The Herod Family

Further Studies in History

There were so many members of the family of Herod the Great that it’s not surprising that occasionally someone gets a little confused as to who they are. Four sons are mentioned in the New Testament as well as two grandchildren and three great grandchildren. How much worse would be the confusion if all the family were mentioned? The only member of the family to achieve a good reputation in history was the child of Cleopatra, Herod Philip II who ruled in districts north of Galilee and received no mention at all in the Bible because his activities did not impinge on the lives of Jesus nor his disciples within the early Church. He was a quiet, peaceable man who sought to rule those in his domain with justice. He finally married his grand‑niece, Salome, who had requested her step‑father to give her the head of John the Baptist on a dish.

After Herod the Great died, just after Jesus’ birth, his son Archelaus, whose mother was Malthrace, ruled Judea and Samaria for ten years, which caused Matthew to record that Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Nazareth in Galilee. (Matt.2:22‑23) He was the nastiest of the tribe, utterly dissipated and very cruel, even worse than his father. He was so bad that aristocrats in Judea and Samaria waived their normal hostile attitude to each other and joined forces to get rid of him. A deputation was sent to Rome to complain of the dreadful things that were happening even by standards current in the first century. Archelaus was removed and Judea was henceforth ruled by a prefect or procurator of whom one was Pontius Pilate. It was a mark of disrespect to be appointed governor of Judea. The province in constant ferment. Jesus told a parable recorded in Luke 19:11‑27, in which there may have been a slight reference to the Archelaus problem in v.14.

Another son by Malthrace (or Malthrake) was Herod Antipas. Originally he was to have been his father’s successor but Rome relegated him to be tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. He married the divorced wife of his brother Philip. Herod Philip I was never a ruler and maybe the insatiable appetite for power and fame of Herodias caused her to change her affection from one uncle to the other, Antipas. Her ungovernable passion was the eventual downfall of this royal pair. Her bitter resentment to John the Baptist’s preaching against their unlawful marriage demonstrates what an unpleasant person she was. Antipas was a weaker character, riddled with superstition yet really unable to cope with the religious and philosophical problems into which he wanted to delve. This man hated John yet was afraid to destroy him. He believed Jesus was the resurrected John, yet only wanted to see him as a novelty. He had the privilege of coming face to face with the two greatest figures that ever moved across the world’s stage and he mishandled both occasions. What lost opportunities! No wonder Jesus was silent before such moral and spiritual decadence. When the Pharisees warned Jesus about Herod’s desire to kill Him their motives for so doing are uncertain (Luke 13:31‑33). Did they want Jesus out of their sphere of influence, or did they seek to expose him as one who was afraid of Herod by His exit from Galilee? Or was it a gesture of good will? Our Lord’s reply shows that like Nehemiah, centuries before, fear could not move him from doing God’s will and completing the work which God had committed to Him, unafraid, totally dependent upon and fully trusting in His Father. This is an attitude which the Pharisees and Herod would not understand. Yet Antipas grew up with Manaen his foster brother who was destined to be a leader of the church at Antioch and from whom Luke would gather first‑hand information about the dissolute ruler (Acts 13:1).

Little is known of Aristobulus who was the son of Herod the Great by Mariamne, descendant of the Maccabees. His noble ancestry was respected by the Jewish people so that Agrippa I and Agrippa II enjoyed their loyalty. Aristobulus’ son, Agrippa I, ruled Judea for three years till his sudden death during a great gathering of AD 44. After his father’s execution in 7 BC he had been sent to Rome. He developed extravagant tastes and squandered his wealth. Only the kindness of relatives and friends in high places saved him from lasting disgrace. Eventually he ruled the territories of his grandfather, championed Jewish causes and prevented the emperor’s statue being erected in the Temple. His persecution of Christians increased his popularity and his skill in manipulating power brought the whole populace to his feet during what may have been an athletic games. Luke briefly but graphically tells of his end (Acts 12:23) and this is interestingly supplemented by Josephus, the Jewish historian.

Herod Agrippa I had three children. Drusilla, who became the wife of Felix, governor of Judea (Acts 24:24), Bernice and Agrippa II. These last two appear together in the account of Paul’s final public hearing in Israel recorded in Acts 25 and 26. The royal pair entered the audience hall with much pomp. Neither Paul nor Luke comment on this immoral partnership. Agrippa II like his father, was very popular with the Jews. He had power to appoint the High Priest and it is evident that Paul respected his knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. He believed the prophets. How near did he come to believing the Gospel? Can anyone who gives him or herself unreservedly to the delicate balancing acts of politics also totally dedicate their life to the King of Kings? Are not the two incompatible? He strenuously sought to maintain the balance of power in Palestine and protect the Jews from war with Rome. But he was also a supporter of Caesar and his efforts at peace were in vain. It was he who supplied Josephus with much of the material about the Jewish war of AD 66‑73. At the end of the first century, the last of this ‘royal’ family passed from the scene of world events and the remainder of the family into obscurity. In the hand of God’s inscrutable providence, each had played a part in His purpose. In a manner which only He can understand, their apparent acts of free will, their moves across the giant chess board of human history, had also been like stepping stones for His people. His will had been done. Some day they, with us, will discover how.

Abbreviated Family Tree of the Herod Family

Family Tree of Herod the Great