Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Herodias, Salome, and John the Baptist's Beheading: A Case Study of the Topos of the Heretical Woman

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Herodias, Salome, and John the Baptist's Beheading: A Case Study of the Topos of the Heretical Woman

Article excerpt

"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. …

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