Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Rehabilitating Herod

A group of revisionist historians have formed the King Herod Appreciation Society in efforts to revamp the king's reputation. They say he should not be judged too harshly and that his actions should be evaluated in the context of the brutality of the Roman Empire. Nice try, guys. The denial of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem on the basis that Herod killed his own sons is as logical as saying that since Sadaam Hussein gassed Kurds, he couldn't have also killed Marsh Arabs at the end of the Gulf War. I guess next we'll see the Nero Admiration Guild.

Historians, Fans Defend the 'Real' King Herod
By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service

He ruled over the ancient Jews for 37 years, and when it comes to bad publicity, King Herod has reigned supreme ever since.

Annually vilified in Christmas pageants as the tyrant responsible for the slaughter of Bethlehem's baby boys and for chasing Mary, Joseph and Jesus into Egypt, Herod the Great should receive more balanced treatment, some historians and academics argue.

Like most biblical villains -- Judas, Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, take your pick -- Herod has simply gotten a bad rap, some say.

For example, historians say Herod probably never ordered the Massacre of the Innocents that Christians commemorate in late December.

The account from the Gospel of Matthew may be derived from the execution of three of the king's own sons and the author's desire to convey that even as an infant, Jesus was an acknowledged threat to the establishment.

"Dramatically, it's a story with tremendous power, but there's a kind of irony that the one thing that most people know about Herod is probably wrong," said Peter Richardson, author of "Herod: King of the Jews, Friend of the Romans" and a professor at the University of Toronto.

Basing their views on recorded history and continuing archaeological discoveries, Richardson and other academic experts contend that Herod's brutality and heavy taxation should be taken in the context of the violent Roman Empire and his skills as a diplomat, master builder and enlightened economist.

Herod was born in 74 B.C. to an Arabian princess and a politically active father whose family had converted to Judaism. As a young man, Herod was appointed governor of Galilee. When his father was poisoned in 43 B.C., Herod had the murderer executed, launching a lifelong reputation as a ruler to be reckoned with.

The Roman Senate named Herod "King of the Jews" in 40 B.C., despite controversy at home over his religious lineage. But Herod always claimed to be an observant Jew, evidenced by the discovery of ritual baths in his palaces and records of a joke told by Emperor Caesar Augustus that he'd rather be one of Herod's swine -- safe from slaughter because the king kept kosher -- than one of his sons.

Convinced by their research, members of the Progressive Jewish Bet Tikvah Synagogue in England formed a King Herod Appreciation Society in 2001. Rigid concepts of Jewish identity were used to downplay Herod's accomplishments, they argue, which included rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, building the largest harbor in the Roman world, alleviating a famine by lowering grain prices and supporting the cash-strapped Olympic Games.

"He was not just a paranoid tyrant, but an idealist and financial genius, way ahead of his time," said Anthony Kerstein, a co-founder of the group. "I believe if he would have been regarded as fully Jewish, his reign would have been regarded as a golden age."

Herod's commitment to Judaism and his positive relationship with Rome meant his subjects were allowed to worship freely. They were granted a rare exemption from the imperial requirements of offering incense to the emperor's statue, serving in the army and swearing oaths in court, Richardson said.

But plenty of historical material depicts Herod as a ruthless man as well as a visionary. Of his 10 wives, he had one executed for accused unfaithfulness; of at least 14 children, three were executed for allegedly conspiring against him. He imposed high taxes on his subjects, in part to finance his grandiose construction projects, and he employed secret police to report on their activities.

He acted brutally to put down dissent. In 4 B.C., Torah students smashed a golden eagle at the Temple -- probably placed for Roman visitors but viewed by opponents as idolatrous -- and he had them burned alive to set an example.

Even though scholars can't find any historical basis for the Bethlehem massacre, they concede it would not have been out of character, and say perhaps the village's tiny size would have kept the act undocumented in the scheme of larger crimes.

At the time of Jesus' birth, Herod would have been an old man in poor health, but in the new film "The Nativity Story," he is portrayed as a vibrant middle-aged ruler overseeing a construction project that had actually been completed decades earlier. Screenwriter Mike Rich explained that he had opted against complete historical accuracy in favor of showing "a composite of his reign." He added scenes showing the building site and Herod's participation in Temple rituals after his first draft to convey more of the character's complexity.

When Herod died of a long, debilitating illness between 4 and 1 B.C.the exact years of both Christ's birth and Herod's death are up for debate -- it seems few mourned him. His kingdom was divided among three of his sons, including Herod Antipas, who is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke's account of Jesus' trial.

Despite the notorious legacy, Herod the Great experts say his misdeeds are simply consistent with despotic behavior across the ages.

They point to England's King Henry VIII -- also fond of executing family members -- Joseph Stalin, and Third World dictators who use force to unite and modernize their countries.

"He wasn't necessarily a nice guy, but he actually did a pretty good job and he lived during a pretty tumultuous political period and both he and Judea survived," said Shaye J.D. Cohen, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University.

"When you have powerful leaders that are in power for a long time, inevitably you're going to have pluses and minuses," he added. "Even Mussolini made the trains run on time."

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