When reading Matthew 14:1-11 recently, it occurred to me that I knew nothing about Herod Antipas, the ruler who had John the Baptist beheaded during a banquet. For that matter, I didn’t know much about any of the other men that were all called Herod that are mentioned in the New Testament. So I decided to investigate.
The more I examined the various internet sources, the more fascinating the search became. In the process many other people and events that have always been on the periphery of my knowledge of the New Testament such as Herod the Great, Herod Philip, the two Herod Agrippa’s, Herod Archelaus, Philip the Tetrarch, the Herodians, the Roman governor Felix, King Aretas IV of Nabataea, Judas the Galilean, three women by the names of Herodias, Berenice and Drusilla, and an intriguing prophet called Maneon all came alive just by focusing on the life of Herod Antipas.
Over four generations, from around 6 BC to around to around 62 AD, the Herodian family dynasty constantly tried to wipe out, execute, exterminate, and imprison the people God chose to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth; from John the Baptist and Jesus to Peter and an aging Paul many decades later. Apart from the intransigent Pharisees, the various members of this ruling Herodian dynasty were the key instruments Satan used to try to foil the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the long-awaited Messiah. In the thick of it all Herod Antipas seemed to be the historical hub and those before and after him were the historical spokes.
So exactly who was Herod Antipas? What was his family like? Why was he in power? Why did his wife want John executed? What was his personality like? What was his life’s story and how did it end? Why did Pilate send Jesus to him? Who else is he related to in the Gospels and the book of Acts? These are the questions I will answer in this essay. In the process all the other people mentioned above will come into focus and find their place in this fascinating piece of history.
As you read, please do yourself a favour and click on all the Bible references I’ve included because they take you straight to the place in scripture where the person is mentioned or the historic event took place, demonstrating once again the trustworthiness of scripture as a reliable historical source.
2. A FLY-THROUGH OF THE HERODIAN FAMILY TREE
Herod Antipas’ grandfather, Antipater, had once rescued Julius Caesar in battle while helping the Romans drive the pro-Persian Hasmonean dynasty out of Israel. Julius Caesar then rewarded him with sole authority over all the Roman provinces in Judea and surrounds, with the added title of king. His son, Herod the Great, also ruled as sole heir over this vassal kingdom. As a convert to Judaism he built the great temple in Jerusalem that Jesus prophesied would soon be destroyed (Luke 21:5-6), and whose western foundation wall is still revered today by pious Jews. Herod the Great was also the tyrant who murdered all the infants in Bethlehem just after Jesus was whisked away to Egypt by his parents (Matthew 2:16).
Antipater and Herod the Great were not Jews. They were Idumeans. This was the term used in that era to refer to an Edomite and therefore a descendant of Esau. The Edomites were also the ancestors of the Nabataeans, and the Nabataeans were the ancestors of the Arabs, and the Arabs gave us Islam! It all goes back to Esau (Genesis 25:30-34). The Idumeans came from the region south of Jerusalem, from Beersheba down into the Negev desert to Nabataea and the Red Sea. Antipater had married a Nabataean, while only two of Herod the Great’s five wives were Jews. This pagan Idumean dynasty was imposed by Rome on an already occupied and hurting Jewish people. It was brutal, deeply pro-Roman, and profoundly unpopular with its Jewish subjects.
Herod the Great was already a frail old man when he was visited by the three Magi looking for the new king of Israel (Matthew 2:1). He flew into a rage when he heard this terrible news so he executed all the infant boys in Bethlehem and surrounds when he could not locate this new competitor for his throne (Matthew 2:13-18). From Herod the Great’s perspective the executions made perfect sense as he knew he did not have long to live, was desperately trying to extinguish any potential rival claim to his Kingdom, and then out of the desert come three strange astronomers from Persia telling him his entire dynasty is about to be overturned.
Herod died an agonizing death a year or two later in Jericho and most scholars place his death at around 4 BC. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that as soon as Herod the Great died, an angel appeared to Joseph in Egypt telling him it was now safe to return to Israel (Matthew 2:19-20).
