Mythbusting Salome

The gospel reading today is Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. It’s from Luke 3: 15-17 and then 21-22.  But what I find interesting is the missing bits between these verses so I’m going to expand the reading to cover everything from verse 15 to 22.  My plan today is to follow the story of one of the peripheral characters who is mentioned in the intervening verses who will go on to be instrumental in the downfall of John the Baptist.  See if you can spot who I’m talking about…

Reading:  Luke 3: 15-22

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.

21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

So could you guess from the reading who I’m talking about? It’s Herodias – the woman behind the king, and whose daughter, Salome, would come to be the subject of much misunderstanding and myth.

Matthew’s Gospel also relates the story of the Herod clan’s displeasure with John the Baptist. Matthew 14 says: 

 3-5 Herod had arrested John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison to placate Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. John had provoked Herod by naming his relationship with Herodias “adultery.” Herod wanted to kill him, but he was afraid because so many people revered John as a prophet of God.

Mark’s Gospel also tells the story and is quite clear that it was the queen, Herodias, who desperately wanted John the Baptist dead.

Mark 6:18 says

Herodias, smouldering with hate, wanted to kill him, but didn’t dare because Herod was in awe of John.  Convinced that he was a holy man, he gave him special treatment. Whenever he listened to him he was miserable with guilt—and yet he couldn’t stay away. Something in John kept pulling him back.

I’m not going to be making excuses for the actions of Herodias but I thought it would be interesting to spend some time delving into this fascinating and yet rather quickly glossed over bit of Biblical history.

John the Baptist’s radical ministry on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and his death as a political prisoner are powerful foreshadowings of the ministry and persecution of Jesus.  So much alike did they seem that when Herod later heard of the rise of the ministry of  Jesus of Nazareth, he was very much afraid that he was John the Baptist brought back to life. 

And while this Herod came from a long line of powerful, decadent  Herodians, all happy collaborators with the Roman oppressors, given vast prosperous client-kingdoms to oversee, his wife is an interesting character too.

We hear plenty of tales of the good girls of the Bible – the trusting, laughing Sarah; the many loving, nurturing Marys; the bold, clever Esther. Although I do feel ambivalent about Esther: she is venerated for averting the deaths of the Persian Jews in around 500BC  but those people went on to murder 75,000 men, women, and children in a pre-emptive strike – but apparently it’s ok because they didn’t also plunder the homes of those they killed.

We hear much less of the bad girls of the Bible – certainly fewer truths. Women like Eve, Delilah, Jezebel, Bathsheba, Tamar, Herodias and Salome are wrapped up in sexy mythologies fuelled by Renaissance art, Victorian titillation, and, dare I say, Catholic superstition.  These same factors have actually done a lot of damage for the good girls of the Bible too: it is still a commonly held belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute – thank you Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mel Gibson, and again Catholicism.  

But setting aside the misconceptions, reading the unbiased historical scholarship, and coming to these tales without all that baggage reveals a host of fascinating stories. Our Biblical bad girls – and the good girls too – had their own complex stories – they’re not just storytelling devices to further plots about the virtuous men of the Bible. 

There’s no denying Herodias came from a fairly twisted family tree. She was a Jewish princess of impeccable bloodlines and a powerful dynasty, but even Jewish princesses got horse-traded rapidly in the first century as part of bigger political games. Once her grandfather, Herod the Great (he who had all the baby boys in Bethlehem killed), had, out of political paranoia executed her parents (and many other members of his family including most of his sons and his favourite wife), Herodias was left an orphan child. Grandpa decided she should marry one of her half uncles, Herod Phillip. Understandably, this upset some members of the family, so Herod knocked them off as well. This swift reduction in the number of sons left Phillip pretty high up in the line of succession which meant that as far as Herodian princesses went, Herodias was in quite a powerful position: one day her husband would become ruler of all Judea. So it is regarded as a bit of an historical mystery as to why she switched affections to Phillip’s brother, Herod Antipas – yes, another of her half-uncles.

