A post by Bill Heroman on the obscure figure Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene, known from Luke 3:1 and a very few ancient inscriptions, has turned up a bit of a mystery and misunderstanding. See also this post about Abilene.
It is very easy for someone with a little knowledge of Greek to deduce that the Greek word τετραάρχης tetraarchēs, traditionally transliterated “tetrarch”, means “ruler of a quarter”, that is, ruler of one of four subdivisions of a wider area. And indeed that is probably what it meant in classical Greek. But, as we shall see, this definition is rather misleading for the New Testament period.
Luke 3:1 mentions three tetrarchs (actually using the related verb for ruling as a tetrarch) ruling in 28 AD (as dated by Bill), Herod (otherwise known as Antipas) of Galilee, Philip of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias of Abilene. Luke also mentions that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, the area which Bible readers will remember from Matthew 2:22 was ruled by Archelaus after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC. It is well known from secular sources that Archelaus was deposed and replaced by a Roman governor in about 6 AD. It is also well known that Herod Antipas and Philip, also sons of Herod the Great, became rulers of parts of his kingdom on his death. The casual reader will easily conclude that Luke in 3:1 was listing the four successors of Herod the Great at that time, each ruling a quarter of what had been Herod’s kingdom. Indeed this seems to be the conclusion reached by the NIV Study Bible in its note on Matthew 14:1:
tetrarch. The ruler of the fourth part of a region. … At the death of Herod the Great the area [Palestine] was divided among four of his sons.
Wrong! – at least if the evidence Bill notes in a comment is correct, that Abilene had never been part of Herod’s kingdom. Actually the NIV Study Bible is inconsistent but apparently more accurate in its note on Luke 3:1:
At the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.) his sons – Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Herod Philip – were given jurisdiction over his divided kingdom.
No mention here of a fourth son, and no suggestion that Lysanias was a successor of Herod the Great.
It seems that by the time of Jesus the term “tetrarch” had acquired a less specific meaning, perhaps “ruler of a subdivision” or simply “ruler of lesser status than a king”. It also seems that there were only three subdivisions of Herod the Great’s kingdom, and so only three tetrarchs within its boundaries, reduced to two when Archelaus was deposed. Lysanias was simply a low status ruler of a rather small neighbouring territory.
But I think the question must also arise of how Luke understood the situation. He may have understood “tetrarch” in its more classical sense. The form of Luke 3:1 suggests to me that he considered Lysanias to be a successor of Herod the Great like Antipas and Philip, and so one of the originally four tetrarchs. Or perhaps he took Abilene to be part of Palestine and so listed Lysanias as a ruler of one of four divisions of it. In fact Abilene lay a little to the north of the traditional boundaries of the Holy Land (and the borders of modern Israel), on the northern side of Mount Hermon. But then we shouldn’t insist on Luke being entirely accurate as a historian and geographer, although he has been proved to be much better at that than many liberal scholars used to think.
It seems to have been a popular misunderstanding that Herod the Great’s kingdom was divided into four. It is one which until today I shared with the author of the NIV Study Bible note on Matthew 14:1. Assuming that this really is an error, it is one which needs to be corrected with good publicity. So perhaps I can play my part in doing that.