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A Kindler, Gentler Herod the Great

December 8, 2008

The December issue of National Geographic has as its cover article King Herod Revealed: The Holy Land’s Visionary Builder. While it has some nice pictures and some good information, I found the whole thing  a bit misleading.

Now, I know, thems are fightin’ words. But, I encourage all of you who haven’t to read the article. While there are several issues in the article, the main problem for me was how the author Tom Mueller dealt with his sources.

Already early on we are told, in no uncertain terms that Herod was laid to rest in Herodium. However, most NT archaeologists tend to couch this statement a bit: according to Josephus Herod was buried in Herodium. Why does this distinction matter? Two reasons: 1) it’s methodologically honest to note when you only have one source giving you the info, and 2) Josephus can be a problematic source.

This second reason is one that Mueller seems to understand. He notes that Josephus’ account of Herod’s death is a bit tendentious:

In the final analysis, Herod’s most serious disorder may have been a hostile biographer. In fact, the symptoms Josephus mentions were part of a stock repertoire of rank and randy ailments, widely considered signs of God’s wrath, that had already been used for centuries by Greek and Roman historians to drop the curtain on evil rulers.

Of course, all of this is true. However, don’t you think that this caution should also have been applied to using Josephus’ information concerning the location of Herod’s tomb? Sadly, this methodological consistency is wanting.

Why do I even bring this up? Because at the end of the day, your assesment of Ehud Netzer’s findings at Herodium is directly related to how much you trust Josephus. If we did not have Josephus’ account of Herod’s internment, Netzer wouldn’t have even been digging where he was. I think that deserves at least a passing mention.

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