The full measure of Herod the Great’s cruelty can be seen by the fact that at the time of his death he had already executed three of his six sons for suspected treason. He therefore had to change his last will and testament multiple times as he grew older. He finally settled on dividing his vassal Kingdom into three sections between his three surviving sons. Two of these sons, Archelaus and Herod Antipas, were born to his third wife, Marthace the Samaritan. The other son, Philip the Tetrarch, was born to his last and only Jewish wife, Cleopatra of Jerusalem. This tells us that the main subject of this essay, Herod Antipas, actually had no Jewish blood in his veins.
Archelaus, being the older brother, inherited the prized province of Judea, as well as Samaria and Idumea, and his father’s title of king. Matthew 2:22-23 tells us that it was Archelaus’ rule over his father’s realm was the very reason why Joseph decided to move his family north to the safety of Nazareth in Galilee. God used Joseph’s fear of Archelaus to make sure an important prophecy was fulfilled that said the Messiah would be called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23). Archelaus ruled on behalf of Rome for 10 years until he was removed from office for incompetence and his jurisdictions were made a Roman Province. He was then exiled to Vienne, just south of Lyon in France. His dismissal is the reason why we see a Roman governor by the name of Pontius Pilate in power when Jesus was tried and executed many years later. The political landscape at the time Jesus began his ministry is explained perfectly in Luke 3:1.
Herod Antipas, born sometime between 30 and 20 BC, and being the younger brother, inherited the smaller area of Galilee and Perea. However, at one stage he had been designated by his father to receive the main inheritance that eventually went to Archelaus, only losing this larger inheritance because of a last-minute change of his father’s will. This left a bitterness in him that would resurface many decades later. With the lesser inheritance came the lesser title of tetrarch, which means ruler of a quarter.
You are probably familiar with the location of Galilee but not Perea. Perea was physically disconnected from Galilee. It contained the lands to the east of the Jordan River after it flows out of Lake Galilee, and south to halfway down the Dead Sea. Perea was close to where John the Baptist lived in the desert (Matthew 3:1-6), and where Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:13). The capital of Perea was Gadara, south west of Lake Galilee and near to where Jesus cast a legion of demons out of a man that migrated into a herd of suicidal pigs (Luke 8:26-39). It was also in the Perean hilltop fortress of Machaerus that John was executed.
Philip the tetrarch, Herod Antipas’ half-brother and the third heir, was given the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, the lands east and north east of Galilee in modern day Syria (Luke 3:1). Jesus sometimes spent time in his realm and ministered in villages around his capital city of Caesarea Philippi, as recorded in Matthew 16:13 and Mark 8:27. It was in this region that Jesus said to Peter On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. It is also in this region that the transfiguration took place a week later (Matthew 17:1-9). We do not hear much about Philip the Tetrarch in scripture.
The only region in First Century Israel mentioned in the Gospels that was outside the inheritance of the three sons of Herod the Great was the territory of the Decapolis. The Decapolis was directly south of Philip the Tetrarch’s domain and directly north of Perea. This is the reason why Herod Antipas’s realm of Galilee was disconnected to his other realm of Perea. The Decapolis consisted of ten gentile Greek townships (deca = ten, polis = city) that were given political autonomy under Rome. The Romans trusted the Greeks a lot more than the Jews.
I mention this area because Matthew and Mark record that the citizens of the Decapolis and across the Jordan, though culturally Greek, quickly warmed to the ministry of Jesus (Matthew 4:25) and came in number from those cities to hear his ministry. Jesus also made a point of doing missions trips to both Lebanon (Matthew 15:21) and to the Decapolis (Mark 7:31). It was here that he healed a man by spitting and placing it on his tongue (Mark 7:31-37). It was also here that the Gadarene demoniac went on to preach for Jesus after being healed (Mark 5:18-20). It was near one of the cities of the Decapolis, Damascus, that Saul was blinded by an angel and personally came to know Jesus some decades later (Acts 9:1-3).
As an obedient client king to the Romans, Herod the Great sent all his sons from the age of 12 years to Rome to be educated in the finer points of Roman rule and culture inside the very households of the emperors. So all Herod the Great’s sons basically grew up outside Israel and were constantly bathed in the excesses of Roman elitism, paganism, and royalty. They were members of the “billionaire rich kid set” of that era.
