Out-Heroded by Geza the Great

The True Herod is the last book by Geza Vermes, who died in May last year. Among his best-known publications are The Dead Sea Scrolls in English and Jesus the Jew. In these and other writings he showed himself to be a meticulously scrupulous historian with a deeply-felt concern — and talent — for sharing his discoveries with a wider public.

Knowing that this book was to be his last, he poured into it the accumulated research of decades, but at the same time fashioned it into an elegant and entertaining account of the life and times of one of the most fascinating and maligned figures in Jewish history. I myself recall vividly the lectures he gave in his first year of teaching at Oxford in the mid-Sixties. Those lectures already contained a well-developed version of the story told nearly half a century later in The True Herod.

If Herod the Great had not existed it would be impossible to invent him. He was a larger-than-life figure, who led a truly extraordinary life, and rose to almost unrivalled power in the Near East during the last years of the Roman republic and the transition to empire. Vermes quotes Ernst Baltrusch, whose excellent biography of Herod was published in German in 2012, as stressing “Herod’s outstanding position on the world scene. He was literally the ‘Third Man’ in the Roman empire, standing immediately after Augustus and his greatest friend, Agrippa.”

Herod has not enjoyed a good press. The image he has left behind for many is that of the cruel and wily king in Matthew’s Gospel, who massacred the infants of Bethlehem for fear that one of them would grow up to usurp his throne. Among his many authentic acts of savagery this one, Vermes insists, is fiction: the legend was probably based on the account of the birth of Moses in the biblical book of Exodus, when the wicked king of Egypt ordered all the Israelite male infants to be killed. But it may also have been influenced by his murder of several of his own sons, giving rise to the dictum (a Greek pun) attributed to the emperor Augustus, that he would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.

In the judgment of the great historian of Rome Theodor Mommsen, “There is probably no royal house of any age in which bloody feuds raged in an equal degree between parents and children, between husbands and wives, and between brothers and sisters.” Yet Mommsen also salutes “the energy, the constancy, the yielding to the inevitable, the military and political dexterity” of the king of the Jews, and he acutely remarks that Herod may himself have endured no less suffering than he inflicted on others. The ancient historian of the Jews, Josephus, who was fascinated by Herod to the point of devoting to him a large part of his two main works, The Jewish War and The Jewish Antiquities, is no less nuanced in his judgment, describing in relentless detail his violent excesses, but also writing admiringly of his great political and military skill, and his magnificent building works.

Geza Vermes, too, admits to being fascinated by Herod, whom he sums up epigrammatically as “heroic and horrible”. His book presents a rounded pen-portrait of a man who was gifted with many talents, who rose to great heights of power and influence, but found no satisfaction or happiness, and destroyed much of what he had made. “He was a typical split personality and his two opposite qualities turned him into a genuine tragic hero.”

Herod was born around 73 BC. His family origins were not exactly Jewish: on his father’s side he was an Edomite, and his mother was a Nabataean. The Edomites were one of the ancient peoples of Palestine, mentioned often in the Bible; they had been converted to Judaism en masse a generation or two before Herod’s birth. The Nabataeans were an Arab people, whose caravan city of Petra is still one of the wonders of the region. Although he gave many tokens of his attachment to Judaism, Herod was sometimes reproached by other Jews with the taint of his foreign origins. Like other members of the ruling class in the Middle East in the centuries following Alexander the Great’s conquest, he combined Semitic and Greek elements in his upbringing and culture, fusing them into a rich but sometimes unstable compound.

In the dramatically shifting power politics of Rome and the East, Herod displayed an uncanny knack for backing a winner, shifting his allegiance from Pompey to Julius Caesar, and then to Cassius, one of Caesar’s killers, and later to Mark Antony, who persuaded Octavian (the future Augustus) and the Roman Senate to appoint him king of Judaea (which was under Parthian rule at the time). In 37 BC, with Roman military help, he entered Jerusalem and began his 33-year reign as king of the Jews.

Vermes skilfully reduces the political intrigues and military campaigns of this long reign to a succinct and readable narrative. He also conjures up the magnificence of Herod’s main building works, which included, besides the enlarged Jerusalem temple, and other public works in his capital, entire cities, such as Caesarea, on the coast, and several splendid palaces, as well as temples, bathhouses and other public buildings across the Greek world. Tourists today can still admire the massive Herodian masonry visible at the Western Wall and elsewhere in Jerusalem, the aqueduct that carried water to Caesarea from Mount Carmel, several miles up the coast, the spectacular desert fortress and palace of Masada, and the imposing fortress of Herodion, near Bethlehem, whose breast-shaped mound houses the mausoleum Herod built for himself.

