The website for tothesource.org has a useful article on National Geographic’s “Extreme Makeover” of Herod the Great in NG’s December issue.. (For convenience, a pdf file of the tothesource article is available here.)
NG has apparently decided to join groups like “The Jesus Seminar” in exploiting religious seasons to undermine Christian beliefs via pseudo-scientific speculation. The tothesource article provides an excellent response. Some additional observations and information are provided below.
Background study on Herod the Great provides the context for understanding political, social, economic, and religious tensions that lay behind much of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels. Since there are at least six or seven Herods mentioned in the New Testament, some elementary research is needed just to clarify which Herod is being talked about in a particular biblical passage.
Herod the Great was born in the late 70s BC into an aristocratic Idumean family that had converted to Judaism a half century before his birth. Herod’s father Antipater II held office under the Hasmoneans. The coming of the Romans, however, brought about a permanent realignment of both men’s allegiances, especially Herod’s.
Herod’s reign and the reigns of those who came after him fit the pattern of client kingship that was common in the late Roman Republic and later Empire. In 42 BC, Herod was ruling Galilee under his father who, in turn, was ruling under the Romans. In that year, the death of Herod’s father brought about a crisis that forced Herod to flee to Rome for support. Although the Jews denounced Herod, Caesar appointed him King of Judea in 40 BC; and with Roman help, Herod finally conquered his kingdom in 37 BC, beginning a reign that lasted for 33 years.
Herod’s direct connection to the New Testament is fairly narrow, being limited to a brief mention in Luke 1:5 and two interrelated stories in Matt 2:1-19, the visit of the Magi and the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem. The historicity of the latter has been attacked more than any other New Testament event except for the virgin birth of Jesus. The reasons are partly sentimental, partly ideological, and partly mistaken. The sentimental mistake gains power from the postmodern view of reality as being linguistically constructed. The end result is to reject the story simply because the images it evokes are not pleasant. The ideological mistake is to be suspicious of every New Testament historical event simply because they are in the New Testament. The remaining mistake is to overestimate the death toll while underestimating Herod’s cruelty. On the first count, the total number of children killed probably came to no more than twenty. On the second count, Herod was a man who had executed three of his own children, two of his grandchildren, a brother, two brothers-in-law, and his favorite wife— all because each had somehow threatened his rule. On his deathbed, he made plans to have the most prominent member of every Jewish family within his kingdom executed at the moment of his death to ensure his passing would be accompanied with sufficient mourning. Thus, the "slaughter of the innocents" in Bethlehem was entirely in keeping with Herod’s character and impulses.
Although Herod’s personal appearances in the New Testament are few, his indirect influences run throughout, especially in the form of his extensive building programs. In Jerusalem, he built a theater, an amphitheater, a hippodrome, a palace, a fortress, and most important of all, the Temple. Some of these projects became the stage for many New Testament events. Jesus was presented in Herod’s Temple as a young child and condemned in Herod’s court as a criminal. The political legacy of Herod stands in the background of Jesus cleansing the Temple and Pilate’s question to Jesus, "Are you King of the Jews?"
Outside of Jerusalem, but still within Palestine, Herod built a new city of Jericho south of the ancient site and furnished it with official buildings, a hippodrome, and a royal palace. On the coast, he built the city of Caesarea Maritima complete with pagan temples, theater, amphitheater, stadium, and a marvelous harbor. The Apostle Paul would one day be held captive in Caesarea’s praetorium. He was also destined to see Herod’s projects in Antioch and in Athens.
Throughout most of the New Testament, Herod is absent in body but still present in the physical, political, social, religious, and economic legacies that shaped the lives of Jesus, his disciples, and early Christians. Although his role in the New Testament is thoroughly sinister, the Jews prospered fairly well during his reign, spreading throughout the empire and preparing the world for the spread of the gospel. In the meantime, Herod’s outstanding political successes were being counterbalanced by his domestic failures. Marriage into the Hasmonean family brought implacable enemies into his own household and led to unprecedented levels of familial strife and violence. On the whole though, Herod’s reign, if not a bright spot in Jewish history, was less dim than what came after him. Throughout his career, he managed to maneuver Romans and Jews through a frequently tense coexistence that, after his departure, eventually deteriorated into the greatest tragedy ever to overtake the Jews in their homeland.
