[K:NWTS 24/1 (May 2009) 57-58]

Book Review

Ehud Netzer, The Architecture of Herod the Great Builder. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008. 443pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-8010-3612-5. $69.99.

The week after the review copy of this title arrived, the news-wires were abuzz with Netzer’s announcement that he had unearthed the tomb of one of Herod’s (ten) wives at the Herodium on the West Bank, just outside of Jerusalem. Netzer claimed the remains of the wife, Malthace, were contained in a limestone sarcophagus. The Herodium is the location of one of Herod’s numerous palaces and it was here, in 2007, that Netzer located what he has identified as the sarcophagus of Herod himself (cf. pages ix-xiv of this volume). Malthace was Herod’s sixth wife, a Samaritan and mother of Archelaus, who became ruler of Judea and Samaria on Herod’s death in 4 B.C. (Mt. 2:22). This latest stunning announcement but adds to the remarkable finds recounted and described in this book.

Netzer focuses on ‘Herod the Builder’ (not ‘Herod the Butcher’; cf. Mt. 2:16-18, a narrative which receives not even a mention in this very thick and very expensive paperback). Extracting the narrative history of Herod’s brutally savvy political career from Josephus, Netzer provides the reader with a thorough biography of his subject (3-16). We learn how he drowned a brother-in-law, Aristobulus (too popular with the masses); murdered one of his wives, Mariamme (obsessed with suspicion about her); even his first-born son, Antipater, was dispatched (political threat). And all the while his hands were covered with blood, he built and built and built: the Temple in Jerusalem, the Herodium, palaces in Masada and Sebaste (Samaria), a hippodrome in Jericho, a port on the Mediterranean (Caesarea Maritima). Ever building, as if to assure himself of immortality in the face of his base infamy. Sic semper tyranni!

The story is all here, in profuse detail, with charts, photographs, maps, schemata, etc., an impressive record of archaeological work surrounding the King of the Jews (37-4 B.C.). Netzer finds his subject “a practical and thorough man” (306)—certainly true with respect to the “slaughter of the innocents” of Bethlehem. This book reminds us of the façade of glory with which brute despots aggrandize to themselves power, wealth and oppression. The “stones cry out”, even as they are uncovered once more: here are the remains of a human beast, a monster, a demagogue, a wretch. Netzer’s volume cannot sanitize the stench of death which rises from the sarcophagi as well as the bricks and stones laid with the sweat, blood and tears of slave and prison labor.

—James T. Dennison, Jr.