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Composite “Herod” in Luke-Acts

The name “Herod” appears for three different Herodian rulers in Luke-Acts. The essay explores unique features of the Lukan depiction of two of these Herodian rulers at Luke 1:5 and Acts 12:1-23 in relation to the description of the rulers found in other ancient sources. Drawing upon these unique features and applying a text-oriented, narrative-critical interpretive strategy to Luke-Acts, this essay will explain the recurrence of this name in Luke-Acts as the amalgamation of three historical individuals into a composite character.

See also: Herod as a Composite Character in Luke-Acts (WUNT II. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).

By Frank Dicken
Assistant Professor of New Testament
Lincoln Christian University
June 2015

Readers of the canonical gospels are well aware of the increased attention that the author of Luke-Acts[1] gives to the rulers of the Herodian dynasty. Both the scope of Luke-Acts and the author’s interests in the political milieu of his day allow this extensive treatment. Despite the fact that Luke omits the famous scene from Mark 6:14-29 (par. Matt 14:1-12) of Herod’s birthday party—replete with dancing girl and John the Baptist’s head on a platter—he adds several scenes not found in the writings of his synoptic counterparts. The first is Herod’s appearance in the birth narrative (Luke 1:5). Then, Luke includes a note about Herod’s animosity toward Jesus (Luke 13:31-35) as well as Jesus’ appearance before Herod at Pontius Pilate’s request in the Lukan passion narrative (Luke 23:6-12). The author also includes narratives of Herod persecuting the early church, the apostles James and Peter in particular (Acts 12:1-5), the story of Peter’s miraculous escape from Herod’s prison (Acts 12:6-19), and the story of Herod’s gruesome death (Acts 12:20-23). Finally, Paul appears before King Agrippa during the series of trials he faces in Caesarea (Acts 25:13—26:32).

The historically astute reader immediately recognizes the problem with that summary—leaving aside King Agrippa for the moment—those rulers named “Herod” are three different people. But, without different names, would the historical distinctions between the rulers have been as clear to the earliest readers of Luke-Acts? Are those distinctions always clear to those reading Luke-Acts today? Raymond Brown captures this potential confusion best when he writes, “Three men in the NT are called Hērōdes: Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and Herod Agrippa I…. How many hearers or readers would have known that these were three different men?” (Brown 1994: 784).

I propose that with regard to the narrative of Luke-Acts, the historical distinctions between the “Herods” are blurred. In the story-world of Luke-Acts, the name “Herod” amalgamates the three historical individuals into a single, or composite, character. Two historical anomalies in Luke’s presentations of the Herods bear this out. First, Luke 1:5 begins, “In the days of Herod, King of Judaea…” Readers assume this refers to Herod the Great because we so often conflate the Lukan and Matthean birth narratives rather than allowing them to stand on their own. There are several problems with this assumption, however. The first problem is that no Herodian ruler held the title “King of Judaea” (basileōs tēs Ioudaias). Herod the Great was referred to as “King of the Jews” (basilea Ioudaiōn) in inscriptions (Richardson 1996: 203-209), on coins (Meshorer 1982: 17), and in extant documentary evidence (Jos. War 1.282; Ant. 14.381-385). Though the terms Ioudaias and Ioudaiōn are obviously related, the former designates a geographic region and the latter denotes the people inhabiting that region. One may object that the title given at Luke 3:2, “Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee” (tetraarxountos tēs Galilaias Hērōdou) distinguishes the two rulers. However, in the first century CE the titles “King” and “Tetrarch” appear to have been interchangeable. The authors of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew use these titles interchangeably with reference to Herod Antipas (Mark 6:14-29; Matt 14:1-12; cf. Plut. Caes. 50; Ant. 36.2; 56.4; 58.5; Strabo, Geog. 12.3.1). Luke also, seeking to demonstrate how the death of Jesus fulfills Psa 2:1-2 at Acts 4:25-27, refers to both Herod (Antipas) and Pontius Pilate as “kings” and “rulers” for their roles in the death of Jesus (Dicken 2014:72-82). Additionally, at Luke 4:14, 44; 7:17; Acts 10:37 the regions of Galilee and Judaea are either not distinguished or are conflated (Barclay 1996: 242; Strabo, Geog. 16.2.34). Within the story-world of Luke-Acts, the titles “King of Judaea” and “Tetrarch of Galilee” may be understood as different titles for one and the same ruler, composite “Herod.”

