Of all of the numerous members of the dysfunctional House of Herod, the one who gets the most mention in the New Testament is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. This is understandable, because the Ministry of Jesus took place during his reign, and for the most part in the territory Herod Antipas ruled.
Antipas spent much of his early years growing up at the court in Rome, as did many other members of his family. His name, Antipas, was short for Antipater, the name of his grandfather and also of his oldest step-brother.
When Herod the Great died in the year 4 BC, he left his affairs in some disarray. Originally, he had intended to leave his kingdom to Aristobulus and Alexander, his two sons by his second wife, his beloved Mariamne. But late in his life, he suspected them of plotting treason and so disinherited them and had them killed. Perhaps they even were.
He then named his first son, Antipater, the child of his first wife, Doris, as heir. But Antipater was also accused of plotting to murder his father, and was tried before the Roman governor of Syria. He was found guilty, and with the approval of the Emperor, executed.
You’d think Herod would be running out of heirs by this time, but no; he’d married ten times before he died, and still had plenty of spares. This time he jumped ahead past the other other sons and named his youngest, Antipas, to succeed him as King of Judea.
But at the last minute, he changed his mind again, and wrote a new will, dividing Judea amongst Herod and a couple other sons. The eldest of the remaining sons, Archelaus, got Judea proper, Idumea, (where Grandpa Antipater came from) and Samaria. Philip got Gaulantis, Batanea and Trachontis, the northeastern portion of the province. Their aunt, Herod’s sister Salome, was given a couple cities around the present-day Gaza region.
Antipas had to settle for Galilee, the territory on the western side of the Sea of Galilee, and Perea, a strip of land on the eastern side of the Jordan River.
He didn’t even get to be called king. Archelaus got that honor. Herod was named Tetrarch, meaning ruler of a quarter. And don’t think that didn’t rankle.
In many ways, Herod Antipas followed the example of his father, Herod the Great. He followed Jewish laws and customs… to a certain extent. He observed the important Jewish holidays in Jerusalem and, as his father did, the coins issued under his reign bore no portraits, as was usual with Roman coins. But he was a highly Romanized Jew, and his palace was decorated with statues in the Greco-Roman style.
Another way he followed his father was in building projects. He rebuilt the fortress of Machaerus on the Dead Sea and expanded it into a city in which he had his palace. He made civic improvements in many other cities in his territory as well, but his greatest achievement was the construction of the city of Tiberius, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Like his father’s city of Caesarea, it was built according to Greco-Roman ideas of civic planning; and also like Caesarea, he made the city his capital. He also named it after his patron, the Emperor Tiberius, and renamed the lake upon which it stood the Sea of Tiberius too, just to make sure the Emperor noticed.
Unfortunately, he had trouble at first getting his Jewish subjects to settle in his new city, because he had built it on a Jewish cemetery. Eventually, though, the city became a center for rabbinic learning.
Early in his reign, he entered a strategic marriage with the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, a desert kingdom bordering Perea. But soon he became interested in another girl, his niece Herodias, who happened to be married to his half-brother Herod Philip.
His wife caught wind that he was thinking of divorcing her, and realized that being Herod’s Ex-Wife was not a really tenable position to be in. She asked and got permission to travel to Machaerus for a bit. From there, she fled across the border with some of her father’s soldiers into her father’s territory. Aretas, was angered by Herod’s treatment of his little girl, and some time later declared war on Herod, inflicting a rather humiliating defeat.
But for the time being, Herod didn’t care. He was in love, and she loved him, and they both had practically the same names. His stepbrother Philip permitted Herodias to divorce him with little fuss; (either Antipas paid him well to permit the divorce, or Philip knew Herodias better than Herod did and figured he’d be happier without her). What more could a tetrarch ask for?
The problem was, there was this prophet.