The culture and lifestyle of Herod’s lads was part of the cultural process of Hellenisation that was sweeping the empire at that time. Hellenisation was the adoption of Greek and Roman culture, religion, language, and identity as a superior way of life to that of the provinces of the empire, to the detriment of local cultures, religions, and languages.
Israel was not immune to this process because of its conquest by the Greeks in 330 BC, and then by the Romans in 63 BC. Israel’s strict Jewish legal and cultural structure was breaking down under Rome’s rule. The parable of the prodigal son illustrates this point (Luke 15:13). Jesus possibly had Rome in mind when he said the son set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living! Hellenisation was also the reason why the New Testament was written in Greek as it was the trade and academic language of that era. Rome’s vast number of occupying soldiers and their relaxed morality was also the reason why there were so many prostitutes in Israel during the ministry of Jesus (Matthew 21:32). Judaism was under very real threat, and this was one of the reasons for the rise of the Pharisee sect as guardians of the strict interpretation of Jewish law and traditions of their elders (Matthew 15:1-2).
The social class of people called the Herodians that are mentioned several times in the Gospels (Mathew 22:16, Mark 12:13) were the deeply Hellenised Jewish nobles, wealthy tax collectors and the snobby governing elite among the local population who had sided with their despised political rulers. They were staunchly opposed to any threat to their privileged financial and social position in this new Roman political order. At one stage they were even plotting with their enemies, the Pharisees, to kill Jesus in classic case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend (Mark 3:6).
With Galilee itself only liberated from Greek rule and colonisation in the Maccabean revolt of 164 BC, with the largest Galilean cities of Sepphoris and Tiberius full of gentiles, with the ten Greek gentile towns of the Decapolis straddling the eastern shores of Lake Galilee, and a whole upper class of locals who had embraced Hellenisation, is it any wonder that Isaiah prophesied that one day the region where Jesus grew up an ministered would be called Galilee of the Gentiles in Matthew 4:15?
Yet Jesus still touched these Herodians; it was always part of his plan for his Kingdom to move beyond Judaism, so he modelled what he wanted. We see this with the unnamed Galilean royal official who came quietly to Jesus for help with his sick son (John 4:46-54). We also see Zacchaeus, a wealthy chief tax collector who was inside this Hellenised social system, gladly gave it up for Jesus (Luke 19:1-9). As small-time village tax collector, Matthew was on the edge of this seemingly inexorable process of Hellenisation (Matthew 9:9-11). The two tax collectors made the right decision to follow Jesus, but the rich young ruler couldn’t give up his privileged ways (Mark 10:17-27). It’s always been hard for the wealthy elite of any culture to follow Jesus as they have a lot to lose (Mark 10:23, Luke 12:13-21). This is why, in the end, the elite Jews of Jerusalem decided to save their privileged positions inside Rome’s politically corrupt system by executing Jesus (John 11:47-50).
3. FLY THROUGH OF HEROD ANTIPAS’ PUBLIC LIFE AND EXILE
As vassal rulers under Rome, King Herod the Great’s surviving three sons were required to go to Rome to have their father’s will authorised and get their status as the new Roman rulers in Israel confirmed. While staying in Rome with his half-brother Herod Philip I, Antipas not only challenged the will vigorously since he was once supposed to get the lion’s share of the inheritance, but he also fell in love with Philip I’s wife, Herodias, who was also his niece. The two promptly had a torrid affair, divorced their respective spouses, and were quickly married. Herod Antipas was in his 20’s when he did this, she was barely 20. Imagine the scandal this caused within the extended family!
Herodias was the daughter of Aristobulus, who was the second son of Herod the Great to his first wife Mariamne I. Aristobulus, his brother Alexander, and their mother were executed on suspicion of treason in around 7 BC when Herodias was a teenager. To keep the teenage girl within the family she was then married off to her much older half uncle by the name of Herod Philip I who was born to another wife of Herod the Great by the same name. History calls her Mariamne II.
