A look at the family that ruled Palestine in Jesus's day
By Doug Reed
The Romans declared Herod the Great king of Judea in 40 BC. It was the beginning of more misery for the people of God. In the Jew's mind there were three criteria for judging whether a king was of God. One was his relationship with the temple. A true king would set the temple aright or build the true temple of God. Another was that he would deal with the enemies of Israel and put them asunder. Finally, a messiah/king would establish the kingdom of God in the land. Such ideas went way back to David and Solomon and were reinforced in the Maccabean revolt.
Herod the Great must have thought one out of three ain't bad. He set out to build the grandest temple of them all to give him his place in history and perhaps in the people's hearts. He began rebuilding the temple in 19 BC. Solomon’s temple took seven years to build. Herod’s grand design was not completed until AD 63. It was a project so monumental that it took over eighty years to finish.
There is considerable debate over the exact size of Herod's temple. Josephus records that the temple walls were about six hundred feet in length and formed a perfect square. Many modern scholars dismiss Josephus’ description as highly exaggerated. The reason is that Josephus’ description is too large for what they believe to be the location of the temple mount. However, if we place the Roman fort Antonia at the modern temple mount and place the temple about a third of a mile to the south where Josephus and other writers of the day placed it, it becomes a perfect fit.
The buildings within the temple were utterly amazing for their day. The inner structures of the temple complex were at least twice as large as they were in Solomon’s temple. Many walls were covered with solid gold. The best artists from all over the world contributed to the mighty structure. Only the finest materials were used. For example, the walls were made of a white limestone that made the structure appear as if it was glowing. It was said that if a person had not seen Herod’s temple, he had not yet seen a beautiful building.
Herod’s temple was magnificent in its spectacle and customs. However, beneath it all lay corruption, compromise, and greed. Rome was the seat of power in the first century world, and its influence reached even to the sacred courts of Israel’s most holy place. At one time Herod the Great had a large golden eagle placed over the main gate to the temple to pay homage to Rome. One could only imagine the horror this would cause in the Jews of the day. The Law of Moses strictly forbids any graven images, yet the king placed one over the very entrance to the temple. Moreover, Herod not only insulted the Jews with the Roman eagle, but he also placed other symbols associated with Rome in the temple’s various courts. It is no wonder that many of the Jews considered both Herod and those who ran the temple as illegitimate.
The temple was a sight to behold, and it did bring employment to many craftsmen and workers in Jerusalem. However, someone had to pay for it. Some of the funds came from the temple tax collected from the Diaspora (Jews scattered abroad). Yet, a great burden also fell upon the poor of Palestine.
Unfortunately, Herod's appetite for building projects was not satisfied with the temple. In Jerusalem alone he built the Antonia fortress, a palace, a theater, and an amphitheater. He also built or rebuilt certain cities to reflect his glory. Apparently, Herod liked covering all the bases, so he also built a temple to Caesar in the city that would later be called Caesarea Philippi and Greek temples and structures both in Palestine and throughout the world. Of course, the average man paid for all of these projects.
It could be said that Herod the great was quite mad, at least at the end of his life. He was afraid that there would be no mourning upon his death, so he gave orders that renowned and beloved men across the land would be put to death at his passing. In Herod's mind this would ensure that the people would mourn at the death of the "great" king. Thankfully, his orders were never carried out.
At Herod's death, Rome divided the kingdom among Herod's sons Antipas, Archelaus, and Phillip. None of them were any better than their father. The one that got the Northeast region was Philip. When Philip came to power, he changed the name of the city Paneas to Caesarea Philippi. He did so to honor two people. It does not take a language specialist to figure out who those two people were. The name Caesarea was to honor Caesar and the second name Philippi, Philip chose to honor himself. It was in this wicked city that Jesus proclaimed that He was the messiah and that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church.
After Herod the Great's death the Jews did not have an official king over the land until AD 41 when the Romans gave Agrippa, Herod the Great's grandson the throne. Agrippa truly thought himself to be a god (messiah/king). Josephus records that he wore a tightly woven silver suit in public in order to give himself the appearance of a god. In fact, in Acts 12 we see many did refer to him as divine. God only allowed his arrogance to continue for a short time.
Sources used in this series on first century history:
Holman Bible Dictionary. Holman Bible Publishers, 1991.
Horsley, Richard. Bandits Prophets, and Messiahs. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999.
____. The Message and the Kingdom. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Maier, Paul. Josephus The Essential Works. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988.
Martin, Ernest. The Temples that Jerusalem Forgot. Portland: ASK Publications.
Stegemann, Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann. The Jesus Movement. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
The Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
The Christians Their First Two Thousand Years, Vol. 1. Canada: Christian Millennial History Project, Inc., 2002.
Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
____. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.