Monday, 29 August 2016
29 August is the Feast of the Decollation of John the Baptist. To mark the event, here is a chapter from my Master's thesis, which was a study of the historical John the Baptist. This chapter covers John's death.
I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptizer on a platter (Mk 6.25).
The arrest and subsequent execution of John the Baptist seriously jeopardized his mission of proclamation and baptizing. Only the fact that Jesus took over the ministry and carried John’s message to the Galilaeans saved it from disaster. Nevertheless, this momentous event is almost passed over by the evangelists. Of the four, only two give it any attention. Even here, it is treated as a flashback and its historical details are manipulated for the sake of christological concerns.
The aim of this chapter, then, is to make a thorough investigation of the arrest, imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist. It will consider the discrepancies that appear to exist between the Synoptic accounts and that of Josephus. The study will embrace several elements, such as why John was arrested and by whom. Who was responsible for John’s execution, and where did it occur? Attempts will be made to clarify other details: the identity of Herodias’s former husband, whether Salome was the daughter of Herod or Herodias, whether or not Salome, a daughter of the royal household, would have danced at Herod’s birthday party, and how the story might have reached the public domain.
7.2 The Evidence.
The starting point is, of course, an analysis of the primary sources in which John’s arrest and death appear. Accounts are to be found in Josephus, Mark and Matthew.
7.2.1 The Gospels.
The Fourth Gospel makes no reference to the events surrounding the death of John the Baptist. Two passages (5.35; 10.41) imply that John, who is spoken of in the past tense, is dead. However, no attempt is made to elaborate upon the circumstances of the event.
Similarly, Luke does not give details of John the Baptist’s death. He does report that John was imprisoned by Herod (3.19) and that Herod had ordered John’s arrest because he had rebuked the tetrarch for marrying Herodias. Luke also refers to several unspecified ‘evil things that Herod had done’, but does not develop the story further. The reason why Luke passed over John’s death is due to his understanding that John the Baptist belonged to an earlier phase in salvation history. For Luke, whose account had moved on to the second phase, represented by Jesus’ earthly ministry, any reference to John’s death, even in flashback, would have been out of place.
Mark (6.17–29) and Matthew (14.3–12) offer accounts of the death of John the Baptist. Like Luke, Matthew (14.3) follows Mark (6.17) in holding Herod responsible for John’s arrest and imprisonment. However, there are differences. Mark (6.19–20) is anxious to show that Herod wanted to save John’s life. Indeed, he implies that Herod imprisoned John in order to protect him from Herodias. Matthew, on the other hand, affirms that Herod wanted to kill John but was afraid of the people, who held John as a prophet (14.5). Matthew then goes on to say that Herod was sorry to have to kill John. He did so only because he was obliged to fulfil his promise to Salome (14.9). Both Mark (6.19, 24) and Matthew (14.8) finally attribute John’s death to Herodias. However, her intrigues are less in evidence in Matthew than in Mark. In fact, Matthew’s version suggests that Herodias’s scheming simply allows Herod to act as he had wished.
Josephus (Ant. 18.116–119) records that Herod had become alarmed because John the Baptist was attracting large crowds. Moreover, John’s ‘eloquence’ was having such a profound effect upon his audience that Herod feared they might be roused to sedition, ‘for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did’.
7.3 The Arrest of John the Baptist.
Josephus attributes John’s arrest and execution to political expediency. In contrast, the Synoptics show that Herod ordered John’s arrest because John had attacked him for his marriage to Herodias. Luke mentions that Herod had committed other crimes as well, which may or may not have a bearing in the case. The Synoptics highlight a moral dimension that appears to disagree with Josephus’s account. However, a closer reading of Matthew reveals that there is a political aspect to his rendering of the story also. Matthew, in agreement with Josephus, places the focus of Herod’s fear onto the people rather than John himself (14.5).
