The events recorded in the New Testament and the Gospels were not fanciful stories invented by clever writers. They happened in a world and a time that we moderns hardly know. To understand that world, it is crucial that we know the historical and cultural background of the New Testament. If there is one figure which helps us understand that era, it is Herod I (also known as Herod the Great) [1].

Herod I as depicted in the movie “The Nativity”

Jesus mythicists and other skeptics of the New Testament point out that the Gospels were likely cobbled together late and contain little or no historical information or value. Of course they are wrong, as both historical sources and archaeology provide ample evidence for the reliability of both Old and New Testaments as primary sources.

Since I have been teaching archaeology for nearly 15 years, I’ve taught my students that archaeology can function in three ways:

(1). It can AFFIRM the historical basis of a text or manuscript (MSS)

(2) It can CLARIFY certain passages in the Bible, and

(3) It can ILLUMINATE the historical context in which the biblical text was written, giving the modern reader a deeper understanding of the times and culture in which the events of the Bible took place.

My goal is that the information in this article accomplishes all three, but with an emphasis on illuminating the world of Jesus and the New Testament. Just as it is impossible to fully understand the generation of Americans in the 1950’s without an understanding of the impact of World War II, so it is impossible to understand the world of Jesus and His disciples without an understanding the events and history that shaped it, under the dark shadow of Herod.


The main sources when it comes to the life and era of Herod the Great:

(1) Flavius Josephus

(2) Nicolaus of Damascus (via Josephus)

(3) Archaeology

(4) The New Testament 

One of the major historical sources for the life of Herod comes to us through the writings of Flavius Josephus. Josephus was a FIrst Century Jewish historian, soldier, politician as well as priest, who wrote extensively about Herod and his times. In fact, Josephus is also a primary source for much of what we know about the political situation in First Century Roman Judaea. While living in Rome Josephus would have had access to official Roman records, as well as other relevant sources such as Nicolaus of Damascus, a Greek historian and philosopher who was a personal friend of Herod. His writings contain many helpful insights into the period of the New Testament.

Marble bust of Flavius Josephus believed to have been made in his lifetime (Wikipedia)

Josephus first served as a general of the Jewish forces in Galilee against the Romans, but was eventually captured and brought to Rome where he became a citizen and served under three Flavian emperors: Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. While in Rome, he took the Roman name Flavius Josephus and is known today simply as “Josephus.” The two historical works in which Josephus writes about Herod are his Bellum Judaicarum (The Jewish War), and Antiquitates Judaicae (Antiquities of the Jews).

Since the earliest times until the present day, explorers and archaeologists have discovered and studied the archaeological remains of Herod’s great building projects in the Holy Land, and he left many to explore! In the 19th Century Sir Charles Warren and Professor Edward Robinson studied and surveyed the ruins of the massive Temple Mount platform which was built and enlarged by Herod. From 1968-1978 systematic excavation of the area south and west of the Temple Mount was directed by Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar. In more recent times Professors Yigael Yadin, Ehud Netzer, Jodi Magness as well as Kathleen and Leen Ritemeyer have made tremendous advances in our understanding of the archaeological remains from the time of Herod the Great. Below I’ll mention the discovery of a few significant Herodian structures that figure either prominently or serve as an important backdrop in the New Testament narrative.

In the New Testament Herod is mostly known through the Nativity narrative in Matthew 2. Matthew’s account is in perfect keeping with what other historical sources such as Josephus explicitly state or imply about Herod. In the Matthew 2 account, Herod learns of the birth of Jesus through the wise men, or magi (magoi) [likely from Babylon, Persia or Arabia]. The magi witnessed a remarkable astronomical event in the east and connected it to the birth of Israel’s promised Jewish Messiah/King (Matt. 2:1-4). Some have speculated that the magi may have read or Daniel’s prophecies or the Oracles of Balaam.

The impression from historical sources, and the New Testament is that Herod was a tyrannical, murderous monarch, willing to kill even his own family members if he thought that they threatened his reign or rule. Bruce Scott writes:

Herod had no qualms about killing. He killed 2,000 survivors of five cities that had rebelled against him. He had his brother in law drowned. He executed his uncle, his wife’s grandfather, his wife, his mother in law, and three of his sons. He murdered faithful followers, servants, friends, soldiers, pious men, relatives – often on flimsy evidence of rumors or coerced confessions. In the last days of his life, Herod arranged for all of the prominent Jewish leaders of the country to be rounded up, placed in a hippodrome and executed upon the word that he had died. He wanted to ensure that there would be mourning throughout the land after he died. Fortunately the orders were never carried out [2].

