In a recent post, I pointed out that Richard Carrier, in his chapter in The Empty Tomb, erroneously concluded that the Sadducees did not believe in angels. In that same chapter, Mr. Carrier also appears to get it wrong about the Herodians. According to Carrier, “there was even a sect called the Herodians, who appear to have believed Herod the Great was the Christ.” The puprose of the reference is apparently to show just how religiously diverse Jews were in the first century.
As an initial matter, we will review the relevant New Testament references:
The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.
Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement.
And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians saying, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any.
From these verses, there is no hint that the Herodians believed that Herod the Great, or any other Herod, was the messiah. Nor is there any indication that Herodians were a religious sect. All we get is that they had some reason to oppose Jesus and some connection with the Herodian family. The Herod relevant at that time was not Herod the Great, but Herod Antipas.
Rather than classify the Herodians as a religious sect, most other scholars (all, in fact, that I have found who comment on them) have concluded that they were mostly likely supporters – slaves, relatives, courtiers, political supporters -- of the Herodian ruler of Galilee at the time, Herod Antipas, or more generally of the Herodian dynasty. See, e.g., James R. Edward, The Gospel According to Mark, page 102 (“[T]he Herodians were not a distinct sect or political party as were the Pharisees or Sadducees or Essenes, for example, but rather sympathizers and supports of Herod’s cause and the Herodian dynasty.”); Robert Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on his Apology for the Cross, page 153 (“The Herodians are probably supports of Herod Antipas, who under Roman aegis rules Galilee at the this time.”); Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, page 499 (“They evidently were supporters of the Herodian dynasty. There is nothing to indicate that they were other than political partisans.”); The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia, Dr. Geoffrey Wigoder, ed., page 436 (“Their identity is uncertain, the most acceptable theory holding that they were members of Herod’s party who conducted propaganda among the masses in favor of the hated king and continued their work after the death of Herod [the Great].”). Notably, the term used in Mark and Matthew is Latin, whereas Josephus uses a similar Greek term when referring to supporters of Herod the Great.
John P. Meier, based on the Latin construction of the word used for Herodians by the Gospels, concludes that “the most likely meanings of Herodianoi would include the household servants or slaves of Herod, his officials or courtiers (high officials sometimes being ex-slaves), and more generally all the supporters of Herod’s regime, whether or not they belonged to an organized group or party.” A Marginal Jew, Vol. III, Companions and Competitors, page 561. William Lane explains more:
Apart from the one reference in Josephus, the Herodians are not mentioned in any other ancient source, a fact which indicates that they were not a sect or an organized party. The word is of Latin formation (Herodiani), designating ‘adherents’ or ‘partisans’ of Herod; in Galilee this would mean Herod Antipas. Their name suggests a common attitude of allegiance to Herod in a country where large numbers of people chafed under his rule. In Josephus the term clearly denotes those who were sympathizers and supporters of Herod the Great. It is reasonable to understand Mark’s term in the same light: in Ch. 3:6 and Ch. 12:13 the Herodians are, apparently, influential men of standing who loyally support Herod Antipas.
William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, pages 124-25.
Likewise, in an endnote, Richard Carrier admits that the two secondary sources he relies on for his description of the Herodians doubt that the Herodians really believed Herod was the messiah. Carrier nevertheless writes that his sources “give no sound reason” for their skepticism because “many sources make the claim.” Given William Lane’s statement that there is not “any other ancient source” that mentions the Herodians, to which sources is Carrier referring? The answer is that Carrier uncritically accepts the statements made by Christian sources about Jewish beliefs over 200 years after the time of Jesus.
The earliest source that describes the Herodians as believing Herod was the Messiah is the spurious Against All Heresies, Ch. 1. But no one knows who wrote this treatise or when it was written, though odds are it was the mid-third century at the earliest. All that is said is that, “the Herodians likewise, who said that Herod was Christ.”
The rest of the sources are all from the late fourth century. Jerome’s Dialogue Against the Luciferians was written in 379 AD. When writing about “Jewish heretics who before the coming of Christ destroyed the law delivered to them,” Jerome mentions “the Herodians who accepted Herod as the Christ.”
Writing at about the same time was Epiphanius of Salamis, of whom it is said he “let his zeal come before facts.” In Panarion 20, he lists 80 heresies and when describing the Herodians states “Herodians, who were Jews in all respects, but thought that Herod was Christ, and awarded the honor and name of Christ to him.”
Last of all is Philaster, who also describes the Herodians as believing Herod was the messiah. Liber de Haeresibius 28. But Philaster also did not write his description until the later fourth century.
Did these late fourth-century Christian writings have special access to heretofore undiscovered Jewish sources about messianic sects in Palestine during the time of Jesus? That seems unlikely. What is more likely is that they rely, directly or indirectly, on the spurious Against All Heresies or on each other, depending on the exact order in which they wrote. Even if we assume that Against All Heresies itself relied on an earlier source, we have no way of knowing how accurate it was or where it got its information. There is no indication that the author of Against All Heresies had access to reliable Jewish sources about first century Messianic sects. All in all, one mid third-century source and three late fourth-century sources is very shaky grounds upon which to argue that the Herodians were a religious sect who affirmed belief in Herod as messiah. It is also misleading for Carrier to assert that “many sources make” this claim without acknowledging the poor condition of the evidence; namely that at least two hundred years of silence passed before the first spurious mention of this belief and another hundred years of silence passed before any other reference. The long silence was not about the Herodians, who are mentioned by Mark, Matthew, and Josephus, but about the later reported messianic beliefs.
Additionally, it seems odd though perhaps not conclusive that Josephus – who otherwise spends plenty of time discussing the Herodian family and messianic claimants in the first century – gives no indication of a religious or messianic bent to the Herodians. Mark and Matthew also fail to respond to such an idea, when they might have been expected to respond more directly to a competing messianic sect conspiring to kill Jesus.
Now, it is possible that, as my friend Roger Pearse allowed, that this was a bit of “court flattery,” that got passed along. Slightly more likely seems that as part of their propaganda efforts on Herod’s behalf, the Herodians “tried to spread the idea that Herod was the embodiment of the Messiah,” though – as J.P. Meier concludes – “this is highly speculative.” Meier, op. cit., page 612. But to go any further is to go too far. Apparently, as with his comments about the beliefs of the Sadducees, Carrier has let his eagerness to find examples of first-century Jewish religious diversity carry him beyond the evidence.