May 7 - A Big-Time Discovery in Israel

Posted on May 7, 2018

Josephus, above, looks a bit
more like a king than does
Herod (below).
One of the most famous historians of ancient times, at least in the West, is Josephus. This Jewish man lived during the time that the Ancient Roman Empire included Jerusalem and other portions of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims consider "the Holy Land."

Josephus wrote about Jewish history, and one of the people he wrote about was King Herod. 

You know, the guy who was supposed to have ordered the deaths of all male infants in and around Bethlehem, when tales of Jesus's birth reached Herod's ears. (Most scholars don't think that this event actually happened. But there's no doubt that Herod was cruel and capable of ordering death to innocents, since he did have his wife and several of his sons killed.)

Josephus wrote that Herod died in Jericho and that his body was carried 200 furlongs (around 40 kilometers, or 25 miles) to Herodium, where Herod had ordered that he be buried.

You might think that Herodium was a city that Herod renamed for himself. But actually Herod had the place built from the ground up!

Once upon a time, Herod, who was fleeing from conquering Parthians along with his family, ran into Parthians along the way. He fought the enemy and thought he saw his mother die - but she had just been injured. At the end of the battle, Herod realized that, not only had he won and stayed alive, but his mother had survived as well! He vowed to be buried in the spot where the battle had occurred.

These diagrams show what
Herodium would have looked like
when they were first built.

Later, when Herod was King of Judea, he had built a palace in that spot. There was a hill there, and Herod ordered slaves and other workers to make the hill taller and more gently rounded on top. When the hill was to his liking, the palace was constructed on top, along with surrounding "pleasure grounds" made up of courtyards and a large walkway, an enormous swimming pool and bath house, sumptuous apartments, a Roman theatre, banquet rooms, guard towers, and of course an entire town of housing and shops for the servant class.

Flash forward almost 2,000 years, to 1962, and the excavation of Herodium began by Jerusalem-based archaeologists. In 1972, Ehud Netzer joined in with the excavation work. And for 35 years he not only worked on uncovering frescoes and other wonderful ancient works, but he also looked for Herod's tomb.

On this date in 2007, Netzer discovered what he was sure was that tomb. There was a broken sarcophagus but no sign of a body.

Since the discovery, two archaeologists questioned just whose tomb it is, since they thought that Herod would have ordered a large, more elaborate tomb. Also, they thought that site had a few features that didn't fit in with the theory that it was Herod's final resting spot.

Some scholars have pointed out that the sarcophagus is not inscribed with Herod's name.

But Netzer and his co-workers felt sure that this was the right tomb. They pointed out that, despite the fact that Ancient Romans generally inscribed burial chambers and sarcophagi, but Jews did not.

And despite the fact that Herod was a Roman citizen, he was also a Jew.

Like so many historical puzzles, we may never know for sure!

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