by Stephen Douglas Wilson
PADUCAH, Ky. (BP) — Israeli archeologists have uncovered an impressive entrance to Herod’s palace at Herodium. Located only three miles southeast of Bethlehem, Herodium played an important part in the events surrounding the early life of Christ.
The December announcement by Hebrew University archeologists Roi Porat, Yakov Kalman and Rachel Chachy dovetails well with the seasonal interest in the nativity accounts of Luke and Matthew in the New Testament.
While both Luke and Matthew wrote that King Herod governed Judea during the era of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem (Luke 1:5, Matthew 2:1), they included nothing concerning Herod’s massive palace/fortress complex at nearby Herodium.
Herodium, like Herod’s other isolated palace/fortress complexes at Masada and Machaerus, was built on a mountain. To enhance its impressive scale, Herod artificially extended the height of the hill to make it the tallest mountain in the Judean desert.
While the site included the usual Herodian luxuries such as a palace, bathhouse, theatre and garden, Herodium was essentially a fortress, a place where Herod could find refuge if his people revolted.
Herod’s fear of a Jewish revolt led him to establish many fortresses in both urban centers (he maintained two in Jerusalem itself) and in isolated rural areas away from the urban centers.
A small community close to the fortress housed the construction teams and, later, the garrison soldiers and palace servants. The servants who waited on the king indeed worked in an impressive palace.
The newly uncovered entranceway apparently was still being constructed near the time of the monarch’s death.
As shown in one of the photographs, the entryway included three levels of arches in a 65-foot corridor that was 19 feet across and 65 feet in height leading to the palace’s courtyard. Curiously enough, the nearly completed entrance was abruptly stopped and backfilled around the time of Herod’s death. The archeologists speculated that the now-aging Herod instead sought to convert the entire palace into a memorial mound for his upcoming burial at the site.
Indeed, Herod’s plans for Herodium unfolded as Jesus was born and as He spent His early life in nearby Bethlehem. When the magi arrived in Jerusalem and announced they had come to worship the “king of the Jews,” Herod sent them to Bethlehem after learning the location of the Messiah’s birthplace from the chief priests and learned scholars. The monarch hoped to ascertain from the magi which of the town’s small children was the designated royal candidate. Then Herod hoped to execute the child (Matthew 2:1-8, 2:16).
When the magi failed to return with this information, Herod ordered his soldiers into Bethlehem to murder all children age 2 and under. Warned to flee to Egypt, the holy family escaped Herod’s plans, but an undisclosed number of children were killed by Herod’s soldiers. Although never stated in the biblical account, the soldiers who carried out the old king’s infamous order were either stationed in Jerusalem (seven miles from Bethlehem) or in the closer post at Herodium. In fact, Herodium overlooked Bethlehem and could have functioned as a convenient headquarters for Herod’s deadly operation.
While the holy family resided in Egypt, another Herodium connection to the early life of Christ took place. After a long and terribly painful illness, Herod died. His surviving eldest son (Herod had murdered his three oldest sons), Archelaus, then buried him in Herodium at a pre-selected tomb and gave his father an elaborate funeral at the site and spared no expense, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish War, 1,673).
Israeli archeologist Ehud Netzer claimed to have found Herod’s tomb and damaged sarcophagus (stone coffin) in 2007 at Herodium, but in 2013 and 2014 other archeologists have raised doubts about the tomb and the sarcophagus. Israeli archeologists Joseph Patrich and Benjamin Arubas largely based their doubts on the modest tomb site and the unimpressive sarcophagus. They believe that the mega-maniacal Herod would have commissioned a larger tomb and a more elaborate sarcophagus.
With Herod now buried in Herodium and with Archelaus eventually ruling over much of his father’s former kingdom as an “ethnarch” (“ruler of the people”), the New Testament noted the change in political leadership (Matthew 2:19-22). The change prompted Joseph to consider a move back to Judea (perhaps back to Bethlehem itself where the family had lived for about two years), but his misgivings about a Judea under the rule of an already unpopular Archelaus and a warning in a dream led him to reconsider. The decision was a wise one. A return to Bethlehem in the “shadow of Herodium” and the nearby royal city of Jerusalem placed the holy family at potential risk.
Instead, Joseph took his family back to Nazareth in Galilee (Matthew 2:22-23). Galilee was governed by Herod Antipas, the younger brother of Archelaus. At the time, this Herodian ruler, with the title of “tetrarch” (“ruler over a fourth”), was regarded as a milder alternative to the volatile Archelaus. Located far away from the recent unpleasant associations connected to Herodium and the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary would raise Jesus in the peaceful surroundings of Nazareth.
The recent archeological find in Herodium and the continuing dispute concerning Herod’s tomb and sarcophagus calls attention to the background story of the early life of Christ as detailed in the Gospel of Matthew. Perhaps some further archeological discoveries at Herodium will uncover additional information about the familiar nativity narrative.