Monday, December 17, 2012

Have doctors discovered what killed Herod the Great?

Petere Ustinov as Herod the Great
This being Christmas time, the name of Herod the Great will be mentioned many times in church services and Nativity plays. Herod, of course, is the infamous king of Judea who, according to Matthew 2:1-18 ordered the killing of all the children two years old or younger living in Bethlehem. The story presents Herod as attempting to wipe out a potential rival to his throne. 

Although we have no corroborating evidence for this story, it does fit into what we know about the man. He was responsible for killing his own wife and several of his sons. He even ordered that, upon his death, all of the leading figures of Judea be executed so that there would be some level of mourning when he died, even if not for him. Herod was a nasty piece of work and was clearly not a very popular person. Caesar Augusts is supposed to have once said " I would rather be Herod's pig than his son."

Well Herod didn't escape life without a painful death himself, at least according to Josephus. And the Montreal Gazette has an article today that explains the kind of death Herod suffered and asks medical experts: "what killed Herod?" Here is a bit of what the article has to say.

“He had a fever, though not a raging fever, an intolerable itching of the whole skin, continuous pains in the intestines, tumours of the feet as in dropsy, inflammation of the abdomen and gangrene of the privy parts.” He also suffered, according to Josephus, from “limb convulsions, asthma and foul breath.”
The doctors of the day were, not surprisingly, flummoxed by this combination of symptoms. They used the contemporary therapeutic armamentarium, including immersing the patient in a bath of hot oil. But Herod received no relief, and the bath burned his eyes.
The clinically curious of today can turn to the more modern Historical Clinicopathological Conference put on by the University of Maryland, which brings experts together periodically to examine the death of a famous personage, and which recently tackled Herod’s case. The combination of symptoms was a challenging one, especially the presence of gangrene of the genitalia — something one does not see every day. The scientists used a clever bit of clinical reasoning and came to a tentative conclusion: chronic kidney failure of unknown cause complicated by the rare (thank God) Fournier’s gangrene of the testicles. There are other candidates, of course, such as syphilis or other sexually transmitted diseases, but the kidney diagnosis seemed to fit the symptoms best.

All very interesting, but I am not convinced. Without some type of forensic evidence, I am not sure we can really know how Herod died. Moreover, I think Josephus' description of Herod's death is colored in such a way as to communicate to his readers that this is the way that evil people die. It was a common literary motif in ancient literature to describe the death of the wicked in very gruesome details. Here are two examples in Acts. 

Acts 1:15-19

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled  in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. 17 He was one of our number( and shared in our ministry.” 18 (With the payment  he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language  Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
Acts 12:21-23
21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

It seems that having problems in the bowels was commonly understood as a painful way to die, and just the way you would like to see your enemies die. Look at these other examples from antiquity, one a very graphic description of the death of Judas.

Papias Tradition concerning Judas (early 2nd Cent CE). 

Judas walked about as a great example of ungodliness in this world. His flesh was so swollen, that when a wagon was passing through the street he was unable to pass through; there was only enough room for his head. The eyelids over his eyes, it is said, protruded so much, that he did not see light, and that a doctor could not make his eyes visible with optical instruments. To such an extent was the light shut out from outside. His genitals of indecency were more disgusting and yet too small to be seen. There oozed out from his whole bursting body both fluids and worms. After much suffering and agony, it is said that he died in his own place. And this place is out of the way and the piece of land is uninhabited until now. No one even to this day passes by the place without stopping up his nose with his hands. Such was the opinion spread about the country concerning his body.

Antiochus Epiphanes the infamous persecutor of the Jews in the 2nd century BCE recorded in a 1st century BCE (2 Maccabees 9:5-7, 9-10, 28): 
 ‘But the all-seeing Lord, the God of Israel, struck him with an incurable and invincible blow.  As soon as he stopped speaking he was seized with a pain in his bowels, for which there was no relief, and with sharp internal tortures – and that very justly, for he had tortured the bowels of others with many strange inflictions.  Yet he did not in anyway stop his insolence, but was filled even more with arrogance, breathing fire in his rage against the Jews, and giving orders to drive even faster.  And so it came about that he fell out of his chariot as it was rushing along, and the fall was so hard as to torture every limb of his body..... and so the ungodly man’s body swarmed with worms, and while he was still living in anguish and pain, his flesh rotted away, and because of the stench the whole army felt revulsion at his decay.... so the murderer and blasphemer, having endured the more intense suffering, such as he had inflicted on others, came to the end of his life by a most pitiable fate, among the mountains in a strange land.  

King Joram, who had caused the people of Judah to turn away from God (2 Chronicles 21:18-19):

‘And after all this the LORD smote him in his bowels with an incurable disease.  In the course of time, at the end of two years, his bowels came out because of the disease, and he died in great agony.  His people made no fire in his honor.... he departed with no one’s regret.  They buried him in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.’

I could provide more, but I think you get the point. Besides, it is a bit early to be reading this type of material. I once had a student leave my class very white from reading some of the above descriptions. But in any case, I am not sure that we should accept Josephus's testimony about the type of death Herod experienced. It follows too many of the literary conventions used to describe the death of evil people, which is what most of Herod's subjects thought of him. 


  1. John, your doctor father inflicted similar tortures on unsuspecting undergrads quite a few years back. One doesn't forget! ; ) I'm sure the guys loved it.

  2. Judas hanged himself. Yup.
    He burst open in Akeldama. Yup.
    Can we reconcile the conflicting accounts? Yup, I think so.
    Hung himself. Was found and removed according to pre-Passover cleansing of city.
    Thrown over wall of the city into the "garbage dump" (Akeldama) where the already decomposing body burst open.
    Your thoughts, sir?

    1. William,

      I think neither Matthew nor Luke know exactly how Judas died. There is clearly a strong tradition that he committed suicide, but how he did it is not clear. Matthew and Luke use that knowledge to explain to their readers Judas's demise and they tailor it in such a way as to communicate theology. I find it interesting that in Matthew Judas seems to repent and then goes out and does the "honorable" thing by hanging himself. Luke, on the other hand, offers no information about Judas returning the money to the priests, but rather has him buy the field. I think Luke denies Judas the chance to repent repent and describes his death in such a way that there is no question in the reader's mind that this was an evil man.

      Another point, the "garbage dump" interpretation of Akeldama is no longer accepted. Archaeology has demonstrated that the area of Akeldema was the location of some very impressive tombs belonging to rich people, perhaps even priests. The "garbage dump" interpretation was a later medieval invention. The connection of Judas with that area of the Hinnom valley seems to have more to do with the Tophet, a place were children were sacrificed to Molech and Baal (2 Kings23:10, Isaiah 30:33, Jeremiah 7:31-32, Jeremiah 19:6,Jeremiah19:11-14). Both Jesus' imagery of hell and the death of Judas seem to be aligned with the morbid acts of those who sacrificed their children. It is a place of horrors.

    2. Thanks, John.