John the Baptist, (or “the Baptizer”, as he’s known by people who don’t wish to name any specific Protestant denominations), began his ministry on the Jordan River, on the Perean border. He called people to repentance and preached about the immanent coming of the Kingdom of God. He also preached about the coming Messiah, “…one more powerful than I … whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (Luke 3:16)
Some scholars have speculated that John was an Essene, a member of a mystic and ascetic sect of Judaism which had a community at Qumram on the Dead Sea. The Essenes also taught an imminent Messianic Age, and they were big on ritual cleansing ceremonies, like Baptism; but as a group they focused more inward, withdrawing away from the world. I can easily imagine John studying for a time at Qumram, but then breaking with that community to start his own ministry.
According to the Gospels, John had a considerable following as a populist preacher. The members of the Religious Establishment weren’t too crazy about him, but then, he wasn’t shy about calling out their hypocrisies either.
When Jesus arrived, John kind of faded from the scene. Which was okay with him; he believed Jesus was the Messiah, after all. “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30) With the start of Jesus’ ministry, John shifted gears a bit and concentrated on calling people to repentance, urging a godly life, and – here is the important part – calling out corruption in High Places.
One of these High Places was Herod’s Palace at Machaerus, where Herod Antipas was cavorting with his new wife, who was not only his niece, but also his sister-in-law; two types of incest for the price of one. A lot of people thought this showed considerable bad taste, but John was talking about it. Loudly. And Herodias didn’t like it.
At Herodias’ insistence, Herod had John arrested and imprisoned; some believe at the Machaerus palace itself. And there he sat for a while, because although Herodias wanted him dead, her husband felt some scruples about killing a prophet. “…Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.”. And, to a certain extent, Herod seems to have been fascinated by the man. The text goes on to say, “… When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20 NIV)
Eventually, though, Herodias got her wish. Herod have a banquet to celebrate his birthday, inviting many high officials and important men of the region. Herodias’ daughter, Herod’s step-daughter came in and danced to entertain the party. The Gospel’s don’t give us the daughter’s name, but Josephus tells us it was Salome; probably after Great-Grandpa Herod’s sister.
Although the Gospels don’t specify whether the dance involved seven veils or popping out of a cake or riding in on a wrecking ball, or anything like that; popular interpretation insists that her dance was a lascivious one. Herod certainly liked it, and the doting step-dad made her a rash promise:
The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” (Mark 6:22-23)
(And yes, a pedantic point here. Herod was not technically a king. Thank you for reminding him. Would you like to add some lemon juice to his paper cut while you’re at it? Some have suggested that Mark was being sarcastic; I think it more likely that people just referred to him as a king because his father was one and because he acted like one.)
Salome went to her mom for advice on what to ask. Not surprisingly, Herodias had her demand the head of John the Baptist. “ON A PLATE!”
This put Herod in a bad position. He did not want to kill the prophet, but he had made a very public promise in front of some important people. If he went back on his vow, he would look weak. And for what? A filthy rabble-rouser who was always denouncing him anyway. From his point of view, he really had no choice. So Salome got her boon, and Herodias got her trophy.
Salome comes off as quite the bloodthirsty vixen in this story. At very least, she is being used as a pawn in her mother’s schemes to manipulate her stepfather. In Oscar Wilde’s stage dramatization of the story, he adds an intriguing twist; in Wilde’s version, Salome has the hots for John, and here demand for his head is retaliation because he spurns her love. After John’s execution, Wilde has Salome kissing the lips of his severed head.
None of which is mentioned in Josephus’ account of Herod Antipas’ reign. He does mention John and that Herod had him imprisoned fearing that his preaching would stir an insurrection. He also states that many people at the time blamed Herod’s execution of John, a good man, for his later defeat by King Aretas.
It wasn’t until after John’s death, it seems, that Herod heard reports of Jesus and his ministry. And when he did, he got a creepy sense of déjà vu.
King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying “John the Bptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
Others said, “He is Elijah.”
