Saturday, December 30, 2006

STAND UP FOR HEROD! A site called "" has published an essay by Uri Cohen which offers us some more Herod revisionism. Cohen seems to want to rehabilitate Herod the Great and even to draw an analogy between him and the current president of the Palestinian Authority.
Stand up, stand up for Herod!
by Uri Cohen - 21st Century Socialism Thursday, Dec 28 2006, 3:41pm phone: UK 07968-859-322
mashriq / arabia / iraq / history / non anarchist press

Ancient Palestine
It is a seasonal story of ancient Palestine: the Arab Jewish king, the suicidal religious militants, the re-invention of God and the abolition of Jerusalem. The historical truth is both stranger and more familiar than the tales in the Gospel. It is a sound historical analysis of Palestine 37-4 BC.
Stand up, stand up for Herod!
A seasonal story of ancient Palestine: the Arab Jewish moderate king, the suicidal religious militants, the re-invention of God and the abolition of Jerusalem. The historical truth is both stranger and more familiar than the tales in the Gospel.

King Herod the Great, who ruled Palestine from 37 to 4 BC, is vilified by both Jewish and Christian traditions. Like more recent Palestinian leaders, King Herod enjoyed relative autonomy under the menacing shadow of the world’s most powerful empire and its brutal army of occupation. Like the current Palestinian president, King Herod was politically undermined by popular religious militants. The ancient Jewish fundamentalists denounced Herod as a Roman imperialist puppet and a corrupt heathen ruler.

But why stand up for Herod? Partly, for the sake of historical truth. For example, Herod’s massacre of the innocents as described in the Gospel of Mathew – which is the main thing that people today ‘know’ about the much-maligned monarch - certainly never happened. The event is not mentioned in any other contemporaneous account and cannot be reconciled with the date on which we are told that Jesus was born.

Yes, the story in Matthew doesn't have any verification and is generally taken to be a legend. But it's not correct that the supposed date of the event is irreconcilable with the date of Jesus' birth, since we don't actually know exactly when Jesus was born. It's true that it's widely recognized that if Herod was still around when Jesus was born, Jesus must have been born before Herod's death, which is generally taken to have been 4 BCE. But if the massacre of Bethlehem story is legendary, any connection of Jesus' birth with the reign of Herod becomes tenuous. Luke does place the conception of John the Baptist in Herod's day (1:5], but his chronology of Jesus' birth has its own problems.
Monotheism, the cult of the single invisible god, was imposed on the Jerusalem city-state by the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, at around 500 BC. The Persian invaders installed a priestly aristocracy who set out to merge a number of pagan deities into a single male god: called Jehovah. To achieve this spiritual task, the Jerusalem priesthood reformed the old Palestinian gods and goddesses.

In Palestine, the pagan pantheon of deities was dominated by the male god Jehovah and his female consort, the goddess Ashera, and another prominent male god El or Elion and his female consort Eilat. The Jerusalem monotheists divorced the female goddesses from their husbands, banishing the female side of godliness and violently repressing all female cults. Then the monotheists set about merging the remaining male gods into a single male, invisible, macho and homicidal God. This single God was called either Jehovah or Elohim (the Hebrew plural for Gods).


In 37 BC Palestine, Herod inherited a kingdom that was beset by social and religious strife. While maintaining the authority of the priestly aristocracy, Herod tried to rule in name of all Palestinians.

He was later vilified by Jews and Christians for tolerating pagan communities and promoting religious freedom. Herod was an Arab leader with a strong Jewish faith, who ruled in a secular way - he could perhaps teach current Arab and Jewish politicians a trick or two. But above all he had to please imperial Rome and its insatiable appetite for material tribute, new highways, forts, conscript armies and mineral riches.

Was Herod an Arab? One can make that case. He was three-quarters Nabatean (his mother was Nabatean and his father Idumean but with a Nabatean mother), but culturally he was Idumean. The Nabateans were an Arabian ethnic group that spoke an Arabic dialect originally, but adopted Aramaic language and culture, at least in educated circles. The Idumeans, however, were not Arabians; they were descendants of the Edomites, an ethnic group that spoke a Northwest Semitic dialect (i.e, closely related to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Phoenician) in the Iron Age II and had a polytheistic religion that included the worship of a god called Qaus. The surviving Idumean inscriptions in the Persian and Hellenistic periods are in Aramaic. (See here and here.) The Idumeans were forcibly converted to Judaism in the Hasmonean period and from that point on they seem to have considered themselves Jews.

So Herod was genetically three-quarters Arabian and presumably was exposed to some Nabatean language and culture from his mother, but he himself was vigorously committed to Judaism. There is no cultural or religious continuity between the polytheistic Nabateans of Herod's time and modern Palestianian Arabs, but some of the latter surely transmit some Nabatean genetic material, and modern Palestinians speak a variant dialect (coming from Islamic Arabia) of the language that the Nabateans originally spoke. Add all that up as you will. (For more on such questions, see here.)

As to Herod's personality and rule, whether or not Matthew's story of the slaughter of the innocents is true, it's typical enough of the sort of thing he might have done. (More on that here). By the standards of his own time he may not have been as bad as he looks to us, but he was nothing to be proud of. As despots go, he accomplished more than some, but I think a little standing up for Herod goes a long way.

Also, I'm a bit baffled by this "Jehovah" business. The name Jehovah is an erroneous form created accidentally by Christian Hebraists who didn't know that the vowels added to the name YHWH in the Masoretic text were meant to indicate that the name should be read as "Adonay," "My Lord." The name Jehovah never existed in antiquity, and it's odd to see it used repeatedly in an article that is so concerned with giving the true story of Second Temple era history. Incidentally, the origin of the word Elohim is messy, but is probably something like the following. It is actually a singular abstract noun formation rather than a plural and means "divinity" (cf. Hebrew Ne(uRiM [נערים], meaning the quality "youth"). Because its ending coincidentally resembles the masculine plural noun ending, it secondarily became the plural of the word El, "god" as well, which makes for some ironic confusion.

Otherwise, the essay presents an anti-Zionist, revisionist reading of the history of the Second Temple period. This is kind of interesting but it contains a good bit of wild speculation (e.g., the claim that monotheism was imposed by the Persian Empire or the confidently reconstructed polytheistic cults of Yahweh/Asherah and El/Elyon/Eilat).

Cohen appears to be inviting modern Palestinian Arabs to claim Herod as one of their own. I suppose they can have him if they want him. His Judaism credentials are debatable too and I don't imagine many Jews would mind sharing him. But the historical links to modern Palestinians are tenuous and the historical analogy to the present strikes me as weak. Be that as it may, if Palestinians want to adopt Herod, they will need to accept the existence of the Second Jewish Temple, whose renovation and rebuilding was his greatest achievement.

UPDATE (31 December): Reader E.K. e-mails:
On the subject of Herod's Arab background (and evaluation in early Judaism), it is worthy to note a stream of exegesis that saw in Herod the fulfillment of either Daniel 9:24-27, Genesis 49:10, or both (attested in Eusebius, Epiphanius, Slavonic Josephus, with echoes in Justin Martyr and Julius Africanus), which William Adler regarded as having an earlier Jewish provenance ("The Apocalyptic Survey of History Adapted by Christians: Daniel's Prophecy of 70 Weeks," by William Adler, published in The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity, 1996). In this reading, Herod would be the prophesied Gentile who would take the scepter of Judah away and/or come "to destroy the city and sanctuary". The Herodian interpretation of these scriptures would have then survived in Christian exegesis for some time.

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