Herod’s Renovation of the Temple – Uncovering the Talmud’s Persian Influences

In “Herod’s Renovation of the Temple – The Talmudic Version”, I explored the Bavli’s account of how the first century BCE king, Herod, rose to power, violently solidified his rule, and rebuilt the Temple. I demonstrated how the rabbis thematized issues of sight and blindness in their telling of the tale in order to explain how a wicked king ended up building the holy Temple. In this piece, I look at the Persian sources of the story, which provide a further layer of understanding.

The Palace of Ardashir. Built in AD 224. Muslim historians refer to this place as a fire temple of great importance.

The Sources of the Rabbis’ Herod Tale: Josephus?

Scholars typically attribute the Rabbis’ knowledge of Herod to the famous historian Josephus (c. 37-100 CE), whose writings are our main sources for the history of the Second Temple period. The Rabbis did not read Josephus directly, but evidently knew of many oral traditions that ultimately derived from Josephus’s writings.[1] Josephus indeed includes a long and detailed account of Herod’s life based on the work of an earlier historian.[2] However, the rabbinic story of Herod has little connection to Josephus’s history.  To mention just a few discrepancies, in contrast to the rabbinic story, Josephus claims:

  • Herod married Mariamme, a Hasmonean descendant, and had children with her (Herod eventually killed Mariamme and her two sons, though her two daughters survived; the Hasmonean line continued through descendants of these sons and daughters and can be traced for several centuries).
  • Herod did not kill all the Hasmoneans in one fell swoop.
  • Herod did not murder “all the Rabbis” save one; indeed, it is doubtful if any “Rabbis” existed at this time, though the Pharisees of this period were apparently connected to the subsequent, rabbinic movement.
  • The Romans did not rebuke Herod for rebuilding the Temple.
  • The rebuilding of the Temple took over nine years, not three.

If Josephus is not the source of the Talmudic Story, where then does it come from?

Persian Sources: The Rise of Ardashir and the Sasanian Dynasty

The plaque reads: Ardeshir 1 King of Persia The Founder of Sassanid Dynasty 244 A.D Credit Irangazette.com

Sasanian Persian traditions about the rise of Ardashir, the first Sasanian Emperor provide striking parallels to the rabbinic story about Herod. The Sasanians were a new dynasty that took over the Iranian Empire in c. 220 C.E (the term “Sasanian” derives from an ancestor of Ardashir named Sasan).

A previous Persian dynasty, known as the Achamaenid dynasty, had established a Persian Empire hundreds of years earlier, from 550-330 BCE—Cyrus, and various kings named Darius and Xerxes were part of this dynasty.[3] That empire was conquered by Alexander the Great (c. 330 BCE), and was subsequently ruled by his Macedonian successors, the Seleucids.  In 247 BCE a northeastern Iranian tribe known as the Parthians conquered much of the Seleucid lands in Asia Minor and Iran, and they established the Parthian Empire.  In c. 220 CE the Persians, a southern Iranian people, rebelled against the Parthians and took over their empire, establishing the Sasanian Persian Empire, which would last until the Arab conquest in the seventh century.

The Story of Ardashir

A detailed account of Ardashir’s rise to power is told in a work known as the Karnamag i Ardashir i Pabagan, “The Book of the Deeds of Ardashir son of Pabag,” written in Pahlavi (Middle Persian), and probably composed in the 6th century CE, though preserving traditions from much earlier centuries. The Karnamag relates that the Parthian King Ardawan (also known as Artabanus IV) heard of a handsome and talented Persian youth named Ardashir, and summoned Ardashir to become a member of his retinue and to accompany the king and his sons on hunts and games.

After a quarrel, however, Ardawan became angry with Ardashir and sent him to work in the stables, a demeaning job.[4] Sometime later, Ardawan’s astrologers and soothsayers told him they had seen ominous signs in the stars:

Then the chief of the astrologers came forward, and said: It is so revealed that, whichever servant who will escape from his master within three days from today, will reach greatness and sovereignty, and will become successful and victorious over his own master.

A servant-girl of the king who had fallen in love with Ardashir reports the astrologers’ words to him. Ardashir flees, gathers an army, rebels against Ardawan, fights several battles, and eventually triumphs and kills Ardawan.  In this way Ardashir comes to power and establishes his own Persian dynasty and empire.

The Suggestion to Rebel: Comparing Herod and Ardashir

This explanation of what led Ardashir to rebel against Ardawan and why he succeeded is similar to the beginning of the Bavli story about Herod, especially if we keep in mind that both the Talmud and the Persian tradition were passed down orally for centuries and would have been recounted with some variations. There are in fact different versions of this tradition of the astrologers’ disclosure preserved by other authors that do not specify three days as a time frame; one version in fact states: “If someone wished to rebel against his own master and to make war on him, on the present occasion he would win and his master be defeated.”[5]

A Voice (kol) or Astrologers (kaldai) ?