To further support this point, we note that identifying a specific historical referent for “Herod, King of Judaea” is complicated by Luke’s placement of the birth of Jesus during the time of the census taken by Quirinius, Governor of Syria, which occurred in 6 CE. Herod the Great likely died in 4 BCE (Richardson 1996: 296; Barnes 1968: 204-209) which makes understanding “Herod” at Luke 1:5 as a reference to this king obviously problematic. The identity of “Herod, King of Judaea” may be construed another way. The impetus for the census under Quirinius was Caesar Augustus’ banishment of Archelaus, Herod’s son, in 6 CE. So, Nikos Kokkinos proposes that Archelaus is Luke’s “Herod, King of Judaea” (Kokkinos 1998: 226-227, fn. 78). Archelaus appears in Matthew’s birth narrative (Matt 2:22) where the first evangelist writes that he was “ruling Judaea in place of his father” (basileuei tēs Ioudaias anti tou patros autou). Matthew’s narrative may be an indication that Archelaus was popularly known as “King of Judaea” given the appearance of the verb basileuō. Though Archelaus was technically “Ethnarch of Judaea,” the titles “Ethnarch” and “King,” similar to “Tetrarch” and “King,” were interchangeable (France 2007: 90). In any event, Luke’s setting his version of Jesus’ birth during the period when “Herod” ruled as “King of Judaea” and Quirinius took a census as governor of Syria creates historical problems. Unless there is evidence that is unknown to us, a historical solution to these problems will be impossible. On the contrary, a literary solution is possible, and here I reiterate my proposal that “Herod” is a composite character in Luke-Acts.

The second anomaly in Luke’s depiction of the Herods is much simpler to handle: the appearance of the name “Herod” for Agrippa I in Acts 12. There is no extant documentary, epigraphic, or numismatic evidence that testifies to the name “Herod” for Agrippa I. As John Weaver has written, “The uniqueness of Luke’s use of ‘Herod’ as a name for Agrippa I…is found nowhere else in antiquity, further indicating that the name derives primarily from the literary purposes and patterns of Luke-Acts” (Weaver 2004: 210). Weaver goes on to state that this unique appellation “encourages the reader to equate the two Herods” [i.e., Antipas and Agrippa] (Weaver 2004: 210, fn. 167). I agree with Weaver, though I would include the Herod of Luke 1:5 in the construction of composite “Herod.”

What we see in these two anomalies is the amalgamation of different historical persons that results in the construction of a single character within the narrative that I am calling composite “Herod.” In other words, a reader can read Luke-Acts from beginning to end and assume that “Herod” is one ruler. The presence of a composite character is not unique to Luke-Acts. Other literature in antiquity, particularly Jewish and Christian literature, occasionally employed composite characters. For example, consider “Pharaoh” in the Hebrew Bible. Aside from two instances (Jer 44:30; 46:2), “Pharaoh” is not identified. Rather, it is a name/title that authors utilize to evoke images of the Exodus, including oppression by foreign domination and divine deliverance from enemies (Burns 1987: 17). A second example is the conflation of Nebuchadenzzar II and Nabonidus in Dan 3-4. In Daniel, the king simply appears as “Nebuchadnezzar,” but as Ronald Sack argues, the literary character evidences qualities drawn from two ancient rulers (Sack 2004: 103-108). In the LXX, consider “Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Assyria” in the Book of Judith. The author of Judith appears to have conflated an enemy of God’s people—Nebuchadnezzar—and a dominating foreign power—Assyria—to create a “supra-historical enemy of God” (Otzen 2002: 90-91). The Greek novel Chaereas and Callirhoe, composed in the first century CE, includes the character “Artaxerxes,” who evidences characteristics of the historical rulers Artaxerxes II and III (Reardon 1989: 18). In the post-New Testament (NT) period, Rabbinic literature sometimes makes use of composites such as “Antiochus,” drawn from the dynasty of Seleucid rulers (Bickerman 2007: 528-529), and “King Agrippa,” a conflation of two Herodian rulers, Agrippa I and II (Schwartz 1990: 158-170). Remaining in the period following the NT but turning to Christian literature outside the canonical NT, we see more composites. First is “Mary” in Gospel of Philip, who is a conflation of Jesus’ mother, sister, and friend (Shoemaker 2002: 7-8). Second, another “Mary” appears also in Pistis Sophia, but in that writing she is an amalgamation of Mary of Bethany and other Marys in the canonical gospels (Good 1994: 703-704). Third is the “Philip” of Acts of Philip. This character is comprised of traits drawn from the apostle Philip in the canonical gospels and Philip the evangelist in Acts (Bouvier et al 1997: 1182). These examples demonstrate that composite characters appear occasionally in ancient literature and that understanding “Herod” in Luke-Acts in this way fits within the literary milieu in which these writings were composed.

