Herod the Great: The Rise to Power

The Civil War

After decades of peace and prosperity, a battle began brewing between the two sons of  Salome Alexandra, Queen of the Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom. Both Hycranus II and Aristobulus II claimed they were the rightful heir to the Jewish throne. Without outside interference, it was almost inevitable that this political schism would end in civil war. Such an internal war threatened to divide the Kingdom of Israel, undoing all the work accomplished by Judas Maccabee some 100 years earlier.

Officials in Rome saw a potential civil war as a direct threat to their partial control of the area. In response, Pompey the Great, the Roman general appointed to the area, sent spies to keep an eye on the kingdom. Seeing Rome as the deciding factor in the struggle for power, both brothers appeared at Pompey’s table pleading for his military support. In the end, it was Hycranus II who won the support of Pompey.

In 63 BC, (when Herod was 10 years old) Pompey and his Roman armies laid siege of Jerusalem. Both Antipater and Hycranus the High Priest supported the Roman take over of Jerusalem. Aristobulus II tried to hold out against Pompey in Jerusalem, but ultimately was captured and sent to Rome. He was later executed by Mark Antony at the request of Herod the Great. Hycranus II, Aristolbulus’ brother, continued on as the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Herod’s Family Seeks Power

It was into this that Herod the Great was born in 73 BC. He was the son of Antipater the Idumaean. Their family came originally from the area of Idumea just south of Judea. Although it had been an area populated by pagans, it had been converted to Judaism by force by Judas Maccabee during the Jewish revolt against the Greek Kingdom. This meant that the Herod’s were known, and even derided, as being half Jewish and half Edomite. And the Jews were no friends to non Jewish rulers.

This helps explain why Herod was so nervous about revolutionaries, but in order to truly understand why Herod would order the death of all the baby boys in Bethlehem, it is important to know about his father, Antipater, and how Herod followed in his father’s footsteps.

First, it is important to know that Antipater was power hungry. He saw Rome’s power grab in the middle east as a chance for him to gain political control of Judea. So Antipater and his family spent years developing a comfortable political relationship with the Romans.

By the time Hyranus II became high priest, Antipater already had a long track record of supporting Julius Caesar in his bid to gain political power in Rome. For example, during Julius Caesar’s campaign in Alexandria, Egypt, Antipater sent Caesar military assistance. Julius Caesar repaid Antipater’s ongoing support by appointing him Procurator of Judea. Caesar also declared that Hycranus II and his family would be High Priests over the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Herod Become Governor of Galilee

In 47 BC, as Procurator of Judea, Antipater appointed Herod Governor of Galilee and Herod’s elder brother, Phasael, Governor of Jerusalem. Both were backed by Rome and each set about consolidating their power in their own way.

Herod wasted no time, and in that same year he put down a Jewish resistance movement led by a rebel named Hezekiah. When finally captured, Hezekiah was dealt with the Roman way: He was summarily executed. This action immediately brought down the anger of the Jewish High Court. The Sanhedrin accused Herod of breaking Jewish Law by killing Hezekiah without giving him a fair trial. That was how pagan’s meted out Justice; God demanded higher standards.

The Trial Before the Sanhedrin

Soon, the Sanhedrin confronted Hycranus II the High Priest concerning Antipater and Herod. They told him to open his eyes. Antipater and Herod were the real rulers of Israel on behalf of the Romans and that Hycranus II was a political and religious leader of Israel in name only. Hycranus II took this to heart and eventually convinced Herod to stand trial before the Sanhedrin.

If the people weren’t already convinced that Herod was a pagan king, Herod marched into the court of the Sanhedrin in full military regalia. Herod elevating himself above Jewish law. In the minds of many, Herod was no longer a Jew. So it came as no surprise that, after a trial before the court, the Sanhedrin pronounced the sentence of death upon Herod.

Hycranus II, the high priest, advised Herod to escape before the Sanhedrin took action. Herod quickly escaped to Damascus. Herod’s father and brother convinced him not to take vengeance upon the Sanhedrin, but to continue in his role as Governor of Galilee.

In the next article, we will at Herod’s elevation from Governor of Galilee to the King of Judea.