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Stand up, stand up for Herod!
A seasonal story of ancient Palestine: the Arab Jewish moderate king, the suicidal religious militants, the re-invention of God and the abolition of Jerusalem. The historical truth is both stranger and more familiar than the tales in the Gospel.
King Herod the Great, who ruled Palestine from 37 to 4 BC, is vilified by both Jewish and Christian traditions. Like more recent Palestinian leaders, King Herod enjoyed relative autonomy under the menacing shadow of the world’s most powerful empire and its brutal army of occupation. Like the current Palestinian president, King Herod was politically undermined by popular religious militants. The ancient Jewish fundamentalists denounced Herod as a Roman imperialist puppet and a corrupt heathen ruler.
But why stand up for Herod? Partly, for the sake of historical truth. For example, Herod’s massacre of the innocents as described in the Gospel of Mathew – which is the main thing that people today ‘know’ about the much-maligned monarch - certainly never happened. The event is not mentioned in any other contemporaneous account and cannot be reconciled with the date on which we are told that Jesus was born.
Ancient Palestinian politics were more complicated than the stories in the Biblical scriptures imply.
A woodcut portraying Herod's massacre of the male children
The Jewish religious accounts which portray Herod as polytheistic enemy of the faith are very unfair. Herod took his Jewish faith very seriously. In fact so seriously, that he commissioned the most extensive renovation of Jehovah’s Temple in Jerusalem, turning the holy sanctuary into the largest religious complex in the Roman world.
Herod had to be very skilful in ruling a multi-ethnic and multi-religious land.
Palestine in 37 BC was inhabited by Greeks, Samarians, Philistines, Judeans, Phoenicians, Nabatian Arabs and Edomite Arabs and several more Semite-Canaanite ethnic groups. It was also a religiously diverse land, which included at least six competing Jehovist cults, hundreds of Hellenistic cults, and hundreds of polytheistic Canaanite cults.
Herod was born in 74 BC to an Arabian princess and a politically active Edomite Arab father whose family had converted to Judaism. This mixed background helped him straddle the complex politics of ethnicity and religion in ancient Palestine. Contrary to modern Zionist mythology, Palestine was not an exclusive Jewish real-estate in the period of the Gospels. Herod, ruler of the holy land, was an Arab king who was also a religiously observant Jew.
The reform of heaven
When King Herod assumed the throne under Roman tutelage, he also assumed the leadership of Jerusalem as the center of administrative power in Palestine.
In the city of Jerusalem, Herod placed his faith in the monotheistic cult of Jehovah (Judaism), represented by the Jerusalem Temple and its priestly aristocracy (called the Cohens or Kohanim).
However, the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem was largely unpopular even amongst Jewish monotheists. Rival Jehovah cults sprang up across Palestine to challenge the authority of the Jerusalem priesthood. The cult of Jehovah was also rejected by Palestinians who still observed the pagan ‘idolatry’ of Canaanite and Hellenistic deities. To add to this complexity, the Jewish priestly aristocracy had to share power with a Greek-Hellenistic slave owning aristocracy, some of whom had converted to the Jehovah cult, but many stuck to multitheistic paganism.
Monotheism, the cult of the single invisible god, was imposed on the Jerusalem city-state by the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, at around 500 BC. The Persian invaders installed a priestly aristocracy who set out to merge a number of pagan deities into a single male god: called Jehovah. To achieve this spiritual task, the Jerusalem priesthood reformed the old Palestinian gods and goddesses.
Ashera, ancient Jewish goddess
In Palestine, the pagan pantheon of deities was dominated by the male god Jehovah and his female consort, the goddess Ashera, and another prominent male god El or Elion and his female consort Eilat. The Jerusalem monotheists divorced the female goddesses from their husbands, banishing the female side of godliness and violently repressing all female cults. Then the monotheists set about merging the remaining male gods into a single male, invisible, macho and homicidal God. This single God was called either Jehovah or Elohim (the Hebrew plural for Gods).
