Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World by Martin Goodman - review by Helen Bond

Helen Bond

By Appointment of Rome

Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World


Yale University Press 248pp £16.99

The event most frequently connected with Herod the Great in popular culture, the Massacre of the Innocents, almost certainly never happened. In his gospel, where the event is described, St Matthew sought to present Jesus as a ‘second Moses’ and so used Herod as a counterpart to the wicked pharaoh of the Exodus story. The evangelist clearly thought that slaughtering all the toddlers in Bethlehem was the kind of thing that his readers would believe of the king who had reigned almost a century before the gospel was written.

It would be wrong to suggest that Martin Goodman rehabilitates Herod. He is quite aware of his ruthless ambition, the repressive nature of his rule and the frequent executions (often of family members) that littered his reign. What this well-crafted and readable book does splendidly, however, is situate Herod within his ancient environment, at the centre of the seismic events in world history that accompanied Rome’s transformation from republic to empire. An emeritus professor of Jewish studies at Oxford University and an expert on Jews under Roman rule, Goodman is the perfect guide to Herod’s life. Undoubtedly Herod was a tyrant, but appreciation of his precarious circumstances allows us better to understand this deeply complex man.

Fundamental to Goodman’s portrait of Herod is his Jewish identity. Although his Idumaean family converted to Judaism before his birth, there is no reason to doubt that Herod fully embraced Jewish piety, culture and ancestral traditions. Men who married into the family from outside were forced to be circumcised, and

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