The Synoptic Gospels agree that John rebuked Herod for his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias (Mk 6.17–18; Mt. 3–4; Lk. 3.19). John’s rebuke is perfectly in accord with Torah (Lev. 18.16). According to Jewish law, it is perfectly acceptable for a man to divorce his wife (Deut. 24. 1–4). Indeed, Josephus had divorced his own wife, ‘being displeased at her behaviour’ (Life 426). However, that which is acceptable for a man is not always so for a woman. Josephus notes that Herodias had divorced her husband, which flouted ‘the way of our fathers’ (Ant. 18.136). For someone such as John the Baptist, Herodias’s divorce was invalid; she was still married to her first husband. For Herod to ‘uncover the nakedness’ of Herodias was in violation of Torah (Lev. 18.16). Moreover, his marriage to Herodias had rendered him impure according to Torah (Lev. 20.21). It is easy to see how John, so concerned with right behaviour and purity, would have been outraged at Herod’s conduct. As he publicly condemned Herod’s new marriage, John was effectively accusing the tetrarch of breaking Torah. This accusation, serious though it is, becomes even more so when it is considered that John made it in an area with a large Jewish population, among whom there was already much discontent. Perhaps his breaking Torah did not unduly concern Herod. However, it would have been a major concern to the people to know that the man ruling over them was both a Torah breaker and impure.
A political dimension to John’s arrest is added when it is remembered that one of the functions of his baptism was that it should serve as an initiation rite. To submit to baptism was to become a member of the true Israel. There is no evidence to support a tendency towards sedition in John’s message. Nevertheless, his preaching of baptism, which was performed in anticipation of a coming judgement, could be construed as an indictment of the present order. Similarly, his announcement of a Coming One could have been seen as a threat to the legitimate leadership, since that figure could have been interpreted as a new ruler. When this announcement is placed within the context of discontent among the populace, it is understandable how John could be viewed as a political threat. This threat becomes stronger when it is considered that John’s message spoke of imminent judgement and the removal of unrepentant sinners. There is no doubt that Herod would be counted among this group. Thus, Herod had every reason to be wary of such a gathering in the wilderness. Josephus is correct to point to Herod’s great fear that John might instigate a revolt (Ant. 18.118). John posed a serious threat to Herod’s ability to maintain order in his territory. Seen from Herod’s perspective, the removal of John was essential.
There is another factor to be considered. John’s choice of location for his ministry, while being symbolic, also brought him into contact with Nabataean traders. The border between Peraea and Nabataea lay less than 20 km to the east of where John spent much of his time preaching and baptizing. The traders’ reports of John’s preaching and his condemnation of Herod must have greatly interested their rulers. This might seem of little consequence, but there is an important political connection. Herod had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias, albeit at the latter’s request (Ant. 18.109–10). Herod’s first wife was the daughter of Aretas IV, king of Nabataea. The disastrous consequences of this divorce are related by Josephus (Ant. 18.113–15), although some Jews had attributed Herod’s fall to his treatment of John the Baptist (Ant. 18.16). Herod, then, was attacked on two fronts: by Aretas IV and by own people who should have supported him. In fact, John’s rebuke of Herod had turned many people away from the tetrarch at the very time when he needed as much support as possible in order to defend himself against the vengeance of the Nabataean king. Josephus notes that Herod was soundly defeated (Ant. 18.109–125).
Josephus’s account supports the evangelists’ assertion that John’s fate was directly linked to Herod’s divorce (Mk 6.17–18; Mt. 3–4; Lk. 3.19–20). There is, then, an area of accord between the Synoptic evangelists and Josephus. The accounts of the arrest and death of John the Baptist as presented by Josephus and the Synoptics support rather than contradict each other. The evangelists cite John’s rebuke of Herod for his marriage to Herodias. In so doing, they complement John’s concern with purity, right behaviour and the upholding of Torah. On the other hand, Josephus’s emphasis upon Herod’s fear of a popular uprising is quite consistent with what is known about the fate of wilderness groups of the first century. They were regarded with suspicion by the authorities, who acted swiftly and brutally to remove them. The fact that John attracted large crowds would have made him enough of a threat to Herod. When this is compounded with the political implications of Herod’s divorce from Aretas’s daughter, then that threat becomes much more serious, especially if Nabataean tradesmen joined the ranks of John’s hearers. Finally, John’s message of imminent judgement and restoration, with the consequent removal of unrepentant sinners, coupled with his announcement of a Coming One, would probably have stirred the excitement of his audience to dangerous levels. Taking all this into account, Herod’s most prudent action was to remove John from the scene.
