SALOME and JOHN THE BAPTIST
(Investigator 149, 2013 March)
Did Salome dance naked for her uncle to get the head of John the Baptist cut off?
Modern opera, theatre and movies often depict Salome as an erotic seductress caught up with others in a clash of motives ranging from lust, hate and obsession to politics and religion.
The biblical story summarized is this: Religious preacher John the Baptist condemned the marriage of Herod Antipas (ruler of Galilee) and Herodias because Herodias was the former wife of Antipas' half brother Philip. Antipas imprisoned John but Herodias wanted John dead and seized the opportunity when Salome — her daughter with Philip — danced at Antipas' birthday. Antipas promised to give his niece whatever she requested. At her mother's instigation Salome requested John's head on a platter.
Is it history or myth?
Herod the Great 74BC – 4BC (or 1BC — Steinmann 2009):
King of Palestine (who had the boy babies of Bethlehem slaughtered after Jesus' birth). He married ten wives and had 14 children including Herod Antipas.
Herod Antipas 22BC - 40AD:
Tetrarch (ruler) of Galilee and a son of Herod the Great. Antipas divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias the former wife of his half-brother Philip. Antipas is the Herod who interrogated Jesus on the morning of the crucifixion. (Luke 23:6-12)
Archelaus died 16AD:
Another son of Herod the Great, mentioned in the Bible only in Matthew 2:22, who succeeded Herod as ruler of Judea.
Herodias (granddaughter of Herod the Great):
Herodias married her half-uncle Philip but divorced him to marry Antipas.
John the Baptist c.3BC - c.32AD:
A prophet who baptized Jesus and declared Antipas' marriage to Herodias a sin.
Salome: The daughter of Philip and Herodias, hence niece and stepdaughter of Antipas.
PAINTINGS; OPERA; MOVIES
There are hundreds of paintings depicting Salome. The more-famous ones include:
1515 Tiziano Vercelli (1488-1576)
1609 Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1551-1610)
1870 Henri Regnault (1843-1871)
1876 Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
1887 Georges Rochegrosse (1859-1938)
1918 Fedrico Beltran Masses (1885-1949)
The painting of the last-named has Salome completely nude and caused a scandal when exhibited in London in 1929.
In a production at Sydney Opera House in 2012 Salome is infatuated with religious fanatic John who rejects her and tells her she's doomed. Salome's obsession turns to hate and she extracts a promise from Antipas to give her whatever she asks if she'll dance for him. After John is beheaded Salome talks to and sings to the severed head.
A 19th century opera titled Herodiade (1884) by Jules Massenet (1842-1912) also had Salome in love with John (and wanting to die with him).
The Sydney opera interpretation follows the 1892 play by Oscar Wilde which was banned in London because of its display of sexual perversity. Paris allowed it on stage in 1896 and it finally premiered in London in 1931.
Wilde's play inspired the opera Salome by Richard Strauss which emphasized Antipas' lust for Salome and premiered in Germany in 1905. Strauss' opera featured Salome's "Dance of the Seven Veils" which got the opera banned in Austria until 1918.
Maud Allen (1873-1956) performed the Dance of the Seven Veils in Vienna in "Vision of Salome" in 1906 and in England in 1908 and faced obscenity charges.
A ballet titled The Tragedy of Salome premiered in 1907 and subsequent ballets in 1948 and 1978.
Movies and actresses depicting Salome include:
Theda Bara (1885-1955) Salome
Alla Nazimova (1879-1945) Salome
Rita Hayworth (1918-1987) King of Kings
Brigid Bazlen (1944-1989) The Nativity
Kate O'Mara (1939- ) Salome
Gina Alajar (1959- ) Salome's Last Dance
Imogen Claire (1943-2005) Jesus
Gabriella Pession (1977- ) Wilde Salome
Jessica Chastain (1977- )
Salome is unnamed in the Bible but 1st century historian Josephus lists many Herod-family members and names "Salome" as the daughter of Herodias.
Herod Antipas is called "Herod" and "Herod the Tetrarch" in the Gospels.
Here is the biblical narrative from the Good News Bible:
14 Now King Herod heard about all this, because Jesus' reputation had spread everywhere. Some people were saying, "John the Baptist has come back to life! That is why he has this power to perform miracles!"
15 Others, however, said, "He is Elijah." Others said, "He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago."
16 When Herod heard it, he said, "He is John the Baptist! I had his head cut off, but he has come back to life!"
17 Herod himself had ordered John's arrest, and he had him chained and put in prison. Herod did this because of Herodias, whom he had married, even though she was the wife of his brother Philip.
18 John the Baptist kept telling Herod, "It isn't right for you to be married to your brother's wife!"
19 So Herodias held a grudge against John and wanted to kill him, but she could not because of Herod.
20 Herod was afraid of John because he knew that John was a good and holy man, and so he kept him safe. He liked to listen to him, even though he became greatly disturbed every time he heard him.
21 Finally Herodias got her chance. It was on Herod's birthday, when he gave a feast for all the chief government officials, the military commanders, and the leading citizens of Galilee.
22 The daughter of Herodias came in and danced, pleased Herod and his guests. So the king said to the girl, "What would you like to have? I will give you anything you want."
23 With many vows he said to her, "I swear that I will give you anything you ask for, even as much as half my kingdom!"
24 So the girl went out and asked her mother, "What shall I ask for?" "The head of John the Baptist," she answered.
25 The girl hurried back at once to the king and demanded, "I want you to give me here and now the head of John the Baptist on a dish!"
26 This made the king very sad, but he could not refuse her because of the vows he had made in front of his guests.
27 So he sent off a guard at once with orders to bring John's head. The guard left, went to the prison, and cut John's head off;
28 then brought it on a dish and gave it to the girl, who gave it to her mother.
29 When John's disciples heard about it, they came and took away his body, and buried it. (Mark 6; Matthew 14)
In the common imagination Salome discarded seven veils, finally dancing naked.
Most paintings of Salome depict her looking in her 20s or 30s. Movie actresses who played her ranged in age from 17 (Brigid Bazlen) to 44 or 45 (Alla Nazimova and Imogen Claire).
Mark 6:22 & 28 calls Salome a "girl" — Greek "korasion" which occurs 8 times in the New Testament. The King James Bible translates it "damsel" six times and "maid" twice.
In the previous chapter (Mark 5:39-42) "korasion" is used of a 12-year-old girl whom Jesus raised after she apparently died and who is also called a "child" (Greek "paidion").
The other two mentions of "the girl" (Mark 6:24-25) in the Good News Bible are added and the Greek text actually says "She".
Salome appears completely subservient to her mother, therefore unmarried. If Salome was, like the other "girl", only 12 then the opera and film interpretations of her as a seductress obsessed with John would be ludicrous. Her dance would not be a striptease to titillate lecherous drunkards but more likely a child's performance for dignitaries charmed by her innocence.
Josephus doesn't give Salome's year of birth. One estimate is 14 AD which would make her about 17 at Antipas' party. But whether she was 12 or 17 her uncle would have lost dignity to have his princess-niece do a strip-dance watched by "government officials, military commanders, and leading citizens".
I suggest the operas and movies are wrong.
What about John's head? Would a national ruler have a newly severed head publicly handed to his teenage niece? Gruesome, yes — but the head would likely have been covered, not openly displayed.
DID IT HAPPEN?
Josephus, 1st century Jewish historian, writes:
Herodias…was married to Herod, [Philip,] the son of Herod the Great, who was born of Mariamne, the daughter of Simon the high priest, who had a daughter, Salome; after whose birth Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod, [Antipas,] her husband's brother by the father's side, he was tetrarch of Galilee; but her daughter Salome was married to Philip, the son of Herod, and tetrarch of Trachonitis : and as he died childless, Aristobulos, the son of Herod, the brother of Agrippa, married her; they had three sons, Herod, Agrippa, and Aristobulus… (Antiquities: Book 18, Chapter 5, Paragraph 4)
Other ancient writings as well as archaeology and coinage confirm the historicity of all the named persons and locations. Herod the Great authorized huge construction works of which ruins still remain, and even his tomb has been discovered. His son Archelaus was also a builder, confirmed by archaeology. (Hizmi 2008)
Antipas ruled Galilee from 4 BC until 39 AD. For a summary of Antipas' reign and associated archaeology see Jensen (2012).
