New College, University of Edinburgh
Josephus on Herod the Great

Josephus on Herod the Great

(Helen Bond) Larry’s post showed that one of the things we are interested in at the Centre for Christian Origins (CSCO) is what’s often called the ‘world of the NT’ – the general context in which the Jesus movement emerged. Almost everything we know about this context, though, at least in Palestine, comes from the Jewish author Flavius Josephus. I’ve always thought that before we can even begin to reconstruct first century Jewish history we need to know how to interpret Josephus. And forays into Josephus research have been part of my scholarship for many years now.

My particular interest at the moment is in Josephus’ description of Herod the Great in his Jewish War. It takes up a large section of book 1 and has a rather articficial, unchronological structure: Herod’s rise to power, heroism and loyalty to Rome, a eulogy on the king, then a detailed description of the king’s slavery to his passion for Mariamne and the deterioration of his household. I’m giving a paper at the SNTS next week (more on this conference later) in which I hope to argue that the structure is down to a dual concern in Josephus. (1) In line with the thesis of the whole of the work, he wants  to present the famous King Herod (and Jews more generally) as loyal to their Roman overlords. Herod was clearly an excellent example, and his love of Roman culture unsurpassed. (2) But Josephus, the Hasmonaean priest, could not present an entirely positive portrait of Herod. The second half I argue skillfully draws on common Roman stereotypes in an attempt to show that Herod was fundamentally unfit to reign. Again, this corresponds with his clear preference elsewhere that Judaea be governed by priests under the reign of God (a theocracy/hierocracy). This, I think, is why the two sides of Herod’s reign are kept distinct (the fact that descendants of Herod were in Rome maybe meant that he could not to be openly critical of the King, and anyway that would not have suited his purposes). In the Antiquities of the Jews,  Josephus no longer needs Herod as an example of heroism and loyalty (he has plenty enough of these from the Jewish scriptures) and so he integrates his material more fully, combining it with much more negative traditions and presenting the more commonly remembered harsh  portrait of the king. 

A further interesting element here is the story of King David. The HB similarly presents David’s rise to power (a rise which has a surprising number of  similarities to Herod’s), the King’s heyday, and then later decline as his household disintegrates around him. I very much doubt that Josephus modelled his portrait of Herod on David, but it is possible (as Tal Ilan has suggested) that he was described this way by Josephus’ main source, Herod’s adviser and confidante, Nicolaus of Damascus. My working hypothesis at the moment (drawing on some of the work of Mark Toher) is that Nicolaus presented Herod as a second David in his Universal History, which was writiten during Herod’s lifetime. I think the first half of the War draws on this account, perhaps as far as the eulogy in the middle. The second half, though, may draw on Nicolaus’ Autobiography, written after Herod’s death and in Rome. Clearly Nicolaus would still have been positively disposed towards his old patron, but his main concern now was to justify his own actions (including his part in the murder of Herod’s sons), and examples of Herod’s cruelty and paranoia may have been common.

We’ll have to see how the paper goes down next week!

  • CSCO Team,
  • 19th July 2010


  • Mark Goodacre, 19th July 2010 at 1:33 pm | Reply

    Fascinating. Thanks, Helen. Good luck with the paper and I look forward to hearing more in due course.

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  • Harper Peter, 3rd October 2022 at 7:11 am | Reply

    Josephus distinguishes between Herod’s deeds and character. Now this son was one of the greatest comeliness, and was called Aristobulus: and the daughter Mariamne was married to Herod, and eminent for her beauty.

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