In the ancient world there was a man declared to be ‘the King of kings.’ His reign was very short but he was widely influential, had thousands of admiring followers, and his presence brought peace and hope to many. Yet his life was cut short through a premature death.

This king was Odaenathus, the king of the small but extraordinarily influential independent city-state of Palmyra in the third century. Palmyra was an oasis in the Syrian desert and a strategic buffer between the great civilisations of Rome and Persia (the Sassanids). At its peak it was one of the great cultural centres of the world. It stood on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire.[1]

Odaenathus was a great warrior and a famous king. Such was his power and success that in 263 AD Odaenathus declared himself to be King of kings of the East. But only a couple of years later, in around 266 AD he died.


How Exactly Did the King of Kings Die?

It’s not exactly clear where, or how this ‘king of kings’ died. The only thing that the ancient sources agree upon was that he was assassinated. But where, by whom and for what reason—the sources all disagree.

  • Syncellus claims Odaenathus was assassinated near Heraclea Pontica by an assassin also named Odaenathus, who was killed by the king’s bodyguard.
  • Zosimus states that he was killed at a friend’s birthday party by an unnamed assassin at Emesa.
  • Zonaras attributed the crime to a nephew of Odaenathus after an argument on a hunting expedition.
  • According to Historia Augusta, Odaenathus’ cousin, Maeonius, killed him and his son Hairan during a celebration. Odaenathus’ wife, Zenobia conspired against him because she wanted her sons to succeed him instead of Hairan, who was his son by another woman.
  • Yet another theory offered by John of Antioch was that Odaenathus was the victim of a conspiracy by the Roman Emperor Gallienus.

Though all accounts agree that his death was sudden and unexpected, each offers different and irreconcilable accounts of when, where and by whom Odaenathus died. [2]

Another King of Kings

Contrast this to another ‘King of kings’ from a few centuries earlier. This man also died an untimely death.

Jesus of Nazareth, a penniless preacher, the son of a carpenter, commanded no soldiers, won no battles, and died a criminal’s death on a cross. In the ancient geopolitical landscape he was nobody. It was actually laughable that he could possibly be considered a king—let alone the ‘King of kings.’ And yet thousands of ancient people venerated him as such. Why was that?

Just like Odaenathus, we have numerous accounts of Jesus’ death. But unlike Odaenathus, we know precisely how and where he was killed; by whom and for what reason. The reports do not conflict on the manner or circumstances of his death: he was killed in Jerusalem, by Roman crucifixion for claiming he was the son of God and the king of the Jews.

There are many who dismiss the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels (the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ life and death). For example, the late Christopher Hitchens claimed that “the authors of the Gospels can‘t agree on anything of importance.” When it comes to Jesus’ death, at least, these claims are simply wrong. The diverse, conflicting and irreconcilable differences in the accounts of the death of the great and influential Odaenathus contrast starkly with the consistency between the accounts of Jesus’ death.


The World Famous Penniless Preacher from Nazareth

We should expect historians to record the details of the life and death of Odaenathus, for he was intriguing, influential, rich and powerful. He was a king!

But Jesus? He had no immediate military or political influence. He won no great battles, oversaw no great empire. To have just one extant account of the death of this man would perhaps be surprising. But in fact we have not just one account of Jesus’ death but many.

The remarkable truth is that today the penniless preacher from Nazareth is far more influential and well known than the so-called ‘King of kings’ from Palmyra. Odaenathus is nothing but a name in a history book. It’s remarkable that millions of people right across the world believe and worship Jesus Christ as the true ‘King of kings.’

[1] In more recent times Palmyra was in the news as ISIS destroyed a number of ancient buildings in the city.

[2] Eugene N. Lane and Thomas Banchich, The History of Zonaras From Alexander Severus to the Death of Theodosius the Great, footnote 79; Trevor R. Bryce, Ancient Syria: A Three Thousand Year History, xix – xxi.