Appendix A: The Herod Family
Created and adapted from The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1960), passim, and Francisco O. Garcia-Treto, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 387.
Appendix B: The Hasmoneans
Created and adapted from The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1960), passim, and Francisco O. Garcia-Treto, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 589.
Appendix C: Herod’s Building Projects in Jerusalem
Adapted from Bruce E. Schein, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 469.
Aune, D.E. Word Biblical Commentary: Revelation 17-22. Vol 52C. Dallas, TX: Word, Inc., 2002.
Beasley-Murray, G.R. Word Biblical Commentary: John. Vol 36. Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002.
Evans, C.A. Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20. Vol 34B. Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002.
Garcia-Treto, Francisco O. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. Edited by Paul J. Achtemeier. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.
Hawthorne, G.F. Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians. Vol 43. Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002.
Longenecker, R.N. Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians. Vol 41. Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002.
Maier, Paul L. “The Infant Massacre: History or Myth?" Bible and Spade 6, no. 4 (Autumn 1977): 97-104.
Noland, John. Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1:1-9:20. Vol 35A. Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002.
________. Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 18:35-24:53. Vol 35C. Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002.
The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Translated by William Whiston. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1960.
Schein, Bruce E. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. Edited by Paul J. Achtemeier. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.
Wood, Bryan G. “Three Coins from a Mountain.” Bible and Spade 11, no. 4 (Fall 1998): 86-90.
 See Appendix A for an abbreviated family tree.
 Called "Great," not by the Jews, but by the foreign beneficiaries of his building programs.
 See Appendix B for an abbreviated family tree.
 The Roman pattern of client kingship most likely represents the historical background for understanding the "ten kings" of Rev 17:12. See D.E. Aune, Word Biblical Commentary: Revelation 17-22, Vol 52C (Dallas, TX: Word, Inc., 2002), 951. It may also provide the backdrop for the concept of "being appointed a kingdom" and of "going to receive a kingdom and returning"— something Herod and his descendents did frequently. "In the world of the day one went to Rome to gain the status of king before taking up one’s rule"— J. Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 18:35-24:53, Vol 35C (Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 918.
 Bryan G. Wood, “Three Coins from a Mountain,” Bible and Spade 11, no. 4 (fall 1998): 89.
 Herod may have a role to play in explaining the apparent historical discrepancy in the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. See J. Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1:1-9:20, Vol 35A. (Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 103.
 Paul L. Maier, “The Infant Massacre: History or Myth?,” Bible and Spade 6, no. 4 (Autumn 1977): 104.
 There is disagreement whether the events of John 18:28ff take place in Herod’s palace or in the Fortress of Antonia. See G.R. Beasley-Murray, Word Biblical Commentary: John, Vol 36 (Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 317. Also note Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 18:35-24:53, 1118. Evans cites a third option "somewhere on the western slope of the Tyropoeon Valley" as an ancient tradition. See C.A. Evans, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20, Vol 34B. (Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 489.
 Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was preceded by others. For example, in the final months of Herod’s life, two zealous men took advantage of Herod’s decline by cutting down the golden eagle Herod had affixed to the gate. Even though he was ill, Herod retaliated ferociously. See Evans, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20, 170.
 Beasley-Murray, Word Biblical Commentary: John, 329.
 Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 18:35-24:53, 593. Also, see Evans, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20, 131.
 Luke indicates Paul was imprisoned in the praetorium of Herod in Caesarea (Acts 23:35). Note how that circumstance is reflected in Phil 4:22 where Paul speaks to “those of Caesar’s household." The praetorium served as a residence for the Roman procurator and as the headquarters of the Roman garrison in Palestine. See G.F. Hawthorne, Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians, Vol 43 (Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002), xli.
R.N. Longenecker, Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians, Vol 41 (Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 66.
 For example, transferring allegiances from Antony to Octavian while escaping the schemes of Cleopatra.