Bible study is enriched by knowing more about the political and social background of biblical events. Books such as the International Bible Encyclopedia and Albert Bell’s Exploring the New Testament World are very helpful in providing summaries of these historical circumstances.
For example, consider Herod the Great, a member of the Herodian family, which ruled Judea for about 100 years. At the time when Jesus was born, Jewish Palestine was ruled by a Herod the Great, a client king under the authority of the Romans (see Matthew 2:1). We remember Herod especially for his “slaughter of the innocents,” part of his effort to ensure that no other king of the Jews challenged the throne. He became king of Judea in 37 BC and remained king until he died not long after the birth of Christ. What we know of Herod is revealed in the New Testament, in Josephus’ Antiquities and Jewish War, and from the Greek historian Strabo and the Roman historian Dio Cassius.
The Herods were not Jews, properly speaking. They sprang from Antipas (d. 78 BC), who was appointed governor of Idumaea (Edom) after Jews had conquered Idumaea, but before the Romans had conquered Judea. To orthodox Jews, Edomites were half-breeds, and the Jews would resent having a “half-breed” in Herod as their king.
Herod the Great was Antipas’ grandson. He was only a young man (perhaps 25) when he began to rule, and during his career he courted favor with both the Jews and Romans. Herod moved his Roman loyalty from Mark Antony to Octavian in 31 BC, when Octavian conquered Antony, and remained loyal to Rome for the rest of his life. Roman rulers generally favored Herod. Jews, on the other hand, gave Herod little credit for his considerable achievements, which included rebuilding the harbor at Caesarea and expanding and refurbishing the temple at Jerusalem. Jews resented his building of a Greco-Roman theater and amphitheater in Jerusalem. Herod made another misstep in Jewish eyes when he arranged for games to be held in honor of Caesar.
After Herod died, his kingdom was divided among his three surviving sons, Antipas, Archelaus, and Philip. Thus Luke 3:1 says, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea. . . .” Archelaus was such a brutal ruler that Joseph avoided Judea altogether while Archelaus was in power (Matthew 2:22). The Herodian dynasty was forever destroyed when the Romans put down the Jewish rebellion by destroying Jerusalem in 70 AD.