When the wise men asked Herod the King “Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” their question was not really spoken in a vacuum, for even the Roman author Suetonius wrote, “There had spread all over the East an old and established belief that it was fated for men coming from Judea at that time to rule the world”. But as wise as they were, their inquiry before the King showed no great tact. For instead of understanding the question to mean “Where is he who will someday succeed you”, Herod’s suspicious mind warped the query into “Where is the REAL king, you impostor?” At the time Herod mistrusted everyone and thought himself surrounded by young aspirants all plotting to seize his throne.
Rather than clap the Magi in irons for asking such a question, his native shrewdness tried to ferret out whatever information he could from them in order to kill off a possible rival. From the information he had gained about the date of the appearance of the star, and from the Old Testament prophesies his own scholars knew of, Herod concluded that the “king of the Jews” was about 2 years old and living in Bethlehem. By the way, since Herod died in 4 B.C., and Jesus was around 2, we might surmise that Jesus was born between 6-4 B.C. Furthermore, the wise men did not visit Jesus in the manger, contrary to the Hallmark Christmas cards, but some time later, perhaps 2 years later, when he was living in a house (Matthew 2:11).
The young Herod had been an exceptionally able ruler, governing Palestine as client-king on behalf of the Roman emperor Augustus. The House of Herod had the uncanny knack of being able to sniff the airs of Mediterranean politics and make the right choices. Herod’s father had given crucial help to Julius Caesar when he was down in Egypt, cut off from his supplies, and Caesar rewarded him handsomely for that. Herod himself shrewdly advised his friend Mark Antony to drop Cleopatra and make peace with Rome (advice he should have followed). And once Augustus emerged victorious from the civil wars, he was so impressed with young Herod that he allowed him to become one of his most trusted friends.
Herod beautified Palestine during his 33 year reign. He erected palaces, fortresses (Masada, for example), temples, aqueducts, cities, and – his crowning achievement – the great new Temple in Jerusalem. He created the magnificent port of Caesarea in honor of Augustus and stimulated trade and commerce. He also patronized culture in cities far from Palestine and easily became the talk of the eastern Mediterranean. He even sponsored the Olympic games of 12 B.C.!
But he had little support in his own kingdom. As a half-Jew he seemed far too Romanizing for his subjects, whom he taxed heavily. Soon he was hated as a tyrant, even by his own family. Herod was so jealous of his favorite wife (he married ten wives) that on two occasions he ordered that she be killed if he failed to return from a critical mission. He finally killed her anyway, as well as her grandfather, her mother, his brother-in-law, and three of his sons, not to mention numerous subjects. In his advancing paranoia, he was continually writing to Rome for permission to execute one or two of his sons for treason. Finally even his patron and friend Augustus had to admit, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son”. It was not only a play on the similar sounding Greek words for son and pig, but a wry reference to the fact that pork, at least, was not consumed by Jews.
Old and very ill from arteriosclerosis, Herod worried that no one would mourn his death – a justified concern. So he issued orders from his deathbed that leaders from all parts of Judea were to be locked inside the great hippodrome at Jericho. When Herod died, archers were to massacre these thousands in cold blood, so there would indeed be universal mourning associated with his death. Although the leaders were gathered, the order was never given. Not only did this plan fail, but so did his plan to kill “he who has been born king of the Jews”.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
From Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time