According to the Bible JESUS was born in the land of Judea. The GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW tells us that King Herod ruled Judea at the time of Jesus’birth. Historians cannot confirm the treacherous deeds attributed to Herod in Matthew’s Nativity story. Nevertheless, these barbarities resemble the kinds of brutal acts historians know him to have committed.
HEROD IN THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
In chapter two of Matthew we learn that MAGI from the east have arrived in Jerusalem. They inquire about the birthplace of the newborn king of the Jews whose Nativity has been foretold by the rising of a miraculous star (see also YEAR OF BIRTH JESUS; STAR OF BETHLEHEM). Herod is disturbed by their questions, seeing in the coming of a great Jewish leader only a potential rival for power. Herod assembles the Jewish priests and scribes, and finds out that prophecy dictates that the Messiah will be born in the town of BETHLEHEM. He passes this news on to the Magi, requesting that they first go to Bethlehem and find the child, and then report back to Jerusalem. The Magi journey on to Bethlehem, identify Jesus as the newborn king, and pay him homage. A dream warns them that Herod intends to kill the child they identify as the king of the Jews so they return to their own countries without going back to Jerusalem. Herod is furious with their failure to return and orders soldiers to kill all the male children in the town of Bethlehem under the age of two. In the meantime, however, an ANGEL warns JOSEPH, Jesus’father, of Herod’s bloody plan. The angel instructs Joseph and his family to flee into EGYPT (see FLIGHT INTO EGYPT). Herod’s massacre of Bethlehem’s male children is commemorated on HOLY INNOCENTS’ DAY, December 28.
THE HISTORICAL HEROD
Herod was the family name of a line of kings who ruled Judea at the time of Jesus’birth. Although they were kings in Judea, they were not themselves of Jewish descent. They were Idumeans, a people from outside the land of Judea, many of whom had been forced to convert to Judaism. Some commentators note that Matthew’s account of his meeting with the Magi demonstrates Herod’s unfamiliarity with Jewish teachings; in order to answer the Magi’s questions, he had to consult those who knew Jewish scripture. The Herod who ruled at the time of Jesus’birth was known as Herod the Great (73 B.C. to 4 B.C.).
Herod the Great became King of Judea in 40 B.C. He rose to power by collaborating with the Roman conquerors of Judea. King Herod was hated and feared by his Jewish subjects. He ruthlessly crushed all political opposition, going so far as to execute a wife and several sons whom he suspected might be plotting against him. He impoverished the people with oppressive taxes in order to fund numerous building projects and other lavish expenditures. Finally, he ordered that a number of well-known Jews be executed on the day of his death in order to ensure that the people would actually mourn on that day. Although no historical evidence exists for the massacre of Bethlehem’s children reported by Matthew, the act is not inconsistent with the record of Herod’s known deeds.
After the death of Herod the Great, the Romans divided his former kingdom among his remaining sons. Herod Archelaus became ruler of Judea, and Herod Antipas ruler of Galilee. The Gospel of Matthew states that after Herod the Great’s death, an angel told Joseph that it was safe to return to Israel. When Joseph discovered that the brutal Archelaus had become king of Judea he was too afraid to return there, so he moved his family to Galilee. Thus, the King Herod that interviewed Jesus shortly before his crucifixion (Luke 23) was Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee.