Salome: the name comes from the Hebrew word ‘shalom’, meaning ‘peace’
Herod and Herodias were both family names coming from the Greek word ‘heros‘, hero or warrior
Main themes of the story
The misuse of power. John the Baptist makes a valid objection of the marriage between Herod Antipas and his brother’s wife Herodias. For this he is punished with sudden death. Powerful people brook no criticism.
Making women carry the burden. History blames Herodias and her daughter Salome for the death of John the Baptist, but what about the ruler Herod Antipas? He was the ultimate authority, yet he shifted the blame onto them, the women of his own family.
The story of Salome raises two questions: 1 Who were Salome, Herodias and Herod Antipas? Salome’s and her treacherous family. Why did they hate John the Baptist? The political world of 1st century Palestine.
Scimitar sword, designed for cutting rather than thrusting
Everyone thinks they know this story well. John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, whose step-daughter Salome danced at a banquet and demanded John’s head as a reward. Herod Antipas acquiesced because he had an incestuous passion for his step-daughter, John died, and Salome and her mother Herodias were cast as villains forever.
Here are some facts that add a deeper layer to the story.
First of all, who was Salome?
Salome was the daughter of Herodias, about 14-16 years old at the time of John’s death. She was on the threshold of marriage herself, ‘a green fruit come to ripening’.
Salome has been repeatedly demonized by male artists and writers, as in this Ken Russell production (above)
She had been brought up in the sedate court of Philip, her real father, a dull but competent man. Her mother Herodias was a clever woman but bored and frustrated in Philip’s court. For little Salome, it was probably a secure environment. Then her life was disrupted by her parents’ divorce.
The divorce happened because Herodias had fallen deeply in love with her husband’s step-brother, Herod Antipas. In Jewish law, a marriage between them would be incestuous, but they went ahead. In doing so, they played into the hands of critics of the royal family, among whom was John the Baptiser. At the time there was an unremitting war of nerves going on between John’s political/religious sect and Salome’s family.
Salome was politically astute enough, even though young, to see the danger her mother was in from John the Baptist. She reacted in a way normal for children who experience any assault on their mother: she became very protective. When it came to the crunch, she was prepared to use her sexual power to do whatever she had to, to protect her mother. In dancing before the guests at the banquet, she was saying to Antipas ‘do now what you should have done already, and protect my mother’.
What sort of person was she? The Greek words ‘to korasion’ were used to describe Salome at the time John’s head was given to her, and when she later took the head to her mother. The words describe a well-born young woman of marriageable age.
Ironically, these same words were also used in connection with the daughter of Jairus, whom Jesus cured. These two young women were both of high social status, though from different worlds. It was a phrase that implied respect. Putting it in the context of John’s severed head may have been an ironic attack on the Jewish royal family: Salome’s a princess, but look what she did!
Who was Herodias?
Herodias’ marriage to her first husband had not been a success, though it had produced Salome. Then she fell madly in love with Philip’s half-brother, and he with her. They broke every rule so that they could marry each other, and they faced social condemnation because of it.
John the Baptist
Herodias, being the woman in the situation, was blamed more than Antipas. Perhaps this was because she came from a priestly family. The punishment for daughters of priestly families who behaved improperly was very severe. Was this another reason for John’s condemnation of her incestuous marriage? Was her sin worse because she came from a priestly background?
John, called the Baptist attacked Herodias at least as much as he attacked her husband. She looked to Antipas to do something about it, but of course he did not. It was not in his nature. He was passive, where Herodias was a woman of action. But she was also politically clever, and she knew she must bide her time, even though she seethed with frustration.
Who was Herod Antipas?
Antipas seems to have been insecure, both personally and politically. His father Herod the Great had been a brilliant madman. Among many other atrocities, he strangled his princess-wife in a fit of jealousy (real or feigned?) and also murdered two other sons. Royal families seem to spawn the occasional madman, and the Hasmoneans were no exception. Antipas learned early that the best course of actions was to be passive.
A selection of luxurious tableware from a painting excavated at Pompeii
He is presented by history as a libertine (sex, banquet, luxury), but in fact he never had the multiple wives his father had, nor the murderous family feuds. He liked to utter threats rather than take action, hoping the threat would do the job.
He was a man of his time, believing in magic and magicians. He was also interested in theology and ideas.
Jesus called Herod Antipas ‘that fox’, not because he was cunning but because he was needlessly destructive, as foxes are
He may have had a roving eye, since people believed it when he made an extravagant promise to Salome – or didn’t believe it but were clever enough not to say so.
Antipas preferred to put things off than take decisive action. He only made a claim for his throne after his aunt, the older Salome, promised to help him. So, as in other events in his life, it was a woman who organised things for him. He did not actually leave his first wife. She left him. And as a final example, John had been denouncing him for quite some time before Herod consented to act.
Ancient Greek jewellery. Curiously enough, a snake was a symbol of eternal life.
So Herodias and Salome could not simply persuade him to act against John. They had to lever him into a position where he had no option other than to kill the prophet.
The truth is that the whole episode of Salome’s dance was probably a sham, to get rid of John the Baptist without losing too much face. Antipas has probably done this sort of twisty thing a dozen times before.
The question is, was Antipas a party to the plan from the beginning? Did the three of them, Antipas, Herodias and Salome, decide the whole thing together? It is highly likely. Antipas’ lavish promise seems too improbable for a man who procrastinated.
What were Salome’s motives?
Salome was a young woman whose mother Herodias was under attack from an outsider, John the Baptist. Her response was to be protective of her mother. She stood by her mother and the interests of the Herodian family.
Was Antipas attracted to her? If so, it would have made her uneasy, but she was shrewd enough to realise it was something that could be used to her family’s advantage.
In the end, Salome was as ruthless in disposing of an enemy as her grandfather Herod the Great had been. She was the lion’s cub.
What happened to her afterwards?
The gospels have no further mention of Salome, but history does. According to Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, Salome married Philip the tetrarch and afterwards Aristobulus, the grandson of Herod and brother of Agrippa. (Josephus: Antiquities 18.5.4) She was what is nowadays called a ‘royal’, and seems to have had a long and comfortable life.
The Bible text Mark 6:17-29
17 For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Hero’di-as, his brother Philip’s wife; because he had married her. 18 For John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Hero’di-as had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Hero’di-as’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out, and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus; 2 and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.” 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Hero’di-as, his brother Philip’s wife; 4 because John said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. 6 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Hero’di-as danced before the company, and pleased Herod, 7 so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9 And the king was sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given; 10 he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus.
Paintings of Salome
Salome, Jean Benner
Herodias and Salome with the head of John the Baptist Onorio Marinari
Salome, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530
Salome with the head of John, Sebastiano del Piombo