For more photos see: Herod the Great – The Great Builder

Rising commandingly above the surrounding hills 12 km south of Jerusalem, is the mountain palace-fortress called Herodium. This impressive structure was built by Herod the Great, a pro-Roman Idumean who converted to Judaism and reigned as King of Judaea from around 37BC until he died in 4BC.

The year of Herod’s death in 4BC is a vital chronological link to identifying the year of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was born before Herod died (Matt 2). The Bible tells us (Luke 3:1,23) that Jesus was 30 years of age in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar, which historians identify as AD26. This date then forms part of the solution to the 70 weeks prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27.

We read of Herod in Matt 2:1-18 where the wise men from the east ask him, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. Herod was extremely upset at this news and enquiring amongst the chief priests and scribes learnt that the King of the Jews was to be born in Bethlehem as the prophet Micah had prophesied (Micah 5:2). Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wrath, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men, v16. Herod died soon after, being unsuccessful in the murder of the Christ but being the means of fulfilling the prophecy that Christ would be called out of Egypt (where his parents fled with him) Hosea 11:1; Matt 2:15, just as the people of Israel were under Moses.

We can summarise the story of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ and its order ­as follows:

  • He was born in Bethlehem Matt 2:1, in a manger Luke 2:7.
  • That very night the shepherds came to visit him, Luke 2:11-16.
  • The wise men came to Herod the following morning or afternoon, Matt 2:1 KJB having been or after he was born in Bethlehem the wise men came….
  • That night God appeared in a dream to the wise men to warn them and they departed from Bethlehem to their own country, by-passing Jerusalem.
  • The next day he probably moved into a house Matt 2:11, where the wise men presented him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
  • Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt before word of his birth could reach Jerusalem.
  • Jesus was circumcised the eighth day Luke 2:21, maybe en-route to Egypt.
  • Herod dies within 40 days of his edict to kill all the male children under two.
  • Joseph and Mary return to Jerusalem by the 40th day to dedicate Jesus at the Temple Luke 2:22.
  • God warns them in a dream not to tarry in Jerusalem for fear of Archelaus, Herod’s son, and so they return to Nazareth, Luke 2:39; Matt 2:22.

So returning to Herod, what else do we know about him?

Herod was born in Idumea around 74BC, his father was Antipater an Idumean and high-ranking official under Hyrcanus II and his mother Cypros was a Nabatean. Herod was a converted Jew, who was elected as the King of the Jews in 40BC (Josephus), he captured Jerusalem with the Romans in 37BC and became sole ruler of Judaea. He married Mariamne a Hasmonian princess, the granddaughter of the High Priest from the ruling dynasty of the time that the Maccabees established. This dynasty was a religious and political union, the head of which was the High Priest. This marriage was to help secure Herod claim to the throne and gain favour with the Jews.

Though he had nominally converted to Judaism, Herod was a heathen in practise, notorious in character, crafty, cruel and jealous, revengeful, having a fury for power, and therefore suspicious of everyone around him.

To secure the throne he even murdered members of his own family. He falsely accused and executed Mariamne his wife and three of his sons, He drowned his wife’s brother in a bath, murdered his wife’s 80 year old grand-father and his father’s murderer. He killed many rabbis, 45 members of a rival faction, and lastly all the males under 2yrs of the Bethlehem region when he heard of Jesus’ birth.

His sons include Herod Archelaus ethnarch of Judaea, Samaria and Idumea and Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee.

Herod the Great is well-known for his amazing building projects that are still evidenced in Israel today, such as the expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem (also called Herod’s Temple), the city and harbour of Caesarea Maritima, the development of water supplies for Jerusalem, the fortresses of Masada and of Herodium, the rebuilt fortress of Macherus and the enclosure of the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Along with Cleopatra he owned the enterprise of extracting asphalt from the Dead Sea and he leased copper mines on the island of Cyprus.

From all this we can appreciate he was a notable character in the history of the Jews.

What of Herodium itself?

Herodium is a man-made fortress/hill, built by Herod the Great between 30-20 BC. It was one of his palaces, but also it was his summer villa. There were a line of fortresses that spread right across the country: Herodium, Masada, Macherus, as we have mentioned, all built by Herod the Great. Herodium was important in the second temple period, whereas Tekoa which it looks down upon, was important in the first temple period.

Josephus writes, Herod built a fortress upon a mountain towards Arabia, and named it from himself Herodium; and he called that hill that was of the shape of a women’s breast, and was sixty furlongs distant from Jerusalem, by the same name. He also bestowed much curious art upon it with great ambition, and built round towers all about the top of it, and filled up the main space with the most costly palaces round about, insomuch that not only the sight of the inner apartments was splendid, but great wealth was laid out on the outward walls, and partitions and roofs also. Beside this, he bought a mighty quantity of water from a great distance, and at vast charges, and raised an ascent to it of two hundred steps of the whitest marble, for the hill was itself moderately high, and entirely factitious. He also built other palaces about the roots of the hill, sufficient to receive the furniture that was put into them, with his friends also, insomuch that on account of its containing all necessaries, the fortress might seem to be a city, but, by the bounds it had, a palace only Josephus p 453.

Josephus also records that Herod was buried at Herodium. The remains of his grave, sarcophagus and mausoleum on Mt Herodium’s north-eastern slope were only discovered in 2007. The body was carried upon a golden bier, embroidered with very precious stones of great variety, and it was covered over with purple, as well as the body itself; he had a diadem upon his head, and above it a crown of gold; he also had a sceptre in his right hand… so they went eight furlongs to Herodium; for there by his own command he was to be buried; – and thus did Herod end his life Josephus pp 367, 470.