Biblical Archaeology Review 41:1, January/February 2015

ReViews: Stimulating Sketch of a Megalomaniac

The True Herod

By Geza Vermes (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2014), 216 pp., 75 illust., $35 (hardcover), $27.99 (eBook)

Today Herod the Great is remembered mostly for his outstanding constructions across the Holy Land, especially rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, of which the Western Wall is an iconic fragment, and his spectacular mountain palace at Masada. Herod also makes fleeting appearances in the gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth. We actually know a lot more about Herod, from the first century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus, who drew on the no longer extant testimony of Herod’s chief minister and historian Nicolaus of Damascus. As a result, “There is no figure in antiquity about whom we have more detailed information than Herod,” our author quotes the words of the noted Josephus scholar Louis Feldman.

If you want to know how Herod paid for his megalomanic building program or a chronology of these projects, you need to look elsewhere. However, if you simply want a very accessible and stimulating sketch of Herod’s life and main achievements set in a wider historical context, this is just the book for you.

This small book is the last work of the eminent scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the birth of Christianity, who died in May 2013. Geza Vermes provides us here with a scintillating essay in his usual engaging style, written with clarity and authority. This little book is packed with information but not weighed down by tedious detail. Above all, Vermes is a masterful storyteller.

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