One of Herod’s most barbaric acts is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 2:16. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Herod had all males two years old and under in and around Bethlehem slaughtered. He was endeavoring to exterminate the promised Messiah.

Some skeptics have pointed out that since Josephus doesn’t mention Herod’s massacre of the male infants in Bethlehem, then it likely didn’t happen. But, this is an argument from silence. There are several plausible reasons why it was not mentioned. Historian Paul Maier points out two possibilities:

(1) Josephus may have heard about it and chose not to use it. Bethlehem and the surrounding region was a small village of 1,500 or so at the time, so there wouldn’t have been more than around 24 babies two years old and under, and boys would have numbered only about 12–15. The infant mortality in the ancient world was so large that once again, Josephus likely chose not to mention it.
(2) Josephus may not have been aware of it at all based on the sources he was using at the time. Josephus may have never heard of it in the first place [3].

Maier’s ultimate conclusion is that “history does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means” [4]


Lee Levine, Professor of Jewish History and Archaeology at Hebrew University, Jerusalem helpfully informs us that Herod’s reign can be divided into three time periods:

(1) Consolidation [of his power]

(2) Peace and Prosperity

(3) Deterioration & Decline.

Levine succinctly summarizes these periods as follows:

“The first was one of consolidation, lasting from 37 to 27 B.C. The second from 27 to 13 B.C., was a period of peace and prosperity, marked by Herod’s close relationship to Rome and her leaders on the one hand, and an ambitous building program on the other. The third period, from 13 to 4 B.C., was marked by domestic strife and misunderstandings with Rome, and was called by Herod’s physical and emotional deterioration” [5].

Jesus was born during the later part of Herod’s reign, or the third time period in which he was experiencing both physical and emotional breakdown. At that time Israel was a nation occupied by Imperial Rome which controlled the entire eastern Mediterranean. In the small territory of Judea, Herod had been given the official title, King of the Jews over 30 years before. That title was bestowed upon him by the Roman senate in 40 B.C. on the advice of Mark Antony. Herod essentially served as a client (vassal) king, fulfilling Roman ambitions and policies, first under Mark Anthony and then later under Augustus (Octavian). This fact was the cause of great paranoia in Herod who feared an uprising in the Jewish population against him. Many Jews saw Herod as a puppet of Rome, and in a sense, he was. It was for that reason he built such fortresses as Masada, Herodium and Machaerus, as well as others. In order to show his commitment to Judaism, Herod expanded and enlarged the Temple mount and even the Temple itself in Jerusalem (as we shall see below). He wanted to build upon and expand the Temple that had been re-built under Zerubbabel after the Jews returned from Babylonian and Persian captivity. Archaeologists today call this time period, the Second Temple Period (from 530 B.C. – A.D. 70).

To understand Herod’s rise to power we should take a brief glimpse of the history of the region leading up to Herod’s reign as well as the birth of Christ. The 400 year time frame between the Old and New Testaments is called the Intertestamental Period. An understanding of key events in this period will not only help us understand Herod, but also the cultural background and times of the the New Testament as well.


In 323 B.C. Alexander the Great died in Babylon leaving the vast territories he conquered without a clear leader or successor. Judea (Israel & the Levant) were under his control, along with most of the Ancient Near East, and Persia, reaching as far east as Mongolia. Alexander’s policy for all conquered regions was unique. To all of the nations and territories he conquered, he spread Greek culture (i.e., literature, art and government) and language – Hellenism for short.

After Alexander, a version of the Greek language called koine (common) Greek was the lingua franca of most of the Near East, including Israel. The majority of the New Testament was written in koine (common) Greek and was spoken by much of the population in Judea. The disciples of Christ almost certainly knew Greek (some fluently), and very likely Jesus knew it as well. It was the language most spoken and understood by the various cultures and nations at that time. It cannot be overstated how much of an impact Hellenism had on the peoples and time of Herod and the New Testament. It is always lurking in the background of many New Testament passages in one way or another.

