Norman Gelb’s study of Herod the Great rehabilitates the tyrant into a multifaceted positive personality in contradistinction to the common notion that Herod was a typical Near East evil tyrant. Mr. Gelb uses the critical skills of the historian to show that Herod was actually sympathetic to Jewish communities of the diaspora and quite philanthropic making him popular outside of the land of Israel. Herod's paranoid personality does not obstruct his ability to adapt to the political machinations of Rome to his own benefit. The author details the rise of Herod's father in the court of Hyrcanus, Herod's murderous defense of the northern district being summoned to the Sanhedrin for judgement, his escape, his alliances with the different Caesars and their accompanying political intrigues. Eventually the reader is told that he stabilizes his kingdom all the while rooting out real and imagined Hasmoneon threats to his rule.
Dismissing the authority of Jewish tradition, the author makes a vigorous case about Herod’s Jewishness, despite the fact that the local Jewish populace never accepts him and he himself identifies more with Rome than with Jewish observance. The author makes the Jewish claim based on Herod's patrilineal descent through his grandfather's forced conversion during John Hyrcanus' conquest of Idumea. Mr. Gelb utilizes critical historical methods when he says that the traditional Jewish line of matrilineal descent is not established until well over 300 years later. [Such a claim is limited by the assumption that a lack of evidence implies actual evidence. I am assuming that he is pointing to the Mishnaic source of matrilineal descent appearing much later.] He ignores the possibility that the Mishna represents traditions much older.
One must also point out that the Jewish tradition accepts the phase of Herod’s renovation of the Second Temple (although Mr. Gelb calls it a third Temple, not a renovation like Jewish tradition) as a rehabilitated phase, a result of regretting his harsh brutality against the rabbis.
Mr. Gelb oddly claims that the salient feature of the Herodean era is the emergence of Jesus and his followers. One can argue, however, that the salient feature is the rise of Pharisaic Judaism, the schools of Hillel and Shammai and the literary output of the Oral Torah publicized by the rabbinic tradition. Hillel, a contemporary of Herod the Great, being a Babylonian and not Hasmoneon poses no threat to Herod and his teaching house flourishes. By contrast, Jesus and his followers only appear during the end of the Herodean period and remain an insignificant group of sectarian Jews, without affecting the Jewish people of the land of Israel.
After displaying the tools of the critical historian throughout the book concerning Herod, Mr. Gelb seems to drop those tools and accepts the Christian narrative uncritically as the sequence of the events during the concluding years of this era discussing the crucifixion, Paul's dispute with Peter to evangelize to the pagans, the Jewish Christian sect breaking away much later beyond this era to form a completely different religion.
The strength of this book is the author's understanding of the politics of Rome and describing Herod's connections and talents in fitting in and coming out on top.