Herod’s death rewritten by Eusebius

The narration of Herod’s final days is particularly developed and dramatized in Josephus’ War I and Antiquities XVII. Among the numerous overlappings of Josephus’ narration and the beginnings of Christian historiography, the episode of Herod’s death plays an essential role. Through the theme of the slaughter of the Innocents, the event of Herod’s death is supposed to guarantee the historicity of the date and place of a fundamental event: Jesus Christ’s birth.

After a presentation of the historical facts according to the primary source (Josephus’ account) and questions related to its origins, we will examine Eusebius’ reception of Josephus. First we will consider the hypothesis of the preservation of Josephus’ version, looking at Eusebius’ Church History as a palimpseste of Josephus’ account. Next we will discuss the destruction of Josephus’ version, looking at Eusebius’ Church History as a narratological creation, accomplished by deletions, amalgamations and additions. By the way, we will evaluate the presence of both types of elements in Eusebius’ Church History and be able to analyze and interpret the selective appropriations, transformations and constructions that contributed to Eusebius’ use of Josephus’ story.

The historical facts according to the primary source

(a summary of Josephus’ account)

  1. a) Uncertainty about the primary source

Uncertainty persists concerning the sources of about the primary source of Josephus’s account of Herod’s death. About one-fifth of Josephus’ Antiquities is devoted to Herod’s 34 year reign. Josephus’ principal source for Herod’s reign is Nicolaus of Damascus. Nicolaus was Herod’s minister, confidante and historiographer over the course of more than twenty years. Nicolaus began his career as a philosopher in the Peripatetician School, (which is how he became the preceptor of Antony and Cleopatra’s children); he then lived in Judea until Herod’s death in 4 BC. Josephus cites his 144 book Histories as one of his sources.

We also know about the life of Nicolaus of Damascus from his Autobiography, where he describes diplomatic missions assigned to him by Herod to visit Augustus of Agrippa; he also explains in great detail the role of mediator he attempted to play between the different factions of Judea’s royal court. For all of the surviving fragments of this Autobiography (those transmitted by the Constantinian Exerpta), we can note that Josephus’ story, in War and in Antiquities faithfully follows that of his predecesor. For example, with regards to the conflicts between Herod and his sons, that culminate with the trials in which each of Herod’s three sons are successively convicted and executed for attempted parricide, Josephus account is strictly based on that of Nicolaus.

Similarly, after Herod’s death, when his succession is disputed and Archelaus’ status in this regard is called into question (Herod had modified his last will and testament several times, the last modification taking place from his death bed), the entire Judean court was transported to Rome in order to receive Augustus’ arbitration. If we compare these autobiographical episodes reported by Nicolaus and the account of the same events by Flavius Josephus, we see the exact same story.

Oddly, however, the entire story Josephus tells of Herod’s death itself is marked by the striking absence of Nicolaus who was no less Herod’s closes Council. Nicolaus played a major role both immediately before and immediately after the King’s death: it is Nicolaus who would defend Archelaus’ claims to the dynasty to Augustus in Rome. But the designation of Archelaus as Herod’s successor was made in extemis, completely unexpectedly and against the general opinion in Jerusalem. Nicolaus’ involvement in this particular decision of Herod’s is thus probable[i], and at the very least his presence with Herod on his deathbed leaves no room for doubt.

In spite of this, Nicolaus is entirely absent from Josephus’ account of Herod’s actual death. Not only is Nicolaus not mentioned here, but also Josephus’ account is frankly hostile towards Herod. Although Nicolaus was frequently explicit about his disagreement with some of Herod’s decisions, his point of view though sometimes critical was never hostile. He was an intimate confidante of Herod’s and would never have demonized the King in the way Josephus story does. So contrary to the rest of Herod’s reign, Nicolaus of Damascus is not Josephus’ principal source for the story of the King’s last days.

  1. b) Summary of Josephus’ account

In both War and Antiquities, Josephus portrays Herod’s death in particularly dramatic and detailed narration. After contracting a mysterious illness, Herod finally succumbs to a painful agonizing death in 4 BC.

So, Herod dies of this mysterious illness, whose multiple symptoms spare no part of his body: fever, respiratory oppression, skin rashes that provoke terrible itching, an intestinal ulcer, phlegmons of the legs and abdomen, as well as gangrene of the genitals that led to worm infestation. After awhile, word gets out that the king is dying. Upon hearing this rumor, a group of religious radicals, directed by 2 Doctors of the Law (σοφισταί), destroy the image of the royal eagle erected above the door of the Jerusalem Temple. The ensuing riot is repressed and the rioters along with their leader are burnt alive.

