King Herod is undergoing an odd reinvention

Herodium, the desert site of King Herod's fortress and palace, where his tomb was found in 2007 (Photo: CNS)

Herod has become a new Jewish super-hero in Jerusalem. This elevation, which has come about since the unearthing of his tomb in 2007, comes as a shock for most Christians. Most of us are horrified by Matthew’s account in the New Testament, which tells how this tyrannical king, fearful of a competitor after the birth of Jesus, ordered the Massacre of the Innocents. A large number of Jews have reviled him for other reasons – for collaborating with the Romans and the murder of his Jewish wife, Marianne, his two half-Jewish sons, plus a great many rabbis.

Resentment against him was also caused by this king’s ancestry. According to one synagogue-attending friend: “Herod was Arab by descent. His mother was a Nabatean from Petra, now part of Jordan. His father was from southern Palestine, an Edomite who converted to Judaism.”

But the new appreciation of Herod is clear to see. First, plans were announced last January for a monumental replica of his tomb at Herodium, the arid hilltop in the West Bank, where he had been buried in 4 BC. This proposed 75ft high construction, part of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office of National Heritage Sites Project, would be as lofty as an eight-storey building and visible from Jerusalem. Objections are presently being assessed.

Second, the exhibition Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is drawing such crowds that I had to queue on the two occasions I visited it. The quarter of an acre of fascinating exhibits includes finds from Jerusalem, Herodium and Jericho, including the masonry and sarcophagus thought to have contained the royal body. There are some 30 tons of material and 250 artefacts from Herodium alone, plus much from Jericho – both places occupied by Israel since 1967. Critics point out that according to international law these antiquities are under Palestinian control and should not have been removed. But the Israeli director of the museum says they will later be returned.

It is clear to see that the curators have tried to show that Herod was a ruler who kept his country peaceful for 33 years, not just the cruel person described in the New Testament and by Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian. But this sanitising of Herod’s reputation has resulted in some omissions. Nowhere could I find the famous passage from The Jewish War by Josephus, describing how Herod died with “an intolerable itching over all the surface of his body … and a putrefaction of his privy member, that produced worms”. For many, like me, the worms are welcome to Herod.

The exhibition made me curious to see the site of the burial run by Israel Nature and Parks Authority. To do so I have to drive through a military checkpoint into the West Bank, past both Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements. After climbing nearly to the peak of Herodium I was confronted by a model that reminded me more of a multi-tiered wedding cake than a mausoleum.

I recalled that a year ago during its unveiling ceremony one Israeli government minister, indulging in historical reconstruction, had asserted that “of all his magnificent provinces, Herod chose to be buried nowhere else than Gush Etzion”, referring to the large nearby settlement block.

As an Israeli art historian noted, there is an affinity between Herod and Israeli settlers. “His grandiose expansion of forts, palaces and even the Temple fits in with the idealised vision of Israel – the big, strong nation with hi-tech billionaires expanding into settlements in the West Bank.”