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I've been working on the Sermon on the Mount in my devotional reading recently, and I had a question of historical curiosity come up.

The passage in question is the concluding "House on the rock/House on the sand" parable in Matthew 7:24-27.

I like diagramming rhetorical structure, so here's how I've paraphrased and analyzed it so far, with the idea that there might be two chiasmi embedded in an overall parallel structure:

The one who hears and acts on these words is like a wise man (Parallel part 1)
   who built his house on rock             (Comment on building)
      Rain came, floods came                  (Cause)
      It did not fall                         (Effect)
   Because it had been founded on rock     (Comment on building)

The one who hears and *does not* act on these words is like a foolish man (Parallel part 2)
   who built his house on sand             (Comment on building)
      Rain came, floods came                  (Cause)
      It fell                                 (Effect)
   Great was its fall                      (Comment on effect)

I further remember reading in NT Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God (pp. 292 and 334), that the "House on the Rock" was hearable as an allusion to the temple. If so, I would imagine that the "Wise man" who built the house would have been hearable as a Solomon reference by sheer proximity.

This got me thinking. I wonder, are there any parallel allusions in the second part of the parallel--the house on the sand and its builder?

Wright gestures toward the falling tower of Siloam (Luke 13:4) for the image of falling masonry (Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 334), but another interpretation suggested itself today, and I wondered what you would think of it.

Here are my questions then:

  1. Based on pictures like the two below, I imagine the promontory palace at Caesarea Maritima might have looked like a great house built on the sand to the casual observer. Do you think a first century Palestinian audience might have heard the house on the sand as an allusion to something like this?

Photo from an archeological dig at the Promontory Palace at Caesarea Maritima

Photo from an archeological dig at the Promontory Palace at Caesarea Maritima

Aerial photo of the site of the Promontory Palace at Caesarea Maritima

Aerial photo of the site of the Promontory Palace at Caesarea Maritima

  1. Do we have any indications that would lead us to believe that the moniker "the Great" had been applied to Herod by around the time of Jesus' ministry? (My attempts to trace which source used it first have been amateurish and fruitless--I haven't read many primary sources, so I have no mental index to search)
  2. If it was in use at that time, might that "the great" moniker have been rendered μεγάλη--the word that ends the parable and describes the crash--in koine Greek?
  3. If so, by virtue of proximity to a "house on the sand" and by virtue of an oblique reference to a name that, if used honorifically by rulers might have been used ironically by those ruled, might the foolish man then have been hearable as an allusion to Herod the Great?
  4. If 3 and 4 are plausible, and we assume that at least some of Jesus' hearers were both quick-witted and familiar with either (a) the wordplay surrounding "house" in 2 Samuel 7 or similar wordplay in Greek or Aramaic (if it existed), might the crash have been hearable not as the fall of the house of Herod--both the residence and the dynasty?
  5. If 5 seems likely, does that seem like it would substitute for or supplement an interpretation that treats the fall of the house on the sand as an anticipation of the fall of the temple? (In other words, is this more of a both and type situation or an either or type interpretive situation?)

Clearly the gospels portray the relationship between Jesus and the Herodians as rocky at best--the Bethlehem incident and the execution of John the Baptist are perhaps the clearest cases in point, of course. But from Jesus' end, the two examples that immediately come to mind are Jesus' direct criticism of Herod (Antipas?) (Luke 13:32), and Matthew and Mark's placement of the divorce pericope in Herod Antipas' territory in Perea/Transjordan (Mark 10:1-12 -- I'm getting this interpretation from Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God p. 161-64, and pp. 284-285). In any case, these make it seem plausible to me that Jesus might happily have woven criticisms of Herod the Great and his dynastic descendants into his teaching.

So, friends of Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, do you have ideas on where I could look for leads on the evidence-based questions of 3 and 4?

And, given your engagement with the text and its context, does the interpretation suggested by questions 1, 2, 5, and 6 seem plausible, or does this seem like reading too much speculation into the text?

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  • Welcome to the group David. You've started out with a very large question! I can help with one thing: the first known use of "the Great" for Herod is by Josephus and he did write in Greek. So one question becomes how do you define "at the time." Commented Feb 23 at 5:01
  • This calls for a great deal of speculation unrelated to the Bible text.
    – Dottard
    Commented Feb 23 at 6:02
  • RE: edit: 161n64 was intended as a reference to footnote 64 on page 161, not to pages 161-64. Sorry if this is the wrong reference format for the discipline. Commented Feb 26 at 1:54

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This is an intriguing connection of ideas. I cannot answer all of your questions, and some speculation would be required.

However, there are some clear historical sources regarding questions 2 & 3.

Question 2

The earliest surviving source to refer to Herod as "The Great" is Flavius Josephus (see Antiquities 18.5.4); he completed Antiquities of the Jews in AD 93 (source). Earlier surviving sources refer to Herod the King but not Herod the Great. Josephus relied heavily on Nicolaus of Damascus for his history of Herod, and it is possible that "the Great" was a moniker for Herod in this earlier source, but we do not know as most of Nicolaus' work has been lost.

However, Josephus' purpose with the moniker "the Great" appears to be to distinguish him from the other Herods, not to praise him. Except when describing Herod's genealogy, Josephus does not use the term "the Great" when describing Herod, though he occasionally describes Herod's accomplishments as "great".

Question 3

Yes, it is the same root word for "great". The first sentence of Antiquities 18.5.4 begins Ἡρώδῃ τῷ μεγάλῳ

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    While I have little regard for the Q., Dottard's comment was quite appropriate, what you have said and indeed pointed out is indeed worthy of merit. Commented Feb 25 at 15:02

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