Please note that Herod Philip I (sometimes called Herod II) was not Philip the Tetrarch (sometimes called Herod I), whose mother was Cleopatra of Jerusalem, who inherited dominions northeast of Lake Galilee, and whose capital was Caesarea Philippi. It’s a bit confusing because Herod the Great married two women of the name of Mariamne, and gave two of his sons the same name, Philip.
Even though Herod Philip I was a son of Herod the Great and legitimate heir to his dominions, he lost his inheritance just days before his father died after it was discovered that Herod Philip I’s mother actually knew about Aristobulus’ assassination plot three years earlier but did not try to stop it. To their combined horror, Herod Philip I and his young wife Herodias suddenly became just privileged private Roman citizens.
Herodias, the ambitious hothead, must have been livid about her husband’s dis-inheritance. So while Herod Antipas was staying in her home a few months later and contesting his father’s will, she cunningly saw an opportunity to get back into the family inheritance. She literally jumped into bed with her uncle, started an affair and abandoned her first husband for a man who was closer to the bright and powerful future that was dangling in front of the other sons at the time. This alpha-female was ambitious and ruthless to the core, character traits common to the entire Herodian dynasty.
As mentioned previously, Herod Antipas was married at the time. His first wife whom he promptly divorced was Phasaelis, a Nabataean princes and daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabataea who, by the way, was recorded later in scripture trying to arrest Paul in Damascus (2 Corinthians 11:32). The king never forgot Herod Antipas’ cold-hearted rejection of his daughter and the two rulers would clash several decades later.
While Herod Antipas was getting into bed with Herodias over in Rome, a rebellion broke out in Galilee against Herodian dynastic rule. It was centered around the city of Sepphoris, stronghold of the dynasty and Herod Antipas’ capital for the next twenty years or so. The following passage in Acts 5:37 possibly refers to the leader of this rebellion: After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. The census mentioned was the one that required Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem to register (Luke 2:1-5). On arriving back in Galilee, Herod Antipas undertook a 10-year building spree to fortify Sepphoris as well as the city of Betharamphtha in Perea, which he quickly renamed Livia in honour of Caesar Augustus’ wife.
In around 17 AD Herod Antipas for some reason decided to move his provincial capital from Sepphoris to a new site on the shores of Lake Galilee to be called Tiberius, in honour of his new Roman boss. It was designed as a Greek town, with stadiums, spas and grand avenues. However, he accidently built it over an old Jewish cemetery, so no pious Jews wanted to work on the site or settle in the new capital. In desperation Herod Antipas had to offer grants of free land and houses to get people to move in when the city was finished. Consequently, it became an almost purely gentile city.
Between 34-36 AD, the long simmering tension between Herod Antipas and his ex-father-in-law, King Aretas IV of Nabataea, finally erupted into open war. Antipas’ army suffered a devastating defeat after fugitives from the territory of Philip the Tetrarch sided with the Nabateans and Antipas was forced to appeal to Tiberius for help. However, the emperor died before help arrived.
The new Emperor, Caligula, was a good friend of none other than Herodias’ delinquent playboy brother, Herod Agrippa I. As a favour to his drinking buddy, Caligula gave the recently deceased Philip the Tetrarch’s dominions to Herod Agrippa I in 37 AD. This made Herodias very jealous of her undeserving brother, so in 39 AD she persuaded her husband to appeal the decision. After all her husband had faithfully ruled next door for decades. However, Herod Agrippa I cunningly lodged a counter charge of treason against Herod Antipas which was successful. Herod Antipas was instantly stripped of all his powers, lands, wealth, and titles. These were then transferred to Herod Agrippa I, giving him control of all of Herod the Great’s lands except Judea. Herodias and Herod Antipas’ final bid for more power had resulted in personal disaster.
Herod Antipas ended his life in exile in Lyon, France, right next door to where his brother Archelaus was exiled in Vienne. His wife Herodias was exempt from exile and could have retained her property and status. However, she decided to go into exile with her husband, where he died soon after.
4. SO WHAT WAS HEROD ANTIPAS LIKE AS A PERSON
Herod Antipas was cunning, yet diplomatic.
