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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Roman Conquest and the Reign of Herod the Great

The Hasmonaeans had achieved an independent Jewish state for almost a century. When Alexander Jannaeus died, his wife, Alexandra Salome (76–67 BCE) took over. She bestowed the priesthood on her eldest son Hyrcanus (II), but the younger son Aristobulus (II) was unhappy and revolted. After Alexandra's death, the two brothers fought a civil war. Two fateful decisions happened at this time: first, Hyrcanus enlisted Antipater, the governor of Idumaea (Edom), as an advisor and aide, and, secondly, both the rival factions appealed to the Romans for support. These decisions had far-reaching consequences.

When Hyrcanus and Aristobulus appealed to Pompey, who was the legate of the Senate in the region, the latter eventually sided with Hyrcanus and his close associate, Antipater. Although Aristobulus at first resisted, he later surrendered, but his supporters in Jerusalem shut their gates to Pompey. The Romans besieged the city, which fell in the summer of 63 BCE. Hyrcanus had won, but it was a partial victory. Judah had lost its independence; Hyrcanus was high priest, but did not have the title of king. At his side was Antipater, and it became an open question as to what extent Hyrcanus was a genuine leader or only Antipater's puppet. Whatever the case, Hyrcanus and Antipater were able over time to find ways to assist the Romans and to gain their good will in return. Antipater soon brought his two sons into the administration: Phasael and Herod.

Aristobulus II's son Antigonus was allowed to return to Palestine by the Romans. About 43 BCE Antipater was poisoned by a Jewish leader, leaving his sons to carry on his legacy. Then in 40 BCE Antigonus co-operated with the Parthians in invading and occupying Palestine. The elder brother Phasael was killed, but Herod escaped to Rome, where he was made king of Judah. With Roman support he retook Jerusalem in 37 BCE, and Antigonus was executed. The Hasmonaeans had come to an end.

The first six years of Herod's rule were rather fraught ones. Although he had good relations with Mark Antony, who was in charge of the region, Cleopatra was a thorn in his side, making inroads into his territory and power. The battle of Actium in 31 BCE brought an end to both Cleopatra and Mark Antony, but was a time of danger for Herod as well. Although he had been absent from the battle, he was seen as Antony's man. However, he showed his typical courage and astuteness by confronting the victor Octavian (later Augustus Caesar) in person. Octavian evidently recognized not only his courage, but also his usefulness and, rather than punishing him, confirmed him in his office. Herod was to prove a useful ally and even (for most of the time) a good friend for the rest of his reign.

The Herodians dominated Jewish leadership during the Roman period. Herod the Great—both the man and his rule—are difficult to evaluate dispassionately. He has become one of the most notorious individuals of antiquity, but the truth is rather more complex. Although one could hardly call him benevolent by modern standards, few ancient rulers would meet our criteria. Herod was a typical petty king of the time, no worse than most of the Hasmonaean rulers and certainly no worse than many of the Roman emperors. What is clear is that he lived a Jewish life and considered himself a Jew. This is correctly recognized in the biograpahy by P. Richardson (1996; cf. also Grabbe 1992: 362–6). Unfortunately, the study by N. Kokinnos (1998), although having much useful material, too often follows uncritically the bias of his sources, especially Josephus and the New Testament.

Overall, Herod's reign was good for the Jews. There is no evidence that his taxes were greater than under the Hasmonaeans, peace predominated after 31 BCE, and many Jews prospered. However, in the area of religion, Herod's reign saw a couple of significant negative developments. Under Hasmonaean rule the high priests had become monarchs, with great power. In the eyes of some, this kingly power was incompatible with the office of high priest, and the Hasmonaean court was much like the court of any other Hellenistic ruler. Thus, the deterioration of the high priestly office had already begun under the Hasmonaeans, at least in the mind of some Jews. Under Herod the power of the high priest was reduced to the opposite extreme. Herod also began the practice of removing high priests from office and replacing them by those more amenable to his views. Although those appointed were always legitimate priests from important families, it made the holder of the office to a lesser or greater extent Herod's puppet. He also had the high priestly garments locked away and made available only when they were needed for one of the festivals. The Sanhedrin also had its authority severely curtailed, with the membership decimated by multiple executions after Herod became king. All these measures can hardly have helped but cause a decline in the respect for and authority of the high priest and the temple establishment.

In the first few years of Herod's reign, he had to deal with a number of revolts, mainly instigated by support for the Hasmonaeans. But for most of his reign he kept a tight rein on opposition. As soon as he died, though, a series of revolts broke out, and had to be put down with Roman military aid. The emperor Augustus did not appoint anyone as Herod's heir, but divided the kingdom between three of the sons (Archaelaus over Judah, Idumaea, and Samaria; Herod Antipas over Peraea and Galilee; Philip over Batanaea, Trachonitis, and Auranitis). Archaelaus was not officially king, but had the title ‘ethnarch’, while the other two were ‘tetrarchs’. Archaelaus governed approximately ten years before he was removed from office and exiled by Augustus.

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