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25 June 2018

Antipas Herod and John the baptist.

The despot who ruled the Galilee, and the prophet who dared critique him.

Mark 6.14-20 • Matthew 14.1-5 • Luke 9.7-9.

After Jesus turned loose the Twelve to go round the Galilee, do miracles, and proclaim God’s kingdom, word of Jesus got back to the Galilee’s governor, King Antipas Herod.

Luke 9.7-9 KWL
7 The governor, Antipas Herod, heard all that was happening and was confused by it:
Some were saying John the baptist was raised from the dead.
8 Some said Elijah appeared; others said one of the ancient prophets had risen.
9 Herod said, “I beheaded John. Who’s this man about whom I hear such things?”
He sought to see Jesus.

Mark and Matthew give details about just how and why Herod beheaded John, but today I’m gonna focus on Herod himself. The gospels don’t provide a lot of details about him, which is why we have to turn to the history books to fill in the blanks.

The Herodus family was Roman. That’s why so many of them have the same names; that’s why the scriptures refer to all of them as either Herod or Herodia (the female form of Herod; KJV “Herodias”). To Romans the family, not the individual, was most important. And each member of the family represented the family; not so much themselves.

Because of this, Roman fathers tended to give all their children the same name: Their name. Gaius Plinius Secundus’s son would also be Gaius Plinius Secundus. (They might add “senior” or “junior” to indicate who was whom… but that’d get extra confusing when all the brothers had the same name.) Sometimes the kids were given a praenomen/“personal name” to differentiate between one another; sometimes a nickname; but most of the time all you knew was their cognomen/“family name.” Herod and Herodia.

Easy to mix them all up, but that was kinda the point in Roman culture.

So the Herods of the New Testament were actually one of these guys:

  • HEROD THE GREAT. Who wasn’t all that great. His Judean-style name was Herod bar Antipater; his Roman name was Herodus Antipatrus; he can also be called Herod 1. He’s the Idumean/Edomite who, with the help of the Romans, overthrew the Hasmonean royal family and took over Israel. He tried to have baby Jesus killed. I already wrote about him. His son Archelaus Herod tried to succeed him, but Augustus Caesar instead divided Israel into multiple provinces, and put three of them under Herod family members.
  • HEROD ANTIPAS. The Herod in this story, one of the sons of Herod 1, whose name was Herodus Antipatrus same as his father. (“Antipas” for short; I call him “Antipas Herod” western-style. I should mention he had a brother, also named Herodus Antipatrus, so technically he was Herodus Antipatrus Junior.) Caesar made him a tetra-árhos/“quarter-ruler” of Israel; the quarter he ruled was the Galilee. Technically he was still royalty, which is why the gospels still call him king. But he was a Roman governor, an employee serving only at the pleasure of the emperor.
  • HEROD AGRIPPA 1. Herodus Marcus Julius Agrippa, grandson of Herod 1, was a personal friend of Caligula Caesar, who made him king of Israel. He’s the Herod who had James bar Zebedee killed. Ac 12.2
  • HEROD AGRIPPA 2. Herodus Marcus Julius Agrippa, same as his father; Claudius Caesar put him in charge of various Israeli provinces. He’s the King Agrippa whom Paul testified in front of. Ac 26

We’ll just deal with Antipas Herod today.

Antipas’s backstory.

Herod 1 was super paranoid, and couldn’t decide which of his sons—if any—he trusted enough to succeed him. He killed two of his heirs, Aristobulus and Alexander, in the year 7BC, for fear they’d overthrow him. He briefly made Antipas his heir in 5BC, but by 4BC he changed his will again and made his son Archelaus the hair. Then he died… naming Augustus Caesar as the executor of his will.

Caesar totally took advantage of the situation, and as soon as Antipas and his brothers contested the will, Caesar took over Israel. He fired Archelaus, divided Israel into fourths, and put a Roman governor over Jerusalem. He put Antipas over one quarter, Antipas’s brother Philip over another, their aunt Salome over two small territories, and left the Dekapolis to govern itself.

Jump forward three decades. Around the year 29, Antipas visited Philip on one of his trips to Rome, and met Philip’s wife Salome. The gospels call her Herodia because she’s a Herod: Her father was Aristobulus, that son Herod 1 had killed. Her mother was Berenice, daughter of aunt Salome—which means her parents were first cousins. Then she met and married her uncle/cousin Philip. And after meeting Antipas, she left Philip to be with her other uncle/cousin. They divorced their respective spouses, and married.

Okay, eww. In most cultures marrying your uncle is considered incest. In the United States, so is marrying your first cousin. But I should point out the ancient Hebrews actually had no problem with it: The LORD never actually prohibited it in the Law. He did prohibit aunt-nephew relations, Lv 20.19 but never explicitly prohibited uncle-niece relations. Over time the Hebrews realized this was a double standard, and culturally frowned upon it. (Cousins, however, could still get it on.)

But incest wasn’t what broke the Law: It was the fact you’re not to have sex with your brother’s woman. Lv 20.21 Didn’t matter if they were divorced.

Some historians speculate this was a political marriage: Salome wanted a husband with greater power, and Antipas wanted a Jewish wife (he was half Edomite and half Samaritan, whereas Salome’s mother was a member of the Hasmonean royal family, so she was considered Jewish). But considering the backlash they both got from John and the Pharisees for violating the Law, that can’t be it. Likely they were in love, or at least lust. Salome did stay with Antipas, after all, once Caligula Caesar ultimately fired him.

Art and movies try to make Antipas into a dirty pervert by trying to read something into his relationship with Salome’s daughter Salome. (The gospels refer to both of them as Herodia.) Young Salome eventually married her father Philip’s same-named brother, Philip Herod Senior, her uncle/great-uncle… but that bit of ickiness gets ahead of our story. Still, it’s not relevant how much of a dirty pervert Antipas might’ve been. Antipas was profoundly clueless about the religion of the folks he ruled over.