In order to avenge his unpopularity, Herod plans a collective assassination. From all of Judea he summons the notables and imprisons them in the Jericho hippodrome theater. They are destined to be mass executed at the time of Herod’s death in order to guarantee universal mourning throughout the kingdom.

Contrary to the repression of the riot linked to the destruction of the eagle over the temple, Herod’s plan was not executed and there is good reason to believe that such a plan never existed. According to Walter Otto[ii], it’s Salomé (Herod’s sister) who, freeing the notables of Judea from the Jericho hippodrome, who affirmed that her brother had intended to kill them all. According to Otto, this cannot have been the case. The notables were imprisoned only in order to suppress a potential uprising at the moment of Herod’s death. This episode is probably fictitious.

Anyway, from this point on, Herod’s illness worsened (according to Josephus because God punished Herod for his crimes and impieties). At one point, the king is considered to be dead, but he is awoken by the cries and lamentations surrounding him. His pain becomes unbearable, and he tries to commit suicide but is prevented. However the news of this suicide attempt is heard by his son Antipater. Antipater had been imprisoned with a death sentence for attempted parricide and was awaiting his execution. Antipater tries to convince a prison guard to free him so he can claim the throne. But when Herod gets wind of this plan, although agonizing, he manages to order the execution of his son. Herod died five days following this episode (and it’s at this moment that his modifies his final will and testament in favor of Archelaos).

  1. c) Josephus’ Reception from the 1st to the 4th Centuries

Josephus’ engaging account has no echo over the next centuries, periods during which Herod’s death failed to attract the interest of historians. The only surviving theme is Herod’s παιδοφονία/παιδοκτονία which in the Christian literature, starting with the book of Matthew, is repeated multiple times. Indeed, Herod’s death attracted little interest among historians prior to the 4th century. From the 1st to the 3rd centuries, Josephus’ account is echoed nowhere, neither in profane historiography nor in Christian Literature. Of course, Herod is present in religious literature, but the Christian polemicisits do not try to write historical works and they speak of Herod only in connection with the slaughter of the Innocents.

The only author who discusses Herod’s death is Justin Martyr. Justin mentions the event, in an almost hypothetical manner, and provides no description. In his Dialogue with Trypho, written between 150 and 155, Justin asks the question whether « it would not have been more appropriate for God to make Herod perish (rather than allowing him to slaughter the children of Bethlehem). Justin, attempting to answer his own question writes that if that were the case then God should have begun by killing the serpent. In this context, even for making a theological commentary, Justin has the opportunity to discuss Herod’s death, but he does not do so.

The only historiographic heir of Josephus’ narrative is Eusebius.

Eusebius’ reception of Josephus

Eusebius introduces a lengthy development describing Herod’s death in the Church History. As with all the first Christians, Eusebius’ interest in Herod is related to the date and place of birth of Jesus Christ. Eusebius takes a position in the controversy about the date and the birth of Jesus in 2BC. We leave this historical debate to the side, especially regarding the difficulties in making Herod’s death in 4BC coincide with the birth of Jesus Christ in 2, as these difficulties have been abundantly discussed elsewhere.

Eusebius then tells Jesus Christ’s life story. This is when he develops the theme of the slaughter of the Innocents, which is not only described as a founding event, but also as a ritual and theological issue, given that it’s the massacre that establishes a continuity between the Old and New Testament, attaching the figure of Jesus Christ to that of Moses, with the analogy of the flight to Egypt and the Exodus.


I          Eusebius’ Church History = a palimpseste of Josephus ?

The episode is found in chapter 8 of the 1st book of Church History. Out of the 4 pages of the chapter, two and a half pages are direct citations of Flavius Josephus, taken from the two parallel accounts in War and Antiquities. So these pages present a simple palimpseste of Josephus, according to the principles laid out in the preface where Eusebius presents himself as a compiler of histories and his Church History as a vast anthology.

Eusebius, as he does habitually in Church History, presents extracts of Josephus, which make him seem particularly scrupulous about being literal: κατὰ λέξιν (§ 5).

Then he actually cites Josephus:

  • CH8 § 6-8 = 1st citation, from A XVII 168-170 è text identical (3 § selected out of 14) : short passage structured around the theme of divine punishment for the « crimes » and « numerous impieties of the king ».
  • CH8 § 9-15 = 2nd citation, from W I 656-664 è integral citation of 5 §, ending with the execution of Antipater.

Most of the text discusses Herod’s mysterious pathology in gruesome detail, in particular the worm infestation. This representation contains a large number of characteristics of the literary topos of the death of the tyrant, as it appears throughout greco-roman Antiquity.

