The Historical Jesus
Herod Antipas and Herodias
The Herod who killed John the Baptist is confused by
many with his father, Herod the Great, who ruled what we now call Israel and
Palestine (plus other bits and pieces of the area) from 37 to 4bce.
Herod the son is more accurately known as Herod Antipas. He was one of four
sons who survived his father (who was married over the years to eight different
women). The other three sons were Archelaus, Agrippa I, and Agrippa II.
When Herod the Great died, the Roman Emperor Augustus (Octavius) regarded the
kingdom of Herod as of little use in his plans for the eastern parts of the
Empire. He had nevertheless to appear to be honouring the terns of Herod the
Great's will while in fact breaking up the kingdom.
Archelaus had been given the heartland of the kingdom, consisting of Judea,
Samaria and the coastal plain. The latter was important since it included
Caesarea Maritima, the large seaport which his father had built and which had
been key in creating Herod the Great's considerable wealth. Antipas was assigned
Galilee and Peraea; Philip got Trachonitis, Batanea and Panias; their sister
Salome was given Jamnia, Azotus and Phasaelis.
It is sometimes difficult for us to understand the nature of these various
territories. We are more familiar with what are loosely called "nation states",
quite large units of land each of which has its own government. We're also used
to a system of taxation through which funds are directly applied to the needs of
This was not the system into which Jesus was born, a year or two before the
death of Herod the Great. The nearest we come to it is the tribal system which
still predominates at grass-roots level in most of Africa and elsewhere. In the
case of Palestine at the time, a number of tribes (such as the Samaritans,
despised by the Hebrew tribe) were loosely interlocked with a powerful Greek
culture. The latter consisted of city-states, what we would today call towns.
They had been founded either by officers of Alexander the Great's army, or by
various Roman emperors.
These tribes and city-states were regarded by the Roman authorities as
essentially independent. That independence was honoured as long as they did not
subvert the supremacy of the Empire, and provided they paid "tribute" - a form
of taxation which, unlike today, did not derive from their own needs but from
the demands of the Emperor.
This network of tax-paying states and tribal groups was directly controlled
by local rulers. These rulers had what amounted to absolute power, subject only
to rulings of the Emperor and his delegates. The local rulers took their cut of
the money which flowed from Palestine to Rome. They also taxed all trade, and
were safe as long as there was no unrest and as long as the coffers of Rome were
kept adequately filled.
It was not surprising that squabbles quickly broke out amongst the brothers.
Each was, in effect, striving for as big a slice of the financial cake as
possible. Unfortunately their maneuverings played into the hands of the Emperor.
He took the matter in hand by confirming Antipas and Philip in their
inheritance, and granting them the title of "Tetrarch". He made Archelaus an
"Ethnarch". He ruled that the regions inherited by Salome were private property
and incorporated them into the ethnarchy of Archelaus.
The free cities of Gaza, Gadara and Hippos did not wish to be under a Hebrew
state. So Augustus annexed them into the Province of Syria. Soon after Herod the
Great's death, a Hebrew embassy from Jerusalem arrived in Rome demanding that
the monarchy be abolished and that the ancient Hebrew theocracy be
re-established. Riotous crowds assembled in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast
clamouring for the dismissal of the hated Greeks from their administrative posts
in the city and surrounding countryside. The Greeks were replaced by indigenous
administrators, but the other Hebrew complaints and demands were dismissed.
Once the brothers had claimed their territories, both Antipas and Archelaus
simultaneously adopted the name "Herod", presumably to demonstrate that each
regarded themselves as the true heir of their illustrious father.
Antipas turned out to be a competent, if ruthless, ruler. His territory
lasted until the year 41, when, after some unsavoury politics involving Agrippa
(his nephew), Antipas was banished to Gaul. The Emperor Claudius amalgamated his
tetrarchy into a larger Hebrew kingdom, first under Agrippa I and then in
altered form under Agrippa II.
Herodias was Antipas' second wife. He had sent away his first, a Nabatean
princess named Doris. The Hebrews of the time probably thought of this as what
we today call "divorce". But it is doubtful that either Doris or Antipas thought
of it in quite this sense. Doris had been an important early demonstration of an
alliance with the Nabateans - a loose group of people who had built up power and
wealth by controlling and taxing trade routes from the Far East into Palestine
(and thence to Rome through Caesarea Maritima). Such changes were regarded by
the Herodian dynasty as regrettable but necessary politics.
Most of our historical information about these events derives from the
writings of Josephus, a Hebrew historian (37-100). Josephus published his
Antiquities of the Jews in around 94, about the time the gospels were being
written. The material in the gospels broadly confirms Josephus' account (Mark
6.14-29; Luke 9.7-9; Matthew 14.1-12).
Mark uses the title "king" for Herod, which Matthew and Luke correct, calling
him "Tetrarch". Mark is probably the earlier of the three, and seems to have
been adapted by Matthew and Luke for their own purposes.
There are some difficulties when Mark's account is compared with that of
Mark says that Herodias had been Philip's (Herod the Great's son by a
certain Cleopatra) wife, whereas Josephus says that she had been married to
another brother Philip, a son of Herod the Great by Mariamme.
Mark suggests that Antipas was driven to executing John the Baptist by
honouring his ill-advised oath, and that he actually wanted to keep him safe.
Josephus maintains that Antipas killed John out of self-interest.
Mark's account tells that Herodias' daughter (who was married to
Philip the Tetrarch) danced for Antipas' pleasure. This would have been out of
the question, since such dancing was the task of female slaves. It would have
been socially scandalous for an elite woman to so this. The opinion of such as
the Pharisees, for example, would have been only peripherally important.
Matthew gets rid of these problems by cutting down the story to almost
nothing. Luke, who was quite well informed about the area and its history,
leaves out the story of the feast altogether. Some later versions of both
Matthew and Luke leave out the reference to Philip as Herodias' former husband.
Perhaps Josephus' history was becoming better known about the same time as later
versions of the gospels were being transcribed.
The details and verbatim language of Herod's and Herodias' thoughts and
words in the gospels can't be taken as historical. Though it could be that
they contain an early tradition about John's execution, they are not
confirmed by Josephus. Much more likely is that Mark's details derive from