And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”
But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” (Mark 6:14-16)
Shortly after this, Jesus left Galilee to teach in the regions of Tyre and Sidon, to the north of Galilee, and swung around through the territories ruled by Philip. This might well have been to stay under Herod’s radar. The text doesn’t specifically say this. But the Gospels do say that a couple members of Herod’s household became followers of Jesus, including Joanna, the wife of Herod’s major-domo, Cuza. (Luke 8:3)
But later still, on an occasion when Jesus was passing through Perea, some Pharisees come to Jesus with some concern-trollish advice: “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” Perhaps they’re afraid he’ll stir up trouble. Perhaps they were genuinely concerned about him; although he and the Pharisees were often at odds, his teachings were not entirely incompatible with their own, and they were not always hostile to him. Or perhaps they just wanted to get him out of their town.
He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (Luke 13:32-33)
Herod has other things to worry about anyway. One constant concern with him was his position as Tetrarch. His brother Archelaus didn’t last long as King of Judea, and was yanked by Caesar for his incompetence. Antipas lobbied hard to replace him, but instead the Emperor installed a series of Roman administrators to govern the province. The best-known of these was a guy named Pontius Pilate, who actually held the position for a fairly long term, considering some of the problems he faced.
From the accounts of Pilate’s administration found in Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, we get the impression that every time Pilate faced a crisis, Herod Antipas would fire off a letter to Rome to let the Emperor know and to suggest that someone else ought to be put in charge of Judea. Someone whose name begins with the letter “H”
Herod might have been pretty thoroughly Romanized, but he still made a point of going up to Jerusalem for the High Holidays. Which is why he happened to be in town one particular Passover. He was probably as surprised as anybody when Jesus showed up on his doorstep with an armed guard and a note from Herod’s rival, Pilate.
We hear this story every year. How Jesus, condemned to death by the Jewish Council on the charge of blasphemy, is brought before Pilate to authorize the death sentence. According to the Gospels, Pilate is reluctant to do this, because he recognizes Jesus’ innocence; but he’s looking for a way to release the crazy Jewish prophet without having to take responsibility for doing so himself. And then someone mentions that Jesus comes from the province of Galilee.
Upon hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. (Luke 23:6-7)
For the first time, Herod gets to see this prophet who seemed to be a reincarnation of John, whom he’d so long wanted to meet. And…
He hopes to see wonders. He hopes to hear wisdom. He hopes to see John re-born. Perhaps, he even hopes for the chance to ask John’s forgiveness.
He gets none of this. Jesus says nothing.
But Herod is a philosopher. At least his curiosity about this Jesus has been satisfied. And it occurs to him that it was quite decent of Pilate to give him that chance, especially the way they’d been plotting against each other all this time. “That day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12)
Shortly after this came the war between Aretas and Herod in which Herod was badly beaten. The Emperor sent Vitellius, the governor of the neighboring province of Syria to come to Herod’s aid, but before the campaign got underway, Tiberius died, and Vitellius decided to withdraw pending further instructions from the new emperor. He didn’t really like Herod much anyway. Herod doesn’t seem to have gotten along with any of his neighbors.
They wound up working together again, though, when Vitellius was sent to negotiate with the King of the Parthians, and Herod helped with the negotiations. The mission was a successful one, but Herod annoyed Vitellius by sending word quickly back to Rome, seeming to claim credit.
The death of Tiberius really marked the fall of Herod Antipas’ star. His nephew/brother-in-law, Herod Agrippa, happened to be close school chums with Caligula, Tiberius’ successor. And Antipas was becoming annoying with his frequent whinging to Rome and his pleas to be granted more authority.
When Agrippa was given Philip’s old tetrarchy and the title of king, Herodias nagged Antipas into asking Caligula to be granted the same title. At the same time as he put in his request, Agrippa presented accusations before the Emperor that Antipas had conspired against Tiberius and was now stockpiling enough arms to supply a sizable army.
Antipas had to admit to the weapons stockpile, but he very likely had a perfectly innocent explanation for them… which Caligula wouldn’t listen to.
Caligula exiled Herod to the Roman city of Lugdunum in Gaul, the modern-day Lyons. Considering what happened to some of Caligula’s later enemies, he got off lightly. The Emperor offered to allow Herodias to keep her property, seeing as she was Agrippa’s sister; but she chose to follow her husband into exile.
Perhaps theirs was a dysfunctional marriage; but it seems that in the end she loved him after all.