To stay in power under a Roman Empire that demanded provincial rulers jump to its every wish, a vassal ruler had to both kowtow to powers above him and placate a hostile populace beneath him. This required both great cunning and great diplomacy.
Perhaps Herod Antipas’ two supreme acts of cunning related to his attempts to usurp the Judean throne from his siblings, first from his half-brother Archelaus in 4 BC by contesting the will, and then some four decades later in 39 AD when he tried to circumvent the rise of Herod Agrippa I. Perhaps his marriage to Herodias itself was also an act of cunning to gain the elusive throne of Judea while contesting the will. After all, having Herodias by his side strengthened his ties to the Herodian family tree and bloodline. His ambitions never diminished. He was a true Herod.
On the other hand, Herod Antipas’ diplomacy is recorded by Josephus in the incident where Pilate tried to install shields with the emperor’s image in his residence in Jerusalem, an anathema to the Jews. The Jews were incensed and protested vigorously. It took the united effort of Antipas and his brother Philip the Tetrarch to make Pilate eat humble pie. Perhaps this is why Pilate and Herod Antipas were such enemies until the trial of Jesus (Luke 23:12). Herod Antipas was also sensitive enough to Jewish customs to regularly travel the 160 kilometres down to Jerusalem to attend the biggest event on the Jewish calendar, the annual Passover festival (Luke 23:6-7). He was also sensitive enough to make sure any coins he minted did not have any imagery that would offend his subjects.
So now you can see why Jesus justifiably called Herod Antipas a sly fox when some Pharisees told him Herod Antipas wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31-32).
Herod Antipas’s was lustful.
Herod Antipas’ lustful depravity, embedded into his lifestyle while being educated in Rome as a teenager, was on full display to his Jewish subjects when he shamelessly shafted his first wife and married Herodias. That was why John, and most of the pious Jewish population, were so disgusted with him. The depth of their loathing can be seen by the fact that some 30 years after the event, John was still raging about it to the people and the people were still listening.
John’s public ridicule pricked the conscience of both the guilty parties, so Herodias pleaded with her husband to have this loudmouth arrested (Matthew 14:3, Mark 6:19). Josephus tells us that Herod also feared John’s protests might lead to widespread rebellion as the people regarded John as a prophet (Matthew 14:5). For his crime of imperial insolence John ended up in a dungeon to rot for a year or so.
Matthew chapter 14:1-11, the passage that gave birth to this essay, goes into some detail about the deplorable night’s revelry at Herod Antipas’ big birthday bash, which was possibly his 50th. Josephus tells us the location of these events was the hilltop fortress of Machaerus, halfway down the eastern side of the Dead Sea in Perea. It almost goes without saying that the whole birthday party as well as the evocative dancing mentioned in scripture was a very sexually suggestive affair. Upper class Roman parties usually included prostitutes and lots of X rated entertainment. The R-rated artwork uncovered at Pompeii and now on display at the Naples Museum gave me a very uncomfortable insight into this dark side of Roman sexual ethics. It is highly probable that the dancing before Herod Antipas that night was very sensuous and arousing. Whatever the dancer did that mesmerized Herod Antipas would have been a total anathema pious Jewish people. Any first century Christian reading Matthew’s account of what took place that night would have instantly understood the full and foul picture as to what went on at that party.
However, we will never know exactly who did the dancing. Most commentators, as well as Josephus, say it was Salome, the daughter of Herodias to her first husband. However, this would have made her around 30 years of age and a little old for this type of lewd dancing, which was usually performed by “professional” entertainers. The original scriptures do not name the dancer at all, and some ancient Greek versions of Mark’s account of the party actually read Herod’s daughter Herodias. Rather than the daughter of Herodias used in most modern translations. That first translation would better explain why Antipas gushingly offered the girl half his Kingdom. It would also mean the dancer was much younger and probably more appealing to Herod and the assembled crowd of nobles, high military officers, and the chief men of Galilee (Mark 6:21). Note the emphasis on men in that sentence. This was male entertainment.