The Rise of the Hasmonean Dynasty
After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was fought over by several rival factions called diodochi (Greek for “successors”). The diodochi included Alexander’s rival generals, as well as family members, and friends. Two significant kingdoms emerged from that period. Both were founded and ruled by Greek Generals who founded dynasties in their names. Those two kingdoms were the Ptolemaic Kingdom (305-30 B.C.), and the Seleucid Kingdom (312-63 B.C.). The Greek Seleucid kings reigned over most of Judea. It was during that time that a Jewish high priest named, Judas Maccabeus (or Judah Maccabee) led a revolt against the Seleucid empire from 167-160 B.C.. Judas was the third son of Mattathias, the priest, who led a revolt against the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes who forbade the Jews from practicing key elements of Judaism, and who desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish holiday Hanukkah (or “dedication”) commemorates the restoration of worship in the temple. Around two decades later, Judas’ brother Simon Maccabee established the first line of Jewish kings who ruled over a small region of Judea. These rulers would be called the Hasmoneans (Hebrew/Aramaic – possibly a place name: Heshmon or Hashmonah). The Hasmoneans were prominent rulers from 165 until 37 B.C.. Historian and scholar Tessa Rajak states that, “Under the Hasmoneans, Judea became …an independent power with considerable influence on the politics of the region.” [6]. The Hasmoneans have an interesting connection to both Josephus and Herod. Both Josephus and Herod were of Hasmonean ancestry.

When Rome began to assert its might and showed an interest in Judea it was under the control of a Hasmonean ruler named Antigonus. Earlier Herod had endeared himself to the Romans in a military operation in Galilee, and Mark Antony considered him the most capable man to pry Judea from the hands of Antigonus, as well a nation which plagued the Romans, called the Parthians [7]. Antigonus and the Parthians stood in the way of two very important things for Herod, (1) Complete Roman control of the region, and (2) His own personal political ambitions and power.

With Rome’s help Herod secured Judea from the Parthians as well as the last Hasmonean king, and finally succeeded in establishing his position as King of Judea. According to Israeli archaeologist, Ehud Netzer, “Antigonus was captured and executed by the Romans. Herod’s kingship was [then] soon affirmed, both by Anthony and by Octavian, at their meeting in Tarentum, in southern Italy” [8]. Herod ruled Judea for around 33 years.

According to Levine, “Herod was born in the late 70s B.C. into an aristocratic Idumean family that had converted to Judaism a half a century earlier, in the reign of John Hyrcanus I” [9]. Idumea and the Idumeans have deep historical connections to the ancient Edomites. Genesis 25:25 presents Esau as the founder of the Edom and the Edomites. The territory of Edom stretched from the southern portion of the Judean hill country to the northern part of the Negeb (Negev). “The population of Idumea consisted of Edomites/Arabs, Jews, Sidonians, Nabateans, and others. …Idumea, the homeland of Herod the Great, formed a vital starting point for and buttress of his power” [10].

Drawing on Josephus as a primary source, Netzer tells us that, “Herod’s father [was], the scion of a wealthy and prominent Idumean family”… and that, “…Little is known about his mother Cyprus, other than the information provided by Josephus that she came from a distinguished Arabian (apparently Nabatean) family. Neither is the time of Herod’s birth known with certainty, since Josephus’ data pertaining to Herod’s age contradict one another. Modern scholarship is inclined to regard 73 B.C. as the year of his birth” [11].

Judaism & The Rise of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes

As we pointed out above, Hellenistic (Greek & later Roman) cultural influence on the lands conquered by Alexander the Great had a large impact upon all nations. In Judea the Hellenistic crisis (as it is sometimes called), came to a head among religious Jews splitting them into three factions or sects: The Pharisees, Sadducees and the Essenes. There are multiple reasons why Judaism split, ranging from the corruption of the priesthood, to improper Temple worship in Jerusalem, to the role and place of Hellenism in Judaism. Early in the 2nd Century B.C. the Essenes withdrew from Jerusalem and established a separate community probably near the Dead Sea, at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered). They still maintained an interest in the Temple in Jerusalem but believed that it had been corrupted by what they saw as unlawful practices.