7.4 Discrepancies in the Accounts.
The Synoptic accounts of the arrest, imprisonment and death of John the Baptist can be reconciled to a large extent with Josephus. However, there are many discrepancies between Mark’s account and Matthew’s redaction of it that are not so easy to resolve. These discrepancies are so serious that Mark’s account has been dismissed as merely a legend with no Christian features. Certainly, the story shares much in common with the Hebrew Bible account of Esther and king Ahasuerus. These inconsistencies threaten to wholly undermine the story as an account of an historical event. Such scepticism can be easily understood when a study of the discrepancies that inspire it is made.
7.4.1 Herod or Herodias.
The most obvious disparity between Mark’s account and that of Matthew is the question of whether Herod or Herodias should ultimately be held responsible for John’s execution. Mark (6.19, 24) clearly shows Herodias to be the one influencing events. Matthew (14.8) appears to agree, although his account tends to play down Herodias’s intrigues. In both Gospels, Herodias is seen to be resentful of John for his condemnation of her marriage, and she uses her daughter to bring about his execution. Indeed, it might be implied from Mark’s account that Herod had imprisoned John in order to protect him from Herodias (6.20). More probable, given the circumstances discussed above, is that Mark used the term ‘and kept him safe’ to mean that Herod was more interested in keeping John out of the public eye. This interpretation also brings Mark more into agreement with Josephus. Mark then goes on to show Herodias standing ready with an answer to her daughter’s request for advice. This suggests that Herodias had planned out the entire incident in advance. Mark’s portrayal of Herodias is consistent with that of Josephus, who depicts her as an intriguer (Ant. 18.110, 240–55). Her ‘opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet’ (Mk 6.21). She took advantage of the celebrations and the rash promise made by her somewhat merry husband to direct her daughter to ask for John’s head as a reward for her dancing (Mk 6.24).
Herodias’s guilt seems supportable until it is noted that her influence over John’s fate is but singly attested. It is present only in Mark (6.19, 24) and in Matthew’s redaction (14.8). However, Mark has contradicted himself. Previously, when showing Herod’s reaction to news of Jesus’ activities, he records Herod’s thoughts, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised’ (6.16). Herod, by his own admission, is responsable for John’s execution. Mark, therefore, agrees with Josephus. Herod’s guilt is multiply attested. It is particularly apparent in Matthew’s account of the story, where it is stated that Herod had ordered John’s arrest because he was angered by the latter’s condemnation of his marriage to Herodias (Mt. 14.3). However much he wanted to kill John, Herod was afraid to do so because of his fear of the people. For Matthew, it was not so much the birthday party that provided the opportunity, but Herodias’s intrigues. Setting her daughter to dance before the company, she knew that the tetrarch would be pleased. He was. In his pleasure, he promised to give the dancer anything she asked for. Prompted by her mother, she asked for John’s head. Matthew’s Herod is aggrieved at this. The evangelist describes the scene in such a way that the reader is prompted to think that Herod did not want to kill John, but had been trapped into it by his reckless, drunken oath. After all, Herod had made his promise in front of many important guests; he could not back down without losing face. However, Herod had merely taken advantage of his wife’s machinations to get his own way. Matthew had simply condensed the account he had found in Mark in order to reach his point more quickly. This was that, while Herodias might have intrigued for John’s execution, Herod was ultimately responsible for it.
7.4.2 Herodias’s Former Husband.
Another problem regarding Herodias cannot be so easily explained. This concerns the discrepancy over whose wife she had previously been. According to Mk 6.17, Herodias was the former wife of Philip. Matthew makes no adjustment to this as he redacts his Markan source (14.3). Luke avoids the problem by omitting the name of Herodias’s former husband (3.19). Josephus contradicts Mark, stating that Herodias’s first husband was another Herod, who was the half-brother of Herod Antipas (Ant. 18.109). No satisfactory explanation has so far been offered for this discrepancy. It has been suggested that Philip might have borne a double name, and that his full name was Herod Philip. It is possible also that ‘Herod’ might have become a dynastic title. Therefore, while ‘Herod’ would have been an official title, ‘Philip’ would have been used as a personal name. This interesting suggestion, however, has nothing to support it. Perhaps the best solution is to suggest that either Mark or his has source confused Herodias’s former husband with her son-in-law; her daughter married Philip the tetrarch.