  • Eusebius borrows from Josephus the topos of the infamy of the persecutor’s death.

The documentary value of Josephus’ story can only be received with great scepticism. All the more so, when the reader of War, after Herod’s death he read at the end of book I, finds as a feedback, at the end of book VII, the spectacle of Catullus’ horrible death: the tyrannical Roman governor of Libya is said to have perished haunted by phantoms of his victims, attacked by an incurable illness culminating in the putrefaction of his ulcerated entrails that ultimately fall off outside the body[iii]. Apion also dies of a gangrene of the genitals analogous to that of Herod[iv]. It is clear that Josephus is inspired by the literary topos of the death of the tyrant.

The most well known elements of this topos are the death of Pheretima, queen of Cyrenaica, devoured by worms in Herodotus[v], the death of Eunous also devoured by worms in his Syracuse prison as well according to Diodorus’account[vi] and the death of Sylla, also vanquished by pediculosis according to Plutarchus[vii], κτλ.[viii]. These deaths illustrate the theology of retribution, already present in the Greek cultural context as the banal correlation between moral fault and divine punishment: during his lifetime the tyrant is punished for his crimes with a repugnant and finally mortal illness. Josephus adds the theme of religious persecution, thus transforming the literary topos into a religious topos: the infamy of the persecutor’s death.

Josephus’ renewal of the theme of the retribution for moral faults, by associating it to the theme of religious persecution, allows for a recycling of the topos by Christian authors, and not only by Eusebius:

  • Luke = the death of Agrippa, in 44 (Acts of the Apostles 23)
  • Lactantius = the death of Galerius, in 311 (De mortibus persecutorum, 33)[ix]
  • Philostorgius = the death of Julius Julianus, in 363 (Ecclesiastical History)

to cite only those who were ultimately devoured by worms.

II         Eusebius’ Church History = a narratological creation

  1. a) Eusebius’ deletions : the disappearance of the jewish religious context

Eusebius deletes the religious elements from Josephus’ narrative.

  • The Temple Eagle Affair

Josephus structures his description of Herod’s illness around the theme of divine punishment for « the crimes » and « the numerous impieties of the king ». The nature of these impieties-the execution (torture: burnt alive) of young Jews who tore down the eagle from the temple. In punishing these pious Jews, Herod behaved like a persecutor. He had to face punishment in the form of his horrible illness.

Josephus writes that « his illnesses were punishment for what he had done to the Sages »: ποινὴν εἶναι τῶν σοφιστῶν τὰ νοσήματα.

Eusebius deletes a single word: ποινὴν εἶναι τῶν σοφιστῶν τὰ νοσήματα.

This single deletion permits him to evacuate the religious meaning held in Josephus’ account[x].

Regardless of the debate about the nature the text from Josephus’ in Eusebius’ possession, I would like to underscore that the entire manuscript tradition could not endorse such a deletion. This modification must thus be the work of Eusebius himself.

  • The memory of Antiochos IV

In any case, whatever the relationship between Josephus and the books of the Maccabees (=even if we consider that for the revolt of the Maccabees, Josephus depends exclusively on The First Book of Maccabees and not at all on The Second Book of Maccabees) the story of Herod’s death bears numerous analogies with the death of Antiochos IV, the prototype of the religious persecutor. For Josephus’ reader, the persecution of young Jews by Herod inevitably evokes the memory of Antiochus IV’s persecution: Herod’s illness is the re-edition of Antiochus’ end and the death of 2 kings is a just punishment for their impious and tyrannical conduct towards the Jews. Eusebius, who was familiar with the books of the Maccabees and the posterity of the topos of the persecutor’s death in Christian literature, completely isolates Herod’s death from its cultural and religious context.


  1. b) Eusebius’ amalgamations
  • The plan to massacre the notables of Judea in Jericho

Eusebius can be quite critical towards the inconsistencies of his predecessors: for example with Luc concerning Quirinus’ census, in the controversy about Jesus Christ’s birthdate). But he conserves Herod’s plan to massacre the Jewish notables in the Jericho hippodrome theater, although the historicity of this plan was already disputed during his lifetime.

  • The slaughtering of Herod’s son

Josephus recounts in detail Antipater’s intrigue while in prison and his plan to take his dying father‘s throne. The episode is concluded by the execution of Antipater, which is presented as the result of his ultimate parricidal conspiracy.

In a single sentence (§ 15), Eusebius summarizes the trial, the sentence and the execution of Antipater. He presents Antipater’s execution like an assassination immediately following those of his brothers Alexander and Aristoboulos, even though these two were sentenced two years earlier (in 7 BC.). But not only were the three sons of Herod not executed at the same time, but they were also convicted of attempted parricide.

