This article is a bit of a departure from what I usually write. It’s less about biblical studies, and more of a brief history lesson. I’ve always found the various references to “king Herod” and other Judaean rulers in the Gospels and Acts to be somewhat confusing — and, truth be told, the scheming Herodian royal family makes for a fascinating historical study. So read on if you’re interested in the Herodian dynasty and their place in history and scripture. (And if that doesn’t interest you, maybe the section on historical deaths by worms will.) For the purposes of this article, I will limit myself to individuals mentioned directly in the Bible.
In the process of doing this research, I also made a Herodian family tree for my own use. I share it below with the caveat that it is somewhat incomplete, especially where source references are concerned.
By far our best and most depended-upon source for the Herodians is the Jewish historian Josephus — particularly his Antiquities and Jewish War. In addition to living in Palestine during the period in question and being a person of some importance, Josephus had access to the works of Nicolaus of Damascus — friend and court chronicler of Herod the Great — and was personally acquainted with king Agrippa II, Herod’s great-grandson. Thus, although his work is not without bias and error, he is generally well-informed.
Many of the Herodians are also mentioned in the works of Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Suetonius, Strabo, Philo, and other Greco-Roman writers.
King Herod (Herod the Great)
Judaea in the mid-second century BCE was ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty (the Maccabees), who revolted against their Seleucid overlords and established an alliance with Rome before proceeding to conquer and Judaize Samaria, Galilee, and other outlying regions — an arrangement Rome was fine with, since it kept the Seleucids in check. The alliance with Rome eventually lapsed, however, and in 63 BCE, the Roman general Pompey intervened in a Judaean civil war by conquering the country. Hyrcanus II was made ethnarch (a rank just below king) of a much-reduced Judaean state by Julius Caesar in 47 BCE. A shrewd Idumean named Antipater was given an administrative post and became the Roman procurator in Judaea (the emperor’s agent for all financial matters—a powerful position).
Antipater used his authority to make his sons Phasael and Herod the military governors of Judaea and Galilee, respectively. After Herod married into the Hasmonean family through Mariamne, the ethnarch’s granddaughter, he received the rank of tetrarch (which literally meant “ruler of a fourth”, but had become a generic princely title by then) over Galilee from Mark Antony, who wanted to curtail Hyrcanus’s authority. Following an invasion of Syria and Judaea by the Parthians, who were supported by Herod’s Hasmonean rival Antigonus (Hyrcanus’s nephew), Herod was declared king of Judaea by the Roman senate. His later loyalty to Octavian (Augustus Caesar) led to greater territorial gains and autonomy for Judaea.
Once Herod had consolidated his control, he embarked on numerous major construction projects. Fortresses were built throughout the country, and after re-founding the city of Samaria, he established the great port city of Caesarea — a Hellenistic polis based on the Roman template, including a temple to the imperial cult, with a harbour that was a triumph of engineering. And, perhaps most famously, he replaced the meager temple in Jerusalem with a lavish new complex based on the description of Solomon’s temple in the Jewish scriptures.
Perhaps surprisingly, King Herod is mentioned for certain only twice in the New Testament — in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. Matthew gives Herod an essential role in Jesus’ flight to Egypt that mirrors the Pharaoh of the Exodus story, while Luke simply opens his narrative by placing it “in the days of King Herod of Judea”. (Check out my articles on Matthew’s and Luke’s respective nativity stories for more details.)
King Herod had ten wives in total and a large number of children. His descendants frequently intermarried and formed one of the most powerful royal families in the Roman empire in the first century. His legacy was a mixed one. Jewish by religion but Idumean and Nabatean (Arab) by descent, he was never fully accepted by the Jews. Furthermore, he vigorously promoted the Hellenization of his kingdom. However, his construction of the temple was a major contribution to the Jewish religion and its prestige, and he was generally a capable, if tyrannical, ruler.
King Herod died in 4 BCE, and his kingdom passed to three of his sons.
Archelaus the Ethnarch
King Herod had changed his will numerous times and executed several of his sons, making the succession of his throne a precarious matter upon his death. One son, Archelaus, attempted to assume the throne for himself, but after various factions had presented their cases to Augustus, the emperor decided to divide up the kingdom. Archelaus would be given the largest portion — Judea and Samaria — but be denied the title of king. Instead, he had to settle for ethnarch. His brothers Antipas and Philip were made tetrarchs over other parts, a few cities were given to Herod’s sister Salome, and several cities of the Decapolis were transferred to Syria.
