The Amazing Herod Family

If you’ve read through the New Testament, you might be rather surprised at how often “King Herod” keeps popping up in the story. 

The book of Matthew tells a story of how the evil King Herod killed all the babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to get rid of the infant Jesus. In the story, Joseph and Mary escape with their son to Egypt, and only return a few years later when they learn that Herod is dead.  

Thirty years later, Jesus is an adult preaching in Galilee, but then he gets in trouble with … King Herod again! And this King Herod captures and kills John the Baptist and is on the lookout for Jesus. You may be wondering what’s going on here? Wasn’t King Herod already dead? Did somebody make a mistake?

Another dozen years pass, and King Herod pops up yet again, this time in the book of Acts, where he arrests one of the apostles (James) and has him beheaded. Then he arrests another apostle, Peter, who miraculously escapes. Then there’s a short story about him getting a bit conceited at a festival when the crowd acclaims him as a god. In this story, Herod is suddenly stricken with a strange illness and dies a few days later.  

More than a decade later, the apostle Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and taken to the port city of Caesarea, where he meets the Roman governor. The governor talks to Paul for a bit, and then puts him in prison in … Herod’s palace. So which Herod is this?   

How the devil does King Herod keep popping up for so many decades? Is he a zombie or what?

Four King Herods

Here’s what’s going on. The New Testament actually tells about four different king Herods, all part of the same dynasty. And it mentions a few other members of this family. Here’s a brief summary of the four main Herods:

  • King Herod the Great was born about the year 73 or 74 BC and died about the year 4 BC. He’s the King Herod who appears in the Bethlehem Massacre story in the book of Matthew. He took ten different women as wives and had a lot of children. But he was a bit paranoid and executed his favorite wife and three of his sons. People joked that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son (since Herod kept kosher and therefore didn’t eat pigs). Herod was a prolific builder, and you can see his work today all over modern Israel—including the gigantic stone platform now known as the Temple Mount. He also created the city of Caesarea and built a palace there where Paul would be tried many decades later.
  • Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great and inherited a third of his kingdom. Herod Antipas was not actually a king. His official title was tetrarch, but people sometimes flattered him by calling him king. He was born before 20 BC and died sometime after AD 39. He’s the Herod who arrested and beheaded John the Baptist, and then went asking around for Jesus. Antipas divorced his first wife so he could marry his niece—who also happened to be his brother’s wife. His step-daughter later married another of his brothers. The Herod family tree was about as incestuous as you can get. 
  • Herod Agrippa I was a grandson of Herod the Great and nephew of Antipas. He was educated in Rome and eventually became king. He ruled over Judea for only a few years, from AD 41 to 44. He’s the Herod who beheaded the apostle James and arrested Peter and then died mysteriously at the festival. But he also played a central role in choosing one of the emperors, Claudius Caesar. In a very real sense, Agrippa played the role of king-maker. In doing so, he prevented the Roman Senate from destroying the position of emperor and returning the empire to a republic. This decision had repercussions for twenty centuries, right down to our own time. 
  • Herod Agrippa II was the son of Herod Agrippa I and ruled for some years over certain small territories north of Galilee. He presided over one of the trials of the apostle Paul, along with his sister Bernice. There were rumors that Agrippa and his sister were sleeping together. Bernice later became the mistress of the Roman general Titus, the one who captured Jerusalem in the year AD 70. I don’t believe Bernice was quite the terrible person that some of the historians want to make her. She did one thing that was undeniably heroic. So I made her a fairly major character in two of my novels, Premonition and Retribution, where I show her as the flawed hero I think she probably was. 

The above summary only scratches the surface on the amazing Herod family. We know a lot more about them from the historical records. They were, in a word, a remarkable dynasty that had a major impact on the Roman empire. In a future blog post, I’ll give more details about each of the four Herods.

And why does this all matter? Because Jesus of Nazareth grew up in a real world, with real enemies. Some of his most powerful enemies were members of the Herod family. So you can bet that the Herods are going to come up in my Crown of Thorns series.

The more you know about the world of Jesus and the real historical people in that world, the better you’ll understand the mission and message of Jesus.

The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus

The mysterious “brothers of Jesus” are mentioned several times in the New Testament. Were they really his brothers? Or something else?

That’s a much more complicated question than it looks. I think a good starting point is with the gospel of Mark.

Most New Testament scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written, sometime around the year AD 70.

There’s an interesting story in Mark chapter 6, verses 1 to 6, about Jesus going to his hometown after he’d gotten somewhat famous in the rest of Galilee. You can read it here.

Take a look at verse 3, in which the people of Nazareth complain about Jesus: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.” (KJV)

There are a lot of interesting points in this one verse. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

What We Learn About the Family of Jesus

Here are four things we learn from this text:

  • Jesus was a “carpenter.” This is the only verse in the Bible (other than the parallel verse in Matthew 13:55) that tells us what Jesus did for a living. The Greek word is “tekton” which is a broad term that can include people who work in wood, metal, or stone. So we don’t actually know for sure whether Jesus was a carpenter, or a metal-worker, or a stone-worker.
  • Jesus is called “the son of Mary.” That’s rather odd. We know that Mary was married to Joseph. So why isn’t Jesus called the “son of Joseph?” You can probably think of several possible reasons, but we don’t know which is right. We can guess, but we don’t know with certainty.
  • Joseph is not mentioned at all in this verse. Most scholars think it’s because Joseph was dead. This seems likely to me, but again, nobody knows for sure.
  • Four brothers of Jesus and at least two sisters are mentioned. The brothers are named James, Joses, Judah, and Simon. The sisters aren’t named, and we don’t know how many there were.

What Does it Mean by “Brothers?”

Scholars have debated for centuries what the words “brothers” and “sisters” mean. You might think it’s “obvious” what these words mean, and it certainly would be obvious if the Bible was originally written in English. But the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and it’s about people who spoke Aramaic. So there’s always the possibility that something got lost in the double-translation from the Aramaic story world to the Greek texts to the English translations.

It’s worth noting that there are several other New Testament texts that refer to these “brothers.” We’ve already mentioned Matthew 13:55, which is Matthew’s restatement of the text in Mark. In Mark 3, Matthew 12, and Luke 8, there are three parallel stories about Mary and the brothers of Jesus coming to look for him. Also, the apostle Paul talks about “James, the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19.  And Paul also mentions the “brothers of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:5.

The elephant in the room is that there is an ancient tradition that says Mary was a perpetual virgin. Maybe you don’t believe the tradition, and maybe you do, but the point here is that many people over the centuries have believed it. And, for them, that means these “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus can’t be born of Mary.

Three Theories on the Brothers of Jesus

So here are the three main options that Christians have come up with over the years on the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus: (These theories are discussed in more detail in a Wikipedia article here.)  

  1. Joseph was married earlier to another woman, by whom he had four sons and at least two daughters. This first wife died and then Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus. (This view is common among modern Eastern Orthodox Christians.)
  2. Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus, and Jesus was the only child in this nuclear family. The four “brothers” and the “sisters” were actually cousins of Jesus, born to his uncle Clopas and aunt Mary. Either this uncle Clopas was the brother of Joseph, or this aunt Mary was the sister of his mother Mary, or both. (This view is common among modern Catholics.)
  3. Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus, and then they later had four more sons and at least two more daughters. (This view is common among modern Protestants.)

And there are other theories held by various Biblical scholars which I won’t go into, because it gets complicated very quickly. My friend, Prof. James Tabor, has written extensively about this on his blog and in his books. (James is one of the directors on the archaeological dig I’ve worked on several times. We agree on many things and disagree on many things, and we can have a spirited discussion without getting angry.)

Which Theory is Right?

Large groups of Christians have defended each of these major options. Various of the early church fathers supported each of these options. 