There is even some speculation that John the Baptist may have stayed with, and/or studied the Torah and the Prophets with the Essenes when he was younger or before his preaching and baptizing ministry. There are several reasons for this possibility. John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah were older when John was born. If they died when he was still a child or young boy, then it’s possible that they may have entrusted him to the Essenes for his education in the Torah, understanding John’s role as a prophet, and the forerunner of Jesus. On some of the Dead Sea Scrolls it was discovered that the Community did take in orphans and those who needed help, so it is not out of the question. Finally, the Qumran Community (an Essene community), was located in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea, where John began preaching and baptizing. The Essenes hermit-like lifestyle and strict asceticism was in keeping with John’s disposition.

Interestingly, a couple of years ago when I was in Jerusalem, as I was walking around the southern wall with friends, we accidentally came upon an excavated section of the outer wall. I took photographs and did some research. To my surprise I discovered that it was the possible remnants of the excavated Essene Gate into Jerusalem from the time of Herod. In the Jewish War, Josephus mentions the “Gate of the Essenes” which is located on the southwest corner, exactly on the spot where this excavated gate is located. The section was first excavated in 1894/95 by F.J. Bliss and A.C. Dickie and then later in 1977 by Bargil Pixner, Doron Chen and Shlomo Margalit [12]. The location of the gate facing south fits exactly what we believe about the Essenes being located near the Dead Sea, in addition to their desire to remain separate from the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Remnants of the 1977 excavation of the Essene Gate into Jerusalem during the First Century (located right below the City of David near the Protestant cemetery)

The Pharisees and Sadducees figure largely in the synoptic Gospels, and understanding the dynamics between them and the secular Roman (i.e. Hellenistic) authorities is important for getting at the context of many New Testament passages. Essentially Sadducees had adopted Hellenistic views, and the Pharisees were (reluctant) supporters of the Roman authorities. They were rewarded monetarily for their loyalty, and most were very wealthy compared to the majority of Jews living in Roman Judea. This may have been an additional reason why the Essenes separated themselves from the Jerusalem Temple culture which existed in the late 2nd Century B.C.. When Herod came to power he installed a high priest of his own choosing. At the height of the Hasmonean period, they saw no separation between religious and political power and leadership. The high priest was the king and as well as the political spokesman. Herod would end this and become the sole political leader, even installing his own high priest, no-doubt to approve or overlook anything Herod wanted to accomplish that was unlawful. Levine writes that,

“Herod exercised complete control over his realm by dominating all key institutions. No matter was beyond his scrutiny. The highest tribunal (Sanhedrin), whatever its composition and authority in the previous era, was now merely a rubber stamp for the kings wishes… The high priesthood was another institution manipulated by Herod for his own purposes. Herod realized from the outset that control of this office was crucial for a successful reign, and it is for this reason that he immediately installed his long-time friend Hananel of Babylonia as high priest (Ant. 15.22.40)” [13]


Josephus’ books contain a wealth of historical information about Herod (mainly Jewish Wars and Antiquity of the Jews). These’ writings, in addition to many archaeological excavations, reveal that Herod was a remarkable builder. His construction projects span the length of his reign (37-4 B.C.), and include such various projects as fortifications, palaces, palatial-fortresses, temples, gymnasia, theaters, stadia, hippodromes, monuments, harbors, irrigation projects and others. Many of these buildings and structures were the “stages,” or backgrounds (in a sense), of events recorded in the New Testament. Once again, archaeology reveals that the events recorded on the pages of the New Testament happened at a real place, at a real time in history, by real people.

Because Herod’s power ultimately came from Rome, he was not unlike many other client kings at that time. Several of his massive building projects were dedicated in honor of his Roman patrons. Josephus informs us that in Jerusalem two wings of Herod’s palace were named Caesareum and Agrippeum to honor Octavian and Agrippa, and around the theater in Jerusalem, he honored the Roman emperor with dedicatory inscriptions (Antiquities of the Jews 15.272) . This is just one example of many.

CAESAREA MARITIMA (Caesar’s City by the Sea) 

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of Herod honoring his Roman patrons, is the entire city of Caesarea Maritima – dedicated in honor of Augustus [Octavian] Caesar. At the beginning of Imperial Rome after the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., and several decades of civil war, another war ensued between Mark Antony and Octavian as to who would be the successor, and sole emperor of Rome. At the beginning of Herod’s rise to power, his ally to the south, (in Egypt) was the famous Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra was a Greek descendant of Ptolemy, who was one of Alexander’s generals, and one of the original diodochi (i.e. “successors”). Cleopatra and the Roman, Mark Anthony became lovers and eventually close political allies as well. When that happened, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony also became allies and political friends of Herod I.

