Herod’s relationship with Judaism comes under question very often. Was the 1st century BCE King of Judea Jewish? We need to remember that applying modern sensibilities about the subject to a time period over 2000 years ago is not relevant. Clues from his life, however, can help us to flesh out Herod’s relationship with Judaism.
Herod was born in 73/72 BCE to an aristocratic family in Maresha in the southern part of the region. His family was from influential Edomite stock. His grandfather, Antipas, converted to Judaism during the reign of the Jewish Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus in 104 BCE – long before Herod was born. Hyrcanus’ son, Alexander Yannai, appointed Antipas as general of all Idumea (Edom) because of his understanding of the local population and their culture. Under him, bonds were forged with the port cities of Gaza and Ashkelon and as far flung as Arabia.
Herod’s father, Antipater, was a friend of Yannai’s son and understood that the Romans were the real powers in the area which would succeed the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty. Antipater supported Julius Caesar against Pompey and was rewarded with Roman citizenship. He also became procurator of Judea, a position he would use in order to further his family’s standing with the Romans. Antipater educated Herod in both the Hellenistic/Roman world and the Jewish one, befitting a family which was straddling these two worlds. Indeed, Herod’s mother was not Jewish, but rather a Nabatean princess. Like many aristocrats in the ancient world, Antipater married for political reasons (and not necessarily for love).
Antipater named Herod governor of the Galilee and Herod proved his loyalty by siding with the Romans against the Jewish rebellion there. Herod went on to recapture Jerusalem for the Romans from the Hasmoneans while only a few years later marrying Yannai’s daughter, Miriam. As King of Judea, he fired all the priests in the Temple associated with the Hasmonean dynasty and brought in Jewish priests from the diaspora, assuring that the religious establishment will be loyal to him and not to previous Jewish kings.
All of this political intrigue paints a very complicated public picture of Herod, and archaeology gives us an insight into his daily life. Mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths) were found in all of Herod’s palaces, including the private promontory palace in Herod’s Roman-style city of Caesarea. Stone vessels which could not become ritually impure were also found in at least 3 of his palaces.
The prohibition on anthropomorphic and zoomorphic images, an expression of Judaism’s stance against idol worship, was applied to Herod’s palace walls and mosaic floors (with one exception in the theater in Herodian). This is in stark contrast to Roman style popular in his day.
Besides hiring the priests, Herod supported the Jewish Temple cult, rebuilding and expanding the Temple Mount. The Roman historian Pliny attests to the beauty and quality of construction by stating, “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod, has never seen a beautiful building in their lives.” Herod himself never entered into the Temple’s inner courtyards in accordance with Jewish law.
Against the support of the Jewish Temple and its priests, Herod also built pagan temples in Caesarea, Banias, and Sebastia. He built Roman public buildings such as baths, theaters, gymnasia, nymphea and hippodromes and supported the Roman Olympic games – all practices frowned on by the Jewish religious establishment.
Keeping kosher was one way of expressing dedication to Judaism in a Roman world. One staple of the Roman diet was pork, which is expressly forbidden in Judaism. Augustus Caesar, the leader of the Roman empire, was said to say, “Better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” Herod’s pig would be safe to live out his life without fear of being on the menu at Herod’s house. (Herod’s sons, however, were always under suspicion and so were in danger of being “eliminated”.) Even the garum fish sauce that was served in Herod’s home was an unusual blend made of kosher fish. On the other hand, Herod regularly imbibed imported wine from Rome and Greece which was not kosher.
The issues surrounding Herod’s personal beliefs are many. Making his way in a world which was both Jewish and Roman and always trying to support his role in that world led Herod to make some compromises and act in ways which in today’s world seem inconceivable. To use a modern metaphor, Herod’s relationship with Judaism – “it’s complicated”.