Who the dancer’s father was is immaterial, she was Herodias’ daughter. What we do know that Herodias cunningly saw an opportunity to fill her cup of revenge to the full by getting rid of her nemesis once and for all. She explicitly gave the instructions for John’s execution and in doing so had her husband completely trapped by his stupid drunken comments in front of his top officials (Matthew 14:8). Within minutes her daughter had John’s head delivered on a plate, much to the enormous distress of her husband given that he had often chatted to his incarcerated prophet and liked listening to him (Mark 6:20), to say nothing of his fear of the wrath of the people (Matthew 14:9).
The execution was the party killer to top all party killers. The whole gory episode gives us a fly-on-the-wall insight into the sour state of the marriage at this stage in its evolution. Theirs had always been a marriage of convenience. Herodias, ever the manipulator, seems once again to be the one in control. Imagine the fireworks between husband and wife after the guests left that night!
Herod Antipas was also interested in spiritual issues, but superstitious.
Mark 6:20 makes an intriguing claim about Antipas worth investigating further. It says that He knew that John was a righteous and holy man, and so he protected him. Whenever he listened to John, he did much of what he said. In fact, he liked listening to him. Who was Herod Antipas protecting John from? From his wife Herodias of course, who desperately wanted him executed. Herod Antipas would often call John out of his cell and chat to him about spiritual matters. One gets the impression John was a holy man version of a pet dog. How extraordinary! But after months of listening to the imprisoned John constantly remind him that he needed to repent before Jehovah, leave his wife and change his ways, Herod still didn’t get it. Or if he did, he couldn’t do it.
John had such a powerful influence on Herod Antipas that after his death when the Tetrarch heard reports of Jesus doing miracles, he immediately saw the source of these miracles as the dreaded ghost of John come back to haunt him for what he had done rather than the spirit of God working through a genuine contender for the title of Messiah (Matthew 14:1-2). His superstition and fear of John did not diminish and is again recorded by Luke in the episode when Jesus sent out the 12 on their first practical which resulted in a 12 fold multiplication of Kingdom miracles (Luke 9:1-7). This fear of spiritual retribution combined with an infatuation with the superstitious continued right up to the trial of Jesus when Herod Antipas demanded Jesus perform a party-trick miracle when he should have been conducting a serious investigation into the criminal claims against our Lord (Luke 23:8). Herod seemed to be hoping for a repeat of his friendly relationship with his previous pet prisoner, John. After all, he probably still thought Jesus was John reincarnated. Combining these three episodes tells us a lot about the belief systems of the man; deeply superstitious, fascinated with the supernatural, a man with some sort of a spiritual conscience, but having no Biblical reference point for it all, and unable to respond to what his conscience was telling him.
5. FLY THROUGH OF THE HERODIAN DYNASTY IN SCRIPTURE
Chronologically speaking, the New Testament begins with Herod the Great in around 6 BC and finishes with Herod Agrippa II almost 70 years later. All the books of the New Testament fit inside the timeline of four generations of the Herodian dynasty. I will now go through this timeline in detail.
The New Testament begins with Herod the Great murdering all the infants in Bethlehem just after Jesus was born (Matthew 2:16). Then, apart from a short story about Jesus’ visit to the temple at the age of 12, scripture is very quiet for nearly 30 years. However, during those 30 years Jesus lived almost his entire earthly life right under the shadow of one Herod Antipas! We know from history that for many years Herod Antipas’ fortress and court was just five kilometres from Nazareth in his Galilean capital of Sepphoris. It was just 1.5 hours walk from Jesus’ front door to Herod Antipas’ front door!
It was therefore probable that both Joseph and his apprenticed sons worked on some of Herod Antipas’ many building projects just over the hill in from Nazareth. Ironically, these projects were partly funded by the taxes Matthew was collecting from Peter and the other fishermen down in Capernaum! From 4 BC to around 6 AD there was a building boom in Sepphoris as Herod Antipas strengthened its fortifications and stamped the city with his own architectural signature. It is therefore probable that not just Joseph and his sons, but many Nazarenes worked on these building sites. It was also possible, but not probable, that Joseph was on the same building site as Herod Antipas from time to time as the ruler came to inspect progress on his grand building projects. After all, Joseph was a builder and there wasn’t much for a team of 2-3 father/son builders to build in Nazareth, a poor village of only 200-300 souls. Builders go to where the work is good.