Which theory is right?

That’s a loaded question. There are some strong theological opinions bound up here, and sometimes people get extremely angry. 

I think we don’t all have to agree on the answer. We can discuss it without getting emotional. Different people have different beliefs and we can respect other people’s beliefs, even if we don’t agree. The reason I’m blogging about it here is that not everyone is aware that there actually are different viewpoints. I was raised not knowing that Options 1 and 2 existed. I had an email from one of my fans not long ago who didn’t realize that Option 3 existed.

The main point of this blog post is to point out that there are several live options, and that people of good will can disagree on which is right.

I was raised Protestant, and grew up believing Option 3 is correct. (As I mentioned above, for a long time, I didn’t know there even were Options 1 and 2. I thought everyone believed Option 3.)

My view is that we can’t know for certain which option is correct. It looks to me like most historians and New Testament scholars believe that the “brothers” and the “sisters” are best understood as being sons and daughters of both Joseph and Mary, as in Option 3. But not all historians. Not all New Testament scholars. History is fuzzy.

How a Novel is Different from History

Historians often will lay out all the evidence and then make a list of the possible interpretations of the evidence, the way I did above. Usually, they say which interpretation they think is most likely. But they leave open the possibility that one of the other interpretations could be right.

It works fine to keep our history a bit fuzzy. None of us knows everything. We have to always remember we could be wrong.

But fuzziness doesn’t work so well in writing a historical novel. 

If you’re writing a novel about Jesus, and if all the members of his family are important characters in the novel, then you can’t dither around by quoting probabilities. You have to make a definite choice and stick with it, even though you know the choice might be wrong. 

Because a novel is not fuzzy. A novel is written in sharp focus.

I’m currently polishing up Book 1 in my Crown of Thorns series on the life of Jesus. I had to decide early how to refer to these “brothers” of Jesus—James, Joses, Judah, and Simon. 

I decided to write them as biological children of Mary and Joseph. Some people will agree with this choice. Some will disagree, but they’ll realize that it’s just a story, which means I make no claim to be exactly right on things we can’t know for sure. And I suppose some will disagree and be angry about it.

No matter which option I choose, somebody somewhere would disagree, so I might as well just choose the one that makes the most sense to me. 

So that’s what I’ve done. If I catch a little heat for it, that’s okay. Heat comes with the job. 

What Did Jesus Wear?

We’ve all seen paintings of Jesus. He always looks pretty much the same—long hair that hangs to his shoulders, parted in the middle, with a neatly trimmed beard. He normally gets a bleached white flowing robe that reaches his ankles, although sometimes it’s blue and sometimes it’s red. Often, he also gets some sort of mantle or whatever that hangs over one shoulder or drapes over his head.

There are a lot of minor variations, but there’s one basic theme. If you went to a costume shop and asked for a Jesus costume, you’d be pretty sure what you were going to get. And you could be very sure that anyone who saw you wearing it would instantly recognize it as a Jesus costume.

But Is That Real?

The obvious question to ask is whether that Jesus costume would look anything like the real Jesus who walked around on real roads in Galilee and Judea in the early part of the first century. 

And since we don’t have any paintings or statues of Jesus, how would we know?

There’s a recent book titled What Did Jesus Look Like? that I’ve found very helpful in nailing these questions down. The author is Prof. Joan Taylor, and she does a very nice job of pulling together all the info we have. The main sources of info from the middle east in the first couple of centuries are these:

  1. Paintings and statues of various people. 
  2. Documents describing or mentioning clothes.  
  3. Actual clothes found in archaeological digs. 

As usual, we don’t have as much info as we’d like, but we have enough to get a fairly clear idea.

Jesus most likely wore the same clothes as other poor people of his time—a tunic, a belt, a pair of sandals, a light cloak (in cool weather), and a heavy cloak (in cold weather). Let’s talk about all these in more detail. First, the basics …

Basic Clothes

A man’s tunic was made of wool and hung down to just below his knees. It could be unbleached wool, or it could be dyed in various colors—yellow, red, green, blue, purple, and even orange. Purple and red were generally colors worn by rich people. But a poor man could wear any of the other bright colors, if he wanted. 

