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Ethnarch is the anglicized form of the Greek έθνάρχες ethnarches. It refers generally to political leadership over a common ethnic group or homogeneous kingdom. The word is derived from the Greek ἔθνος ethnos, ethnic group "tribe/nation") and ἄρχων archon, "leader/ruler". Strong's concordance gives the definition of 'ethnarch' as "the governor (not king) of a district."[1]

In Antiquity, the title first appeared in the Hellenistic Middle East. In the First book of Maccabees the word is used three times (1 Maccabees 14:47 and 15:1-2), where Simon Thassi, one of the five Maccabees is referred to as the High Priest and ethnarch of the Judeans.

"And Simon accepted and was pleased to be high priest and to be commander and ethnarch of the Judeans and priests and to protect all of them." (1 Maccabees 14:47, New English Translation of the Septuagint [NETS]).[2]

The title was used even after the region fell under the dominion of Rome unto the early Roman Empire, to refer to rulers of vassal kingdoms who did not rise to the level of kings. The Romans used the Latin terms natio and gens for a people as a genetic and cultural entity, regardless of political statehood.

The best-known is probably Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, who was ethnarch of Samaria, Judea (Biblical Judah), and Idumea (Biblical Edom), from the death of his father in 4 B.C. to A.D. 6. The territory was known as the Tetrarchy (one-fourth territory) of Judaea. His brother Philip was assigned the north-east of the realm as Tetrarch (ruler of a quarter); and Galilee was assigned to Herod Antipas, who bore the same title. Herod Archelaus' title of ethnarch designated him as the senior ruler, higher in rank than the tetrarchs and the chief of the Jewish nation; these three sovereignties were in a sense reunited under Herod Agrippa from A.D. 41 to 44.

Before 63 B.C., Hyrcanus II, grandson of Hyrcanus I, held the title of both ethnarch and High Priest. (See Pompey.)

In the New Testament the word is used only once by the Apostle Paul in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

"In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me," (2 Corinthians 11:32)

However the definition of the word there in terms of the actual jurisdiction and public office of the ethnarch may not be accurately determined.


  1. Strong's number 1481 ἐθνάρχης ethnarchos (
  2. 1 Makkabees. Transl. George Themelis Zervos. In: Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (Eds.). A NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE SEPTUAGINT. Oxford University Press, 2009. p. 500.

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