  • The Massacre of the Innocents

The slaughter theme is incorporated into the narration, with the following amalgamation :

  • 12-13 = [the plan for] the massacre of the notables of Judea
  • 15 = the massacre of children [execution of the King’s son]

觠16 = amalgamation between all the « children » (παιδῶν): Herod’s children and the children of Bethlehem.

  1. c) Eusebius’ additions
  • Herod’s crimes
  • 3 Eusebius’ addition = crime committed = « against (κατά) Christ and those his age ».

In Josephus = Herod is punished for his τόλμη (A 17.150), but this is without object (∄ κατά), as his audacity lies in him breaking Jewish law.

  • 5 idem « Crime against the Savior and the other children »

+ Eusebius adds the whip of God (biblical image)


  • addition of pathos

Beginning of the chapter (§ 1): theme of the suckling infant, introduced in the citation of the Book of Matthew.

Matt. 2.16 = « [Herod sent to kill] in Bethlehem and all its territory, all children 2 years old and under »: πάντας τοὺς παῖδας τοὺς ἐν Βηθλεὲμ καὶ πᾶσι τοῖς ὁρίοις αὐτῆς ἀπὸ διετοῦς καὶ κατωτέρω.

èEusebius : τοὺς ὑπομαζίους ἔν τε Βηθλεὲμ καὶ πᾶσι τοῖς ὁρίοις αὐτῆς ἀπὸ διετοῦς καὶ κατωτέρω παῖδας.

The image of the suckling infant in the context of war could have been borrowed from Diodorus, who uses this image in describing the slaves revolt led by Eunous in Sicily. But it is mainly related to persecutions and recalls scenes of mothers massacred with their infants by Antiochus IV in the books of the Macabbees.

  • addition of harmonization between the historical sources and the Scriptures

End of the chapter (§ 16) = summary, then citation of the Book of Matthew 2, 19-22 mentioning Archelaus.

Beginning of the following chapter (ch. 9 § 1) = commentary underlining the harmony between Matthew and Joseph.

In spite of its claims to authenticity, Eusebius’ text is not faithful. Eusebius does not merely intervene immediately preceding and following citations as one would with the indirect tradition. He creates transformations that are compatible with the theological objective he wishes to attain. In using a source such as that of Josephus, he uses rhetoric of authority in order to consolidate his position as an heir to Greek historiography. The strategy of the persecuted group to which he belongs is to claim both continuity with the cultural heritage of Greek paganism and to affirm the distinctive identity of the Christian religion.

And so Eusebius reorganizes the story borrowed from Josephus, all the while constructing a new causality, established in accordance with the political and religious context of the 4th century. In the context of the Diocletianic Persecution, the story of Herod’s death illustrates the divine punishment of the persecutor. By making significant alterations to his source, Eusebius gave Josephus’ text a new prophetic character that would become quite striking in the popular imagination of Jews and Christians and would prove to be propitious for its ulterior diffusion. The pathos already instilled into the (imaginary) circumstances of Herod’s death in Josephus’ account, was re-exploited and transformed by Christianity to popularize the theme of the persecution of the Savior, a necessary basis for Christian theology. Ironically, Eusebius’ betrayal of the original source is in many ways responsible for enduring interest in Josephus.

Edith Parmentier, Université d’Angers

[i] Cf. Toher.

[ii] Cf. W. Otto 1913.

[iii] W VII 451 à 453.

[iv] C.Ap. II 143.

[v] HDT IV 205. Phérétimé est mangée par les vers (« elle fourmilla ἑξέζεσε de vers εὐλέων ») en 515 av. J.-C., pendant une expédition en Egypte, après avoir vengé la mort de son fils Arcésilas et puni la déloyauté de ses sujets en mutilant leurs femmes.

[vi] DIOD. 34.23.

[vii] PLUT. Sylla 36.

[viii] cf. Ladouceur, Africa, Gauger, Eckhardt, Toher, etc.

[ix] + Eusèbe, CH VIII.16.

[x] Pour l’histoire du texte, cf. A. Pelletier, Guerre des Juifs, Paris : CUF, Intro. p. 20. Discussion sur la nature du texte de Josèphe dont disposait Eusèbe dans la bibliothèque de Césarée è Carriker, Inowlocki.

Citer ce billet
Edith Parmentier (2015, 20 octobre). Herod’s death rewritten by Eusebius. JosHérode. Consulté le 21 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/ql1l

2 réflexions sur « Herod’s death rewritten by Eusebius »

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