HOW CAN THE BIBLE CALL HEROD ANTIPAS A “KING?”
by Shawn Brasseaux
The Bible calls Herod Antipas a “tetrarch” on five occasions:
- Matthew 14:1: “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus,….”
- Luke 3:1: “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene,….”
- Luke 3:19: “But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done,….”
- Luke 9:7: “Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done by him: and he was perplexed, because that it was said of some, that John was risen from the dead;….”
- Acts 13:1: “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.”
“Tetrarch” is the transliteration of the Greek word that literally means “ruler of the fourth part [of a kingdom].” Someone may then use this to complain about Bible verses that refer to Herod Antipas as a “king.” Read these passages:
- Matthew 14:9: “And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.”
- Mark chapter 6: “ And king Herod heard of him; (for his name was spread abroad: ) and he said, That John the Baptist was risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him…..  And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.  And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom….  And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.  And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.  And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison,….”
Strictly speaking, a king is more powerful than a tetrarch: the tetrarch reigns over a quarter of a kingdom, whereas a king’s territory is more extensive. How could Matthew and Mark then title Herod Antipas a “king?” We do not have to be technical here. “King” can be used in the general sense of anyone ruling over or being superior to another, so Matthew and Mark are certainly not in error in applying it to Herod Antipas. Antipas was a ruler, and in that broad sense he was king. Matthew was aware he was a “tetrarch,” and gave him that specific title (14:10). Yet, there is something important being signaled here, and we need to be receptive to the Bible instead of being critical of it.
When the Holy Spirit sometimes calls Antipas a “king,” He is looking beyond Antipas’ role as a “tetrarch.” He is alerting us to the fact Israel prefers this king as opposed to her true King. Antipas is accepted as king, but Jesus Christ is rejected as King. Remember, the Herodians were a sect of Jews partial to the Herodian dynasty. (There were various “Herods” in Scripture. See our study linked at the end of this article.) Herodians wanted a Herod to reign over them directly, as opposed to Rome appointing and ruling them through a Herod. Their position exemplifies Israel’s national situation: Israel declines to have a son of David (namely, Jesus) rule over them and fulfill the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:12-17; cf. Isaiah 9:6-7).
Recall these verses about the Lord Jesus Christ being heir to the throne of King David:
- Matthew 2:2: “Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
- Matthew 21:5: “Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.”
- Mark 11:10: “Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest.”
- Luke 1:31-33: “ And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.  He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:  And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
- Luke 19:38: “Saying, Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest.”
- John 12:13,15: “ Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord….  Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt.”
In Matthew through John, Israel refuses to have Christ as their King. For Scripture to always call Herod Antipas a “tetrarch”—and never “king”—would cause us to lose the connection. King Herod is reigning, not King Jesus Christ, and that is the way Israel wants it! So as to underscore that fact, Herod Antipas is sometimes referred to as “king.” By the way, if you study those special verses (Matthew chapter 14 and Mark chapter 6, John the Baptist’s imprisonment and ultimate beheading), you can see Christ’s rejection as King. John was Christ’s forerunner. Therefore, John’s rejection is yet another indication of (1) Israel’s unbelief and refusal of King Christ, and (2) her willingness to let an evil king (Herod Antipas) slaughter God’s prophets in her midst.