Archelaus’s rule did not last as long as his brothers’. He was deposed by Augustus in 6 CE after ten years of rule and banished to Gaul, whereupon Judea was annexed to the Roman province of Syria. As Judea was to be ruled and taxed directly by Rome for the first time, legate Quirinius of Syria conducted Judea’s first census in accordance with Roman administrative procedure.
Archelaus intersects with the New Testament twice — again, in the two nativity stories. In Matthew 2:22, Joseph is warned in a dream not to return to Judea because Herod’s son Archelaus is in power, so the family goes to Galilee instead. In Luke, though Archelaus is not named, it is the census of Quirinius following his exile that brings Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. This is difficult to reconcile with introduction that sets the story in the time of King Herod. Archelaus did use “Herod” as a dynastic name, but he was not a king. (For more on the historical issues concerning Luke’s story, see my article on Luke’s nativity.)
There is another allusion to Archelaus in the Gospels — this one rather curious. Luke’s version of the Parable of the Pounds (Lk 19:11-28) contains two verses describing a delegation seeking to prevent the nobleman from becoming their ruler, and the nobleman’s slaughter of those dissidents upon his return. This is generally understood as a reference to Archelaus, whose accession was opposed by a delegation of Jews in Rome, and who committed a ruthless slaughter upon his return. (See my article on this parable for more details.)
Antipas the Tetrarch
When Herod died, Antipas the half-brother of Archelaus was made tetrarch of Galilee and Perea — territories north of Samaria and east of the Jordan River, respectively. Thus, the majority of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels takes place within his jurisdiction.
Antipas appears in the Synoptic Gospels as the one responsible for the death of John the Baptist. The reader may be confused by the fact that he is called “Herod” throughout. Furthermore, Mark calls him king Herod in his telling of John’s execution, which Matthew corrects to “Herod the tetrarch”. (Antipas did use “Herod” as a dynastic name, and Josephus also calls him Herod the tetrarch on occasion.)
As the story in Mark 6 and Matthew 14 goes, Herod Antipas had John arrested for criticizing his marriage to Herodias (see below), who had previously been married to Antipas’s half-brother. Jewish law, unlike Roman law, did not allow a woman to divorce her husband¹, and the marriage to an ex-husband’s half-brother might have been understood to violate the Torah (Lev. 18:16 and 20:21). But according to Josephus (Ant. 18.116-119), Antipas imprisoned John because he feared his great eloquence as a preacher would rouse the people to sedition. Divorce does play a part in Josephus’s version, however, because in the same passage, he describes how Antipas intended to divorce his wife Phasaelis, a princess of Nabatea, in order to marry Herodias. Phasaelis discovered his intentions and fled to her father, King Aretas IV, who then attacked Antipas and destroyed his army. The Jewish people saw this defeat as a mark of God’s displeasure with Antipas for killing John the Baptist.
In other words, the story in Mark 6 seems to be a reshuffling of the elements in Josephus. Both stories concern Antipas’s affair with Herodias, a scandalous divorce, the execution of John, and a daughter conspiring against Antipas.
We will examine other aspects of this story further on.
Then, in Luke only, we find Antipas getting involved in Jesus’ trial, as at one point, Pilate sends Jesus to Antipas — who happens to be visiting Jerusalem — upon learning that Jesus is from his jurisdiction. In this passage (Luke 23:7-12), Antipas is simply called “Herod”.
Antipas is briefly mentioned by the name “Herod” in Acts 4:27, and again in 13:1 as “Herod the tetrarch”. This latter reference is curious, because it concerns one Manaen, a “syntrophos (friend) of Herod the tetrarch”, who is a prophet in Antioch. Josephus (Ant 15.373-9) mentions an Essene named Manaen who had prophesied to young Herod (the Great) that he would become king. Some scholars think the author of Acts has confused the two Herods here. The coincidence is strange, at any rate.
It is also possible that the “King Herod” who persecutes the church in Acts 12 is meant to be Antipas. See the section on Agrippa I below for a brief summary of the issue.
