November 10, 2008

Lysanias, Tetrarch of Abilene

My main interest in Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene, began in hopes of finding a comparative case study (however minuscule) to make with Herod Antipas, beginning from the New Testament's brief reference to Lysanias as a contemporary client prince in the neighborhood of Galilee. In this post, I'll explore the historical possibilities for Lysanias' career and attempt to move beyond all such speculation in favor of a few modest and reasonable conclusions about Lysanias and his tetrarchy, Abilene. (My opinion on Abilene's significance for Herod Antipas will appear in a separate post.)

Luke's Gospel tells us a man named Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene when John started Baptizing (which I take as 28 AD, the 15th calendar year of the rule of Tiberius). Aside from Luke's testimony, we have nothing else to date the rule of Lysanias, except that it must have begun after the death of Zenodorus in 20 BC, and it seems to have ended no later than 32 AD (based on historic and geographic considerations I mentioned in the previous post). If the name itself is any indication, Lysanias may stand at the end of the dynastic line that ruled Iturea and Trachonitis, ending with Zenodorus, the greater part of whose kingdom was given to Herod the Great in 20 BC by Augustus himself - though other parts of Iturea were given at that time to Syria, under the territorial care of Berytus, Sidon and Damascus. Abilene, at this time, seems to have remained independent, but we do not know why.

There is plenty of room for speculation, and some value in considering it briefly:

If Lysanias was the son of Zenodorus, that may have been one reason for Augustus to leave the tiny stretch of Abilene under his care. Or Herod could have let him keep it, since the North side of Mount Hermon was otherwise inconvenient to Israel. In any case, Abilene was essentially the sole east-west pass through Lebanon’s mountains. As such, it was a small, high traffic area without any natural boundaries for defense. Leaving it to be managed as an independent unit may have seemed more expedient for all involved, at the time. Besides, the land was desirable, as the dispute over it (between Sidon and Damascus in 32 AD) would later show. In that light, giving Abilene to a small independent dynast could have been the best way to stave off that controversy in dividing up Iturea.

Whatever the case, it is possible, if just barely, that such a dynastic Lysanias could have inherited the management of Abilene and kept it from 20 BC until 32 AD. Any relative of Zenodorus, claiming the tetrarchy by age 20 or so, would have to last 47 years to reach the time of John the Baptist – an audacious stretch in longevity for the ancient world, but not impossible if there was some decent amount of revenue in the situation. Further, if the dispute in 32 AD was fresh, and presuming it was based on Lysanias’ removal (by natural death or otherwise) the tetrarch would need to have reached the very ripe age of 71 (more or less). Again, this is all mere speculation, but it shows the case to be possible, if not overwhelmingly plausible. However, it may also be the case that Lysanias was related to Zenodorus but very young indeed at his death in 20 BC. In that situation, an older relative may have served as regent of his tetrarchy until the lad came of age, and Lysanias could die in 32 AD being possibly as young as 52. Finally, it's possible the dispute of 32 AD may not have been fresh when Flaccus finally arrived to mediate. If Abilene had lingered in dispute for a year or three before (while Syria's Governor Lamia was still ruling the province in absentia), then Lysanias could have gone as early as 29 AD (when John the Baptist was arrested), in that case dying or leaving as young as 49.

Of course these are merely boundaries for our consideration. We can’t reconstruct very much at all (with certainty) about Lysanias, but we don’t need to. Lysanias has extremely slight importance to the New Testament text, or it's story. As stated above, believers only need to suppose that he must have been tetrarch of Abilene for at least a year or so around 28 AD. But the above speculation shows a much longer career is possible, at the very least. The variables and uncertainty which defy our desire for more specifics do, at least, also defy any attempts to claim Lysanias himself was unhistorical. Therefore, academic work on Lysanias, whether faith based or critical, must ultimately rest in uncertainty.

