HEROD ORDERS JOHN THE BAPTIST TO BE PUT TO DEATH
POPULAR OPINION REGARDING JESUS HEROD'S TERROR HOW TWO WOMEN, HERODIAS, THE ADULTERESS, AND SALOME, THE DANCER, INDUCED HIM TO SENTENCE THE PRECURSOR TO DEATH THE BAPTIST'S HEAD ON A CHARGER HEROD WOULD SEE JESUS DANGER OF SEDITION THE WITHDRAWAL TO PHILIP'S TERRITORY. (St. Mark vi, 1416 and 2129; St. Matthew xiv, I and 612; St. Luke ix, 79.)
AFTER the mission of the Apostles the name of Jesus was more than ever upon the lips of all. It reached even the ears of Herod, who at once became anxious.1 This prince, always hesitating between the hatred that Herodias stirred up in him against John the Baptist and the fear of the people which protected the venerable prisoner, had finally committed a great crime.
The ordinary punishment of criminals is to be pursued pitilessly by the memory of their victims, and to live as if they already felt the avenging arm which even in this life begins to seize upon them. Everything conspires to excite in them continual terror. Conscience instinctively echoes the most extravagant suppositions of the multitude. Jesus' reputation spread from day to day, and those who did not know His history and who, perhaps, had never seen Him, said: "John the Baptist is risen again from the dead; and therefore mighty works show forth themselves in him." Others chose to believe that it was Elias who had come back to earth, or a prophet of olden times. Herod was struck above all by the words of the former, and his terror inclined him to share their opinion. "It is John," he cried out, "John, whom I beheaded; he is risen again from the dead." And he sought an opportunity to see the Thaumaturgus of whom everybody was talking. It may be that in his heart he had a vague desire to prove either that the dead do not come back, or that, if John has come back, his crime is in part repaired.
The wretched man had ordered the Baptist to be put to death in peculiarly odious circumstances. The Evangelists have given us a dramatic account of it.
It was the very day on which the prince was celebrating the anniversary either of his birth or of his accession to power.2 The nobles of his court, the generals of his army, and the leading personages of the country had been invited to his table. At the conclusion of the banquet there were mimic scenes, lascivious dances, intended to excite the evil passions of the banqueters. The Rome of Cicero had long practised these unhealthy exhibitions.3 The Rome of the Caesars spread them over the world together with all the rest of their immorality. Herod the Elder had established a theatre in his palace and a circus in Jerusalem. It is not surprising that his son, a vassal yet more servile than the father, had set himself the task of imitating the dissolute morals of his masters. To enliven the brilliancy of the feast, the daughter of Herodias,4 the young Salome, forgetful of what she owed to the memory of her own father, presented herself upon the scene. Cleverly reared in the school of crime and of seduction, she achieved a great success. The prince, already heated by the fumes of wine, sought to respond to the applause of the guests and to testify to his own satisfaction by offering to grant the young girl whatever she might desire. Calling her to his side, he said to her: "Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, though it be the half of my kingdom." This was offering much for little. From the imprudence of these words we may see that the tetrarch's head was affected. It may be that he thought to keep his promise with some rich present on the occasion of the approaching wedding of Salome and Philip, Tetrarch of Ituræa. Unconsciously, the wretched man had promised a crime.
The young girl went out for a moment to consult with her mother about the request she should make. So generous a promise falling from the royal lips was embarrassing. Herodias quickly decided the question and herself dictated the response. The guilty mother, fearing only that she might be repudiated when, in Herod's soul, the voice of the Baptist had become stronger than passion, could have but one desire, that of suppressing every danger by the suppression of this advocate of public morality. She had long contended with the obstinate refusal of the tetrarch her seducer. The latter, as we have said elsewhere, hesitated at this final crime, as much through veneration of the imprisoned prophet as through fear of a popular uprising. At last he was to be overcome. Woman, astute once she has become criminal, knows how to await the favourable moment to destroy by one stroke of daring the last sentiments of justice and honour that still remain in the heart of her captive.