Philip the Tetrarch
Philip was the third son of Herod’s to inherit a portion of his kingdom. Philip was made tetrarch of Gaulanitis (today’s Golan Heights) and other regions that lay to the northeast of Palestine, in what is now Syria. His main connection with the Gospels is that he is mentioned by Mark and Matthew in the story of John the Baptist’s execution. According to Mark 6:17, and repeated by Matthew 14:3, Herodias had divorced Philip to marry Antipas. This is incorrect, however; according to Josephus, Herod had a son whose given name was also Herod, and this was the brother whom Herodias had divorced to marry Antipas. (Historians call him Herod II to avoid confusion with his father.) This Herod lived in Rome, and Antipas had met him and Herodias during a visit there. In the past, some apologists have proposed that Herod II was actually named “Herod Philip”², but this is generally rejected by scholars today. The passage has other problems, as we shall see presently.
The only other mention of Philip comes in Luke 3:1, where he is simply named to establish a timeframe for the start of John’s ministry.
Herod the Great had two sons with his Hasmonean wife Mariamne. Both were executed before Herod’s death, but their children went on to lead lives of some importance. One son, Aristobulus IV, married his cousin (the daughter of Herod’s sister Salome) and had a daughter named Herodias. She is the one mentioned above who first married Herod II and then Antipas. In Mark 6 and Matthew 14, she is even more upset about John the Baptist’s accusations than Antipas is, and she conspires with her daughter to get John executed.
Salome (daughter of Herodias)
According to Josephus, Herodias and Herod II had a daughter named Salome, and it is widely assumed that this is the daughter in Mark 6 who dances for Antipas during his birthday party and, at her mother’s prompting, demands the head of John the Baptist when Antipas offers to give her whatever she desires. However, the earliest manuscripts of Mark say the daughter’s name was Herodias, and Mark also describes Antipas as being her father (6:22), which has to be incorrect regardless of how one tries to interpret Mark. Matthew alters the story so that the girl is simply called “the daughter of Herodias” (14:6).
An additional twist to the confusion we have seen regarding Herodias, Philip, and Salome, is that Salome eventually went on to marry Philip. This might have been the source of Mark’s error (Flusser p. 19). (This datum also contradicts the Gospel narrative, since Salome obviously could not have married her own father.)
Most interpreters understand Salome’s dance to have been lascivious in nature, prompting Antipas’s rash promise. Many believe that Mark’s story has been influenced by the story of Esther, to whom the king similarly promises to give anything she asks (Esther 5:3ff). Mark uses the same word for girl, korasio, twice (6:22, 28) to describe Salome that the LXX uses for Esther and the other harem candidates, and Esther uses the banquet to bring about Haman’s execution much like Salome. (See Beavis, p. 104 for a discussion of these and other parallels.)
King Agrippa I (Agrippa the Great)
Marcus Julius Agrippa was the brother of Herodias, grandson of Herod and Salome. Agrippa was sent to be raised and educated in Rome after his father’s execution, and he became close friends with Caligula. When Caligula became emperor in 37, he gave Agrippa the territories of his recently deceased uncle Philip along with Abilene, conferring on Agrippa the title of king. Two years later, Antipas the tetrarch was exiled to Gaul, and his lands were added to Agrippa’s as well. When Caligula was murdered in 41, Agrippa supported Claudius in his accession as emperor and was rewarded with the addition of Judea and Samaria to his realm. Thus, Agrippa was the first king to reign in Palestine since his grandfather Herod, and Jerusalem once again became the Judaean capital. He was regarded as a kind and generous king by Josephus, and as a pious Jew by the Talmud.
Acts 12 describes a campaign of persecution against the church led by one “King Herod”, who is usually identified as Agrippa I, although Pervo (pp. 4, 101-105) notes that only Agrippa II (discussed below) is known to the author as “Agrippa”, and the murderous tyrant who goes by the name Herod in Acts 12 is based more on the Pharaoh of the Exodus, with the shared Passover motif and a direct allusion to Exodus 18:4 in Acts 12:11 — “The Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod.” Schwartz (p. 120) notes that Agrippa is called “Herod” in no other source, and suggests the character must be viewed typologically in these stories. By calling the persecutor “King Herod”, no other motive for his tyranny is required (Haenchen, p. 381).
Agrippa is also a poor fit for this King Herod in terms of chronology. As Pervo (p. 142) notes, the first twelve chapters of Acts, from Jesus’ ascension to the persecution of King Herod, seem to occupy only a few months, but at least a decade would have to have passed to bring events into the time of Agrippa I. Furthermore, the prediction of a famine in Acts 11:28 suggests that the story takes place before the time of Claudius³; yet Agrippa was not king of Judea until after Claudius’s accession.⁴ Antipas, who reigned until 39, may be a better fit.