The issue that interpreters need to resolve is determining what composite characters add to a narrative. Here we may allow the narrative depiction of the characters to serve as evidence for determining their purpose. Composite characters draw upon and conflate the collective effect of the memories of significant individuals and events, even from the relatively recent past, in order to create a stereotyped narrative character (Dicken 2014: 145). To illustrate this point using the examples given above, consider that “Pharaoh” serves as “the arch-enemy of Yahweh and his chosen people” in the Hebrew Bible (Burns 1987: 20). Also, composite “Nebuchadnezzar” represents the powers of exile, oppression, and the destruction of God’s people (Sack 2004: 103-108). Composite “Mary” is adapted to suit the purposes of texts in which the character appears. For instance, in Gospel of Mary she is a “comforter and teacher,” whereas in Acts of Philip she is “a commissioned travelling and teaching companion of Philip” (Dicken 2014: 146). Each of the other examples could be listed, but the point is clear—composite characters serve in stereotyped roles in order to provide the reader with an example to follow, an enemy to distrust, a foil over against the protagonist(s), etc.

For our purposes, composite “Herod” in Luke-Acts “represents an actualization of Satan’s desire to impede the spread of the good news through his rejection of the gospel message and through political persecution” (Dicken 2014: 146). To demonstrate this, let us examine the narrative depiction of composite “Herod” in Luke-Acts. “Herod” appears in Luke-Acts over against three of the protagonists: John the Baptist, Jesus, and Peter. Luke’s version of the death of John the Baptist is much more abbreviated than those of Mark and Matthew. In Luke 3:1-18, John proclaims the good news and the Kingdom of God to his listeners. At 3:19-20, John rebukes “Herod,” who promptly imprisons John. Later, “Herod” flatly acknowledges that he has executed John (Luke 9:7-9). The third canonical gospel gives no further elaboration on the death of John as do Mark and Matthew. In this instance, “Herod” rejects the message preached by John and goes so far as to kill the messenger.

“Herod’s” reaction to Jesus is much the same. The depiction of “Herod” as “King of Judaea” in the birth narrative (Luke 1:5) prepares for conflict between this King and Jesus, who is portrayed as the one who will rule over the people of God from the throne of David (Luke 1:32-33) and is finally revealed to be the true King of the Jews as the narrative reaches its climax (Luke 23:3, 37-38). Later, “Herod” hears about the miracles and teaching of Jesus and wishes to see him (Luke 9:7-9). Though this appears to be a positive portrayal of “Herod,” as the story unfolds the nature of “Herod’s” desire becomes apparent—he wishes to kill Jesus (Luke 13:31-35). When “Herod” eventually does see Jesus (after Pilate sent Jesus to “Herod” for a ruling regarding the accusations made against Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders) he and his soldiers mock Jesus (Luke 23:6-11). Finally, despite their apparent agreement that Jesus had done nothing worthy of punishment (Luke 23:4, 14-15, 22), “Herod” and Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, are implicated in the death of Jesus as a group of early believers pray for boldness in the face of opposition that Peter and John had encountered from the Jewish ruling council (Acts 4:25-27, cf. 4:1-31). Just as “Herod” had ignored John the Baptist, so he rejects and executes Jesus according to the narrative of Luke-Acts.

The third protagonist opposed by “Herod” is Peter. Though other characters sometimes take center-stage in Acts 1-12 (e.g., Stephen, Philip), Peter is the central figure of the initial chapters of Acts. Acts 12:1-19 depicts King “Herod” continuing his violent ways: he persecutes the church (v.1), executes James, son of Zebedee (v.2), imprisons Peter with the intent of executing him (vv.3-4), and orders the execution of his own soldiers after learning that Peter had escaped from prison (vv.18-19). However, there is a notable difference between Peter’s brief encounter with “Herod” and those of John and Jesus. Peter does not die. He is saved miraculously, being freed from prison by an angel of the Lord. Peter’s rescue contrasts with “Herod’s” own demise, recounted at Acts 12:20-23.