In all this, however, we do find a few minor points that can be stated with some measure of confidence:

Based on Luke’s testimony, we may accept that there was a man named Lysanias who governed the tiny crossroads area called Abilene at least by the time of John the Baptist. This Lysanias may or may not have been related to the earlier [albeit intermittent] dynasty over Iturea whose line ended with Zenodorus. Whatever his identity, personal status, or length of his rule, there is one detail of Abilene as a tetrarchy that history does seem to confirm [with the aid of geography]. The removal of local authority over Abilene must be judged as the most likely cause for the land dispute between Sidon and Damascus in 32 AD. Therefore, although we cannot date the beginning of Lysanias' tetrarchy over Abilene, we may conclude that it lasted no later than 32 AD. Whether Lysanias died or was otherwise removed, control over Abilene reverted to the Empire, and it's management was entrusted to local and provincial authorities in Syria.

My next post will briefly address why I believe all of this was somewhat significant to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee.

(for still more, try my search bar for "Abilene")


Peter Kirk said...

Bill, maybe this is all a misunderstanding, but I had always understood that at the death of Herod the Great his kingdom was divided into four, and that is why the successor rulers are called tetrarchs. In Luke 3:1 three tetrarchs are named; Archelaus' tetrarchy had been replaced by the prefecture of Pilate. If there is anything more than childish imagination to this, that would make for a rather different scenario in which Lysanias is a successor of Herod. The NIV Study Bible note on Matthew 14:1 says that "At the death of Herod the Great the area was divided among four of his sons", so I am not making the idea up. Of course we know about Archelaus, Antipas and Philip, but who was the fourth son? I guess the NIV note writer has in mind Lysanias. Could he have been a son, or perhaps a son-in-law, of Herod? Or perhaps he was granted a small part of Herod's kingdom in some kind of compensation for the seizure of a larger area from his ancestor Zenodorus. Is there any evidence against my hypothesis?

Bill Heroman said...

Hey, Peter. Thanks for asking all that. I'm shocked the NIV study bible would say that. Herod's kingdom was divided among his three remaining eligible sons. Although he had a fourth surviving son at the time of his death (also called Philip, whom scholars call "Herod-Philip", the one whose wife Antipas stole), that son had been disinherited. Josephus tells us the kingdom was divided among three: Archelaus (Judea, Samaria & Idumea), Antipas (Galilee & the Jordan Valley), and Philip (Trachonitis, Golan, etc).

The records of Herod's sons are considered reliable and complete. I've never seen the suggestion that the NT's Lysanias might have been related to Herod. Of course, anything's possible. But it seems Abilene was divided off from Iturea back in 23 or 20 BC, so Herod never owned it and he couldn't have bequeathed it.

We do have an inscription that shows someone named Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, written under Tiberius before the death of Livia (14 to 29 AD). While this inscription certainly strengthens our view of Luke's statement, we still cannot say who he was, who his father was, or how long he ruled Abilene. If he wasn't related to the line of Zenodorus, he was at least smart enough to assume the name of a previous Iturean King.

In all this, it seems pretty far fetched to imagine Lysanias carried the blood of Herod the Great. There's nothing to suggest it, other than misreading Luke 3:1, as you said. Also, the term "Tetrarchy" evolved in usage to mean a subdivision, not necessarily one of four.

I'd still be interested to know what the NIV note writers were thinking, but if you've described it accurately, it must just be an error. Disapointing, no?

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks, Bill. I too am shocked that this information is in NIV Study Bible, if it is clearly false as you demonstrate. I note that the NIV Study Bible at Luke 3:1 correctly divides Herod's kingdom into three at his death, and makes no suggestion that Lysanias was a successor to Herod.

Silent Planet said...

Peter: Just to be clear, the mistake you found was printed in a commentary note separate from the Biblical text, correct? As disturbing as it would be to learn the scholars who reviewed the article didn't catch the error, it would be even more concerning if somehow your NIV Biblical text contained such an error.

Anonymous said...

I just came on your blog in doing personal study on Lysanias. My NIV note on Mt. 14:1 says a tetrarch is a fourth of a kingdom - not that Herod's kingdom was divided into 4 parts. Archaeleus was deemed an Ethnarch, ruler of a people (ie, he had the Temple and more territory), while Antipas and Philip, 2 of his brothers, received less substantial portions (and were deemed Tetrarchs).

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