The Architecture of Herod the Great Builder

By Ehud Netzer
Grand Rapids : Baker (2008). 443 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 278-279

Although he is mentioned by name only in the initial chapters of Matthew and Luke, the shadow of Herod the Great looms large over the entire NT. Cities like Jerusalem, Samaria, Jericho, and Caesarea were all adorned with his massive building projects. Three of his sons (Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip), one of his grandsons (Agrippa I), and one of his great-grandsons (Agrippa II) play key roles in the narratives of the Gospels and Acts. Josephus dedicates large portions of his Antiquities and Jewish War to the life and times of this man. The title “the Great” is appended to the names of very few people in ancient and modern history (Alexander, Peter, Catherine), yet one always refers to “Herod the Great” in discussions. Many moderns who read of his cruelty and maniacal paranoia wonder why anyone like him should be called “great.” Josephus actually calls him by this title in only two obscure references and then it is to distinguish him from his son who would be “Herod the Less.” Nevertheless, those who have studied his great building projects recognize how fitting that title is, although not in terms of morality. And it is in that role of builder that Netzer describes Herod in this excellent book.

Ehud Netzer could aptly be called “Dr. Herod” due to his extensive excavations of many of the sites credited to this ancient “King of the Jews.” In the last decades he has dedicated his remaining career to the excavation and interpretation of the “Herodium”—one of Herod’s desert fortresses where Josephus says he was buried. Netzer dedicated himself to finding the specific site at Herodium where Herod’s tomb was located. This search was finally rewarded in early 2007 when he found the ruins of a mausoleum on the slope which contained architectural fragments of the royal sarcophagus that originally contained Herod’s disease-ridden remains. Since the book is a second edition of another published by Mohr-Siebck in 2006, Netzer adds a new preface that describes these finds. Netzer’s opening chapter also consists of a helpful overview of Herod’s life and career as a clear-headed, although sometimes ruthless, client king of his masters in Rome.

By his book title, Netzer makes it clear that the title “Great” was well deserved by Herod in at least one area of his career—he was truly a great builder. Most of his book is dedicated to describing in detail the great building projects attributed to Herod. These include not only Herodium (179-201), but also fortresses at Masada (7-41), Machaerus and others in the Judean wilderness (203-18); palaces at Jericho (42-60 and Jerusalem (119-36); the massive port city of Caesarea (94- 118); and the adornment of Samaria-Sebaste (81-93). For believers, of course, Herod’s crowning achievement was his (re) building of the Temple in Jerusalem. Netzer weaves together the written sources (Josephus, Mishna, N.T.) with the results of excavations around the Temple Mount over the last forty years to offer a truly helpful and accurate picture of that largest worship center of the ancient Roman world (137-78). He even describes the remains of his lesser-known projects outside the king’s realm (218-42). With the help of some younger assistants, Netzer’s general discussion of Herod’s architectural philosophy and program (243-83) rounds out knowledge of these crucial subjects of interest to the secular as well as the sacred historian.

This reviewer has devoured the book in preparation for a study tour of Israel, where he will again see firsthand the discoveries of this great archaeologist, whose contributions to Herod research have been unequalled in the field. This is essential reading for the serious traveler to Israel and for anyone who teaches the NT. The reviewer considers it the last word on an ancient figure who, more than any other person, has left his physical mark on the land of the Bible.