Herod the Great

© 2009 Dr. Barbara Thiering

To do justice to a major historical figure , it will be necessary to begin with a broad overview, covering millennia.

At approximately 2000 BC some scattered shepherds from the hills of Mesopotamia came to be led by a man using the title Adam. His predecessors were social outcasts, excluded from the cities of Mesopotamia. The cities had advanced in knowledge of astronomy, their records preserved in written form on clay tablets. Their priests, studying in secrecy in temples, used the emblem of a serpent, symbolizing cunning hidden wisdom. Their temples were surrounded by a garden, called Pleasantness (Eden), watered from aqueducts.

The excluded shepherds, wandering as nomads to find pasturage for their flocks, had obtained enough knowledge of writing to make their own records on clay tablets. Although not remaining in any fixed place, they had a knowledge of the series of years derived from the sun, and their need for social cohesion caused them to value the continuity of history.The tablets containing their historical records were placed in a box, of a size to be carried round by one man.

The ambitious Adam who appeared around 2000 BC led his shepherds in an uprising against the cities, demanding that the serpent priests share their secret knowledge with the proletariat. His uprising failed and he and they were thrown out. They returned to a life of hard physical labor. But agriculture had now developed, and they were made servants of the priests, producing secure food supplies for all. Adam was told “in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread”.

The excluded workers formed tribes, which came to be called Semitic. They kept moving, always seeking fertile land. Some of them arrived at a strip of land at the edge of a great sea that would be called the Mediterranean. Having learned to build places of worship on mountains, they took over a well placed height, looked up to from miles around. It would be called Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Semites, from a tribe led by a man called Judah, regarded themselves as superior to others, and adopted the name Jews. About 1000 BC a very talented leader of the tribe of Judah, called David, declared himself a king, his kingdom dominant over surrounding districts.

Others in the area were Semites who were called Arabs. They lived mostly between Mesopotamia and the eastern side of the Jordan river. But some moved to the west side of the Dead Sea, to a towering height that came to be called Masda. Being in the same general area as the admired and respected Jerusalem, a western Arab named Herod in the 1st century BC found the opportunity, with the help of the rising Roman empire, to declare himself a king of the region, and to claim continuity with the kings of Jerusalem.

The Jews of Jerusalem had proliferated, moving into larger fertile territories in Egypt and Asia Minor, becoming prosperous. They retained loyalty to Jerusalem as the true place of worship, and called themselves the Diaspora, the Dispersion. It reached also to the less fertile east, to Babylon and Assyria. The ambitious Herod saw his opportunity of bringing the Jews of the Diaspora into a single world empire that would rival and overcome the growing Roman power . He introduced a system of taxation of these prosperous Jews that brought him in an enormous income which he used to build up the homeland so as to make it a grand world capital.

Taxation meant organization, a system of provinces where the taxes were paid and transmitted to the homeland. Each of 10 provinces was to bring in one talent per annum – a large amount. In addition to the 10, there were 2 more provinces in the far distant regions of Greece and Rome. They were mostly for Gentiles, who did not have to pay. They were free, “saved by grace”.

Herod had become aware of the religious value of Essene asceticism. The Essenes, different from mainstream Jews, had supplied teachers for the boy Herod at their monastery at Qumran, their place of exile close to the Dead Sea. In touch with their fellows in the Diaspora, they saw what was happening, and the opportunities Herod had at this period when world empires were emerging. They encouraged him in his ambition to become king, and drew on their reputation for prophecy to affirm a chronological scheme that would make Herod the monarch over the final millennium of world history. In the Diaspora, Essenes were respected by Gentiles because they had much in common with Hellenism. The two Gentile provinces of Greece and Rome accepted the Herodian Jewish religion in its Essene form, and became part of the Herodian world kingdom.

That kingdom remained, but not in a physical form. Rome proved far more powerful, and Herod’s final insanity caused loss of respect for his name. He was obsessed by fear of assassination by his heirs, born of his 9 wives. In 7 BC he ordered the execution of his two favored sons, born of his aristocratic wife Mariamme I. In his final days he put to death his firstborn son Antipater. When he heard that his wife Mariamme II was plotting against him, he divorced her and disinherited her son, who would be called Thomas the Twin, the Esau. The sons of Mariamme I had reached adult age before they were killed, and the line from one of them, Aristobulus, retained the right to royalty, continuing through Agrippa I and his son Agrippa II. The second Agrippa was a weak personality, the final incumbent, who died soon after 100 AD.

The Gentiles who had become Herodian moved seamlessly to a new leadership using the name Christian, continuing the same organization but relying on gifts instead of taxes. They had a high ethical standard directed at the frenzies of paganism. In time they expanded the Gentile provinces to Spain, France and England, “the uttermost parts of the earth”.

Needing a leader as all human organizations do, they found him in Jesus, who had begun as a third member of a triumvirate of Priest, Prophet and King, but who went on to combine all three positions in himself. Jesus died in Rome between 70 and 73 AD. There was to be no longer a hereditary monarchy and a hereditary priesthood. A Christian Pope appointed on merit continued the universalist tradition that had evolved through the processes of history.

The processes go on, and the human need for a religious language goes on. After many millennia, humanity is still searching.


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