It’s believed that when Herodias was in her twenties and had a small child by her first husband, she fell in love with Herod Antipas on a visit to Rome. There is considerable speculation that it must have been love, and not pursuit of power, as Antipas was no nearly so powerful as his brother, presiding as tetrarch over the smaller territory of Galilee.  The added complication was that they were both married to other people at the time and divorce was not really possible, at least under the Jewish law that the Herodians claimed to follow. Unwanted wives were mostly exiled to be forgotten about. So Antipas banished his Arabian wife, enormously upsetting her father, a powerful neighbouring king, and Herodias simply left Phillip and went to live with Antipas, taking her daughter with her. A situation which was already incestuous had also kinda turned into bigamy.  

They paid the price for their relationship and for what can only be imagined as series of profoundly bad decisions. For a start, the ex-wife’s father was not happy: already tenuous political alliances broke down and he declared war. Antipas is largely judged to have lost. Then, to improve his standing in the eyes of his Roman masters, Antipas decided to build a magnificent seaside capital for himself and name it after the emperor. This was Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. But he didn’t think that one all the way through either: in the tradition of all great superstitions, the city was built over a graveyard. The Jews regarded it as unclean and refused to populate it. Despite therapeutic hot springs, a sporting stadium, and a beautiful temple, nobody would voluntarily live there. So Herod, to save face with Rome, forced people to live there using a mix of foreigners, poor people, freed slaves and forced migrants.

It seemed that everything Herod touched, turned to proverbial you-know-what. The only nice thing he is remembered for was not sticking his head on all the currency so that coins did not violate Jewish laws against idolatry.

Then along came John the Baptist,  a man completely unafraid to publicly criticise a regime which was not only inbred, decadent and corrupt but most definitely incompetent as well. Despite calling themselves Jews, the Herodian dynasty had managed to violate just every conceivable Jewish law. That they were tasked with ruling the law-abiding Jewish people must have outraged even the most moderate citizen.

So it wasn’t surprising that John was able, in his speeches, to equate all that had gone wrong in Galilee with the arrival of Herodias. War, unrest, even bad crops, could be blamed on Herod and pinpointed to the time of his marriage to Herodias. He made her the embodiment of all the evil that had befallen the land and, not surprisingly, she took exception.

But world history is full of powerful people who set out to dispose of their outspoken detractors: this is the game that Herodias and John entered into.

It seems that whatever charms Herodias had had to draw her husband away from his previous wife were no match for the strange fascination that Herod is described to have had for John the Baptist. As Mark recounted: Herod was in awe of John, convinced that he was a holy man and a prophet . Whenever Herod listened to John,  he felt miserable with guilt—and yet he couldn’t stay away. Something in John kept pulling him back. While Herod could appease his wife to some extent by imprisoning John, he would not do as she truly wished, and have him executed.

It’s an interesting idea: afraid and yet fascinated. It’s like my friend who is terrified of flying and yet can’t stop watching air crash investigation shows on TV.  It’s a relationship I think many people have sometimes had with religion: feeling somehow unworthy or undeserving, wanting to walk away, and yet not quite able to because of that persistent niggling of faith. It’s why the new testament revelation of God’s grace is so important: because no-one is unworthy or underserving.

Maybe Herod was seeking grace but, within his framework of power and domination and his experience as an inept king and a lax Jew, his only answer was to keep John alive, nearby and at his disposal. Even if the prophet returned what Herod would have considered mercy and hospitality (compared to the alternative) with only further brutally honest counselling about the illegal and immoral nature of Herod’s marriage, Herod would not acquiesce to his queen’s demands to get rid of John once and for all. You can imagine that Herodias might have worried that her husband was on the verge of accepting John’s call to repent and turn to God.

As a woman, even of royal blood, but one who had burned a lot of bridges, if she was dumped, banished like her predecessor, she wouldn’t have much left in the world. Her life would be over. It was getting down to her or John.    

So what is a slighted, desperate, angry queen to do but wait and plot and bide her time. Now, any person who knows their partner, knows in their sneaky moments, how to get what they want. Back a man into a corner in front of mates after a few drinks and a manipulative wife can get her way. This would be Herodias’ game and she was not the first Biblical queen to do it. Going back to the story of Esther again, the reason her predecessor, the proud queen Vashti, got replaced was that she embarrassed her husband, King Xerxes by not showing up when he had been drunkenly boasting to his mates about his hot wife. She embarrassed him in front of powerful friends and she had to be made an example of. 

Enter Herodias’ much-fabled, much-misunderstood daughter who may or may not have been called Salome.

A number of classic Hollywood swords and sandals epics, as well as the saucy writings of Oscar Wilde, have built up a fairly potent mythology around Salome: her name to begin with, which is not given in the Bible but comes from a Romano-Jewish historian about a hundred years later. I bet you have an image in your head. I bet it looks a little like this…

Salome bellydancer

I hate to break it to you folks, but that’s a myth . We’ll soon get to the truth.

It was Herod’s birthday and it was being celebrated with a feast.  It would have been a Roman-style affair, reclining on couches and with a pretty strict social code which almost certainly included a no-chicks rule.  It was an all-blokes party.  Herod would have, as always, been out to impress and show his Roman buddies how powerful and respected he was despite his successive debacles as a leader.  Good girls generally did not go to such parties.

A royal mother would not have sent her daughter in to such a party to wiggle and shimmy, scantily clad.  It was not only socially inappropriate – it would have embarrassed her family and devalued her on the aristocratic marriage market.  Salome would have been well-educated for her time and her gender and well-aware of her social position and obligations.

Historians think it is far more likely that if Salome danced, it would have been as part of a performance by either local Bedouin entertainment troupe where dancers of both genders would have worn long flowing robes, or as part of a quite formal pantomime with masked characters from Greek and Roman myth.

I’d like now to introduce Danielle who will dance for us in a style that is closer to how Salome may have danced.  This beautiful style is called Hilal and is based on the traditional dance cultures of Egypt.     

Salome’s dancing would have been respectable and accomplished.  This was half of her mother’s plan: she had to genuinely surprise and impress her step-dad on his birthday, so much so that he would want to give her a present to say thank you .  The other half was that Herodias could bank on a tipsy husband being overly gregarious and rash.  

Both Matthew and  Mark tell the story:

Herodias’s daughter danced for the guests and dazzled them. In his drunken enthusiasm, Herod promised her anything she wanted as thanks. Already coached by her mother, she was ready and replied: “I want the head of John the Baptiser.” That sobered the king up fast. But unwilling to lose face with his guests, he did it—ordered John’s head cut off and presented to the girl on a platter. She in turn gave it to her mother.

Herodias got what she wanted.

The tale suggests from the beginning that the daughter was used by her mother to manipulate her step-father – not that Salome was in any way a devious, complicit vixen.  Simply add this exploitative dysfunction to the long list of things that were wrong with this family. 

And while we picture John’s abrupt end in the hands of a talented but manipulated young woman, there is one more piece to this sad truth: Salome was actually only a child at the time –a kid who was probably all too happy to try to make her mother happy and her daddy proud by dancing for him at his birthday party.

 On that note, Megan is going to dance for us now: a much closer, if modern interpretation, of the infamous dance of Salome – just a good girl dancing for her dad on his birthday.

Where to from here?  I’m not going to attempt to draw any  profound conclusions.  There are any number of obvious lesson to be learned from this tale.  Don’t run off with your husband’s brother; don’t be a massive hypocrite; don’t manipulate your spouse; don’t use your innocent offspring to help you get what you want in life.  

 I hope that you’ve enjoyed learning more about some little-understood figures of the Bible. When you see Rita Hayworth dancing her awkward dance of the seven veils in the 1953 movie, or read or see snippets of Oscar Wilde’s scandalous play and its surreal movie adaptation, Salome’s Last Dance, remember the simpler truth of a good daughter, an angry queen and foolish husband.        

And in the end, it may all be just a story anyway: there is historical scholarship to suggest that Herod Antipas simply killed John the Baptist for political reasons – much the same reasons as he would go on to condone for the death of Jesus of Nazareth a few years later.  Jesus and John were charismatic men who moved throughout the region speaking out against injustice and oppression, criticising corrupt, immoral leaders.  They sparked unrest; they challenged the traditional power structures; they dared to question and resist the occupation of their land; they advocated equality, liberty and an end to poverty. It is no wonder they were seen as a threat by puppet-kings desperate to maintain favour with Rome.  It is no wonder that they were perceived to be incredibly dangerous men.  It is no wonder that their legacies are enduring and eternally relevant.

by Brooke Thomas

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