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  • from Herod the Great
  • Zora Neale Hurston

Starting in the 1940s, Hurston began work on a novel about Herod the Great, the man who supposedly ordered the deaths of many children in an effort to kill the Christ-child, as the Gospel of Matthew records. Hurston considered the New Testament version of the story to be a blatant distortion of Herod's personal character, religious orientation, and political philosophy. Therefore, in her Herod novel, she wanted to give readers a more accurate picture of the historical Herod, which would correct the New Testament. In this Introduction to her Herod novel, Hurston explains why her project would not only shed more accurate light on the actual religious, cultural, and political environment of Herod, but also illuminate the religious politics of the twentieth-century West, a politics that had its origin in the Christian anti-Semitism that led to the demonization of Herod.


Why a LIFE OF HEROD THE GREAT? Because a biography of Herod would be extravagantly justified by the intense drama of his life. As a story for the sake of those elements which compel the interest of the reader, the life of Herod the Great is unsurpassed in human history. On occasion, it climbs to the peaks of triumph, and at others, plumbs the utmost depths of human misery. In fact, this Herod appears to have been singled out by some deity and especially endowed to attract the zig-zag lightning of fate.

However, it is worse than useless to attempt to interpret very ancient fact through very modern concepts, it is necessary to present him against the back-drop of his time and customs. He remains perhaps the most misunderstood public character in all history because of a lack of knowledge of these elements. The Sunday School literature of the Christian world is curiously lacking in such necessary details. Therefore, as satisfying as the story of the life of Herod the Great is by nature, if attention is not directed to the conditions of the world in general, and in Judea in particular of that First Century B.C.—that century of decision, it could merely serve to thicken the fog that has shrouded the real Herod from the Herod of folklore for two thousand years. [End Page 121]

If Herod's acts and motivation appear exotic to us of the West in the latter half of the Twentieth Century A.D., we must bear in mind that Herod belonged to, and was a very active participant, in that century of decision which still is influential in our lives at this moment. It was that almost incredible one hundred years which produced Julius Caesar, Cato, Cicero, Pompey, Cataline, Brutus, Marius, Sulla, Augustus Caesar, Sirabo, Nicolaus of Damascus, Vergil, Horace, Cassius, Marc Antony, sculptors, dramatists and poets of note, of the death of the Roman Republic and the birth of the Roman Empire. Great men, stirring times. Herod was in the thick of it all—the intimate friend of both Marc Antony and Augustus Caesar, and of Agrippa, Commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Rome. It must never be lost sight of that the customs of that era were not the same as of our times. Political assassinations, even of blood relatives, were common. Bribery was not looked upon as a thing to be ashamed of as at present.

In that pregnant century, indeed, during the early public life of Herod, was renewed that ancient tug-of-war for the mastery of Asia between the East and West which had begun with the siege of Troy by the Greeks, continued with the invasion of Greece by Xerxes, with Persia the advocate of Asia-for-the Asiatics, the challenge of the West was next hurled by the invasion of Persia by Alexander the Great in 326 B.C. when he not only defeated Persia, but swept all over western Asia and Egypt. In Herod's time, Rome appeared in the arena as champion of the West with what was once known as Persia—Parthia—carrying the battle-cry of Asia-for-the Asiatics.

The name Parthia had from most remote times been identified with a Persian province...


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pp. 121-125
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