Then around 20 AD Herod Antipas unexpectedly decided to move his capital city to a new site 33 kilometres away on the shores of Lake Galilee and called it Tiberius in honour of his boss, the emperor of Rome. It is very unlikely that Joseph and his sons worked on this site as it was accidently built over an old Jewish graveyard and no Jew wanted to be a part of this new project.
Intriguingly neither Sepphoris nor Tiberius, the two largest cities in Galilee, are mentioned in the Gospels. This is because Jesus deliberately avoided these two centres of Galilean political power during the three years of his ministry. His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36) and he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:23-25).
Then around the year 25-27 AD, just after Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan, we suddenly hear just a whisper about Herod Antipas as he arrests John the Baptist and throws him in a dungeon. An interesting footnote in the Gospels tells us that Jesus was nearby when this event happened, as Matthew says that it was only when John was arrested that Jesus departed to Galilee from Judea to begin his own ministry (Matthew 4:12). Jesus had probably been spending some time with John before John was arrested. As first cousins they were obviously close (Luke 1:36).
Then a year or so later, Herod Antipas explodes onto the pages of Biblical history with the execution of John. Repentance from sin was John’s main message (Luke 3:3) and he was uncompromising in his determination to do his part to usher in the Kingdom of God. He was fearless and deferred not to political rank. All were sinners and sin galled his spirit. The people all loved him because of this, and some people feared him because of this, especially power-hungry Herodias (Mark 6:19). John had the heart of Elijah (Matthew 17:10-12) while Herodias had the heart of Jezebel, so it is no wonder that John denounced her marriage publicly and repeatedly.
During the three years of Jesus’ ministry, the Good News of the Kingdom was being preached, and Jesus fame spread far and wide inside Herod Antipas’ realm (Mark 1:27-28). It even seeped into Herod Antipas’ palace. From Luke 8:3 we learn that Chuza was Herod’s chief steward and Chuza’s wife, Joanna, was a dedicated follower and financial supporter of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps Chuza was passing on to his boss some tales of the mighty Galilean prophet and this is why Herod Antipas thought the spirit of John come back to haunt him (Mark 6:14).
Jesus managed to avoid meeting this man he called the fox until his trial on the last day of his life on earth, even though Herod Antipas had been wanting to meet Jesus for a long time (Luke 23:8). At the trial we read how Jesus became a political football between Pilate and Herod Antipas, who hated each other until that day (Luke 23). The two most powerful men in Galilee, the prophet and the politician, finally met after Pilate flicked Jesus to Herod. True to form Herod stupidly and childishly demanded Jesus put on a miracle show-and-tell. His petty small-mindedness was justifiably met with silent contempt by the King of Kings. Jesus, the creator of the universe, was above having to obey the wishes of this pathetic provincial tyrant he had known his whole earthy life, and who had murdered his first cousin, who impoverished his people, who indulged himself in the sins and lusts of Rome, who stood in the way of the Kingdom of God on earth, and who had already plotted to kill Jesus once before.
Herod Antipas’ extreme pride and arrogance that day was to be met a few years later with his own fall from Roman imperial grace, and his own humiliation and exile to France. Jesus was God incarnate, and the man who had the presumption to judge him would soon be judged himself.
After the trial of Jesus the New Testament narrative regarding Herod Antipas’ chapter of the Herodian dynasty goes silent until about 20 years later when it pops up one last time in the most unexpected place. In Acts 13:1 we read this intriguing comment: Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. The original Greek text more accurately says that Manaen was Herod the Tetrarch’s foster brother. How curious.
Here we meet a man, quite old at the time as it was around 42 AD, who was a prophet, teacher, and leader in the very influential church of Antioch. He was also a contemporary of the apostle Paul no less. He was even present when the Holy Spirit separated Paul and Barnabas for their historic missions’ trips (Acts 13:2). Yet Manaen the prophet grew up with Herod Antipas inside the palace of Herod the Great. He played with Herod Antipas as a kid and knew him intimately. We don’t know if he stayed a friend of the royal family, or whether he became a follower of Jesus during Jesus’ ministry, or in the years afterward. All we know is that he was the last spiritual, scriptural and physical link with both the tyrant who tried to kill Jesus as an infant, and his son who helped send Jesus to the cross. Manaen knew intimately the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the Herodian dynasty and chose eternal life instead. What stories he could tell us if we could interview him today!