7.4.3 The Father of Salome.
Related to the problem of Herodias’s former husband is confusion over who was the father of the dancing daughter, Salome. A textual variant in Mk 6.22 shows that Salome was της θυγατρoς αυτoυ Ηρωδιαδoς. The use of the masculine indicates that the dancer was the daughter of Herod, and that her name was Herodias. Such manuscripts, while few in number, are, nevertheless, important ones: א B D L Δ 238 565. In addition, the fourth edition of the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft/United Bible Societies The Greek New Testament prints the version in which Herod is shown to be the father. It gives this text a ‘C’ rating, indicating uncertainty with regard to which version is the correct one.
On the other hand, the greater number of manuscripts give της θυγατρoς αυτης Ηρωδιαδoς, which indicates that Salome is the daughter of Herodias. Matthew (14.6) makes it clear that she is Herodias’s daughter. Thus, he agrees with the greater number of Markan manuscripts that support the latter version. Matthew’s version is not disputed by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft/United Bible Societies The Greek New Testament. That Salome was Herodias’s daughter, and not Herod’s, finds textual support.
Josephus makes no mention of a daughter being born to Herod Antipas and Herodias. He does, however, state that Herodias had a daughter named Salome from her previous marriage (Ant. 18.136). As such, the feminine pronoun αυτης, which is found in the majority of manuscripts of Mark, must be the correct one. Several factors support it. First, the Gospel narrative suggests that Herod and Herodias were recently married. A child born of their union would have been too young to dance at the banquet. Secondly, Mark states that Salome went to her mother for advice when Herod asked her what she wanted as a reward for her dancing (6.24). If Herod had been her father, Herodias could not have been her mother. Thirdly, the use of the feminine pronoun brings Mark into agreement with Matthew (14.6), whose version is undisputed. While it might be argued that Matthew copied from a Markan manuscript that did give the feminine pronoun, Josephus can still be appealed to for support. In fact, Salome was probably Herod’s grand-niece; Mark was simply misinformed or confused about the complicated relationships of the Herodian dynasty.
7.4.4 Salome’s Marital Status.
Another area to be addressed is whether or not Salome was a maiden. Mark (6.22) refers to her as a κoρασιov, but is this an appropriate designation for her? Jairus’s daughter, who was twelve years of age (Mk 5.42; Lk. 8.42), is also referred to as a κoρασιov (Mk 5.41; Mt. 9.24, 25). The implication is that Salome was not a young girl, but rather a woman of, or near, marriageable age. Josephus (Ant. 18.137) records that Salome married Philip the tetrarch, who died in 34 CE (Ant. 18.106). On the basis of this, it has been speculated that Salome was actually married to Philip when these events took place. Moreover, she could have been no more than twenty at the time of John’s death since, after her widowhood, she went on to marry Aristobolus, with whom she had three children (cf. Ant. 18.5, 4).
7.4.5 Salome’s Dance.
Whatever her age and marital status, the account of Salome’s dance has been questioned by some scholars. As a princess, it is doubtful that she would have danced at what appears to be a debauched gathering. However, this view of Herod’s party is based upon assumptions that Salome’s dance was erotic. Such assumptions are thought to have been inspired by Hollywood representations of the story rather than from the Gospels, although a mediaeval sculpture group in Rouen Cathedral suggests that the dance was seen as erotic at a much earlier date. Whatever the case, travellers to Palestine record having witnessed such dances for themselves.
7.4.6 Herod’s Promise and the Location of John’s Imprisonment and Death.
Assuming that Salome did dance at Herod’s birthday banquet, would Herod have been able to offer her ‘even half my kingdom’ (Mk 6.23)? The words used here are the same as those spoken by King Ahasuerus in the story of Esther (5.3). Moreover, the fact that Salome pleased the king reflects Esther 2.9, and the setting of the story at a royal banquet recalls Esther 1.1–22. As a vassal of Rome, Herod had no kingdom of his own to offer. The saying must have been used proverbially, as it probably was in Ahasuerus’s time as well. Certainly, it seems to have been a familiar expression (1 Kings 13.8; Lk. 19.8; Iliad 9.616), and was probably not taken literally by those who heard Herod’s promise. This is borne out by the fact that neither Salome nor Esther are reported to have held their respective rulers to their word. The authenticity of Herod’s promise has also been rejected on the grounds that it would have taken too long to send an executioner all the way from Tiberias, where Mark implies that the banquet took place to Machaerus, where John was held (Ant. 18.119). Indeed, such a journey would have necessitated the crossing of about ninety kilometres of wilderness as well as the Jordan River.
This raises another important question: where was John the Baptist imprisoned and executed? Mark allows his readers to infer that John was imprisoned at Tiberias, since he notes that the banquet was attended by Herod’s ‘courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee’ (Mk 6.21). Tiberias was Herod’s capital city, making it an obvious choice as the setting for his banquet. On the other hand, Josephus states that John was ‘brought in chains to Machaerus … and there put to death’ (Ant. 18.119).
That Machaerus is close to where John preached and baptized makes it more probable that he was held there rather than at Tiberias. Machaerus ties in well with what it known of John’s movements, the implications of his preaching, the possibility that Nabataeans were among his hearers, as well as his attack on Herod and his marriage to Herodias. It seems acceptable to state that John the Baptist was held at Machaerus following his arrest.
Josephus’s description of Machaerus (War 7.172–7) indicates that it served a dual purpose, that of fortress and palace. Not only were the buildings fortified, but a large stock of weapons was also kept there. Attached to it was a large and beautiful palace that had been built onto the original fortress of Machaerus. Perhaps it was more fortress than palace at the time of the events in question, however, its spacious rooms and constant supply of water suggest that it was meant for people other than soldiers. Moreover, when Herod’s first wife, the daughter of Aretas IV, heard of her husband’s plans to divorce her, she sought permission to go to Machaerus. Herod granted her request, which he would not have done had the building been no more than a fortress. Since it was also a palace, his suspicions were not aroused.
As previously noted, John conducted part of his ministry in Peraea. Since this province came under the jurisdiction of Herod, the tetrarch was quite within his rights to seize John there. If so, then he would naturally have held him at Machaerus. Indeed, it would make sense for Herod himself to have been in Peraea, in view of the anticipated vengeance of Aretas IV. Had he stayed at Machaerus, he would have been in a good position to monitor activity along his border. If this reasoning is combined with the fact that no delegation from Peraea is mentioned by Mark, it might logically be concluded that Herod was already in that region.
7.4.7 John’s Head on a Platter.
Mark (6.28) and Matthew (14.11) add a gruesome detail to the story of the execution of John the Baptist. They observe that John’s severed head was handed to the daughter, who then offered it to Herodias. This looks like a piece of sensationalism, but it could have a sound basis. Kings were often shown the severed heads of enemies as proof that they had been killed. This was done in the case of Theudas (Ant. 20.97–8), whose head was brought to Jerusalem following his capture and execution. Moreover, Josephus (Ant. 18.115) relates another story, this time directly connected with the activities of John the Baptist and the reasons for his arrest and subsequent execution. As he speaks of Herod’s conflict with Aretas IV, Josephus notes that Tiberius, furious that the Nabataean king had begun hostilities, ordered Vitellius to ‘declare war and either bring Aretas to him in chains, if he should be captured alive, or, if he should be slain, to send him his head’. In view of this, it is easy to see why Mark and Matthew should include a scene in which Herodias is offered the head of the Baptist. The grisly relic is a trophy of her triumph over her enemy and proof that he had been removed. Considering that both evangelists have shown Herodias to be the victor rather than Herod suggests that this element of the story, while drawing upon an authentic historical detail that has some connection with the events related, should be regarded in its present context as embellishment.
7.4.8 The Source of the Story: a Possibility.
It is interesting to note that the confusion and discrepancies found in this account centre mainly upon Herodias and her daughter. This is equally applicable whether Mark is compared with Matthew, or whether Mark and Matthew are compared with Josephus. Where Mark and Matthew focus upon Herod, they find support in Josephus’s account. Once they turn their attention to Herodias and Salome, their accounts become confused. The solution to this might lie in the sources used by the evangelists.
It has been noted that the story of the execution of John the Baptist has been dismissed as legendary. This is because it shows some characteristics with other Hellenistic Jewish sources, namely Herodotus 9.108–13; Livy 39.43; Plutarch Artaxerxes 17. However, these stories are not close enough to justify this theory. For the same reason, any claim that the story of John’s death was influenced by Esther (1.9–11; 5.6) or the attempt upon Elijah’s life by Jezebel (1 Kings 19.2) can also be dismissed. Where, then, did the story come from?
An interesting hypothesis is suggested by Lk. 8.3, which mentions a certain ‘Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward’. The Greek term interpreted as ‘steward’ is επιτρoπoς. The same term is applied to Antipater, the father of Herod the Great (Ant. 16.143; War 1.199), various procurators (Ant. 15.406; War 2.117, 223), Thaumastus, the manager of Agrippa I’s personal estates (Ant. 18.194) and Syllaeus, who managed the estates of King Obedas of Arabia (War 1.487). Syllaeus is also mentioned in Ant. 16.279–82, 291, 295–6, 343, 353, where he is in charge of Obedas’s finances. These functions accord with Mt. 20.8, which suggests that the επιτρoπoς was in charge of his master’s finances and possibly his personal estates. As such, he was a very important member of the household, and would probably have been present at Herod’s banquet.
Another figure, this time mentioned in Acts 13.1, is Manaen, ‘a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch’. Manaen is described as a συvτρoφoς, implying that he was brought up or educated with Herod. He might have been a close friend of Herod Antipas, while also enjoying some influential or authoritative position. Chuza and Manaen might, therefore, have been reliable eye-witnesses to the events that took place at Herod’s birthday banquet. This suggestion is supported by the fact that Manaen was a member of the Antiochean church (Acts 12.25; 15.37). As such, their testimony regarding these events might have become known to the author of Matthew, whose Gospel could have been written at Antioch. Even were they not personally present at the banquet, Chuza and Manaen would at least have been in a position to know what had taken place there.
Interestingly, there are several semitisms in Mark, suggesting a Palestinian origin for this pericope. For example, Mark uses the term βασιλευς four times (6.22, 25, 26, 27). In a work of Roman origin, one would expect to find the term τετραρχης used for a ruler. Similarly, Matthew uses τετραρχης in 14.1, but βασιλευς in his account of John’s death. This shows that both evangelists remained faithful to their source. It also supports the hypothesis that the account of John’s death as found in Mark and Matthew has a Palestinian provenance. Conversely, Mark uses Roman and/or Hellenistic terms for governmental offices and functions. In 6.21, for example, he uses μεγιστασιv, from μεγισταv, which is a late Greek word meaning ‘great one’ or ‘grandee’. The same verse contains πρωτoις της Γαλιλαιας, a Hellenistic rather than a Palestinian designation. Mark also mentions two military terms: the Greek χιλιαρχoις (6.21) and the Latin loan word σπεκoυλατoρα (6.27). The latter is a soldier whose duties included carrying out executions. Mark shows a sound knowledge of the correct designations for the personnel to be found in Herod’s household and among his guests. It might be argued that his source was Roman or Hellenistic rather than Palestinian. However, it must be remembered that Herod was governing on behalf of Rome in a region steeped in Hellenistic culture. To find such terms being used in his administration is to be expected. The presence of these terms in Mark does not defeat this hypothesis. If anything, it strengthens it.
That Mark and Matthew had access to the testimony of reliable eye-witnesses must, however, remain a tantalizing hypothesis. There is little, beyond speculation, to substantiate it. Whatever ‘proof’ there might be is tentative at best. Still, it would have been nice if it could have been said with some degree of certainty that at least one event related by the Gospels could be traced to reliable witnesses who could actually be named. On the other hand, it would be ironic to say the least that such would be said of John the Baptist and not the main focus of the Gospels: Jesus.
Several discrepancies that apparently exist between the Synoptic accounts of John the Baptist’s death and execution and that of Josephus appear, at first glance, to be quite damning. Such discrepancies have led some scholars to dismiss the Gospel accounts as nothing more than legends with no historical basis. However, closer study revealed that, rather than contradicting each other, the primary sources actually support each other. The Synoptics point to moral and legal reasons why Herod should want to remove John the Baptist. Josephus concentrates upon political motives. These find common ground in the question of Herod’s divorce and remarriage.