Everything changed, however, at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C off the coast of Asia Minor. Octavius’s naval forces decisively defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, and now Herod had to decide whose side he would be on. Facing the reality that Octavian would now be the sole emperor of the Roman empire, Herod sought an immediate audience with him. Josephus tells us that Herod met with Octavian, congratulated him on his victory, and brought lavish gifts including much gold and treasure. Herod then committed himself to serve Octavian and Rome as he had served Mark Anthony. After this meeting Octavian was very pleased with Herod which led to reconfirmation of his status as King of Judea as well as being awarded with additional territory, including the coastal region in which the old Phoenician seaport of Strato’s Tower was located.

In response to Octavian’s generosity Herod decided to build a major international seaport to rival Alexandria where Strato’s Tower was located. It was to be modeled after a Roman provincial capital and contained all of the elements in the manner of a grand Roman city: an amphitheater, a hippodrome, temples, public buildings as well as a colossal seaport which Herod hoped would establish the region as a major hub for trade in the region. He would name the seaport in honor of Octavian Caesar – Caesarea Maritima (“Caesar’s City by the Sea”). According to Josephus, Herod also had an opulent palace located there which possibly boasted a freshwater pool surrounded by the sea (the ruins of which can still be seen today – see below).

Remnants of Herod’s lavish palace and possible fresh-water pool on the sea at Caesarea Maritima, Israel

Herod’s commitment to build Greco-Roman buildings and structures was to show his resolve to uphold Rome and Roman traditions. It was intended to be a showcase city, revealing Herod’s desire to be a major player on the world’s stage. It is for this reason that many Jews highly resented him and some even sought his downfall and overthrow. In response to this displeasure of the Jews Herod rebuilt and enlarged the Temple in Jerusalem as we shall see below.

The city of Caesarea figures prominently in the New Testament on several occasions, especially in the book of Acts. Based on historical sources as well as archaeology it can be safe to assume that Caesarea was the where the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate ruled Judea. In 1961 an inscription containing the name of ‘Pontius Pilate’ was discovered by Italian archaeologists working at Caesarea while excavating the Roman amphitheater there.

In the New Testament book of Acts, Caesarea figures largely in the life and the events of the early Church. In Acts 8:4-40 Philip, who was a deacon at the church in Jerusalem brings the first Christian message to Caesarea. The very first Gentile convert to Christianity (that was recorded) was at Caesarea by Simon Peter in Cornelius the Roman centurion (Acts 10:3-48). The Apostle Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea for two years (from A.D. 57-59), and from there wrote some of his letters (and NT epistles) to the earliest Christian communities. In an interesting twist of historical irony, Herod had the seaport of Caesarea built to export goods and extend Roman power and authority, but its location near the earliest Christian communities also made it a key launching point for the Christian message making Christianity and the message of Jesus its most long-lasting and impactful exports. In Acts 23-26 we learn that as Paul awaited trial in Rome, he stood before both Festus and KIng Agrippa II at Caesarea. Incidentally, King Agrippa II was the great grandson of Herod the Great. Agrippa would be the last of the Herodian client kings to rule over Roman Judea. At the end of his incarceration at Caesarea Paul set sail to Rome where he lived for a few more years until he was eventually executed under Nero.

Archaeologists have located what they believe was the Praetorium in Caesarea where Paul likely stood before Porcius Festus and Agrippa II


Herod’s building activities honoring Roman patrons highly displeased the Jews living in Judea at the time, and he greatly feared an uprising or revolt. As a Roman province in the First Century, Palestine also served as a buffer zone between Rome and the Parthians to the east, who were political enemies. It is for these reasons, as well as his ruthless and often Machiavellian political methods, that he built a series of fortresses. In all, on the borders of his kingdom for external defense and internal control Herod had no less than eleven fortresses built.  The eleven include: Masada, Machaerus, Hyrcania, Zif (Khirbet Zif), Cypros (above the Wadi el-Qelt west of Jericho), Carmel, Adora (Dura), Alexandrium, Oresa (Khirbet Istabul & Khirbet Harrissah), Herodium (near Bethlehem), and a second Herodium (at el-Hubbesia in Jordan). Many of these fortresses were initially built by the Hasmoneans, and Herod either built on top of them, or expanded or fortified existing structures. Of the ones listed, Herodium (near Bethlehem), Masada and Machaerus also served as palaces and figure as backdrops even after Herod’s death, to some of the events recorded in the New Testament. The fortresses were spread throughout Judea and provided a haven if Herod needed to escape his enemies, or an internal uprising in Judea. Some of his fortresses also served as prisons or holding places for many of his political and personal enemies.

One of the most famous of these is the Dead Sea fortress of Masada. Masada held an important place in Herod’s own personal history and his rise to power as it served as a refuge for he and his family during his clashes with the Parthians. As his power and influence increased, Herod expanded Hasmonean Masada and built elaborate baths, spas, water cisterns, storehouses, and an elaborate and ornate palace along the northern section (often called the Northern hanging palace) which overlooked the Dead Sea. It was there that Herod would stay during the winter for several weeks and entertain guests and dignitaries. In A.D. 73 Masada was the scene of the famous final battle between the Jews and Romans ending with a Roman siege under the leadership of the 10th Roman Legion under the leadership of General Flavius Silva.

Masada (Wikipedia)

The author (Ted) standing in Herod’s Northern (hanging) palace – the restored painted frescoes are as they would have looked in Herod’s day

According to Josephus, Machaerus was first constructed in around 90 B.C. by Alexander Janneus (Jewish War 7.171). The ancient name Machairous (Greek, Maxairous), likely derives from machaira (“dagger” or “sword”). The site was rebuilt by Herod in about A.D. 30., and served as one of his many fortresses. In addition to serving as a military fortress and outpost, Machaerus also served as palace. After the death of Herod, Herod Antipas (4 B.C. – A.D. 39) became tetrarch of the region which included Machaerus and he imprisoned John the Baptist there because of John’s condemnation of Antipas’ marriage to his brothers wife. John was eventually beheaded, and It was recorded by both Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 18.116, as well as the New Testament in Matthew 14:1-12.

Artists reconstruction of Machaerus based on archaeology (BAS – Biblical Archaeology Society)

Throughout this article we have mentioned the displeasure that the Jews felt towards Herod for going out of his way to appease Rome. Herod was well aware of this, and in response desired to build one of the greatest buildings of the time in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem rivaling the previous, legendary temple of Solomon which dated from the 10th Century B.C.. Herod hoped that this would appease the Jews and it seemed to have worked.

Even though Herod honored Rome, he still considered himself to be king of the Jews, and not only to the Jews in Judea and Jerusalem, but also to the Jews who were in the Hellenistic Diaspora as well. He was eager to show to them, as well as his Roman counterparts that the Jewish religion and Jerusalem could stand beside and even surpass other great temples in the Greco-Roman world. According to archaeologist, Carol Meyers,

“So incredible were the dimensions of this project, as recorded by Josephus and, with some variations in the Mishnah Middot, that many scholars suspected Josephus of gross exaggerations. The archaeological work in Jerusalem since 1968, while not able to excavate the site of the sanctuary, has undertaken extensive and careful excavations of the Temple Mount’s massive support walls and of the arched ramps leading up to the surmounting enclosure walls and gates. The magnitude suggested by the ancient sources has been strikingly confirmed” [14]

The Temple Mount as it would have appeared in the First Century – reconstruction based on archaeological and architectural analysis by Dr. Leen Ritemeyer who excavated on the Temple Mount with Benjamin Mazar in 1968.

Herod’s Temple was to be built according to the canonical proportions according to the Torah, although there are some scholars who believe that it’s dimensions and scale was greater and higher than the earlier temple. Even though Herod may or may not have tampered with the original dimensions of the Temple, he did adorn the exterior with much gold making it blinding and difficult to behold in the sun, according to Josephus. The area of expanse of the Temple platform which supported the temple and surrounding structures, including the Antonia Fortress, was over 172,000 square yards, making it the largest site of its kind in the ancient world.

Meyers writes that, “The retaining walls towered more than 80 feet above the road going around the perimeter, and reached over 50 feet below street level in their foundation courses. The stones used to build these walls were gigantic. On the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall”) the largest stone is about 40 feet long; an even larger one in the southern wall weighs over 100 tons. These incredible dimensions are calculated from archaeological remains, not from ancient sources” [15]

Floor tiles (see below) which adorned the the courtyard of the Jewish Temple during the time of Jesus, and its surrounding buildings, have recently been recovered and restored by scholars in Jerusalem. The tiles came from the Temple Mount Sifting Project which focuses on artifacts recovered from under the Temple mount, starting in 2004. The type of flooring is called “opus sectile” which means cut work, and was more expensive and considered even more ornate than mosaic tile. According to the Jewish Talmud, Whoever has not seen Herod’s building (i.e. Temple), has not seen a beautiful building in his life.”