Vermes also traces, for good measure, the story of Herod’s successors, which is intertwined with the Gospel narratives which are also responsible for establishing Herod the Great in popular imagination as “the prototype of iniquity”, as Vermes puts it.

Both Greek and Jew, Herod built pagan temples, adorned with statues (including his own) in Greek cities, but in Judaea, and particularly in Jerusalem, he made an effort to respect Jewish sensibilities, and avoided representations of gods, men and even animals, out of respect for the biblical Second Commandment, which forbids the making of “any graven image, or any likeness”.

This was a matter not just of religious scruple but of political realism, as we can see from the affair of the golden eagle. One of the most expensive public gestures Herod made in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple was his gift of a huge golden eagle that was erected over the great gate. This was the only specimen of representational art in the temple complex, and the allusion to Roman power was inescapable. Apparently it was taken by some Jews as a provocation. When the 70-year-old Herod lay dying, two of the most learned and popular Jewish leaders took advantage of the king’s illness to stir up their young followers to pull down the eagle, saying that it was contrary to God’s law, and that it would be a noble cause to risk one’s life in imposing respect of the law. In Josephus’s words, “The Law forbids those who propose to live in accordance with it to think of setting up images or to make dedications of (the likenesses of) any living creatures.” The young men climbed on to the roof and hacked down the eagle in front of a large crowd. Herod had the ringleaders arrested and burnt alive. It was almost his last act.

This belief that the Jewish law forbade images, strenuously maintained even to the point of martyrdom, may seem surprising to anyone who peruses one of the many picture books of late antique synagogue art. The numerous mosaic floors that survive from synagogues in Galilee and elsewhere, dating mainly from the 4th to the 6th centuries, not to mention the 3rd-century wall paintings of the synagogue of Dura on the Euphrates, now one of the treasures of the National Museum in Damascus, all testify to a love of religious imagery, including human forms within biblical scenes, and even pagan deities such as Helios, the “Unconquered Sun”. Only the Jewish god is not portrayed directly, but symbolised by a hand coming down from heaven. (In the Bible, too, God’s activity in the world is sometimes referred to as his “hand” or “arm”.)

This paradox is explored, from many different points of view, in the essays collected in The Image and its Prohibition in Jewish Antiquity. The contributors are all specialist scholars, in a range of fields, and their essays represent the latest scholarship in English on this tantalising and complex subject. Inevitably, perhaps, no clear consensus emerges, but there are some very telling studies of specific topics. The affair of Herod’s eagle, with its extreme appeal to martyrdom, is not addressed directly, and so we are not helped to understand whether or not the king was consciously flouting Jewish law in erecting the image of a bird (which contrasts sharply with his care generally to avoid images in Jerusalem), or whether the opposition was due to more to political factors or to religious zeal. The complexities of the question of images are well brought out in the book, however. Jewish abhorrence of images clearly had very deep roots. One of the ways the Jews differentiated themselves from the peoples around them was in refusing to worship their god through cult-images, and we have abundant polemic, from the Bible on, against those who pay divine honours to man-made objects. A very fine essay by Philip Alexander explores the history and rationale of this attitude, and interestingly points to the centrality of the word as a key factor in the rejection of images, even if later generations discovered that words, too, have their limitations. No less interesting, in the context of Herod’s eagle, is a study by Sarah Pearce, the editor of the book, of the interpretation of the Second Commandment by Philo of Alexandria, whose life overlapped with that of Herod and who has left us the fullest extant account of Jewish thought at the time. Philo’s interpretation is far from simplistic, and illustrates how hard it is to define all the terms precisely and to make sense of the ancient prohibition in a real-life situation where images caught the eye all around.

All the essays in this collection shed their own light on this central conundrum of Judaism, which is still controversial today. The book is published as a supplement to the Journal of Jewish Studies, which Geza Vermes edited for many years, and several of the contributors were his pupils and colleagues. Like The True Herod it evokes the memory of a fine scholar and much-loved teacher.

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