Christians tend to place the responsibility for Jesus’ death upon either the Jewish crowds (as symbolic of fallen humanity) or upon Israel’s cultic elite (as symbolic of oppressive and politically-compromised religion). In so doing they follow the general picture offered by the Gospels.
Historians, on the other hand, tend to shift the onus in the direction of the Roman governmental apparatus.1 Despite the fact that the Gospels portray Pilate as helpless before a vicious Jewish mob, the Roman governor was by all accounts a violent man himself, willing to brutally crush dissidents (cf. Luke 13:1). And Pilate alone, after all, possessed the authority to crucify a rabble-rouser in Jerusalem.
A clear and present danger
Among this cast of villains then, the Herodian dynasty is often neglected. The three Herods, Herod Antipas of Galilee and Perea in particular, represented the most immediate authority over and threat to Jesus of Nazareth (John 19:19), the Galilean (Mark 14:70). It was thus the Tetrarch, Herod Antipas, not Pilate, who slew John,2 Jesus’ mentor and forerunner. As Herod’s subject (cf. Luke 23:7), John’s successor (cf. Mark 6:16, 8:28), and a prophet headquartered in Capernaum of Galilee, Jesus had to beware the Tetrarch’s sword.
So while Herod’s involvement in the crucifixion is indeed marginal in the Gospels, various early Christian traditions do attribute to the Herodian kings homicidal schemes.
- Herod the Great seeks to exterminate the newborn “king of the Jews” by tricking his first worshipers, the magi (Matthew 2:13; 7-8).
- Herod Antipas worries that Jesus might be his populist rival, John the Baptist, back from the dead (Mark 6:16)—or an even more ominous figure (Luke 9:7-9)—and so tries to destroy him (Luke 13:31-32).
- Herod Agrippa I, fitting the pattern of the archetypal pagan god-king (Acts 12:20-23), persecutes Jesus’ church in Jerusalem—first by beheading James the brother of John, and then by imprisoning Peter (Acts 12:1-19).
Although these portraits are by no means historically certain, especially the one derived from Matthew’s typology-laden infancy narrative, they likely grew out of a historical seed of shared animosity. Herod’s dynasty3 and the early Christians did not get along. The Herodians attempted to surveil and sabotage Jesus (Mark 3:6, 12:13) while Jesus opposed Antipas and taught his disciples to do the same (Mark 8:15, cf. Luke 13:32).
Kings of the Jews
The origins of this antagonism seem relatively clear. Herod Antipas, like many rulers, was a man deeply concerned with the maintenance of his political control.4 Josephus writes, for instance, that the Tetrarch had John beheaded because he feared an insurrection fomented by the prophet.
Now many people came in crowds to John, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.
The politically-hopeful crowds drawn by Jesus no doubt instilled in Herod the same anxiety (cf. John 6:14-15, 12:12-19, Mark 6:30-44). That Herod viewed Jesus (and John) as a political threat is, moreover, confirmed by Christian sources.
- Herod the Great, appointed “king of the Jews” by the Roman senate (Josephus, Wars 1.14.4), is “disturbed” that a rival “king of the Jews” has been born in Judea (Matthew 2:1-4).
- Herod Antipas imprisons John the Baptist for insolence. John had openly attacked the Tetrarch for lawbreaker and thus had delegitimized the king’s authority over the Jewish people (Mark 6:17-18, cf. Matthew 14:5).
- Herod Antipas worries that Jesus, like John, is a powerful prophet, or at least is perceived as such by the people (Luke 9:7-9, cf. Luke 23:8). If left unchecked, Jesus might finish the work started by John, deposing Israel’s king (cf. Luke 1:52, Mark 10:31).
- Herod’s supporters view Jesus as politically subversive. They question him concerning Roman taxes because they think he might incriminate himself (Mark 12:13, cf. Luke 23:1-2).