Reconstructed floor tiles from the Temple courtyard (Temple Mount Sifting Project, Jerusalem)

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus interacted with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council which consisted of Pharisees and Saducees on the Temple Mount, and in the Temple courts and precincts. Luke 19:47 records that, “…every day He [Jesus] was teaching at the temple.” Many other passages support this: Lk 2:46, Lk 21:37, Mk 14:49, Mt 21:23, Lk 20:1, Jn 7:28, and Acts 2:46.

Perhaps one of the most famous passages in which Jesus addresses the Temple is Matthew 24. Here Jesus prophesies the complete destruction of the Herod’s Temple.

Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone will be left here upon another that shall not be thrown down.

Herod began construction on the Temple and its surrounding buildings in A.D. 20, the eighteenth year of his reign. John 2:20 states that the temple took 46 years to build – a timespan longer than Herod’s reign. He never lived to see the entire structure completed. Indeed, Josephus tells us (Antiquities 20.219) that final embellishments and repairs on components of the Temple were just being completed at the time of the Jewish revolt in A.D. 70. It was at that time that Titus came into Jerusalem with the 10th Roman Legion and razed the Temple to the ground, burning it, dismantling it, and plowing the entire Temple Mount to the ground, exactly fulfilling the words of Jesus in Matthew 24.

Josephus’ description of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem is graphic and horrifying. He states that there were so many dead bodies, they were stacked like rows of firewood in the city. Some scholars surmise that upwards of a million people died during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. The Temple contained much gold, both inside and out. What the Jews could not save or protect, the Romans carried away. One famous artifact taken from the Temple was the gold menorah which is commemorated in stone on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

Roman Legion carrying the golden menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem on the Arch of Titus in Rome

Arch of Titus placed in the Roman Forum by Domitian in A.D. 82 to commemorate his brother Titus’ victory over the Jews in A.D. 70 (Wikipedia)

The Temple also contained gold ornamentation both internally and externally. The Romans set the entire edifice on fire and as a result of the great heat, the gold melted and lodged in between the stones. This partially explains why the entire structure was dismantled and cast down.

Stones from Herod’s Temple platform at the base of the Southern wall in Jerusalem

Several years ago in Rome on the Colosseum, an inscription was deciphered which adds another interesting twist to the sad story of Herod’s Temple. Prof Geza Alfoldy of Heidelberg University, working with Italian archaeologists, translated the remnants of an external inscription. He concluding that the original inscription read:

Imp. T. Caes. Vespasianus Aug. Amphitheatrum Novum Ex Manubis Fieri Iussit

‘The Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus had this new amphitheatre erected with the spoils of war.’

Construction on the Colosseum began in A.D. 72 so there is little doubt that the main funding for the Roman Flavian Amphitheater was gold taken from Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem just two years before.

Ruins of the Flavian Amphitheater (Colosseum) – Rome (2014)

Herod’s Death
Josephus records (Antiquities of the Jews, 17.199) that Herod died in around 4 B.C.. He also recorded that Herod was buried in Herodium, one of the several desert fortresses built in fear of a Jewish insurrection against his rule. All of Herod’s fortresses have been discovered by archaeology.

When he was alive Herod had no shortage of political, religious, personal, and even familial enemies. Even Herod himself knew that he was despised by much of the populace of Judea and Israel. It is no surprise then, that Herod had devised a plan to ensure that there would be mourning at his funeral by having prominent Jewish rulers and leaders rounded up and killed in the hippodrome in Jericho (as noted above). Matthew’s account simply informs his readers that once Herod had died, Mary & Joseph were safe to return to the land of Israel from Egypt.

But when Herod died, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead  (Matt. 2:19-20)

Herodium: Herod’s Tomb
In a touch of irony, Herod’s final resting place is located just southeast of Bethlehem (where Jesus was born) on the edge of the Judean desert. The place where he was buried is called Herodium – named in honor of himself. Herodium was a place that held great significance in Herod’s personal history and rise to power. He built the citadel on a natural promontory and modified it as an enormous man-made hill-fortress. As recently as a couple of years ago, archaeologists have excavated a large monumental entryway in which Herod and his royal entourage would enter the palace complex.