Herod’s divorce had one major implication when looked at in its wider historical context. The wife Herod repudiated in order to marry Herodias was the daughter of Aretas IV, king of Nabataea. This king took full advantage of the circumstances to wage the war that his daughter’s marriage to Herod was intended to prevent. The high tension that marked the period between Herod’s divorce and the consequent war was exacerbated by John’s preaching of judgement and the removal of unrepentant sinners. Herod, as an impure Torah breaker, fitted into this group. However, it was more than simply John’s message that caused concern. He attracted large crowds. This in itself would have brought him to the attention of the authorities, who would have acted to remove him. What made John more of a threat was his announcement of a Coming One, who could have been interpreted as a political figure. All this took place within an atmosphere of heightened expectation that the old order would soon be swept away to be replaced by a new age. It was politically essential, therefore, for Herod to remove John.
Herod Antipas must take the blame for the arrest of John the Baptist. He must also be held responsible for John’s death. The evangelists prefer to mislead their readers by implying that Herodias was the one influencing the events surrounding John’s fate. However, most of the discrepancies that surround the story of John’s death centre upon Herodias and her daughter. There is confusion over the identity of Herodias’s first husband. Was he Philip (Mk 6.17), or Herod, the half-brother of Herod Antipas (Ant. 18.109)? To whom did the daughter belong: Herod Antipas, as some manuscripts assert, or Herodias, as in the greater number of texts suggest. In the former instance, the young woman’s name would not be Salome, as Josephus (Ant. 18.136) notes, but Herodias. The confusion surrounding the female protagonists in accounts of this event suggests that, if they played a role in it at all, then it must have been a minor one. The historical details that should be present in an authentic account are lacking here. Although Herodias is portrayed by Josephus as an intriguer, there is nothing to support any hypothesis that she had a hand in John’s death. Therefore, the Gospel accounts, which blame Herodias for John’s death, are unconvincing. On the other hand, the accounts in which Herod is shown to be the driving force behind John’s fate are acceptable for several reasons. They are multiply attested (Mk 6.16; Mt.14.5; Lk.3.19; Ant. 18.119). They are supported by the historical facts surrounding Herod Antipas’ divorce from the daughter of Aretas IV and its implications, as well as the wider cultural context surrounding first-century wilderness prophets and their fate at the hands of the authorities. There is only one major discrepancy, and that has to do with the location of John’s death. However, this is the result of assumptions based upon Mark’s account, which seems to suggest that John was killed at Tiberias. In fact, Mark made no mention of the setting of John’s death.
What, then, of the historicity of the story? It is possible to discern a foundation of solid historical fact within the Synoptic accounts of John’s death. Also, where their accounts focus upon Herod, they are in accord with Josephus. Once they go beyond Herod’s involvement, they fall into confusion. Specifically, there is unfamiliarity with the female characters of the story and what role should be assigned to them. While there is a remote possibility that the unadorned details of the tale were originally transmitted by persons present at the celebration, they rapidly became heavily embellished. The fact that some details, such as Salome’s dance, Herodias’s intrigues and John’s head being exhibited before the drunken guests, are credible lends a sense of realism to the adornments.
A study of the account of the death of John the Baptist requires as much care when extracting the historical facts as does any other pericope. Since Josephus’s account can be substantiated by history, the researcher would do well to use it as the yardstick for gauging the authenticity of the Gospel accounts. Where the evengelists speak of Herod and his motives for wanting to execute John, their accounts display a sound grasp of history. Where they exceed this boundary, they fall into confusion. The story now becomes redaction, embellishment, and perhaps even political propaganda.
The question of when Katherine Howard was born has long exercised scholars. The answer is vital as it helps us to understand how old she w...
To celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist, there follows a chapter taken from my PhD thesis, which was a rezeptionsgeschicte of John ...
I have always loved the Three Musketeers and their adventures. For many years, Alexandre Dumas's heroes have been my favourite chara...
I am excited to announce the publication of my new book, The Princes in the Tower , in early October 2013. In the search for w...