In 2007, Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced the discovery of the tomb of Herod the Great, including his sarcophagus and mausoleum, on the Northeast slope of Mount Herodium. This confirmed the existence of a major player in early New Testament history.
Herod was part of a larger clan who ruled Palestine during its Roman occupation — his grandfather and father had ruled before him. Herod, who was declared “King of the Jews” in 40 BC by the Roman Senate, died in 4 AD.
Most Christians are familiar with Herod the Great and his role embedded in the Christmas story. Herod was the king that the Magi consulted when they came to Judea looking for the “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:1). This news troubled Herod (v 2) and he asked the Magi to report back when they had found the new King.
When the Magi – warned in a dream – took a different route home, Herod was enraged (v 16). After consulting his advisors, Herod determined where the Jewish Messiah had been born and brutally ordered the slaughter of all Bethlehem boys — two years and younger (v 19, 20).
But an angel had earlier warned Joseph to flee to Egypt with his family and they only returned after Herod had died (Matthew 2:13, 15, 19).
History of Herod
This behavior was totally in character for Herod. He was a vicious man who was suspicious of any potential challenges to his throne. He often dressed as a commoner and circulated among his citizens trying to discover what people thought of him and to root out any potential challenges to his authority.
When Salome, Herod’s sister, became jealous of the influence of Herod’s first wife Mariamme, Salome told Herod his wife was unfaithful.
Herod married Mariamme because of her Jewish ancestry to gain support from the Jews. Despite the groundless charges, Herod ordered Mariamme killed. Herod would later kill Mariamme’s sons, who Salome accused of rebellion.
Herod was so overcome by grief by Mariamme’s death, doctors feared he would die. Some suggest, this marked a turning point in Herod’s life as he tipped into insanity.
The murder of the Bethlehem boys also took place at the end of Herod’s reign when most historians conclude Herod was mad.
Nearing death, Herod ordered the arrest of 70 elders of Israel who were to be killed when Herod died, so all Israel would mourn his passing. Ironically, after his death, the 70 were released, transforming Herod’s funeral into a day of celebration.
Herod’s construction of Herodium
While King, Herod was involved in numerous building projects. He rebuilt the Jewish temple to gain the favour of the Jewish priestly class. Construction started in 20 BC and it was known as Herod’s temple. Other projects included the building of a palace at Masada.
However, his most ambitious project involved the Herodium complex located 12 kilometers south of Jerusalem. It was one of the most elaborate “monarchial” complexes constructed during this period of Roman history.
First Herod built a large cone shaped hill that was high enough to be seen from Jerusalem.
The complex included a fortified palace on top of the mound complete with watch towers.
A second palace with elaborate gardens, stables and pools was built along the lower half of the hill.
Herod chose this site because it marked the spot in 43 BC when as governor of Palestine, he defeated the Parthians. When the Parthians had attacked Jerusalem, Herod fled the city. During his flight, the chariot containing Herod’s mother overturned. The accident allowed the Parthians to catch the fleeing group forcing Herod to engage in battle.
Flavius Josephus’ record
First century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, wrote in his book — The Jewish wars – a description of Herod’s funeral which he said took place in 4 AD. He stated that Herod’s body was interred in a tomb at Herodium:
Around the bier were Herod’s sons and a large group of his relations; these were followed by the guards, the Thracian contingent, Germans and Gauls, all equipped as for war. The reminder of the troops marched in front, armed and in orderly array, led by their commanders and subordinate officers; behind these came five hundred of Herod’s servants and freedmen, carrying spices. The body was thus conveyed for a distance of two hundred furlongs to Herodium, where, in accordance with the directions of the deceased, it was interred. So ended Herod’s reign.” — Jewish Wars, 1,23,9
Unfortunately, Josephus’ record as a historian has come under attack, primarily from Liberal commentators annoyed by numerous references to Jesus Christ in his writings.
However, based on Josephus’ testimony, Hebrew University Professor Ehud Netzer had been excavating the Herodium site looking for Herod’s tomb since 1972.
According to Josephus, the Romans destroyed Herodium in 71 AD during the Great Jewish Revolt (66 AD – 72 AD), when Jewish rebels used it as a base.
The Romans had completely obliterated the Jewish Temple a year earlier as part of this same campaign, an act prophesied by Jesus (Matthew 24:1-2).
Netzer finally found Herod’s mausoleum after digging at several locations on the side of the hill between Herod’s two palaces.
In a news release, Netzer described it as “one of the most startling finds in Israel in recent years.” Though largely destroyed, it still contained decorated urns used to store the ashes of cremated bodies.
They also found the remains of a large, highly decorated sarcophagus constructed of red limestone. The team concluded this was undoubtedly the sarcophagus of King Herod since it matched the size and quality of other sarcophaguses used for royalty.
Not surprisingly, Herod’s sarcophagus was purposely broken into hundreds of smaller pieces undoubtedly by the Jewish rebels who had used the palace during the rebellion:
Worthy of note is the fact that the sarcophagus was broken into hundreds of pieces, no doubt deliberately. This activity, including the destruction of the monument, apparently took place in the years 66-72 C.E. during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, while Jewish rebels took hold of the site, according to Josephus and the archaeological evidence. The rebels were known for their hatred of Herod and all that he stood for, as a “puppet ruler” for the Romans.
The discovery of Herod’s tomb adds yet another page to growing archaeological evidence substantiating the Gospel accounts.
- Tomb of King Herod discovered at Herodium by Hebrew University archaeologist: Hebrew University of Jerusalem
- Herodium – King Herod’s Palace – Fortress: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Herod’s tomb: Hebrew University
- Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia