Herodias and Salome and the Death of John the Baptist
[Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 3: 19-20. Josephus, the Jewish and Roman historian in his Antiquities]
It was at his birthday dinner when a young girl Salome danced for Herod the Tetrarch (Antipas by name, also called “that fox” by Jesus, Luke 13: 32), pleasing him so much that he promised her up to half his kingdom (smiling no doubt as he said this for the hearing of his guests). She took up his offer and after consulting with her mother Herodias returned and said she wanted the head of John the Baptist brought to her on a platter. He was stuck. He had made the promise with an oath and could not now back out of it for embarrassment before his guests. So, for the sake of a dinner and dance, John’s head was taken from him in prison without a hearing or trial where Antipas had put him earlier for insulting his wife Herodias. (Matthew 14:17-28; Mark 6:14-29)
(1) Herodias. Daughter of Aristobulus and Berenice. She hated because hatred was in her ancestry. Her name is the feminine form of Herod, and she lived up to the wicked nature she inherited from her grandfather, King Herod the Great, he who had killed the babies in Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus. Herod was an opportunist and so was she. He had five wives and the second was the Hasmonean princess Mariamne, a great beauty, according to Josephus, from whom Herodias was descended. Beauty brought out Herod’s jealous rage and willingness to believe the lie told him by his wicked sister Salome (grand aunt to Salome the dancer) who said her own husband Joseph was having an affair with Mariamne. That, added to his suspicious mistrust of the Hasmoneans, caused him to execute his wife. Years later, he also executed his two sons by her, Alexander and Herodias’ father Aristobulus. Herodias’ own opportunity for advancing her ambitions came when she deserted her first husband to marry a second. Her first husband was Herod Philip I (whose mother was also named Mariamne, Herod’s third wife) the father of her daughter Salome, and her second was Philip’s brother Herod Antipas (son of Herod’s fourth wife Malthace). Beauty was in Herodias as it had been in her grandmother Mariamne, for it attracted Antipas enough to wish to have her away from Philip, an arrangement to which she secretly agreed (Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.1).
(2) Salome. Daughter of Herod Philip I and Herodias. She is not named in the New Testament where she is called “the daughter of Herodias,” but the historian Josephus tells us her name. She evidently inherited the Herodian hatred and willingly engaged with her mother Herodias to kill John the Baptist. Clearly, she wanted to please her mother and was willing (perhaps even eager, since her own attitude was colored by her mother’s hatred) to receive a ghoulish present of John’s head on a platter. The text says the executioner returned the head to her personally (Matthew 14:11). She could not have been a very young girl for otherwise she would not have been admired so much as she was in her dance for her uncle Antipas. It seems likely then that she was old enough to know full well what she was doing when she asked for John’s head; her mother had made her hatred of John well known to Salome and it just happened that that hatred was possible to at last be accomplished on the “strategic day” of the dinner banquet (Mark 6: 21).
There were other women in the Herodian line who were corrupt and beautiful. Bernice and her younger sister Drusilla were nieces of Herodias and both showed up in the trials of Paul.
(3) Berenice (or Bernice). Daughter of Herod Agrippa I and Cypros. They had three children: Agrippa II, Berenice, and Drusilla. Her reputation among her fellow Jews was bad. She had married three times, her first died early, her second was to her uncle, Herod of Chalcis, and her third to Polemon II of Pontus, king of Cilicia, whom she deserted to return to the home of her brother. It was with her brother Herod Agrippa II that the Jews thought she was living incestuously. The Roman satirist Juvenal directly calls Berenice Agrippa’s “incestuous sister” (Sat.VI: 136-160 The Rich and Beautiful) and Josephus hints at this state of affairs (Antiquities XX. 7. 3). It was she and Agrippa who show up in court to hear Paul (Acts 25: 13, 23). She eventually becomes the mistress of Titus, son of Emperor Vespasian, who was eleven years her junior. He wants her but Roman pressure builds against the idea and he sends her away. She then disappears from history.
(4) Drusilla was even more beautiful than her sister Berenice. She marries the Roman procurator Felix and is present in court to hear Paul (Acts 24: 24).
Drusilla (in Josephus): “While Felix was procurator of Judea, he saw this Drusilla, and fell in love with her; for she did indeed exceed all other women in beauty. […] Drusilla was very ill-treated by Berenice because of Drusilla's beauty. [She was prevailed upon to transgress the laws of her forefathers, and to marry Felix. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, xx.7.2)
- Vicious and tyrannical behavior among rulers in many countries has been characteristic of governments over the history of the world. Jesus warned us that we as His followers would be mistreated by the world (John 15: 18-19). Jesus was mistreated and so was Paul, and certainly John the Baptist was not even granted a trial.
- Men, be they rulers or commoners, are sometimes easily affected for the worse by the beauty of women. And beauty of face and form does not last, so it is better to look beyond the physical and seek those who possess spiritual wisdom. The same lesson is true also for women who may fall in love with men just for their physical handsome appearance. “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised” (Provverbs 31: 30).
- The wicked have had a lifetime of practicing evil, so it should not surprise us when we see it in our towns and nation. “The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth” (Psalm 58:3).
- We believers may not come to such trials in a legal setting but we have our daily temptations to go astray from our testimony. “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (I Corinthians 13:10).