Let’s set the way back machine for, say, 175 AD. We are on a Roman ship like the one we saw in the “Domine Ivivmus” graffito. As we approach the eastern shore of the Mediterranean we see a city rising on the coast, magnificent with Greek style temples, amphitheaters, theaters, baths and fountains fed by a Roman style aqueduct, a race track and what a harbor! The harbor seizes your attention. What a harbor! It rivals the harbor of Egyptian Alexandria in size. It juts out into the sea from a flat and harborless coast, a wonder of the latest Roman engineering and technology.
It started out as a Phoenician naval station, but there was no deep-water harbor to speak of on that part of the coast until Herod the Great got his mitts on the place in around 30 BC and built a city which he dedicated to his new best friend, Caesar Octavianus Augustus who had just the year before clobbered Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium.
At this point we must do an excursion into history. If you are going to understand the Holy Land, you must understand Herod the Great and the whole Herod family. They were bloodthirsty, sex-crazed psychopaths for the most part, but they loved to build things. They were thoroughly Hellenized (Greek-ifed). When most people think of the Holy Land they think of the Bible pageants of their childhood, long flowing beards and Charlton Heston and people wearing towels on their head. This was not the Holy Land at the time of Christ. The Holy Land is where two worlds met and clashed. Asia met the Mediterranean and they met in the town of Caesarea. You are going to see amazing ruins and to understand them you must understand Herod the Great and his brood. It helps to think of “Herod” as a last name, not a first.
Let’s start with Herod the Great. He is the only one of them who was just “Herod.” He was born in 73 BC in Idumea, just south of Judah and Jerusalem. His father was Antipater the Idumaean. His mother was Cypress, from Nabataea another little country just next door. Herod was not ethnically Jewish at all. The Idumeans were forcibly converted to Judaism the century before Christ. Herod the Great was raised as a Jew, but was really whatever religion happened to be politically useful at the time. His father, Antipater the Idumaean, served the Maccabee rulers of the Holy Land and was thus able to place his sons in good government jobs, but Herod wanted more. He got to know people like Mark Antony of Rome and Cleopatra of Egypt and was their loyal servant until he got into a quarrel with Queen Cleopatra over some revenues from Jericho. An interesting aside. Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemy monarch of Egypt and was 100% Macedonia Greek, not a drop of Egyptian blood in her.) Herod may have had issue with Cleopatra, but he fell out with Mark Antony.
In 41 BC, Herod was appointed tetrarch (that means ruler of a district in the Holy Land something like an Illinois county board president, by Mark Antony. His job was to support the Maccabee kings of the Holy Land whom he promptly killed after marrying their beautiful sister Mariamne. We all know what happened to Mark Antony and Cleopatra (as played by Richard Burton and the whiny Liz Taylor in the famous film.) When Antony was dead and Octavian Augustus, the new Roman victor, was camped on the island of Cyprus, Herod got the fastest ship with the fastest rowers and made a bee line for Cyprus. Here I will quote Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian. If you take the time to read it you will understand the man who built a lot of what you are going to see in the Holy Land
“O Caesar, as I was made king of the Jews by Antony, so …. I have used my royal authority… entirely for his advantage… I sent him as many auxiliaries as I was able …I did not desert my benefactor (even after you defeated him at the battle of Actium) ...I gave him the best advice I was able, when I was no longer able to assist him in the war; and I told him that there was but one way of recovering his affairs, and that was to kill Cleopatra; and I promised him that, if she were once dead, I would send him money and walls for his security, with an army and myself to assist him in his war against you: but his affections for Cleopatra stopped his ears…. I have laid aside my crown and have come here to you and I ask that you consider how faithful a friend, and not whose friend, I have been."
This is the classical chutzpa. He is saying I was loyal to Antony. I will be as loyal to you. Octavian Augustus was delighted! He confirmed Herod as King of the Jews (When Pontius Pilate wrote that Jesus was “King of the Jews” this was sarcasm. Herod was dead and his children had only little bits and pieces of his kingdom. Pilate was poking his thumb in the eyes of people he loathed and used the sacrifice of the Son of God to do so!)
Herod went on to consolidate his power by killing his in laws, his wife, and a couple of his sons. And by building, I mean buildings like few people have ever built before or since. (Don’t worry. He had about eight wives and lots of children, so he had plenty to spare). This is certainly not the Bible pageant stuff of our childhood. Jesus was born into a world of sex, violence and political intrigue and all without cable TV.
More next week