jesus safe.
Sometime later, Joseph has another vision that Herod is dead and that it is safe to return. But when they get back, they discover Archelaus is reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, and so Joseph is afraid to go there. Joseph takes his family to Nazareth in Galilee, which is under the rule of Antipas* instead.
Archelaus in history
The ancient historian Josephus gives us a good look at who Archelaus was and what he did. I will include the references from his writing at the bottom of the post.
Archelaus was one of the many sons of King Herod, the son of Malthace, and full brother to Antipas. (You can see a family tree and marriages in my post: Herod's Family Tree: Lies, Power, and Incest.)
King Herod was a jealous ruler and fearful that his sons would rise up to usurp him. Because of his suspicious nature, he had his son and prospective heir killed. This meant he had to draw up a new will with a new heir.
The first will named Antipas as the sole heir. Later, when Herod was very ill, he changes his mind and draws up another will, dividing his lands between three of his sons: Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip. (1) However, no matter what King Herod's will says, no one can take over ruling the kingdom unless they are blessed by Caesar.
King Herod dies in about 4 BC and Archelaus plans a sumptuous funeral. He arranges that his father should be carried to his tomb on a golden bier that embroidered and covered in precious stones. Herod is draped in purple cloth and adorned with a golden crown and a scepter. A huge procession is arranged around him with guards and soldiers from various parts of the land, all in full war attire. 500 servants bearing spices follow. They travel in pomp from Jericho to the Herodium, which was near Jerusalem. (2)
Archelaus is recorded as mourning for his father for a full seven days, (3) but there were accusations presented later that while he mourned by day, he was celebrating with his friends by night, which does not paint him in a good light. (4)
After the seven days, Archelaus goes up to the temple. A high platform was raised for him to ascend, and he sat upon a throne while the people gathered around to give him praise. He speaks kindly to them and tells them that he is not yet naming himself as king, because he hadn't been confirmed by Caesar. They persist in demanding that he lower taxes and that he release men that his father had imprisoned. Archelaus, though denying to be a king, nevertheless grants them all they ask, desiring to have their goodwill to help him preserve his chance to rule. (5)
The people, however, are not satisfied with what they have gained. They gather in noisy lamentation of those who had been killed by King Herod for tearing down a golden eagle that had been set up in the temple. They want justice.
They then press further, asking for a new, better high priest. They demand that Archelaus punish those that had been honored by the late King Herod. Archelaus is not pleased with their importunity and tells them that those who died had been punished correctly under the law and that all their petitions needed to wait, because first, he had to go to Caesar.
The people are not appeased, so Archelaus sends his general to deal with the angry mob. The people will not listen to the general, and become violent to the point where the general's life is in danger. Archelaus sends more men to try to calm the crowd, but the people will have none of it, refusing to let any of them speak. (6)
The situation is made worse because it is Passover, and men are coming from all over to share in the festival. They gather in the temple, stirring each other up until Archelaus is worried about what they'll do next. He decides to send a regiment of soldiers to the temple to suppress the violence, but it only makes things worse. The ring leaders incite the crowds to attack the soldiers, stoning many of the soldiers and driving the rest away.
Archelaus feels there is nothing else he can do but send in the whole army. Three thousand of the rioters die, and the rest flee into the mountains. Not exactly a good start, especially when he was not officially king yet. (7)
Not wanting to wait any longer to get his blessing from Caesar, Archelaus leaves his brother Philip in charge and goes down to the sea to catch a boat. He takes his mother, various supporters, and his aunt Salome with her sons. Salome and her sons pretend to support Archelaus, but secretly they want to oppose him and to complain of what he had done in the temple. (8)
Antipas also sails to Rome with his supporters, buoyed up by the support of his Aunt Salome that he can take the government. She also told him that he was much better suited to ruling. He hopes that the earlier will, naming him as heir, will have greater legal standing than the new will which was written when King Herod was suffering from sickness. (9)
When the families arrive in Rome, they send letters to Caesar. The family immediately abandons all pretense of support for Archelaus and offer it to Antipas instead—not because they particularly like Antipas, but they think him preferable to Archelaus. In truth, many in the family would rather have a Roman governor to rule over the country. (10)
Caesar gathers up his advisers and lets the witnesses offer their opposing testimonies in accusation and favor of Archelaus, at the end of which Archelaus throws himself at the feet of Caesar. Ceasar rises Archelaus up to his feet and—good news for Archelaus—tells him that he is leaning in his favor to grant him the kingdom. Caesar tells him that he needs time to consider whether to give the entirety of the kingdom to Archelaus or to divide it between Herod's family. (11)
Trouble while Archelaus was away in Rome, waiting to be made king
Before Ceasar could decide who would rule, trouble strikes. Archelaus and Antipas' mother becomes sick and dies. Then, Varus, president of Syria, sends word that after Archelaus sailed away, the entire nation of Judea fell into chaos, with several men rising up and trying to claim to be king. (12)
Judas the son of Hezekiah led a rebellion and stole weapons and gold from the city of Sepphoris. He caused all kinds of trouble for his own people before Varus came and burned the city and sent the inhabitants away as slaves.
