Who was Herodias?

I would like to begin this blog with a quote that I feel is pretty relevant: “A woman’s responsible for original sin. A woman cuts Samson’s coif of power. A woman asks for the head of John the Baptist. Read that book again sometime. Women are painted as bigger antagonists than the Egyptians and Romans combined. It stinks.” -Serendipity, Dogma

Whenever I am introduced to a set of characters, whether in movies, books, etc, there is always one type that is my favorite to read about: what some would call “wicked women”. Powerful, ambitious, manipulative… the “bad guys” (or girls in this case.) Which is one reason why the Bible is so interesting to me now, because it’s absolutely chock full of them. I love reading about women who know what they want and are prepared to do whatever is necessary to get it. (Don’t give me Catelyn Stark, give me Cersei Lannister.)

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Well, the 14th chapter of Matthew gave me Herodias.

It’s a story that many who are at least partially acquainted with the New Testament know. John the Baptist is already in prison. Herod is having a large feast, and at the feast, Herodias’ daughter dances for him. He is so pleased with her dancing, that he offers her anything she wants. Her request, prompted by her mother, is the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

I immediately wanted to know more about this woman. I wanted to find out more of her background, more about the whole “head on a platter” situation, and what exactly happened to her afterward. So my first question from the New Testament, in simpler terms, is: Who was Herodias?

Firstly, I would like to say that when I was doing my research, it was blatantly obvious which websites were religiously slanted and which were not. From the point of view of Christian scholars, she is (apparently) the vilest, cruelest, more horrendously evil creature to ever exist. (One of them literally refers to her as a “hyena”, y’all) 

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Okay, one of the first things that I wondered about her was about her name, since it literally has “Herod” in it, and I found out that “as a member of the Herodian dynasty, the name ‘Herodias’ is but the female form of Herod, the royal name for the political rulers during the time of Christ and the apostles.”

The only site that had a date of birth for her (which was technically Wikipedia– I know, I know…) says that she was born in 14 BC, and Britannica has her death set in AD 39, so she lived about 53 years.

On the surface, she was “the wife of Herod Antipas, who was tetrarch (ruler appointed by Rome) of Galilee, in northern Palestine, from 4 bc to ad 39.” But there was more to their marriage than meets the eye. Their union was viewed as both adulterous and incestuous: “her marriage to Herod Antipas (himself divorced), after her divorce from his half-brother, was censured by John [the Baptist] as a transgression of Mosaic Law.”

His criticism of their relationship is what eventually led to his arrest:

For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”
(Matthew 14:3-4 ESV)

According to most of the sources, as well as the Book of Matthew, Herod was at first unwilling to put John to death because the people held him in very high regard as a prophet. So Herodias, being the evil villainess that she is, comes up with her own plan to have John executed.

“On the day when drink freely flowed, Herodias used her own daughter to inflame Herod’s passions. She was willing to sacrifice her child’s modesty in order to bend Herod to her will. Herod was overcome by Salome’s form seen through the flowing flimsy garment she wore, and influenced by the act of the dancing girl took a rash and foolish oath to give her whatever she asked, even to half of his kingdom.”

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After he makes this oath to Salome, she goes to Mommy Dearest and asks her what she should request. Herodias tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Herod realizes that he has made a very stupid decision, since he is now bound by oath to give the girl whatever she requests, even if it’s to make John a bit shorter.

But even though Herodias’ desire is to have John beheaded, I began to wonder, how much did her request really influence Herod into chopping off John’s head? Most (if not all) of the religiously slanted sites place full blame on Herodias, however, one source says: “Josephus gives the main facts, but adds that John was put to death because Herod feared his influence over the people. [Scholars admit] that here both the Evangelists and Josephus may be right; since all the motives mentioned may have urged Herod to imprison and murder John.”

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Although there is no way of determining just how much influence she had over Herod when it came to the death of John the Baptist, there is one more noted incident of her manipulation:

“When Agrippa, the brother of Herodias, became king, she persuaded Antipas to go to Rome in search of the royal title, as his claim to it was far greater than that of her brother. Instead of a crown, however, he found awaiting him a charge of treason against the Romans, with Agrippa as chief accuser, who in advance had sent messengers to defeat the ambitious plans of Antipas. He was therefore banished to Lyons in Gaul. At the same time Herodias, spurning the kind offers of the emperor, preferred exile with Antipas to a life of splendor in the palace of her brother Agrippa.”

Her decision to go into exile with her husband is really interesting to me. From the descriptions of her, both in the Bible and in the other sources, she seems like the kind of person who would be looking out for #1, and wouldn’t really give too much thought into what happened to anyone else as long as she got what she wanted. But this definitely challenged this idea for me. Did she divorce her first husband just to gain more power for herself, or did she actually love Antipas? If she was only concerned with power, then why wouldn’t she rather spend the rest of her days living the life of luxury with her brother? Of course, there is no way of knowing anything for sure, but it definitely adds a new spin to her “character”. I was able to answer my questions, but in truth, all my research did was make me want to look even further into her life.

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