Based on his paranoia regarding Jesus during his ministry, the suggestion that Herod Antipas had a weightier hand in the decision to crucify Jesus than, say, Mark or John let on is worth pursuing.5
Luke’s testimony in this regard is particularly intriguing. The Lukan Peter recalls that “Herod [Antipas] and Pontius Pilate… gathered together against [Jesus]” to have him eliminated (Acts 4:27-28, cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-8). This tradition is striking even with Luke’s singular account of Jesus’ trial before Herod in Jerusalem (Luke 23:6-12). In that text Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate, unwilling to deliver a verdict (23:13-16). And so, as in the other Gospels, it is still Pilate, compelled by the Jewish religious leaders, who in the end sentences Jesus to die.
And yet, in this account Luke leaves some telling details—details that corroborate Herod’s desire to extinguish Jesus. During his inspection of Jesus, Antipas and his soldiers treat their prisoner with “contempt” and “mock” him. All the while, the chief priests submit accusations against Jesus (23:10-11). Such accusations were likely political in nature, as they are elsewhere: “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:1-2 cf. 23:35-38). In response to these troubling charges, Antipas and his retinue ridicule Jesus, so it seems, as an imposter king (cf. Mark 15:16-20), wrapping him in what many interpreters believe to be royal Herodian raiment, a “brilliant [white] robe” (ἐσθῆτα λαμπρὰν).6
Here at last then Herod squashes his rival’s political pretentions. There can be only one reigning “king of the Jews” and Jesus will now be exposed as a fraud for all to see: “THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS” will be scratched above his head, perhaps at Herod’s suggestion (Matthew 27:37). Now dressed as the Herodian prince he apparently claims to be, Antipas sends Jesus back to Pilate—recommending crucifixion.7
Setting aside the issue of historicity—whether such a trial could have or would have taken place— Luke’s composition once again betrays Herod’s resentment towards Jesus, the usurper. Herod’s appraisal of Jesus—that he was, like John, lying in wait to start a rebellion—sealed by a final examination in Jerusalem or not, was likely made known to Pilate. With the approval of Antipas secured, Pilate proceeded with a routine crucifixion, assured that the unrest generated in either Judea or Galilee would be manageable.
1—As with Dominic Crossan’s anti-imperial framework, Pilate comes to represent the evil of empire and hierarchical socio-political systems. None of these three approaches to the Passion, I would argue, grapples with the politically portentous nature of Jesus’ prophetic outlook. The kingdom Jesus announced was expected to crush and replace the “rulers of this age,” Herod included.
2—John seems to have ministered mostly in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28). This eastern shore of the river was, like Galilee, also under the jurisdiction of Herod the Tetrarch.
3—Raymond Brown makes the point that early Christians probably conflated Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and Herod Agrippa I—no such distinctions (i.e. the Great, Antipas, and Agrippa I) appear in the New Testament. Each of these men are presented as “king” and each threatens violence against the church (The Death of the Messiah, 784-785). For the early Christians, the Herodian family embodied a set of shared (nefarious) interests.
4—Herod the Great had a number of his sons imprisoned and executed for treason.
5—The Evangelists downplay the role of the political authorities (i.e. Herod and Pilate) in the death of Jesus. In so doing they insist that Jesus (and his followers throughout the empire) posed a religious threat to Jewish and pagan cults but not an (immediate) political threat to the governing bodies. Though they awaited an earthly political kingdom, Christians were not interested in insurrection.
6—Compare with Acts 12:21, Luke 7:25, and Antiquities xix. 8.2. As to its color, the white garb of angels was sometimes characterized as “brilliant” (cf. Acts 10:30, Revelation 15:6). Josephus states that Herod Agrippa I wore a blinding garment made “wholly of silver.”
7—While incorrect to exonerate Pilate entirely, the Gospel of Peter may reflect historical memory when it has Herod order the execution of Jesus (1:1-2, cf. Ignatius Smyrnaeans 1.2).