Though Varus had left a legion of Roman soldiers in Jerusalem to keep the peace, a greedy Roman proconsul named Sabinus caused a lot of trouble in Jerusalem trying to find the king's gold for himself. When the people gathered for the festival of Pentecost, they are angered at Sabinus to the point of laying siege to Jerusalem and fighting against the Romans in the temple. This battle resulted in a lot of bloodshed, and with the Romans burning the beautiful cloisters around the temple. Making their way through the flames, Sabinus' soldiers steal 400 talents from the temple treasuries. Sabinus is eventually rescued by Varus and slinks away like a coward. While he has profited, the destruction and loss of life to Jerusalem are harsh.
A tall and handsome slave named Simon tried to make himself king in Jericho, burning and plundering the palace there, as well as many other of the royal houses. His forces were soon attacked and destroyed by the general Gratus who was leading a company of Romans. Simon tried to flee, but Gratus captured and beheaded him.
Two thousand of Herod's disbanded soldiers gathered together against the king's troops. Herod's cousin fought against them until he was pushed up into the hill country.
A shepherd named Athronges, a tall and strong man, previously unknown to everybody, tried to set himself up as the king. He was careless with his own life and eager to harm others. He and his burly brothers caused a lot of trouble for both the Romans and their own people before they were eventually subdued, and Athronges became Archelaus' prisoner.
Josephus mentions that other, smaller uprisings were “in small matters, hurtful to the Romans; but the murders they committed upon their own people lasted a long while.” (12)
The result of all this uprising was that Varus sent out his army to find the ringleaders, and in the end, he crucified 2000 men. (13)
Archelaus meets opposition from his own people
His country in turmoil, Archelaus is no doubt looking for a break. Instead, Archelaus now has another opponent. A delegation of fifty Jews has been permitted by Varus to come and state their case against Archelaus. They want the liberty to live under their own laws.
The delegation gathers with the eight thousand Jews already living in Rome, and meet with Caesar in the temple of Apollo. Ceasar, with his friends, listens to their accusations against the late King Herod, and as they describe all the grievances he did to their people.
While the Jewish delegation concedes that Archelaus might be less tyrannical than Herod, the fact that before he even took power he had three thousand of their people killed in the temple was something they couldn't help but hate him for. (14)
Archelaus' wise supporter, Nicolaus, gets up to speak next, calling the Jews unfair to bring an accusation against Herod now that he is dead, when they wouldn't accuse him when he was alive. Nicolaus then blamed all of their problems on their own love of rebellion. (15)
The Jewish people do not carry their point, but Caesar does give some concessions based on their report of Archelaus' cruelty. He decides that Archelaus will rule only half the kingdom, and as an ethnarch, not a king. He will receive the royal dignity only after Archelaus shows he can rule virtuously. Caesar then follows King Herod's last will and gives a quarter of the kingdom to Antipas and a quarter to Philip—who had hurried to Rome when he had heard from Varus that the tide might be turning against Archelaus. (16)
Archelaus' short time as ruler
When Archelaus returns home he immediately accuses the high priest Joazar of assisting the rebellion against him, and he gives the high priesthood to the priest's brother Eleazar instead. Not long later, Archelaus takes it away from Eleazar and gives it to Jesus, son of Sei. The priesthood is relegated to a political tool rather than a holy office.
He magnificently rebuilds the palace in Jericho that Simon had burned.
He reroutes water to create a large grove of palm trees and creates a village there, named after himself.
Archelaus divorces his first wife, Mariamne, so he could marry the widow Glypha, who he loved. The trouble was that by marrying her, he breaks the Jewish law because she was the widow of his brother and already had children. (17)
Though he doesn't give the specific reasons, Josephus stated that Archelaus' family regard his rule as “barbarous and tyrannical” and they complain to Caesar in Archelaus' tenth year of reign. (Around 6 AD)
Caesar is very angry that Archelaus has not kept the requirements to rule with moderation, and thinking it below his honor to write to such a poor ruler, Caesar sends for Archelaus to come in person. Archelaus receives word while feasting with his friends, and immediately takes himself off to Rome.
Archelaus is accused before Ceasar, who strips his money from him and banishes him to live in the city of Vienna in Gaul. (Gaul of the ancient Romans included parts of several modern countries like Germany, France, and Austria.) (18)
Instead of giving Archelaus' half of the kingdom to one of King Herod's other sons, Caesar instead sends a Roman governor. These governors change out every so often until Pontius Pilate takes control in the time of Jesus. (19)
So there we have it, the tumultuous, blood-soaked rule of Archelaus, a ruler that few wanted, and who, by his own tyranny, was sent into exile.
Some have suggested that Jesus had Archelaus in mind when he told the parable in Jericho about a nobleman who went away to secure a kingdom in Luke 19:12-27. (For a good commentary on this, and on reading the parable without Western ideals of capitalism—which were the opposite of Jewish ideals—see the Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, edited by Barry J. Beitzel, Chapter 38)
We have no record of any surviving children. Archelaus was part of a ruling family that all but disappeared within 100 years of its founding.
If you enjoyed this post, you should check out these posts next!
A Biblical Fiction Short Story: A Father's Dream: Joseph's Story
*Antipas is called Herod, or Herod Antipas in the Bible, but I refer to him simply as "Antipas" to help dispel the confusion of a family that tends to reuse their names over and over!
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17:8.1
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.8.3
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.8.4
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.9.5
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.8.4
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.9.1-2
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.9.3
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.9.3
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.9.4
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.9.4
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.9.5-7
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.10
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.10.10
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.11.1-2
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.11.3
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.11.4
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.13.1
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.13.2
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.2.1-2