The adulterous princess, therefore, worded the reply to be given to the tetrarch. Salome returned in triumph to the banquethall and, with a smile upon her lips, she asked of the tetrarch neither a necklace of pearls nor a crown of gold, but the head of John the Baptist, all bloody, in one of the banquetdishes. It was a frightful blow and well calculated to recall to his senses the halfintoxicated man who had provoked and who now received it. Herod at once became sad and troubled. But, alas! his word had been pledged with an oath. At the same time, the courtiers women like Herodias always have such at their service seized the opportunity to overcome the final hesitation of the royal conscience. They pleaded, no doubt, that there was greater danger in letting John live in his prison than in putting him to death. The populace were growing troublesome on the subject of the captive. John was the ally of Aretas, inasmuch as he pleaded the cause of his repudiated daughter. Aretas had declared war, and a word from John the Baptist might provoke a most disastrous revolution. Reasons never fail policy when it wishes to abet a crime. Overcome by these arguments and not daring to prove false to his sworn word, Herod made a sign to the guard who was near by, and the latter departed to strike down the victim.
The victim was not far away.5 In fact, the executioner soon returned, bringing to Salome the ghastly gift so much desired, and the girl went off in triumph to present it to her mother. Human cruelty is capable of inconceivable excesses. Marius had held in his hands the head of Mark Antony, the orator, and, in the midst of a banquet, had most ironically apostrophised it.6 Fulvia had taken that of Cicero upon her knees, to pierce his tongue with needles. We know not what the incestuous Herodias might have said or done before the bloody dish in which she beheld the face of her pitiless adversary. As for Herod, he did not soon forget that mouth eloquent even to the point of death, and the memory of his victim pursued him henceforward like an unrelenting torment. Thus is explained the terrified cry which the Evangelists Put upon his lips: "This is John the Baptist."
This news reached the Saviour while multitudes surrounded Him on the shores of the lake. The popular emotion was great when the Baptist's disciples, who had just fulfilled their last duty to their master, were heard relating his tragic end. A general revolt was possible. If Herod attempted to have Jesus brought before him, such a revolt was almost certain. At any price, this must be avoided.
1 For at least a year Jesus had been agitating the multitudes in Galilee and had been accomplishing prodigious works at the gates of Tiberias; how is it to be explained, then, that Herod had not yet paid any attention to Him? Probably the Saviour had commenced His public life at the very time when the tetrarch was detained either at Rome to defend his interests in the presence of the Emperor, or on the Arabian frontier to check the hostilities of Aretas. Besides, we are aware that it was not characteristic of this sceptical and Voluptuous prince to bother himself with the religious questions that might be disturbing his subjects, unless public order was thereby troubled. The Herods much preferred to let the sects and the Rabbis engage in discussion as long as they did not refuse to pay taxes and were not disobedient to the government. Hence, when John the Baptist was thrown into prison, it was because he directly accused the person of the tetrarch.
2 The text lenesiois lenomenois has been variously interpreted. For some, it signifies the anniversary of the birth, which the ancients celebrated with solemnity. (Gen. xl, 20; II Mach. vi, 7.) In this sense Josephus (Antiq., lib. xii, 4, 7) uses it when he speaks of the great personages of Syria, who celebrated the birthday of the King's sons. For others, following I Kings xiii, 11, and Ps. ii, 7, it means the anniversary of the accession to the throne. (Comp. Dion Cass., xlvii, 18.) In this case, the murder of the Baptist would here be in its proper place chronologically, for we are approaching the Paschal time, and, Herod the Great having died about seven days before the Passover, Antipas would celebrate his accession at about this very time. In fact, it is not unusual for the word lenesia to signify the day on which a prince ascended the throne. (See Herodotus. iv, 26, and Suicer, Thesaurus, i, p. 746.)
3 Cicero, Pro Murena, c. 6: "Tempestivi convivii, amoeni tori, multarum divitiarum. comes est extrema saltatio." (See Horace, Od., iii, 5, 21.)
4 Herodias, who was the daughter of Aristobulus, son of Herod the Great and Berenice, had borne this child to her first husband (whom she shamefully abandoned), HerodPhilip, the son of Mariamne. For the strange history of this family see M. de Saulcy's book, Hist. d'Hérode (Paris, 1867).
5 The expressions employed by both Evangelists prove this sufficiently. The young girl asks that the head be brought "forthwith" (e xauths) (St. Mark vi, 27), or, "here" (wde) (St. Matt. xiv, 8), that is, on the instant, and the soldier brought it in one of the dishes used at the banquet (epi pinaki) We cannot suppose, therefore, that Herod was in Tiberias and John in the fortress of Machærus. It would have taken more than two days for the executioner to make the journey. It is probable that at that time the tetrarch was holding his court at Machærus, whence he could with ease direct the war against the King of Arabia.
6 Valerius Maximus, ix, 2.
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