Herodias, Salome, and John the Baptist's Beheading: A case study of the topos of the heretical woman.

AuthorKnight, Jennifer Lassley
PositionCase study

"Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks."

--Oscar Wilde, Salome

Fade into the third decade of the Common Era, Palestine. Another political agitator in Judaea has been silenced, executed under the reign of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. (1) This particular demagogue was bizarre to many, yet dangerously intriguing to others; an ascetic hermit who feasted on locusts and wild honey and wore clothes made from camel hair. Preaching, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near," he baptized many in the river Jordan and challenged the status quo of both Rome and the high priesthood of Jerusalem. (2) This man, John the Baptist, was a thorn in Antipas's side, but one that was lodged especially deep. Rumors had circulated that he feared John to a certain degree, initially keeping him alive as a prisoner. While Antipas eventually ordered John's execution, the mystery behind his hesitance remains.

The gospels allege that Antipas's wife and stepdaughter, Herodias and Salome, (3) respectively, influenced Antipas to overcome his reluctance to kill the prophesizing prisoner. John was said to have denounced Herodias's marriage to Antipas as illegitimate, providing her with a possible motive for revenge. In a scheme with her daughter, Herodias achieved retribution against John, one of the few instances of women exercising significant power in the Bible. The circumstances under which Herodias and Salome appear in the Christian Testament have consequently framed their portrait, which church tradition has preserved as an example of sinful, deviant, and heretical behavior. Like many women in the Bible, Herodias and Salome have fallen prey to androcentric symbolism of the heretical woman, a literary topos to justify male superiority. (4) The degree of influence that they had in the execution of John the Baptist, therefore, may have been deliberately constructed to convey the dangers of womanly influence and unorthodox behavior. It is more historically accurate to place a pragmatic, political responsibility on Antipas for John's execution. Despite this, his wife and stepdaughter have shouldered the blame for the first-century prophet's gruesome end. Why has the historicity been largely disregarded?

This paper will explore the possible answers to this question through an analysis of extrabiblical primary source literature alongside the gospel narratives of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. These primary sources include the writings of Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Josephus Flavius, Suetonius, and Bernard of Cluny. This paper will also incorporate the necessary secondary historical source material, with a special emphasis on the various perspectives from modern feminist scholars of the Bible and early Church history. Additionally, this research will briefly address this particular biblical narrative's contribution to the femme fatale complex in art and literature and its relative feminist interpretations. This methodology will reveal a constructive use of Herodias, Salome, and their alleged role in John the Baptist's execution as a paradigm for understanding how the topos of the heretical woman developed throughout the different phases of this religious tradition, as well as within the context of Western patriarchal culture.

Although this story's role in Christian tradition has created obstacles for the historical study of Herodias and Salome, it is still conceivable to extract a degree of underlying truth by analyzing the biblical patterns of feminine characterization and the corresponding postbiblical framework of heresy. The feminine noun [phrase omitted] (hairesis) literally means "choice." The early church father Tertullian condemned those who make choices as evil; specifically those who choose to ask questions regarding the nature of Christian tradition. (5) According to him, heretics find their confidence and inspiration from the devil, "to whom belong the wiles that distort the truth." (6) Early church fathers used the term "heresy" to marginalize Christian groups who challenged their version of orthodoxy, with the Gnostics being their frequent target. This rhetoric, however, was not reserved for those who identified as Christian. Tertullian also classified Jews as heretics, a foundational mindset of early Christian antisemitism.

It is now possible for the heretic to learn, and the Jew as well, what he ought to know already, the reason for the Jews' errors: for from the Jew the heretic has accepted guidance in this discussion, the blind borrowing from the blind, and has fallen into the same ditch... Let the heretic now give up borrowing poison from the Jew--the asp, as they say, from the viper. (7) New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman asserts, "Heresy represents a contamination of the original teachings of Christianity by ideas drawn from the outside, either from Jewish circles or from the teachings of pagan philosophers." (8) Thus, it is not surprising that the Herodians, who were both Jewish and heavily influenced by Graeco-Roman mores, would have been denounced in this way. Being female--in addition to all of this--led to even deeper modes of criticism.

Awareness of the historical context is essential for progressing towards a truthful analysis of Herodias and Salome's role in John's beheading. The tumultuous political atmosphere of Judaea under Imperial Rome combined with the corrupting influence of the Herodian Dynasty left the majority of the public unsatisfied, to say the least. Like many powerful Roman families, the Herodians experienced their share of scandal and developed a generally negative reputation that is obvious throughout traditional Christian historiography. In addition to the notion of Jews as heretics, these misconceptions owe largely to the Massacre of the Innocents tale, Herod the Great's alleged attempt to eliminate the infant Jesus by means of killing every first-born boy in Judaea. This dramatically tragic story (found only in Matthew's gospel) is historically unsound.

The lack of literary, archaeological, and anthropological evidence for a systematic genocide during the Roman Imperial period--a time that was, on the whole, very well documented--gives little weight to the argument for historical authenticity. (9)

The mass infanticide as depicted in the Bible probably developed from Herod's decision to execute two of his own sons, which occurred around the same time as Jesus's birth. (10) Some scholars assume the author of Matthew constructed the story to convey the fulfillment of prophesies from the Hebrew Bible (such as passages in Hosea and Jeremiah), which would validate Jesus as the messiah. (11) This is one of...

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