John the Baptist is historical too. Josephus identifies the location of his prison as Machaerus, a mountain-top palace-fortress on the east side of the Dead Sea.
Josephus narrates that Antipas fell in love with Herodias when in Rome and she agreed to live in Galilee if Antipas divorced his current wife a daughter of the King of Arabia. A war with Arabia resulted and Antipas' army was destroyed near Machaerus. (Antiquities Book 18, Chapter 5, Paragraph 1)
In Paragraph 2 Josephus continues:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body : supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.
Machaerus was the most eastern of seven palace-fortresses. From its high elevation the other six fortresses, located west of the Dead Sea, could be signalled as could Jerusalem.
Machaerus was lost to history after the Jewish-Roman wars and forgotten until 1807 when German explorer Ulrich Seetzen rediscovered it.
Excavations of Machaerus were conducted in 1978-1981 and 1992-1993.
Vörös (2012) whose team resumed excavations in 2009 supplies a ground-plan and illustration of the palace, plus a photo of where Antipas' throne once stood and where Salome would have danced.
The prison was probably located in the lower city, north east of the palace. A stairway connects the palace with the lower city and is probably the route taken to carry John's head from the prison to Salome.
According to Josephus Salome later had a childless marriage with a half brother of Antipas named Philip — not Philip her father, but a different half-brother of same name.
After her husband's death Salome married a cousin, Aristobulos, ruler of Chalcis in what is now Lebanon. Coins minted in 56-57 AD depict Salome on one side, Aristobulos on the other. She bore him three sons and died sometime near 70 AD.
Antipas was banished by Emperor Claudius of Rome in 39 AD to Lyon (France) where Herodias accompanied him and he died the following year.
John the Baptist's story is now available in over 2000 languages as part of the Bible. Jesus interpreted John as the prophet "Elijah" (Matthew 11:14) foretold in the Old Testament in Malachi 4.
Archaeology and Josephus confirm the historicity of the Bible characters and locations but not that Salome danced.
The phrase "When John's disciples heard about it…" (Mark 6:29) suggests an informer/observer inside the palace — possibly Chuza, Antipas' steward. (Luke 8:3).
Josephus would have lacked this source and therefore limits his analysis to Antipas' political motives for John's execution.
Operas, paintings and films often present lurid if entertaining nonsense, but the Bible when the evidence is discovered routinely turns out either plausible or confirmed.
Hizmi, H. Archelaus Builds Archelais, Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2008, pp 48-59, 78
Jenson, M. H. Antipas The Herod Jesus Knew, Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2012, pp 42-46
Steinmann, A. E. Novum Testamentum Volume 51, Number 1, 2009, pp 1-29
Vörös, G. Machaerus Where Salome Danced and John the Baptist was Beheaded, Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2012, pp 30-41
Whiston, W. (Translator) 1960 Josephus Complete Works, Kregel Publications, p. 382.
SALOME and HEROD'S DEATH
(Investigator 149, 2013 March)
The year of death of Herod the Great comes up in my article about Salome (#149).
The standard conclusion of historians of the past century is 4 BCE. Andrew Steinmann challenges 4 BCE in Novum Testamentum and argues for 1 BCE, claiming that historians have misunderstood certain paragraphs in Josephus and ignored others. (Volume 51, Number 1, 2009, pp 1-29)
I too argued against 4 BCE (#81) because 2 BCE plausibly identifies the Star of Bethlehem, agrees with Luke 3:1-2, and fits with an astronomical calculation for the date of Christ's crucifixion (at age 33 in CE 33) by astronomer Duncan Steel. (#145, p. 33)
Steinmann gives more detail on Josephus than I did and is worth reading.
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