The suggestion that the Bavli was influenced by Persian traditions about Ardishar is supported further by examining two text-witnesses to the Bavli story. A book published in 1511 titled Haggadot Hatalmud, whose unknown compiler excerpted the aggadic portions of the Bavli (much like the more well-known collection Ein Yaakov), presents the text of the story of Herod as: “One day he heard the astrologers (kaldai) saying, ‘Any slave who rebels now will succeed.” The same reading is found in a manuscript of the Yalqut Shimoni, a late midrashic collection that quotes a great deal from the Bavli.[6]

Thus two independent text-witnesses to the Bavli story have Herod hear from astrologers that it is a propitious time to rebel.  I think this reading is the original version of the Bavli story, or at least one authentic ancient version, as it is unlikely the transmitters of these two works independently would have altered the Talmud text they received in the same way. The word kol (voice) is similar to kaldai (astrologers), so it is easy to see how these different readings could have developed.

This reading also resolves the problem of the nature of the “voice” mentioned in Part One.  With this reading Herod hears from astrologers, not from a “voice” that it is the time for rebellions, and he succeeds because the astrologers accurately had read the configuration of the stars.  If so, the Bavli’s Herod tradition is even closer to the Persian story: both tell of a servant/slave of the King who heard from astrologers that the stars were so configured that a rebellion would succeed and quickly acted. (Ardashir would have been considered a servant of Artawan, both as a courtier and when relegated to the stables, and is explicitly called a slave in other Persian traditions.)

Massacre, Seven Years, and Marriage to a Daughter

Two other Sasanian traditions also are impressively reminiscent of our story. First, according to the tradition of Ardashir’s rebellion preserved by the Muslim historian Tabari (Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, c. 838-923), Ardashir massacred Ardawan and his entire family.[7] Only one daughter of Ardawan remained alive, as she hid herself during the slaughter, and Ardashir subsequently married her.  Herod’s massacre of “all of his masters,” that is, the entire Hasmonean family, with the exception of one maiden, parallels this account. That Herod failed to marry the Hasmonean maiden, whereas Ardashir successfully married the princess and had children with her, results from the divergent purposes of the storytellers.

The rabbinic storytellers wish to delegitimize Herod’s kingship, as he was a wicked, sinful king in their eyes and therefore emphasize that he failed to marry the one surviving princess. On the other hand, the Sasanian traditions, a kind of royal propaganda, wish to legitimate Ardashir’s kingship, as he was a noble and rightful king in their eyes, and therefore emphasize that he married a descendant of the Parthian dynasty, such that his children had both royal Parthian and Sasanian blood.

Furthermore, in Tabari’s account, a minister of Ardashir sequesters the Parthian princess for seven years before the marriage with Ardashir takes place; this may be the origin of the rabbinic tradition that Herod preserved the Hasmonean maiden’s corpse in honey for seven years.

Building the Temple/s

Second, the Karnamag and other Sasanian traditions recount that Ardashir built many important Zoroastrian fire-temples when he took power. They portray him as a pious and faithful Zoroastrian King who supported the Zoroastrian priests and religion by devoting great resources and energy to temple building.  This was also one argument used to legitimize Ardashir’s usurpation in later Sasanian ideology: as opposed to the Parthians, he promoted the “good religion,” and constructed Zoroastrian fire-temples.

While the rabbinic storytellers of course tell of the single Jerusalem Temple, not of many temples, they seem to have identified Herod with Ardashir on the basis of their temple-building activity. Both founded a new dynasty and (re-)built temples after seizing power.

Again, because the rabbinic storytellers have a negative view of Herod they portray his temple-building as atonement for sin, and at the suggestion of a Rabbi, whereas the Sasanian traditions, aiming to create a positive image of Ardashir, portray Ardashir’s temple-building as devolving from his initiative, a sign of his true piety and as justification for his reign.

A Persian Inspired Story

It is possible to identify common features of the rise to power of the historical Herod and historical Ardashir.  Both were servants of the former dynasty, or at least came from families that served the former dynasty (Herod’s father, Antipater, was an ally, advisor and official of the latter Hasmoneans); both rebelled, succeeded and became king; both married into the previous royal family; and both devoted resources and energy to building temples/the Temple. These common factors may have led the Babylonian Rabbis—this story of Herod appears only in the Bavli, not in the Yerushalmi or other works from the Land of Israel—to create parallels between the two figures.

The Rabbinic Appropriation of a Persian Epic Motif

To help answer why Herod received divine blessing to become King, the Rabbis adapted a Sasanian tradition that explained the motivation for, and success of, Ardashir’s rebellion against the Parthian dynasty as due to opportune astrological conditions: The propitious configuration of the stars guaranteed that slaves who rebelled against their masters at that time would succeed.[8]

The Rabbis applied a version of this tradition to Herod to explain the shift from the Hasmonean to Herodian dynasty.  However, because the Rabbis viewed Herod as a wrongful usurper, they reworked the Sasanian traditions for their own purposes, namely to delegitimize his rule, rather than to legitimate it. In this way they were able to provide a plausible explanation of how and why a sinful villain became king and merited the great mitzvah of rebuilding the holy Temple.



Prof. Rabbi Jeffrey L. Rubenstein is Skirball Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Literature at New York University.  He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Religion of Columbia University and his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. His books include, The History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods (1995); Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition and Culture (1999), Rabbinic Stories (Classics of Western Spirituality Series, 2002),  The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud (2003), and Stories of the Babylonian Talmud (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).