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Attempt to un-Herod Herod

15 August 2014

by Henry Wansbrough

The True Herod
Geza Vermes
Bloomsbury £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT640 )

THIS sparkling little book represents, regrettably, a posthumous tribute to a great scholar. Geza Vermes, in origin a Hungarian Jew, became for a time a Christian and a Roman Catholic priest, finally reverting to a sort of benevolent agnosticism. He made his name by two endeavours: first, his early and daring championship of the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls (he is also the author of their standard English translation); and, second, his insistence, from 1967 onwards, that Jesus could be understood only against his Jewish background - at that time an equally revolutionary stance. He lectured and wrote till weeks before his death in 2013, aged 88, and left this script almost complete.

The book is a gem of a coffee-table book, decorated with apt photographs of extraordinary quality; somehow, many of the inscriptions are more legible than the originals, and, together, they give a splendid illustration of the sumptuous luxury of Herod's kingdom. The argument, however, is less satisfying. Only half the book is about King Herod: the rest is devoted to the history of the previous century, and to the ruling descendants of Herod's family.

The author sets out to rehabilitate King Herod. His attempt fails through fairness to the historical facts of Herod's cruelty and megalomania, which he attributes to Herod's inferiority complex at the contrast between his own half-caste status and his wife Mariamne's royal descent. Of course, the portrait of Herod in Matthew 2 is designed to compare Herod to Pharoah and Jesus to Moses, and cannot be taken at its historical face value. Nevertheless, after an evaluation of Herod's consummate political manoeuvring, even the plea that Herod remained devotedly loyal to Augustus hardly rings true, and, in any case, cannot counterbalance the series of quasi-judicial murders of his own family.

The real greatness of King Herod lies in his lavish expenditure on a series of monumental buildings, many of which remain almost intact, or at least recognisable. Was he the architect of genius behind all these, or only the paymaster? 

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