Between 500 and 150 BC, the priestly aristocracy ordered its scribes to re-write Palestinian history, pretending that they didn’t reinvent Jehovah, to make believe that God the almighty had always existed as a monotheistic entity. The scribes inserted the presence of Jehovah into every past natural disaster, wars, famines, into the life of every past king and queen in Palestine and beyond. The creative collective works of the Jerusalem scribes became known in Europe as the ‘Old Testament.’
Monotheist Jerusalem, under Persian rule, began to spread its influence across the other Palestinian provinces, including Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Edom. The priestly aristocracy attempted to impose the cult of Jehovah in order to gain dominance over all the provinces. The religious elite grew very rich from exacting taxes and other forms of material tribute from the illiterate farming population.
For 500 years up until the age of King Herod, priestly control over the working classes was backed by foreign imperial violence. In the beginning, the Jerusalem elite were backed by Persia, and then in 340 BC Alexander the Great invaded Palestine and the Greeks continued to back the Jerusalem priesthood. When the Romans arrived nearly three centuries later, Palestine was torn by revolution and civil war, and the Romans judged that it was wise to keep the Jerusalem priesthood in charge.
Herod’s poisoned chalice
Modern Zionist mythology in Israel tries to portray ancient history in Palestine as a tale of nationalist struggle of the Jewish people against powerful foreign invaders. In reality, the Jerusalem priesthood failed to forge a coherent ethnic and religious identity during its 500 years of dominance. While the cult of Jehovah did eventually spread to the majority of Palestinian population and across the Roman Empire, the cult fractured and mutated into competing groups that in time emerged as the Jewish and Christian faiths.
As foreign invaders came and went, the Palestinian working classes occasionally revolted against the burdens of slavery and taxation. The religious zealots, who denounced the Jerusalem priesthood as complicit in enslaving Palestine to foreign powers, became very popular with the Palestinian masses. It is possible that Jesus Christ was one of those trouble makers who was able to turn monotheistic propaganda around against the priestly aristocracy. After all, the marginalized can also use religious mythology to justify their cause.
In 37 BC Palestine, Herod inherited a kingdom that was beset by social and religious strife. While maintaining the authority of the priestly aristocracy, Herod tried to rule in name of all Palestinians.
He was later vilified by Jews and Christians for tolerating pagan communities and promoting religious freedom. Herod was an Arab leader with a strong Jewish faith, who ruled in a secular way - he could perhaps teach current Arab and Jewish politicians a trick or two. But above all he had to please imperial Rome and its insatiable appetite for material tribute, new highways, forts, conscript armies and mineral riches.
In the end Herod couldn’t please everyone and finally ended up alienating every group in Palestine, particularly the impoverished underclass. The Jewish religious zealots engaged in asymmetric warfare- attacking ill-defended forts, assassinating officials, committing suicide rather than face capture. They believed that martyrdom in the fight against Herod and his imperialist masters would grant them an immediate passage to Paradise.
After Herod’s death the religious rebels finally managed to galvanize the poor masses into a revolutionary insurrection which lasted several decades, the biggest rebellion since the Spartacus slave revolt. But the Roman legions ruthlessly suppressed this Palestinian rebellion, burning hundreds of towns and villages, massacring many thousands of peasants and artisans and forcing many others into exile.
In one dreadful incident in 73 AD, the Romans took the fortress of Masada from a radical anarcho-communist religious sect of zealots after a two-year siege. The thousand zealots, who had pooled all their property and assassinated officials and rich people, killed themselves and their children when defeat became inevitable.
The Romans finally concluded that the cult of Jehovah was to blame for the insurrection. The Roman Emperor decreed the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. The Emperor abolished the priestly elite and banned the monotheistic cults of all factions. From then on, Palestine was ruled directly by Rome as a Roman colony with a Roman governor. Jerusalem was physically destroyed and rebuilt as a Roman town with an urban grid of thoroughfares; its name was wiped off the maps and the city was renamed Aelia Capitolina.
A Roman bas-relief of the destruction of the Temple
One wall survived the destruction, a structure which had been built by Herod the Great as a fortification for the Jewish temple. It is now known as the Wailing Wall.
But the Jehovist cults also survived and continued to spread; and in the early 4th Century AD, the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. The ideology of the oppressed was absorbed by the empire, but the oppression and exploitation continued.