There is a theory going around that is confusing many lay people because the pushers of the theory are amateurs who aren’t informed themselves, or are not correctly informing, the public about any of the pertinent facts: the notion that we can “prove” Paul was a Roman agent intentionally setting Christians up to be subservient to Rome. To be absolutely clear: there is zero evidence for this conjecture; it isn’t even plausible—there is no evidence Romans ever even ran ops like this, or would be likely to. Attempts to prove otherwise always cite as “evidence” activities that bear no actual pertinent similarity. Quite simply, “the Romans used spies and agents provocateurs” does not get you “Romans sent in fake cult leaders to steer rejected microscopic fringe cult movements that they could have had no possible way of anticipating would even matter or influence their target populations at all.” And the basic fact is, every fact you might flag as supporting such nonsense, like that Paul was a Roman appeaser who strove to unify Gentile and Jewish interests into a peaceful and prosocial coexistence, are just as likely on far more common and plausible causes: countless Jews already wanted that outcome and strove for it on their own initiative (see On the Historicity of Jesus, Chapter 5, Elements 23-29). It was also profitable—the common incentive of every cult leader and traveling salvation show in history (see J.D.M. Derrett’s chapter on “The Financial Aspects of the Resurrection” in The Empty Tomb). If other, far more plausible and commonplace explanations produce all the same evidence, then you have no evidence left to support any alternative. Your alternative is then just another, “But maybe aliens did build the pyramids.” Sure. Maybe. But, you know, probably not.
This came up recently on Brother Garfield’s show, when Jacob Berman made a classic “conspiracy theory” style argument for it (at minute 15:20), pushing a mishmash of the bizarre (and wholly crank) speculations of Robert Eisenman and Thijs Voskuilen. Which if you examine them with care you’ll notice lack any evidence at all for any of their key assertions. Like all cranks, they declare true but irrelevant facts as if they were evidence, and then arrive at their conclusion from them wholly by non sequitur. You can see Berman falling for this, repeating one such species of argument: that Paul “admits” in Romans 16:11 to having as a family relation a member of the royal family of the Herods. Ergo, he was a Roman agent fabricating his Christian teachings to pacify the Jews (or mock them, an entirely contradictory goal; because cranks can never produce a coherent theory). Non sequitur. Even if the premise were true, it’s a non sequitur. “Anyone with any family connection whatever to the Herods is a Roman agent on the specific mission I just invented in my head” is bonkers logic. It’s just all the more face-palmingly absurd that these cranks are telling us Paul actually outed himself as a Roman agent by admitting his royal connections in an open letter! Really? Come on, people.
But it’s even worse than that. Because the premise is false. And some of these folks should know it is false. Certainly there is no excuse for Eisenman or Voskuilen (or their peer reviewers, insofar as they even really have ever had any); Berman perhaps is just being misled. So I am writing this article today to set this straight, since I’m not seeing anyone else doing it.
Please Start with the Facts
The argument Berman uses is that Paul was a Roman agent because in his letter to the Romans he tells the Christians at Rome to “greet my kinsman Herodion.” Oooh! “Herodion” sounds like “Herod.” Must be a Herod! Sigh. No. First of all, Herod is a Greek name; the word is Herodes (Hêrôdês), and it means either “Heroic” (from an old adjectival suffix –idos) or “Hero-Song” (literally “Hero” plus “Ode”); a similar name you might recognize is Herodotus (the famous historian), whose name means “Hero-Given.” And Hêrôdês was not a rare name in the region of Palestine. For example, we have a military inscription of one Herod son of Aumos, which conspicuously makes clear he is not related to the royal Herods, but only served as a commander in their army. And we know this because such an inscription would never omit so prestigious a fact as such a family relation, while naming kids after admired lords, masters, kings, and employers was a common practice back then. Such traditions could continue for generations; so someone named “Herod” could even have no connection to the royal Herods at all, beyond several generations prior (for example, a freed slave of Herod the Great’s grandfather’s household could name their kid Herod, and this continue in alternating generations for a hundred years or more).
