Reports from Israel this week announce that the burial site of Herod the Great, infamous for the infanticide of Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2:16-19), has been discovered. Is it likely—or even possible for that matter—that someone so long dead (2000 years!) would just “turn up?” Actually, yes … You see, Herod was no ordinary ruler for his time or in the region in which he lived. He is remembered for enormous political acumen as well as for monumental feats of architecture second to few in his world . And this notoriety was cemented with incredible details of his life, lore and loves in the writings of both Jewish and Roman historians. Hard for someone this conspicuous to hide forever.
The site of Herod’s burial place has actually been known since the first century CE. The Jewish historian Josephus records that for his final rest Herod had selected the site of Herodium (“Herod’s Place”—he was a humble guy), 12 miles south of Bethlehem, off the Jerusalem-Hebron ridge road. Here, miraculous events had unfolded in the thirties that saved him and his family from their enemies, the Hasmoneans and their Parthian supporters. It remained a special place for Herod to his dying day. And so Josephus writes that after Herod died in Jericho, his body was littered through the Judean desert to a processional ramp and monumental staircase at Herodium and from there to his mausoleum on the site.
Lots of detail here: the circumstances, the place and cause of death, the funeral program, and even the cemetery. So why has it taken archaeologists nearly half a century to find the tomb? Years of excavation on upper (the acropolis) and lower (the resort) Herodium turned up nothing. Some theorized that “the old fox” had plotted to conceal his grave from snoops and vandals, much like the early pharaohs in Egypt had. Perhaps he was not even buried at Herodium at all. But to most this theory never made much sense. Josephus’ account is so exact; it is unlikely that he was aware of any such controversy. So the find spot turns out to be exactly where the first century historian says it would be: not in the impressive building remains and fortifications of upper and lower Herodium, but in the middle, at the top of the staircase which ran off the processional path leading to the canyons from Jericho.
True, the bones were gone and the sarcophagus in shambles, signs of desecration and looting. But one might expect this since Jewish Zealots had occupied Herodium for five years during the first revolt against Rome (CE 66-71) and being no friends of Herod, might have sought to waste the memory of the old king. Also Herod’s opulence guaranteed an impressive stash in the tomb, which may have been attractive to the freedom-fighting Zealots. But from what we know of the Zealot behavior at similar sites like Masada and Machaerus, it was not their style to loot Herod’s treasures. They simply ignored them. And what about the skeleton? Was it ever at Herodium or did Herod outfox us all by having his corpse interred elsewhere? What do I really think?
Come to Israel with me. We’ll lay it all out and visit this site that is surely to attract renewed interest after this amazing recovery. Not only of artifacts, but also of events relating to the demise of one of the history’s great figures.