Book Note: Bruce Chilton’s “The Herods”

Bruce Chilton, The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021). (Amazon; Bookshop)

If you’ve ever read Tom Hollands’ histories/historical fiction (e.g. Rubicon; Persian Fire), or Anthony Everitt’s (e.g. Cicero; Augustus), you’ll have a sense of what to expect from Bruce Chilton’s new book The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession. You trust their scholarship, and you know they take their methodologies seriously, but when you read their books they’re more like a novel. I may be forgetting but I can’t remember when Holland or Everitt stop to try and prove their interpretations (it’s been a while since I’ve read those books though, so maybe I’m mistaken). Instead, the reader can search endnotes if they’d like to know how a decision was made to tell the story the way it was told.

So, with this stated upfront, The Herods is a wonderful book. It’s extremely readable. It introduces you to major figures at a pace where you can remember who’s who, which can be notoriously difficult with the family tree of Herod the Great. If you can read this book without obsessing too much over whether he trusts his primary ancient source, Josephus, too much, then it’s worth your time. But be aware that Chilton will get creative in his interpretation, like when he presents Jesus’ “temple-cleansing” as less an individual act (which is how I’ve always read the Gospels) and more a mob act of which Jesus was part, which included several hundred followers, and involved Barabbas:

“Jesus’ incursion into the temple was bold, prophetic, and necessarily violent because the outer court of the temple was vast, amounting to some twenty acres, and clearing it of merchants devoted to trade, their animals, and their associated equipment required several hundred sympathetic, able-bodied, and motivated followers. One of them, Barabbas, even killed someone during the melee (according to Mark 15:7).”

p. 168

I’m not saying that this is an impossible interpretation of the gospels, but it would be a contested one, for sure. And that’s the nature of this type of history. A decision is made to tell the story “as it happened,” even when we’re not sure about this or that, because the genre, and the necessity of readability, demands this sort of oversimplified presentation.

I recommend the book for anyone interested in Second Temple Judaism, Jesus of Nazareth, incipient Christianity, and related subjects.

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