John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.3, ch. 30: Jesus in Relation to Competing Jewish Groups: The Herodians,
pp 560-565

(Detailed summary)

Did the Herodians contribute to the death of Jesus?


A simple answer is: no. We have no evidence that the Herodians were involved in the arrest and death of Jesus. On the other hand, it is quite possible that Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist arrested and executed, asked his supporters or officials to spy on this man who was attracting crowds and talking about a coming kingdom. But the two references in Mark (3:6; 12:13) that associate these Herodians with the Pharisees in plotting his death cannot be traced back to a historical event: they are the product of Mark's theological art of framing Jesus' ministry, at the beginning in the Galilean cycle and at the end in Jerusalem, with a symmetrical reference to a religio-political plot.

Jesus in Relation to Competing Jewish Groups: The Herodians

  1. Who are the Herodians?

    The Greek word Herodianoi never appears before the first century of the Christian era, and only in the Gospel of Mark, Mk 3:6 (Having gone out, the Pharisees immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him, with a view to destroying him) and Mk 12:13 (They then sent him some of the Pharisees and Herodians to ensnare him in his word); the passage in Matthew (22:16) is dependent on Mk 12:13.

    Note that the form of the Greek word in Mark does not represent the normal Greek form for Herodians, which is instead Herodeioi, as seen once (and only once) in the Jewish historian Josephus. It is likely that Mark is using a transliteration here of the Latin form of Herodians, Herodiani. Such a transliteration of a Latin form is not unique, since it is found with Kaisarianoi (Caesariani: Caesar's troops or partisans or servants) and Christianoi (Christians in Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16). Thus, the Herodians would refer to the servants or slaves or officials or courtiers or supporters of Herod's regime.

    Do the two references in Mark shed more light on this group? Mk 3:1-6 (healing of the man with the withered hand) is set in Galilee very early in Jesus' ministry, while Mk 12:13-17 (question about the tax due to Caesar) is set in Jerusalem at the end of Jesus' life. The Herodians suddenly appear alongside the Pharisees to seek to eliminate Jesus, and disappear just as quickly. The presence of the Herodians gives a political dimension to both stories, because only Herod Antipas could impose the death penalty, and the second story deals with a clearly political subject: the tax due to Caesar.

    From one point of view, the presence of Herodians is credible. When we know that Herod had John the Baptist imprisoned and executed, it is easy to imagine that he was also keeping a close eye on Jesus' activities, especially since Jesus was traveling all over Galilee, attracting large crowds, talking about an approaching kingdom, and being believed by some to be a descendant of David.

  2. Analysis of Marc's two references

    But this clear combination of religious and political interest, with the Pharisees and Herodians joining forces to eliminate Jesus at the beginning and end of his ministry, is more a matter of Mark's theological art than of sober historical presentation. The first reference appears at the climax of the cycle of disputes in Galilee (Mk 2:1 – 3:6), while the second reference appears in the cycle of Jesus' disputes in Jerusalem (Mk 11:27 – 12:44), at the end of his ministry. These two very symmetrical references establish a kind of embrace around the public ministry of Jesus. That this theological polemic is Mark's work is also suggested by the fact that the early passion tradition he uses does not say anything about the Pharisees or Herodians being involved in Jesus' trial and death.

    1. The first reference (Mk 3:6) itself contains a few implausible points. First, the Pharisees were mostly in Judea and there is no evidence of their significant presence in Galilee. Second, how can we imagine a concerted decision to eliminate Jesus when we are still at the beginning of his ministry? Finally, when we look closely at the whole account of the healing of the man with the withered hand (Mk 3:1-6), we realize that Jesus does not take any physical action that might violate the Sabbath: he only utters a word asking the sick man to stretch out his hand. Therefore, the existence of a conspiracy to eliminate him at that moment cannot have any historical value.

    2. The second reference (Mk 12:13) is an introduction to the dispute about the tax due to Caesar and exists only to ensure symmetry with Mk 3:6. It is an editorial creation of Mark. Moreover, these Pharisees and Herodians will play no role in the passion narrative later on.

  3. Conclusion

    On the one hand, the existence of a group of servants or officials or supporters of Herod of Antipas, called Herodians, is quite possible. Moreover, Mark and Luke in other passages (Mk 6:14-16; Lk 9:7-9; 13:31-32; 23:6-12; Acts 13:1) probably reflect a historical reality by speaking of Herod Antipas' unhealthy interest in Jesus' activities. And it is easy to understand why he might have asked his servants or allies to spy on his whereabouts and try to discredit him publicly. Thus, it is possible that during his ministry Jesus had to argue with Herod Antipas' supporters and face their verbal trap.

    But on the other hand, the two passages in Mark where the Herodians are seen to be associated with the Pharisees and plotting the death of Jesus cannot be traced back to a historical event. They are the work of either Mark or a pre-Marcan author collecting disputes.

Was Jesus a Zealot?

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