Herodium (Wikipedia)

In 4 B.C. when he died, his body surely traveled through that same passage, as he was buried in the site in a large red-colored, limestone sarcophagus. In 2007, professor Ehud Netzer, mentioned above, and his team, reported that they had discovered the remaining fragments of Herod’s royal sarcophagus which had been smashed to pieces, presumably by one of his many enemies. In a 2019 article published in The Journal of Ancient Judaism, archaeologist, Professor Jodi Magness claims that Netzer’s discovery of Herod’s tomb was one of the most important archaeological discoveries since the Dead Sea Scrolls [16]. (see video clip below)

Israeli archaeologist, Ehud Netzer kneels beside the fragments of Herod’s coffin discovered at Herodium.

Herod was indeed a great builder and planner, but he also left behind a legacy of intrigue, turmoil and bloodshed. His victims included the murdered male children of Bethlehem, as well as many other political enemies, a wife, a son and many, many others. Perhaps what he is best remembered for today are the monumental buildings and the remains of his grand architectural structures such as Masada, Herodium, the amazing port city of Caesarea by the Sea, and glimpses of the remains of the Temple Mount.

Herod’s Sons

After Herod’s death, his sons, grandsons and great grandsons succeeded him serving as client kings of Rome. The four surviving sons of Herod were, Archelaus, Antipas, Philip the Tetrarch, and Salome I. During his trial before being crucified Jesus stood before Herod Antipas (Luke 23:6-12), the son of Herod I. Antipas was familiar with Jesus, having had Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist executed a few years before. The text states that Antipas was excited to finally meet Jesus and hear Him speak, but during the interrogation, Jesus remained silent and gave no response. He was then mocked, an elaborate robe was placed on His back, and then sent back to Pontius Pilate. Luke the historian parenthetically adds that on that very day Pilate and Herod became friends, as they had previously had been enemies with each other (see, v.12).

The fallen stones of Herod’s great building projects, and the once grand and glorious temple platform in Jerusalem are a fitting epitaph of Herod’s brutal and bloody ambitions. They are a vivid reminder of the futility and pride of man’s ambition apart from God. In thinking of Herod’s legacy one is reminded of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem from 1818 titled “Ozymandias.”

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Archaeology as well as history have been, and will continue to be invaluable aids in helping to clarify, illuminate and affirm the existence one of the most notorious characters in the New Testament. As new discoveries comes to light we will continue to learn and fill in the blanks on this fascinating era, notorious man and time.


[1] The ascription of “Great” to Herod does not refer to his moral or ethical greatness as a leader and king, but rather to his ability as a master builder, planner and cunning politician.

[2] Bruce Scott, Israel My Glory, Nov/Dec, 2006, pg. 20.

[3] see, (accessed, Dec. 24, 2014)

[4] Ibid.

[5] L.I. Levine, “Herod the Great,” in David Noel Freedman Editor in Chief, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3 (Toronto: Doubleday, 1992), pg. 161 (emphasis mine).

[6] Tessa Rajak, “Hasmonean Dynasty,” in David Noel Freedman, Editor in Chief, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3 (Toronto: Anchor Doubleday, 1992), pg. 67

[7] see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14.382-387

[8] Ehud Netzer, The Architecture of Herod the Great Builder (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), pg. 8

[9] L. I. Levine, ABD, Volume 3, p.161.

[10] Ulrich Hubner, “Idumea,”in David Noel Freedman, Editor in Chief, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3 (Toronto: Anchor Doubleday, 1992) pg.382

[11] Netzer, pp. 3-4.

[12] See Bargil Pixner OSB, Doron Chen and Shlomo Margalit, “Mount Zion: The “Gate of the Essenes” Re-excavated, in Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins (1989) pp.85-95.

[13] L. I. Levine, ABD, Volume 3, pg.164

[14] Carol Meyers, “Temple, Jerusalem,” in David Noel Freedman, Editor in Chief, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6 (Toronto: Anchor Doubleday, 1992) pg. 365

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jodi Magness, “Herod the Great’s Self-Representation Through His Tomb at Herodium,” Journal of Ancient Judaism Volume 10, issue 3, December 2019, pp. 258-287.