The Herod name also doesn’t even necessarily connect to the royals at all. There was a famous Greek poet of the name Herod; no connection at all to the Palestinians. Xenophon’s Hellenica mentions a Syracusan of essentially the same name (Hêrôdas, a difference of spelling indicative of the Syracusan dialect) centuries before Herod the Great lived. And even before that Antiphon had delivered an oration on the murder of Herod the Athenian; which shows it was also a well-known Athenian name, too; and thus it’s no surprise that a century after Herod the Great, the Roman orator Herod Atticus was famously a multigenerational Athenian—with no remembered connection with the Herods of Palestine, but to the Herods of Athens, beginning with a denizen of the Athenian town of Marathon, known to Cicero centuries before, who personally knew Herod Atticus’s ancestor, Herod of Marathon, an Athenian citizen (evidently something of a literary hack whom Cicero advised to attend a particular philosopher’s lectures in Athens). And that is a continent away yet in the same era as Herod the Great. In fact several presidents of the Athenian polity bore the name Herod across hundreds of years.
We likewise know of a town leader in early Imperial Italy, a certain Herod of Ascalon, son of Aphrodisus. From Palestine then. But no connection to the royal family a continent away, though Christians later tried to fabricate one to discredit Herod the Great as a secret pagan—and modern cranks do like to swallow ancient myths whenever it suits them, although this evinces a fact obvious back then but perhaps not to us today: this myth could be contrived precisely because Herod was so common a pagan name. Likewise we have a papyrus mentioning random neighbors in northern Egypt, “Herod, son of Herod, also called Isidore,” which nickname means “Gift of Isis,” so likely no Jew. In fact, “the name Herodes is widely attested in numerous papyri from first-century” Tebtunis; for example, “Herakleides son of Didumos the younger, son of Herod” is mentioned in a surviving property contract, referring to the Greek magistrate Herakleides, likely among the “descendants of the Greek and Hellenized soldiers settled in the Arsinoite district by the Ptolemies.” Which means, so also his grandfather, Herod. And so likewise in other Greek colonies in Egypt (search “Herod” in this catalogue, for example); and this is only because vastly more documentation has survived in the sands of Egypt—had we the same for other provinces, likely we’d find countless other examples.
So we see lots of Greeks all over the Empire carrying this name across generations and even centuries. There is nothing peculiar about it. And as we saw with Herod Aumou, even a connection to the Palestinian royals entailed no family relation, nor even any connection at all once said connection fell generations in the past. Thus, “I’m related to a guy named Herod” simply does not mean “I’m related to Palestinian royalty.” It doesn’t even mean “I’m connected to Palestinian royalty.” It certainly doesn’t mean, “I’m a Roman secret agent.”
And that’s even if Paul had said “Herod.” He didn’t. In case you missed that little detail. Paul actually said “Herodion” (Hêrôdiôn). That is a diminutive; basically it means “Little Herod.” Accordingly, this is not the same name as Herodian, like the Greco-Roman historian and grammarian, as that is an adjectival, typically meaning someone whose family freedom or citizenship was granted by someone named Herod—yet again in neither of those cases a royal (nor could the recipient of the name ever have been). For example, the historian Josephus received the citizenship from the Flavius family and thus became a “Flavianus,” and so likely might his children and descendants be named. But Herodion is specifically a diminutive, which has more of a cutesy meaning, for lack of a better descriptor. No self-respecting royal would ever be so named. This kind of diminishing variant of a name is far more typical of slaves, freedmen, and servants, and thence their children (even if freeborn, or even in time wealthy); and indeed, is most to be expected among slaves, who don’t usually get to choose what they are named, or if named by their enslaved parents, then would be so named to get in good with their master, by honoring whoever their owner politically favors.
