Known from the New Testament as well as from the Talmud and the ancient historian Josephus as a cruel ruler, Herod reigned over Judea as a Roman client from ca. 37 BCE to 4 BCE. On his father’s side, he was descended from Idumeans, a tribe living in the Negev who had converted to Judaism in the 2nd century BCE; his mother was a princess from Nabataea, a kingdom in what is now Jordan. Together with the fact that he had taken the crown from the Hasmonean dynasty by force, his parentage led many of his subjects to consider him less than fully Jewish. Evie Gassner examines what can be determined about his commitment to Judaism from the archaeological record:
Although the exact parameters of the biblical prohibition [on graven images] have been interpreted differently in various periods, archaeological evidence suggests that the Hasmoneans understood the prohibition to include any form of artwork depicting real objects in the world. Thus, even though the Hasmonean kings tended to lead Hellenistic lifestyles, they kept the ban on anthropomorphic and zoomorphic representation by decorating their palaces with very elaborate, geometric mosaics. Herod kept the same tradition almost to a T.
His beautiful palaces were home to lovely, abstract wall paintings drawn in the second Pompeian style, and his floors sported beautiful mosaics, all according to the latest fashion in Rome: black and white honeycomb design in the Northern Palace, colorful geometrical assortment in the Promontory Palace and apparently in the Jerusalem Temple itself.
Gassner marshals further evidence that Herod observed some of the laws of kashrut and ritual purity. Of course, whether Herod did so out of religious convictions or an eagerness to win the sympathy of a skeptical populace, one cannot know. But the exceptions, not limited to importing non-kosher wine from Italy and elsewhere, are also telling:
Herod’s most striking deviation from Jewish practice had to do with his loyalty to his Roman patrons. . . . Herod erected at least three temples dedicated to Rome and its emperor Augustus in the cities of Caesarea Maritima, Sebaste (Samaria), and Panias. He also added theaters [and] gymnasia, . . . which were frowned upon by his Jewish subjects.
The most famous example of Herod’s flouting of Jewish sensibilities to honor his patrons is when, at some point toward the end of his life, he decided to hang a large golden eagle at the main gate leading to the Temple, in order to show his fealty to Rome. This enraged his Jewish subjects, and a plot to take down the offending statue was concocted. When Herod found out about the plan, he reacted badly and had the “traitors” burned alive, in order to teach his people a lesson.