Herod Antipas and the Death of John the Baptist

In two gospel accounts (Mt 14.3-12 and Mk 6.17-26), Herod Antipas ordered the beheading of John the Baptist not long after he had baptized

Jesus. According to these accounts, in 27 B.C.E., Antipas visited his halfbrother Philip while en route to Rome. Philip was married to his own niece Herodias, a granddaughter of Herod the Great and the Hasmonean Mariamme. During this visit, Antipas and Herodias seem to have agreed that when he returned from Rome she would divorce her husband Philip to marry him. When Antipas' wife, the daughter of a neighboring Nabatean king, Aretas IV (9 B.C.E.-40 C.E.), heard of this plan, she escaped to her father's kingdom to report the insult. King Aretas was enraged, but even the threat of war was not enough to make Antipas reconcile with his wife and appease his father-in-law. Instead, as they had planned, Antipas married his half-brother Philip's wife Herodias. Salome, the daughter of Philip and Herodias, joined her mother when she moved to the territory of her new husband.

Herod Antipas' marriage to his half-brother's wife contravened Jewish law, which states that no man may marry the wife of his brother. This is an act of incest according to Lv 18.16 and 20.21. John the Baptist, who was then preaching in Perea, condemned the marriage. Antipas feared that John's influence over the people could lead to political unrest, even his own deposition, and so he had him arrested and sent to the fortress on the east end of the Dead Sea, at Macherus. John seems to have been in prison there on the evening when Antipas together with his many guests celebrated his birthday at an infamous banquet.

As part of the banquet entertainment, Salome performed a dance for Antipas and his guests. Antipas was said to have been enchanted by her performance, so enchanted that he promised to grant her any request that she made. She briefly consulted with her mother, who prompted her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter (see Primary Document 2.4). Herodias had long harbored great resentment against him for his condemnation of her marriage to Antipas. Although in the gospel accounts Antipas seems to have delivered John the Baptist's head to Salome almost immediately after she requested it, he also regrets that he had to have John killed and he even fears that John has been raised from the dead when shortly after the murder he hears of Jesus preaching in Galilee.

Josephus' account of the death of John the Baptist is less dramatic than the accounts in the gospels (see Primary Document 2.5). He makes no mention of the role of Herodias and Salome. Instead, he concentrates upon the divine wrath visited upon Herod Antipas for what he considers an unjust murder, that of John the Baptist. In 36 C.E., what began as a series of border disputes between Aretas IV and Antipas resulted in a fullblown war between the two nations. Antipas' army was soundly defeated.

Josephus suggests that Antipas' defeat by Aretas IV was God's retribution for the tetrarch's rejection of his wife (the king's daughter), his illicit marriage to his brother's wife Herodias, and his capricious murder of John, whom Josephus calls a good man who preached virtue, righteousness, and piety.

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