Accordingly, the most common opinion in the field now is that this Herodion was a slave—particularly because few mainstream scholars believe anymore that Paul means he is a family relative of this person or even had ever met them, but more on that in a moment (the surrounding material also implies the people Paul is naming here are all slaves). This Herodion could be a slave or freedman of a royal (which is still not being a Herod), but statistically that’s unlikely—most persons so named will have had no such connection, but will only have been named in accord with the political zeitgeist of the time; or even for no such reason at all: given that Herod was a common Greek name, and thus does not even entail any connection to the royals, and Herodion is simply a diminutive thereof, it could be acquired as a name for no reason to do with “the” Herods, particularly for someone nowhere near Palestine, as we are to presume is the case here, since Paul is not talking about someone there, but thousands of kilometers away. And yes, once again, Herodion was so common a name we find it often reported. In Egypt, one Herodion sold a donkey to his neighbor; another Herodion willed his property among his three Egyptian-named sons. And these are freemen (or at least freedmen). Neither likely Jews or connected to Palestinian royalty.
So, “Herodion” is even further removed from implying any likely connection to “the Herods,” much less (yet another step of assumption) Rome. But that isn’t all. It’s also simply not likely the case that Paul is saying this Herodion is a relative of his. Every other time Paul uses similar vocabulary, he means a fellow Jew—an Israelite. The word he uses is literally “of the same race” (syn-genê). Though that can mean “same family,” it also commonly means same people. And in Paul, that’s what it typically would signify, as that’s how Paul employs the root and its cognates everywhere else. This is thus the widest opinion now in the field, and many Bibles so translate it.
Finally, it’s an open question where this even is. The Letter now labeled “to the Romans” shows evidence of actually being pieces of several different letters mashed together and passed off as a single letter (see OHJ, p. 511 n. 4); which means not all of them may have originally been sent to Rome. And indeed, Romans 16:5 implies the audience for this section was in Asia Minor, not Rome. But we can be certain the audience wasn’t in Judea. This is in any case thousands of kilometers away on a whole other continent. Accordingly, many scholars suspect Paul is not here referring to people he knows personally, but people he knows by reputation or reference (or possibly correspondence). This Herodion could simply be, as some suggest, the lone Jewish slave in Aristobulus’s household—the others all Gentile Christians, and thus not singled out for special commendation by Paul, who may have been told of the lone Jewish Christian in the retinue of Aristobulus (whom Paul does not tell them to greet—so we know their owner was no Christian). In any event, we are given no information to know what connection Paul actually has to this guy, or where this guy lives. All we can at most infer is that he’s a fellow Israelite, probably a slave, and either in Rome or Asia Minor. That’s hell and gone from being “a member of Herodian royalty.”
No, Those Other Passages Don’t Help
There are three other passages that will be appealed to, completely unconnected with this one, yet that will be argued to somehow support their (as you can now tell) completely ignorant misreading of Romans 16. The first is Philippians 4:22, where Paul says “all the holy ones” (presumably meaning reputable Christians) send their greetings to the Christians at Philippi “especially” the holy ones “from Caesar’s household.” The ignorant assumption made is that this means the Imperial family. No. The term here, oikia, means “household” in a thoroughly abstract sense, including literally every slave owned by and freedman of the Emperor across the entire world, even people who had never even met the emperor and didn’t even work for him anymore (freedpersons could ply their own trades and only owed a “percentage” to their former owner). Though oikia might typically refer to everyone who lives in the same house or palace, in imperial political vocabulary that distinction no longer existed. It’s more like the terminology of the mafia today: if you are “in the family,” this bears no connotations as to where in the world you live or what you are doing or even if the paterfamilias knows who you are.
Consequently, “those of Caesar’s oikia” means any imperial slave or freedman. There were thousands of such persons all over the empire. They performed private functions like managing imperial lands and factories and mines, herding imperial flocks of sheep or cows, working kitchens, carrying messages and goods, and whatnot; and could also be on their own—if they had earned or bought their freedom, and only maintained a financial relationship with the “household.” Even more freedmen also continued in imperial employ, as managers and tax collectors and administrators, at every level and function of government. It’s almost the same thing as saying “employee of the Federal government” today. One would not confuse that with “a member of Joe Biden’s family.” Nor even with the White House and its policies, as if “I have a cousin who is a postal worker, therefore I am a government secret agent.” Many such persons would be Jews, and a few we can expect would eventually be Christian converts—and it is likely Paul would want to emphasize that, as it shows the “gospel” moving “toward” the circles of power (even if not really that impressively; like Scientologists boasting of a convert who is a mayor’s secretary).
So we don’t get anything out of that passage. The other two are in the far more dubious bifold of Luke-Acts:
- In Acts 13:1 we are told, “Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul,” meaning our Paul. This being Acts, we have no reason to believe any of this is true (see Chapter 9 of On the Historicity of Jesus for why). But even if it is, it conspicuously excludes Paul from having any connection with the Herods—noting only that this otherwise-unknown Manaen did. Moreover, “brought up with” (syntrophos) is vague; it can even mean as a slave raised in the same household (in this sense, meaning the same palace). But what it does not mean is “related to.” Whoever Manaen was, if this account is true, he grew up in company with Herod in some fashion, but was not his relative, and there is no reference here to being his agent either (much less Rome’s). And in any event, this isn’t Paul. So, moving on…
- In Luke 8:3 we are told that among the women attending to Jesus and his Disciples were “Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household” and “these women were helping to support them out of their own means.” Again, there is no reason to believe any of this is true (see Chapter 10 of On the Historicity of Jesus for why). But the term used here is that Chuza was an epitropos of Herod, meaning a business manager (see my discussions of the difference between a “procurator” and a “prefect” in Hitler Homer Bible Christ). That entails a position that could be in close contact with Herod’s slave household; although not necessarily: state leaders had scores of procurators attending to all manner of separate business. For example, if Herod owned a bunch of sheep in Galilee, he’d need an epitropos to manage them. And Herod’s vizier (his top ranking epitropos) might go about hiring and appointing such persons; Herod himself might never even meet them. Here again we have no connection to Herod (like Aristobulus, Chuza isn’t even involved with Jesus or his movement; nor is it said he even knew Herod or did anything beyond manage properties for him); and more to the point, no connection at all to Paul.
Needless to say, you can’t get the crank theory about Paul being an agent of Rome (or even the Herods) out of any of these verses. And we already saw you can’t get it out of Romans 16:11 either.
Throughout all of this, please notice what I did: rather than just believe whatever claptrap someone says, I checked. Of course, as a trained and experienced Ph.D. in this field, I already knew most of this. But to be sure, I stopped, and asked the questions any scholar and critical thinker should always have asked when posed an extraordinary claim like this. Is Herod so uncommon a name? Is Herodion even a name used by the royal Herods? Is it even likely to have been? How might someone come to be so named? What actually does Paul say his connection is to this guy? Where is this guy? And once those questions are answered, we can ask, “So, what actually can I infer now?” The answer usually will be: nothing. Which is why you don’t find this nonsense in mainstream references anywhere. There simply is no evidence that Paul had any connection at all to the Herods, filial or otherwise. Indeed, Paul tells us he had not even visited Judea until well after he became a Christian (Galatians 1:13-24; proving the author of Acts fabricated a contrary history for him); and while Acts even says Paul was from Tarsus in Asia Minor, he himself seems to imply he was from Damascus in Syria (in Galatians 1:17 he says he “returned” to Damascus without ever mentioning being there before, which implies it was then well known that’s where he resided; Paul never mentions being from anywhere else), and either way, neither of those places is Palestine. While Acts has Paul say he grew up in Jerusalem and (conveniently for the story) studied under the famous Gamaliel there, Paul conspicuously omits any mention of such facts when he boasts of his credentials himself, so they are quite unlikely. Why then would this Hellenized, foreign, Diaspora Jew, have any connection at all with Palestinian politics? It seems more evident from Paul’s own writings that he did not.