Regardless of this Herod’s identity, his death is certainly based on that of Agrippa. Acts 12:21-23 states that while Herod was delivering a public address in his royal robes, the people called him a god, whereupon he was immediately struck down by an angel and eaten by worms.
As Josephus (Ant. 19.343-361) tells it, Agrippa I was attending a festival in Caesarea, and the sunlight gleaming off his silver garment one morning prompted his flatterers to declare him a god. After failing to rebuke them, Agrippa saw an owl which he took to be an ill omen. He soon became sick with stomach pains and died after five days, while the multitude prayed to God for his recovery.
The biblical account comes across as a polemical, sensationalized retelling of Josephus’s story⁵, taking base pleasure in the grotesque nature of the villain’s death rather than lamenting a popular king’s passing as Josephus does. The “king Herod” of Acts appears to be based as much on the biblical Pharaoh and the tyrannical Herod the Great as the historical Agrippa.
Update: After publishing this article, I found out from Professor Jim Davila’s website about a book called Herod as a Composite Character in Luke-Acts (2014) by Frank Dicken which makes the case that “Herod” throughout Luke-Acts may be regarded as a single composite character who “embodies satanic opposition toward the spread of the gospel”.
Excursus on Agrippa’s death by worms
We have further reason for skepticism regarding the death of “King Herod” by worms as described in Acts 12. According to a widely-cited paper by Thomas Africa (see bibliography below), death by lice or worms/maggots, a condition known technically as phthiriasis, was a stock death ascribed to hated tyrants in ancient literature.
…anecdotes about famous people [dying of phthiriasis] are notoriously suspect. […] What is common to all accounts is a fatal corruption of tissue in the lower abdomen, swarming with worms or “lice” and emitting a terrible stench. An object of loathing, the victim of phthiriasis dies horribly and painfully. While Heaven bestows this affliction on the just and unjust alike, the disease is an appropriate punishment for cruel tyrants and enemies of God.
Herodotus describes evil queen Pheretima as dying after her body seethed with worms. Pausanius depicts the tyrant Cassander’s death in similar terms, eaten by worms while still alive. The body of the hated Sulla also rotted and turned to worms before death according to Pliny the Elder and Plutarch. This theme exists in Jewish and Christian literature as well; Isaiah 68:24 speaks of the wicked whose “worm shall not die”, and 2 Maccabees describes in lurid terms the anguished last days of reviled king Antiochus IV as his rotting body swarmed with worms (2 Macc. 9:5-9). According to Papias, Judas Iscariot died in agony, oozing pus and worms “from every party of his body”. And, most significantly for our text in Acts, King Herod (the Great) was stricken with worms before death according to Josephus (JW 1.656). Africa concludes: “the author of Acts borrowed a theme from the fictions about Antiochus IV and Herod the Great and had the persecutor die of phthiriasis” (p. 11).
King Agrippa II
King Agrippa had a son by the same name, Marcus Julius Agrippa. The younger Agrippa was still a teenager in Rome when his father died, so emperor Claudius reincorporated Agrippa I’s lands as a Roman province governed by a procurator. Agrippa II was given the small Syrian principality of Chalcis a few years later when his uncle, Herod of Chalcis, died. Eventually, other territory from Philip’s tetrarchy was given to him as well, along with the title of king. Agrippa II was on the side of the Romans during the Jewish War and was later rewarded with the rank of Praetor.
King Agrippa II is the Agrippa who participates in Paul’s trial in Acts 23-26. When Agrippa and his sister Berenice arrive in Caesarea to welcome the new procurator Festus (appointed around the year 56), he is convinced by Festus to hear Paul’s case. Narratively, the scene provides an opportunity for Paul to preach to Agrippa about his conversion and ministry, while establishing clear parallels between the trial of Jesus in Luke (before the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod) and that of Paul (before the Sanhedrin, Felix and Festus, and Agrippa).
Agrippa II died around 100, the last Herodian king. His kingdom became part of the Roman empire after his death.
Queen Julia Berenice
In Paul’s trial in Acts, King Agrippa II is accompanied by his sister Berenice to Caesarea. Berenice was, in fact, a well-known individual in Roman society, having been the mistress of Titus before he became emperor.
