Jewish Rulers During the New Testament Era

Herod the Great

The Romans allowed natives of Palestine to rule under their authority. One of the most significant of these Jewish rulers was Herod the Great.[1] He was required to gain control of Palestine by force. With the help of Romans troops, he was able to accomplish this in three months.[2] Though he was disliked by many Jews because he was of Idumean ancestry, [3] Herod ruled for thirty-three years and was a classic politician trying to keep both Rome and his Jewish subjects satisfied. Scott describes Herod the Great as a man of “powerful body and by nature wild, passionate, harsh, arrogant, calculating, and ruthless.”[4] Some quick facts about Herod’s reign are included below:

Tried to gain Jewish favor by refraining from pork. This led to the comment by Augustus that it would be better to be Herod’s pig than his son since he killed three of his sons (the comment by Augustus is possibly legend though the other facts are correct).
Tried to gain Jewish favor by divorcing his Idumean wife Doris and marrying a Hasmonean woman
Mentioned in the birth narratives (Matthew 2:2 and Luke 1:5)
Built a harbor at Caesarea Maritima beneath the shadow of a temple dedicated to Augustus
Beautified the temple in Jerusalem with much gold, limestone, jewels, and marble which took over eighty years to complete[5]
At the northwest corner of the temple, he rebuilt a Maccabean fortress now known as the Fortress of Antonia (after Mark Antony who appointed him). This fortress will figure prominently in the Gospels and the book of Acts.[6]
He rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and added a water system and theaters.[7]
He financed his building projects by heavy taxation contributing to his hatred by the Jews
“He was the incarnation of brute lust, which in turn became the burden of the lives of his children. History tells of few more immoral families than the house of Herod, which by intermarriage of its members so entangled the genealogical tree as to make it a veritable puzzle. As these marriages were nearly all within the line of forbidden consanguinity, under the Jewish law, they still further embittered the people of Israel against the Herodian family.”[8] 
When Herod knew his death was close, he moved to Jericho where he had built palaces and pools. He ordered Jewish families to come to Jericho where they were then rounded up into the hippodrome (horserace track). He ordered his soldiers to kill them at the moment of his death so that there would be mourning when he died; otherwise, because of Jewish hatred for him, he wanted to ensure there would at least be some type of mourning. While lying on his deathbed he had his son Antipater killed. However, the soldiers at the hippodrome released the Jewish prisoners.


When Herod died in the spring of 4 B.C. his kingdom was divided among three of his sons (see map above).[9] Archelaus assumed the rule of Judea. His rule was so cruel that it inspired fear in the people (see Matthew 2:22 for the explanation of why Mary and Joseph avoided this area when leaving Egypt with Jesus). Edersheim describes his cruelty thusly: “He began his rule by crushing all resistance by the wholesale slaughter of his opponents….But he far surpassed him [his father] in cruelty, oppression, luxury, the grossest egotism, and the lowest sensuality, and that, without possessing the talent or the energy of Herod.”[10] The rule of Archelaus proved so inept that he was removed from the throne by Augustus in A.D. 6 and banished to Gaul.

Herod Antipas[11]

Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee and Perea until he was dethroned and exiled by the Roman emperor Caligula in A.D. 39. Some of the most notable facts about him include the following: 1) he reigned during Jesus’ earthly ministry; 2) he had John the Baptist executed because of his objection to Antipas’ consanguineous marriage to Herodias; 3) he was paranoid that John the Baptist had risen from the dead; 4) Jesus called him “that fox”[12]; 5) Jesus stood before Antipas during one of his six trials before crucifixion; 6) he built a capital for himself on the Sea of Galilee and named it Tiberius after the current Roman emperor. This is why the Sea of Galilee is sometimes called the Sea of Tiberius.

Philip II

The third of Herod’s sons who received a portion of his empire was Philip II. He is mentioned only one time in the New Testament in Luke 3:1 where he and the territories over which he reigned are named. Other than his reign in the northern part of the region, he is best known for two building projects. The more important of the two was the building of Caesarea Philippi which was named after him. It was here that Jesus asked the disciples “who do men say that I am?” This drew out Peter’s classic response, “you are the Christ, the son of the living God.” The other project was the enlargement of the city of Bethsaida renamed Bethsaida Julias in honor of Augustus’ daughter.[13] This city was the hometown of Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44). In addition, many of Jesus’ miracles took place here including the feeding of the 5,000 and the healing of a blind man using spittle.

