In War 1.650ff, Josephus describes a confrontation between the Herod and the people over a statue of an eagle that he had put up over the entrance to the temple.

What was the significance of this eagle? The eagle was a complex symbol in the ancient world. It was a Greek symbol of Zeus (an Egyptian religious symbol before that), appeared on lots of Ptolemaic coins and might have been a sort of dynastic symbol, but also a symbol of the Roman Empire. The eagle appears in relief on lots of temples of the time, but Josephus' description makes it sound like the eagle is fully 3D (rather than a relief), like those on the treasury at Petra.

Why did Herod put up the eagle? It is the only animal representation we have evidence of in Herod's temple (or at any time in the Second Temple). He knew it would make the people mad, so what was he after?

I'm interested in historical arguments based in academically credible source material.

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    This is off-topic and belongs on SE-History : I'm interested in historical arguments based in academically credible source material.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 16, 2023 at 10:59
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    Granted that its a historical question... the subject matter relates to the origins of Christianity specifically (having taken place in Jerusalem within a couple years of the birth of Jesus), and the only people interested in the question would be either here or in Mi Yodea (the Jewish stackexchange). Commented May 16, 2023 at 11:05
  • I don’t have the academic sources you are looking for, so I will not try to answer the question formally, but as far as I know, Herod needed the approval of the Roman empire to even become king, so the eagle was mostly a form of gratitude or allegiance to Rome. He had all political motives to try to integrate the temple-religion with some Roman influence. It failed obviously.
    – ABM K
    Commented May 16, 2023 at 11:15
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    I’m voting to close this question because it belongs on SE-History
    – depperm
    Commented May 16, 2023 at 11:21
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    I'm voting to keep it since it is directly relevant (being of recent background) to the politically charged situation during Jesus's ministry, contributing to the cogency of the Jewish leaders' excuse for the Romans to execute Jesus. Commented May 16, 2023 at 12:57

2 Answers 2


What is the significance of the eagle which Herod had put up over the door of the temple?

Herod was a pawn in the hands of Rome and the eagle signified the Roman authority in the Palestine region. The eagle was the symbol of the Roman army.

On this Herod showed his true colours and the populace revolted because of it.

To curry favor with Rome, King Herod put a golden eagle outside of the Temple of Jerusalem. Like other military standards, this eagle was carried into battle. The presence of the eagle meant the presence of the Roman Legion. By placing one at the gates, Herod was making a powerful statement regarding Jerusalem’s sovereignty under Rome.

Making idols was forbidden to the Jewish people, even if there was no attempt to worship them. Yet the Romans regarded eagle standards as holy symbols, anointing them on special days. Two respected teachers of the law, Judas and Matthias, spoke to religious scholars about this violation.

A group of these men pulled down the golden eagle and cut it into pieces. The king’s captain detained 40 participants, along with Matthias and Judas, and brought them before Herod. They explained that they made the choice to destroy the idol because they upheld the laws of Moses, and loved their religion.

Offended, Herod gathered Jewish leaders together in a theater. He lectured them about all of the things he had done for them, including improvements to their Temple. The Jewish leaders were all afraid of Herod, and relented. Herod had those responsible for the sedition burned alive. He appointed a new high priest: one subordinate to Herod and Rome.

The golden eagle in Jerusalem: History repeats itself

  • Thanks. There are so many eagles around in the various symbolic worlds of the time, including on the back of the Tyrian shekel which was used to pay the temple tax... but I think this article is right: the relevant eagle to this context is the Roman aquila which headed the standards they carried into war. So Herod is saying: "Even over the temple, Rome (and her client king Herod) is supreme." Commented May 19, 2023 at 11:28

Simply put, the Golden Eagle was a symbol of Roman power and authority. Raised above the entrance to the Temple, it would represent the submission of Israel, and even the Temple itself, to Rome.

The OP also asks "Why did Herod put up the eagle?" It asks for "historical arguments based in academically credible source material." The thesis I will discuss, which is not one I am completely convinced of, argues that Herod did NOT put up this supposed Eagle. Its significance is therefore to denigrate Herod's memory and reinforce a long-standing tradition of Jewish martyrdom associated with heathen idolatry at the Temple.

Writing in the Journal of Jewish Studies, Prof. Jonathan Bourgel argues that "a careful reading of this account raises questions serious enough to reconsider its historicity... The episode of the golden eagle is a martyrdom narrative conveying a legend." Bourgel points out that the story of the Eagle is found nowhere outside of Josephus. He shows convincingly that, despite his ruthless character, Herod was careful not to offend Jewish sensitivities unnecessarily. He refrained from entering the Court of the Priests, for example. Yet, the heroic young men who tore down the Eagle would have needed to enter that area in order to perform their task, and it would be highly unlikely that they were all priests. Moreover their deed, as described in Josephus, would be physically implausible.

Regarding Herod's attitude toward the Temple, Bourgel says:

Josephus’ writings allude to Herod [elsewhere] as a man extremely respectful of the integrity and sanctity of the Jewish sanctuary. Thus, in the account of his capture of Jerusalem from Antigonus, Herod is reported to have used every effort, including wealthy presents, threats and coercion, to prevent his Roman allies from entering the Temple and thus profaning it. Likewise, he appears to have acted with great caution when he undertook the rebuilding of the Temple... He also made sure that only priests participated in the construction of the Temple itself, as entry to non-priests was strictly forbidden.

He concludes:

The episode of the golden eagle is a martyrdom narrative of legendary character, although it may preserve to a certain extent the memory of authentic tensions at the end of Herod’s reign... The account of the golden eagle affair can be likened to further legendary tales that contributed to the blackening of the memory of Herod after his death.

This is not to say that Josephus was lying about the Eagle. He was once a Jewish patriot to participated in the Great Revolt against Rome. As such, he may have known the legend of Herod's Eagle and believed it personally, even though it was supposedly been torn down decades before Josephus was born. No doubt many such stories circulated about the Herodian dynasty in the runup to the anti-Roman Revolt.

Conclusion: The Golden Eagle in Josephus' account is a symbol of Roman authority over the Temple. However, there may be reason to doubt the historicity of this story, which is not biblical and exists nowhere else in the historical record. Be that as it may, Herod's Golden Eagle serves to reinforce his reputation as a historical villain for Jews and Christians alike.

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