A woman’s tunic was similar, but it hung down further, reaching her ankles. 

But these tunics were not bleached white, as they are in all the modern pictures. (Essenes wore white clothes, made of linen, but Jesus was not an Essene.)

For both men and women, the tunic was terribly unstylish. Imagine a rectangle made of wool, almost a yard wide and three yards long. Cut a hole in the exact center for your head to poke through. Put your head through the hole and drape the rest over your body so that half hangs down in front and half in back. Now sew the front and back together to make seams running most of the way up both sides, leaving room for your arms to hang out. That’s very roughly how a tunic was made. 

The belt could be a rope or leather string or a broad strip of cloth. You just wrapped it around your waist and then tied it loosely to keep your tunic from billowing out. If it was a strip of cloth, you could fold it a couple of times lengthwise and it would hold a few coins or a short knife or whatever other small things you might want to carry. (Your tunic didn’t have pockets, so you needed somewhere to put your car keys, right?)

Sandals were made of flat soles of leather cut to the shape of your foot, with leather cords that looped around the back of your ankle and fastened to the sole at three points—one on each side of your ankle, and one between your toes. Archaeologists have found sandals at Masada and Qumran that look surprisingly modern.

During the summer, Israel can be very hot, and the tunic with belt and sandals would be all you’d need. (It appears that people didn’t wear any sort of headgear.) But when the temperature dropped a bit, you’d need another layer, or more than one …

Optional Clothes

In cooler weather, you could add a light cloak on top, which was basically just a rectangle of wool. By tradition, this had blue and white tassels at each of the four corners. (The tassels were called tsitsit in Hebrew. In the story where a woman touched the “fringes” of Jesus’s cloak to be healed, those fringes are exactly these tsitsit.)

It can get cold in Israel in the winter. It rains either a little or a lot, depending on where you are. It can even snow occasionally at the higher elevations. (Jerusalem is a couple of thousand feet above sea level, and it snows there sometimes.) When it’s cold, you need something more than a tunic and a light cloak. You need a heavy cloak.

The heavy cloak was quite large. It was rectangular in shape and was maybe a yard and a half wide, and two and a half to three yards long. You could wrap it around yourself and get reasonably warm. And it made a primitive sleeping bag when you were traveling. You could just roll yourself up in your heavy cloak and sleep on the ground. That’s exactly what poor people did. 

And … what about underwear? I emailed Prof. Taylor to ask about that, since her book didn’t mention underwear. In paintings of the crucifixion, Jesus usually gets a loincloth, so I asked whether Jewish people in the first century wore loincloths. She wrote back to say no, it doesn’t look like they did. It’s possible, of course, and we can’t be absolutely sure, but some of the Dead Sea Scrolls have a discussion about the fact that if your tunic is poorly made, it’ll expose your nakedness. And that’s only possible if you’re not wearing a loincloth. (In any event, when Romans crucified a man, they stripped him completely naked, so the loincloths in the paintings are not accurate. Crucifixions were all about total humiliation.)

Hair and Beards

And what about hair? Did Jesus wear his hear long, like in all the modern paintings? 

We have a number of paintings of people in Egypt from the time of Jesus. Men wore their hair short, and they trimmed their beards fairly short also. The main exception we know of was quite rare—people who had taken a lifelong Nazirite vow never cut their hair. John the Baptist is the most obvious example from the first centry. But Jesus was not a Nazirite, so there’s no reason to think he wore his hair long. 

It would be nice to have a few photos of Jesus and his family and his disciples. But we don’t have that. 

When you’re doing ancient history, you put together fragments of information from a lot of different sources. You can’t be sure you get it 100% right. All you can do is your best.

For now, this is the best I’ve been able to find.

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