Herod Agrippa I/Herod Agrippa II

There are only two other rulers from the Herodian dynasty to be mentioned in the New Testament: Herod Agrippa I and Herod Agrippa II. Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great and the son of Herod Antipas. Agrippa I enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Rome:

When six years of age he was sent to Rome for his education, and there enjoyed the companionship of the gifted Drusus Cæsar, son of Tiberius. The extravagance of court life accustomed him to splendor and luxury, and his prospects, which were brilliant, were the means of furnishing him with a never-failing supply of money, of which he availed himself in the style of a spendthrift. But his circumstances were changed in the year 23, when his friend and patron, Drusus, died suddenly. From that hour the emperor declined to receive the high-spirited young man, and very soon his boon companions also forsook Agrippa. Destitute of all resources, he meditated suicide…[14]

After an unhappy stint as ruler over Tiberius (due to tensions with his brother-in-law), Agrippa returned to Rome where he came to be on good terms with Caligula. Agrippa carelessly remarked on one occasion that he wished the aged Tiberius would die so that Caligula would assume the throne. When these remarks reached Tiberius, he promptly fettered Agrippa in chains and cast him into prison. Eventually, Caligula did become the emperor of Rome at which time he freed Agrippa from incarceration and gave to him the tetrarchy enjoyed by his uncle Philip. In addition, he was given the title “king” and then the title “pretor”[15] by the Roman senate.[16] Upon the death of Caligula, his boyhood friend Claudius made him king over all Judea and gave him authority over the temple and the high priesthood.

Agrippa I is well known from the New Testament for his order to execute James the Apostle.[17] When Agrippa saw that this pleased his Jewish subjects, he proceeded to arrest Peter presumably to have him put to death the next day. Though God in his sovereignty ordained James’ death, he chose to spare Peter leading to one of the three jailbreak miracles in Acts.[18] What is of further interest from the Acts 12 text is the description of Agrippa’s death by Luke in conjunction with the description provided by Josephus. Luke writes:

20Now Herod had been very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; but they came to him with one accord, and having made Blastus the king’s personal aide their friend, they asked for peace, because their country was supplied with food by the king’s country.21So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. 22And the people kept shouting, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” 23Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died.

Josephus[19] corroborates Luke’s version with some added details:

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited spectacles in honor of Caesar, for whose well-being he’d been informed that a certain festival was being celebrated. At this festival, a great number were gathered together of the principal persons of dignity of his province. On the second day of the spectacles, he put on a garment made wholly of silver, of a truly wonderful texture, and came into the theater early in the morning. There the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays, shone out in a wonderful manner and was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked intently upon him. Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this, the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery. But he shortly afterward looked up and saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, just as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain arose in his belly, striking with a most violent intensity. He, therefore, looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.” When he had said this, his pain became violent. Accordingly, he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad everywhere that he would certainly die soon. The multitude sat in sackcloth, men, women and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground he could not keep himself from weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age and in the seventh year of his reign.[20]

The final ruler from the Herodian dynasty mentioned in the New Testament, as well as the last of this House to hold a kingdom, was Herod Agrippa II. When his father died unexpectedly, as described above, Agrippa II was seventeen years of age and pursuing an education in Rome. Though too young to rule at this point, he was gradually given territories to rule by various Roman rulers. When he was given a large part of Galilee by Nero, he renamed Caesarea Philippi “Neronius.” Paul made his defense here before Agrippa II in Acts 26. Upon hearing Paul’s appeal, Agrippa wryly commented “you almost persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28) and then recommended to Festus that Paul be released. Agrippa would later die in Rome in the early 90s and with him the race of Herods.


[1] Herod the Great (or Herod I) was the King of Judea from 37-4 B.C. Through the motion of Antony and Octavian, Herod was declared king of the Jews by the Roman senate. Several descriptions of Herod the Great gleaned from Schurer include: a skillful rider, huntsman, marksman, wild, passionate, harsh, unbending, ruled with an iron hand, cunning, unpitying (even toward those he loved), energetic, insatiable ambition (Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus, Nahum Glatzer ed. [NY: Shocken Books, 1967], 128-129).

[2] F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (NY: Doubleday, 1980), 14.

[3] An Idumean was a descendant of Esau.

[4] J. Julius Scott, Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 95.