For the next chapter in the story of the Herodian dynasty V’s the Kingdom of God we need to dig deeper into the Book of Acts. Here we read about other, younger rulers from the Herodian family tree as they also to try to thwart the growth of the Kingdom of God after the resurrection. In Acts 12 we read about Herod Antipas’ nephew and Herod the Great’s grandson, Herod Agrippa I, Herodias’ own full-blood brother and Herod Antipas’ brother-in-law.
As previously mentioned, Herod Agrippa I, the onetime delinquent playboy-rich-kid who grew up with royalty in Rome, had outwitted all his relatives and used his connections to appropriate Galilee and Perea from Herod Antipas. After personally helping another of his Roman elite buddies, Claudius, to become the next emperor of Rome, Claudius rewarded Herod Agrippa I by adding Judea to his expanding realm, which now finally equaled that of his grandfather, Herod the Great. Chapter 12 of the Book of Acts chronicles in detail Herod Agrippa I’s abuse of the early church, his imprisonment of Peter and Peter’s miraculous release, and his sudden death after being hailed as a god. Josephus also records his strange death.
Then a decade or two later we read at the end of Acts about Herod Agrippa I’s only son, Herod Agrippa II. We also read about this ruler’s brother-in-law, the Roman governor Felix, and also about Herod Agrippa II’s two sisters, Bernice and Drusilla. Herod Agrippa ll is mentioned a full 13 times in Acts 25 and 26 as Paul is dragged through the legal proceedings that would eventually take him to his death in Rome. Herod Agrippa II was very close to his sister, Bernice, who travelled everywhere with him as an adviser, so she is also mentioned three times in these chapters as his escort (Acts 25:13, 25:23, 26:30). His other sister, the beautiful young Drusilla (Acts 24:24), had caught the eye of Felix when he first arrived in Jerusalem to take up his position as Roman governor, and they married soon after. Felix’s name is mentioned 10 times during Paul’s prior legal proceedings, which takes up a full chapter of the Book of Acts (Acts 23:26 to 24:1-27).
Footnote: Felix and Drusilla’s son, also called Agrippa, was one of the very few people we know by name that died under the ash at Pompeii. I Just had to throw that in!
6. FINAL THOUGHTS
And there you have it. The story of four generations of the oppressive Herodian political dynasty, examined in detail through the rise and fall of Herod Antipas and his intersection with the Gospels, and then on to his relatives as they ruled Israel while the Book of Acts unfolded. What their lives tell us is best summarised by Matthew 15:19: For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. What a great description of this blood-thirsty, power-hungry family. Perhaps Jesus had them in mind when he made this very statement. We will never know but they fit the description perfectly. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupted this family absolutely.
The Herodian dynasty was a perfectly compliant instrument in the hands of Satan as he sought to eliminate the Kingdom of God’s new bridgehead in Israel. Heaven had invaded earth and Satan used compliant humans to fight back. Two generations of Herod’s were involved in trying to kill Jesus while two more generations were involved in trying to kill the early church. In Revelation 12: 1-5 John gives us a stylised summary of the role the Herodian dynasty played in this great spiritual battle:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.”
True to form Satan has used the same human lust for political and cultural power for the last two thousand years to fight the Kingdom of God as it continually expands across the cultures and civilisations of earth. Power and the lust for power are Satan’s chief instruments. He gave this secret away in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:4-5), and then again when he offered the world’s Kingdoms to Jesus in return for submission to his authority (Luke 4:5-7). Jesus refused. The Herodian dynasty did not. The world has been in a titanic battle between the love of God and the lust for power ever since.
However, he who reigns supreme over his created universe and the affairs of men was, is, and will continue to disciple the nations because Jesus said this gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14).
Why? Because His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His Kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand.