By Geza Vermes
(London: bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2014), 216 pp., 75 illust., $35 (hardcover), $27.99 (ebook)
Reviewed by David M. Jacobson
Today Herod the Great is remembered mostly for his outstanding constructions across the Holy Land, especially rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, of which the Western Wall is an iconic fragment, and his spectacular mountain palace at Masada. Herod also makes fleeting appearances in the gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth. We actually know a lot more about Herod, from the first century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus, who drew on the no longer extant testimony of Herod’s chief minister and historian Nicolaus of Damascus. As a result, “There is no figure in antiquity about whom we have more detailed information than Herod,” our author quotes the words of the noted Josephus scholar Louis Feldman.
If you want to know how Herod paid for his megalomanic building program or a chronology of these projects, you need to look elsewhere. However, if you simply want a very accessible and stimulating sketch of Herod’s life and main achievements set in a wider historical context, this is just the book for you.
This small book is the last work of the eminent scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the birth of Christianity, who died in May 2013. Geza Vermes provides us here with a scintillating essay in his usual engaging style, written with clarity and authority. This little book is packed with information but not weighed down by tedious detail. Above all, Vermes is a masterful storyteller.
Vermes begins by tracing the rise of Herod’s Idumaean family from obscurity to power broker of the Hasmonean kingdom of Judea. Turning to the gospel stories involving Herod surrounding Jesus’ birth, Vermes pulls no punches. The Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2) and the Roman census that led to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (Luke 2) are “fictional or twisted.” Vermes sees Herod’s killing of the infants as probably a legend based principally on the incident that led to the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, namely Pharaoh’s decree against allowing Israelite baby boys to live (Exodus 1:15–22). Regarding the Holy Family’s trip to Bethlehem for the census, Vermes reiterates what other scholars have pointed out: There was no census of the type described in Luke at the time of Jesus’ birth. Vermes goes on to observe that the escape of Joseph, Mary and the newborn child to Egypt from the clutches of Herod is the counter image of the Exodus of the Israelites under Moses from Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land. In other words, both gospel birth stories had a doctrinal purpose, and Vermes points out their evolution in Jewish tradition prior to the Gospels (pp. 41–42, 113–119).
Vermes credits Herod with more than a lukewarm commitment to Judaism and adherence to the laws of the Torah(p. 46). In this I believe Vermes is wrong. On balance, the evidence indicates that Herod’s identification with Judaism, such as it was, was largely a matter of political expediency. At one point Vermes does admit that “Herod never felt totally at home with Jews and was much more at ease in the company of Greeks” (p. 64), echoing Josephus. Herod even instituted Greek-style athletic and gladiatorial games in Jerusalem and set up a golden eagle, the principal attribute of Zeus/Jupiter, over the main gate of the Temple. And yet, by rebuilding the Temple on a grand scale and enriching his kingdom by initiatives such as a spanking new harbor at Caesarea, Herod succeeded in uplifting the social, cultural and economic status of the Jews.
Vermes is at his best in analyzing Herod’s domestic life and unraveling the complex web of family relationships and antagonisms that eventually overwhelmed him. Herod’s ten wives and their squabbling brood were hardly conducive to domestic harmony. Herod was caught up in a spat between mother and sister, on one side, and wife and mother-in-law, on the other. The animosity had deadly consequences.
Mariamme, his favorite wife, and his mother-inlaw, Alexandra, were members of the Hasmonean establishment that Herod replaced; they felt aggrieved by their loss of status and regarded Herod’s clan as Idumaean parvenus. Hatred between the two parties reached fever pitch and resulted in Herod’s execution of his wife Mariamme and her close family. Family feuding and in-fighting intensified among Herod’s sons who jockeyed for inheritance. In the end, Herod’s three surviving middle sons—Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Philip—born of lesser wives, each received a share of Herod’s kingdom. Vermes describes this intimate side of Herod’s life with more gusto than is usual for serious scholars, but it is somewhat refreshing.
The True Herod is altogether an attractive volume, with numerous color photographs, maps and genealogical trees. It should be a welcome addition to any library.
David M. Jacobson is the editor of the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, the oldest journal of Levantine studies, and Honorary Research Fellow at University College London.
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