[5] To provide a base for the temple, Herod’s engineers constructed a marble platform measuring 912 feet (south) by 1,536 feet (east), by 1,035 (north), by 1,590 (west) which is the equivalent of about fifteen football fields. The platform was supported by walls of chiseled masonry with some stones being forty feet in length (measurements taken from Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity, 76).

[6] “It stood 115 feet high and was partly surrounded by a deep ravine 165 feet wide. It functioned as headquarters for the Roman soldiers, a palace and a barracks. Herod constructed a secret passage from the fortress to the Temple. While overlooking Jerusalem, the Antonia Fortress was garrisoned with 600 Roman soldiers, who watched over the Temple courts in order to preserve order” ( antonia_fortress.html, accessed 6/21/14).

[7] Scott offers this summary of some of Herod’s building exploits: “They included whole cities such as Samaria…and Caesarea Maritima with its magnificent artificial harbor. Many cities were beautified and received pagan temples, sports facilities, and other important buildings. He virtually rebuilt Jerusalem with all the features expected in a Hellenistic city. His own palace was magnificent and well-fortified. The Antonia, the military citadel he built at the northwest corner of the temple mount, is mentioned in connection with Paul’s arrest (Acts 21:31-40), and was possibly the location of part of the trial and torture of Jesus. A series of fortress palaces provided places of luxurious refuge for Herod and his family” (Scott, Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, 96).

[8] Henry Dosker, “Herod,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 3:1381.

[9] “By the final testament of Herod, as ratified by Rome, the kingdom was divided as follows: Archelaus received one-half of the kingdom, with the title of king, really ‘ethnarch,’ governing Judea, Samaria and Idumaea; Antipas was appointed ‘tetrarch’ of Galilee and Peraea; Philip, ‘tetrarch’ of Trachonitis, Gaulonitis and Paneas. To Salome, his intriguing sister, he bequeathed Jamnia, Ashdod and Phasaelus, together with 500,000 drachmas of coined silver” (Dosker, “Herod,” 3:1381).

[10] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 1:220. For the hatred of Archelaus by the Jews, see Josephus, Antiquities, 17.11.1-4.

[11] “Antipas” is an abbreviation of the Greek term αντιπατρος which means “instead of his father.”

[12] For a complete word study on the sense of “fox,” see Harold Hoehner, Herod Antipas, (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1972), 343-347. Hoehner’s conclusion on the term is that “fox” refers to a person who is “insignificant or base.” He “lacks real power and dignity, using cunning deceit to achieve his aims” (347).

[13] He would die here in AD 34.

[14]“Agrippa-I,” Jewish Encyclopedia, accessed August 23, 2013; /articles/912-agrippa-i.

[15] A “pretor” was a senior magistrate.

[16] Jewish Encyclopedia, “Agrippa-i.”

[17] This is the only actual execution of an apostle mentioned in the New Testament

[18] One of the clear themes of Scripture is the “Godhood of God;” part of which involves God doing all of his pleasure. More narrowly one of the emphases of Acts is to present the Gospel as a juggernaut which moved its way through the known world directed by the hand of God. Worthy of note is the reaction of the young church in Acts 4 after Peter’s first appearance before the Sanhedrin. As they offer their prayer, they address God as “Lord” (4:24). One might expect the Greek word to be κυριος however in this instance δεσποτα is used. The word denotes one who has “legal control and authority over persons” (Walter Bauer, William Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., rev F. Wilbur Gingrich and W. Danker [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979], 176). Schnabel comments: “the omnipotent ruler whose authority extends over all. He is sovereign because he is the Creator of all visible and invisible realities” (Eckhard Schnabel, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012], 254). God’s rule as “despot” is described in the same verse with the verb “made” (ποιησας). Schnabel continues by noting the correspondence of this verse to the LXX version of Psalm 146:6: “This individual psalm praises Yahweh as Creator of the world, before whom foreign rulers are powerless in the long run and who providentially cares for his people, particularly those who suffer afflictions. As Peter and John have been threatened by the rulers of the Jewish people, the psalm puts their plight in perspective, assuring them of God’s sovereign control over these rulers and over future events that they attempt to control” (Ibid.).

[19] For an overview of the life and writings of Josephus see J. Julius Scott, Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 35-38.

[20] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews in The Works of Flavius Josephus, William Whiston, trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 19.8.2 [106-108]. The arresting confirmation of Luke by Josephus is impressive to Eusebius (Eusebius, Eusebius: The Church History, Translation and Commentary by Paul Maier [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007], 60-61).

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