But why does “Herod” so oppose Luke’s protagonists? To answer this question, we need to look at the bigger picture of Luke’s depiction of Roman rulers. Luke 4:5-6 portrays the Roman world (oikoumenē, see Luke 2:1; 21:26; Acts 11:28; 17:6, 31; 19:27; 24:5) as under the authority of the devil, who can delegate authority in the world to whomever he wishes (Bovon 2002: 141-142). Thus, from the perspective of the Lukan narrative, one must conclude that those who hold authority over kingdoms in the world have received their authority (exousia) from the devil. This includes all Roman rulers from Caesar, whose authority is evidenced in the ordering of a worldwide census (Green 1997: 194), to “Herod,” whom Pilate recognizes as one holding authority (Luke 23:6-7). Since the devil/Satan is repeatedly depicted as opposing the proclamation of the good news (Luke 4:1-13; 10:18) and impeding those who might hear such proclamation from responding positively to it (Luke 8:12; 22:3, 31; Acts 5:3; 13:10), it is no surprise that “Herod,” as one empowered by the devil, rejects the gospel. Granted, the narrative does not portray all Roman rulers like “Herod.” Some Roman officials respond positively to the proclaimed word, e.g., the Roman centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10:1—11:18), and the Proconsul, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-12). Another Roman ruler, Gallio, is indifferent to those who proclaim the gospel (Acts 18:12-17). Such diverse responses are not unexpected, however. Those who are under Satan’s authority in metaphorical darkness are, in the words of the Lukan Paul, being turned to the metaphorical light and the power of God when they respond rightly to the proclaimed word (Acts 26:18). Luke’s Roman rulers represent a spectrum of responses to such preaching, from belief to outright hostility, with composite “Herod” serving in the stereotyped role of persecutor par excellence at the negative end of this spectrum.

For his role as the one who rejects the good news and opposes those who proclaim it, “Herod” is punished by God with a gruesome death (Acts 12:20-23).[2] After coming to an agreement with a delegation from Tyre and Sidon regarding a matter of food supplied to those cities from “Herod’s” kingdom, “Herod” steps forward to address the people arrayed in his royal robes. When the people see him, they hail him as a god. “Herod” is struck down immediately, consumed by worms, and dies. There are two indications that this is punishment directly from God. First, being consumed by worms is a punishment reserved only for the worst of sinners in the LXX (Job 2:9; 25:6; Isa 14:11; Jud 16:17; 1 Macc 2:62; 2 Macc 9:9; Sir 7:17; 18:30—19:3). Second, the Greek term for “die” is ekpsuchō, which is only used elsewhere in Luke-Acts to describe the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to God and tested the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:5, 10). When we relate this narrative of “Herod’s” death to our understanding of the depiction of composite “Herod” throughout Luke-Acts, we see in the summary statement of Acts 12:24 the important role Luke’s depiction of “Herod” plays—that opposition from political rulers will not stop the progress of the gospel.


Luke-Acts has gone beyond the hard-partying, over-promising King Herod of Mark 6:14-29 (par. Matthew 14:1-12) and the infant-slaughtering King Herod of Matthew 2:1-12 by conflating three Herodian rulers into a gospel-rejecting, prophet-executing, Messiah-mocking, apostle-decapitating composite “Herod.” Positing a composite character, not only in Luke-Acts but also other ancient texts, gives us a new way of understanding various historical anomalies with regard to events and characters. The various examples listed above may provide evidence of ignorance or confusion on the part of the authors. Or they may demonstrate that greater ideological (or theological) concerns have led to the presence of a composite character. In light of the care with which Luke-Acts appears to have been composed, I believe in the case of composite “Herod” the latter is operative.


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[1] I will refer to the authors of the canonical gospels by the names traditionally associated with them though the authors are unknown.

[2] Josephus records the death of Agrippa in Ant. 19.343-350, an account which is slightly different from the one found in Acts.

Comments (1)

I would really struggle to believe that the Evangelists went to the trouble of choosing specific words for king and tetrach, giving (surely!)an impression of information and accuracy, if they meant to be entirely unspecific as to distinct historical characters. 'Composite character' normally means 'single character based on more than one real model' but I can see no ground for thinking that the Evangelists, singly or as a group, give the impression that there was one King of the Jews, ie a composite character based on several real Herodians, between around 4 BC and AD 44-odd. Why give that impression - everyone with any interest in the subject would have known that it was not even close to the truth. Why make your story unnecessarily hard to believe?
There might be an answer to that question along the lines that the Gospels contain an element of surrealism, as much great literature does as a way of conveying truth, but if the composite Herod is introduced to make a surreal and monstrous effect then surely the figure's departure from actual reality would surely have been a bit more strongly emphasised than it actually is.
Bram Stoker's Dracula is supposed to be a surreal figure of evil composited from Vlad the Impaler and a noblewoman who considered the blood of younger women to be medicinal. The composite Herod is horrible but not 'mythological' enough to have the same literary effect as Stoker's creation does.
#1 - Martin Hughes - 07/02/2015 - 19:30

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