The True Herod
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
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?