Berenice was married to her uncle Herod of Chalcis and held the title of queen in that tiny domain. When Herod died and Agrippa II received the throne, she stayed on to rule with her brother. Berenice was seen so often with her brother that rumors of an incestuous relationship spread. The writer Juvenal even described the relationship as a well-known fact. The author of Acts apparently knows of this, for he has Berenice accompany Agrippa to Caesarea during Paul’s trial. She plays little role in the story, however.
There are potential points of contact between Berenice and the Markan passage on John the Baptist’s death. Brian Incigneri has proposed that Mark included the story as a warning to Roman Christians about the dangerous influence of Berenice on soon-to-be-emperor Titus (pp. 182ff.) Furthermore, Morton Enslin has pointed out how similar the story is to that of the Cynic philosopher Heras, who was beheaded in 75 CE for publicly criticizing the affair between Berenice and Titus (Enslin p. 13; the story is chronicled by Dio Cassius, Hist. Rom. 46.15).
Agrippa II and Julia Berenice had another sister who moved in circles of power. Drusilla was briefly married to Azizus, the king of Emessa, but she left him to marry Felix, the Roman procurator of Judaea. She is mentioned briefly in Acts 24:24 as the wife of Felix but plays no role in the story. As an interesting aside, she and her son perished during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
Though not technically a Herodian, procurator Antonius Felix married into the family and thus earns the last spot in this list. A Greek freedman, Felix had originally been a slave either of emperor Claudius or Claudius’s mother. Soon after becoming procurator of Judaea, he married Drusilla the sister of Agrippa II. (By coincidence, his previous marriage had also been to one Drusilla, the daughter of Juba II, king of Mauretania, and granddaughter of Antony and Cleopatra.) Felix’s marriage to a Jewess without converting or circumcision was probably responsible for his poor reputation among pious Jews (Smallwood, p. 270).
In Acts 23-24, Felix is the procurator who oversees Paul’s trial after Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and taken to Caesarea, though he never arrives at a verdict, and leaves Paul imprisoned for his successor to deal with.
During his tenure, Felix also suppressed an insurrection led by an “Egyptian prophet” who led 30,000 men out of the wilderness to the Mount of Olives with the intent of capturing Jerusalem. The story as told by Josephus (JW 2.259-263, Ant 20.169-171) bears some similarity to Jesus’ capture at the Mount of Olives. Acts 21:38 actually alludes to this event when the Roman tribute arresting Paul asks, “You are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand Sicarii out into the wilderness?”⁶
- Though Mark himself seems to be unaware of this aspect of Jewish divorce law in his pericope on divorce.
- Whiston’s popular translation of Josephus even does this.
- No worldwide famine is recorded from Claudius’s reign, though there were several local ones. The author may have in mind a famine that struck Palestine particularly hard in 46 and 48, several years after the death of Agrippa, according to Josephus (Ant. 20.101).
- A further problem with the chronology of Acts is that the Passover during which Agrippa (i.e. “King Herod”) allegedly persecuted Christians would not have taken place until three weeks after the most likely date of Agrippa’s death in 44. See Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 62-63.
- That Luke is dependant on Josephus is suggested by the inclusion of Agrippa’s robes, which is essential in Josephus but a superfluous detail in Luke. The setting in Luke and the reason for “the people” (as opposed to dignitaries in Josephus) to praise Agrippa are also unclear in comparison with Josephus. (Haenchen 388)
- A rather strange question to ask Paul, since the tribune had arrested him for being attacked by an enraged mob. Additionally, the use of the Latin term Sicarii suggests reliance on Josephus, who may have coined the word.
Richard Pervo, The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story, 2008.
Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, 1971.
E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule, 1976.
Thomas Africa, “Worms and the Death of Kings: A Cautionary Note on Disease and History”, Classical Antiquity, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Apr 1982).
David Flusser, “A New Portrait of Salome”, Jerusalem Perspective 55 (1999).
Mary Ann Beavis, Mark (Paidaia Commentaries), 2011.
Brian J. Incigneri, The Gospel to the Romans, 2003.
Morton S. Enslin, “John and Jesus”, ZNW Vol. 66, No. 1–2, 1975.
Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 2nd Edition, 2003.
Daniel R. Schwartz, Agrippa I: The Last King of Judaea, 1990.
Morten Hørning Jensen, Herod Antipas in Galilee, 2nd Edition, 2006.