Y’see people regularly assume—incorrectly—that people in the past were more religious than they are today. They presume the ancient Egyptians actually believed their pharaoh was a god, or that the pharaohs’ tombs were cursed. If everybody really believed that, how come nearly every single tomb was robbed? Simple: Same as the present day, some people are religious, and some aren’t. Some believe in God, and some don’t. Some believe prophets really do hear from God, and others think the prophets are making it up as they go. Everybody picks and chooses what they care to believe. The ancients are no exception.

Kings and rulers especially. Their god isn’t the LORD; it’s power. That’s why so many of the kings of ancient Israel were so lackadaisical when it came to following God. To their minds, they had real concerns to deal with, and had no time for what this priest or that prophet or t’other scribe wanted to tell them about their hokey religion. They had taxes to raise, armies to fight, vassals to keep in line, sons who wanted to overthrow them—you know, “real life.” The LORD was someone they invoked to keep their religious constituents happy. And if their constituents happened to like Baal more, well, they were flexible. Certainly more flexible than the prophets.

So that’s the mindset we’re dealing with when it comes to Antipas Herod. He never stated his religious convictions, but by his actions we see the behavior and attitude of a Roman Empire pagan who only takes the LORD seriously when it’s convenient. Otherwise power was his god. And in the case of Salome, sex.

When Antipas heard of Jesus.

As that Luke passage in the beginning of this article had it, Antipas first heard of Jesus after he’d killed John. In fact he was pretty sure Jesus was the second coming of John.

Mark 6.14-16 KWL
14 King Antipas Herod heard, for Jesus’s name became well-known:
People were saying John the baptist was raised from death, and this was why acts were done through him.
15 Others said Jesus is Elijah; others said he’s a prophet like from the Prophets.
16 On hearing of Jesus, Herod said, “This is John, whom I beheaded, raised!”
Matthew 14.1-2 KWL
1 At that time the governor, Antipas Herod, heard the news of Jesus.
2 Herod told his boys, “This is John the baptist. He was raised from the dead!
This is why such acts are done by him.”

Various commentators figure Antipas had to have some Jewish beliefs, because he apparently believed in resurrection, and resurrection isn’t a pagan belief. Still isn’t. Pagans believe when you die, you go to heaven and stay there forever. If you come back, it’s as an angel or advanced being; it’s not as a living human being.

But pagans did believe the dead might come back—if they became gods. Y’see, the Romans believed if you worshiped somebody, and burnt offerings to them, the other gods were obligated to treat that person as one of their own. They’d fish them out of the underworld and bring them to Olympus, just like they did Hercules. Just like, they taught, Julius Caesar—whom the Roman senate had decided was worthy of worship, so now the Romans were worshiping him. Hence his adoptive son Augustus Caesar added to his name Divi filius/“son of [a] god.”

So if John’s followers started to worship him, any pagan Roman would figure he was a god now. And could visit this world if he so chose, ’cause their gods did that. And maybe exhibit some of his special godlike powers.

The Pharisees’ ideas about resurrection were vastly different. They didn’t expect the dead to come back with superpowers. They’d be alive, forever. That was it. So Antipas’s idea didn’t come from them; it came from his fellow pagans. ’Cause Antipas was a pagan. Make no mistake.

Now you notice some of the other folks of the Galilee speculated Jesus might be John, back from the dead; or Elijah, or one of the prophets from the bible. And like I said, that’s pagan thinking. Not everybody in the Galilee was Pharisee! Same as today, there were a lot of irreligious Israelis who didn’t know what their own bible taught, mashed it together with Greco-Roman religion, and imagined Jesus was the second coming of somebody important. Elijah was raptured to heaven without dying, right?—so maybe Elijah’s back, doing miracles again. Or some other Old Testament prophet, like Habakkuk or Malachi. Certainly nobody from their day was empowered to do miracles, so it must be someone from the olden days.

Why Antipas locked up John.

Luke 3.19-20 KWL
19 Governor Antipas Herod, embarrassed by John about his brother’s wife Salome Herod,
and everything evil Herod did, 20 shut John up in prison—adding this to everything.

The synoptic gospels are unanimous in saying John was locked up because of Antipas’s relationship with Salome. John spoke out against it, so Antipas decided to play the despot and have John arrested for it.

The gospels aren’t consistent in describing what Antipas thought of John. Mark indicates John piqued Antipas’s curiosity. But Matthew states Antipas would’ve been perfectly happy to kill him.

Mark 6.17-20 KWL
17 Antipas Herod himself had ordered John arrested and chained in prison,
because of Salome Herod, his brother Philip Herod’s woman—whom Antipas had married.
18 John told Herod this: “The Law doesn’t permit you to have your brother’s woman.”
19 Salome Herod had it in for John and wanted him killed.
She couldn’t do it 20 for Antipas Herod respected John, knowing he was a righteous, holy man.
Antipas kept John, and spoke with him often. He doubted, yet enjoyed listening to him.
Matthew 14.3-5 KWL
3 For Antipas Herod arrested, chained, and put John way in prison,
because of Salome Herod, his brother Philip Herod’s woman.
4 For John told Antipas, “The Law doesn’t permit you to have her.”
5 Antipas wanted John killed, but feared the crowd because they deemed him a prophet.

Though John did nothing but speak the truth—the Law did forbid Antipas to have his brother’s wife, divorced or not—let’s not assume John was naïve about the consequences of his actions. He knew the Herod family consisted of corrupt, power-mad psychos. He knew Antipas was either ignorant of, or didn’t care about, the Hebrew religion; otherwise he wouldn’t have married Salome. Hence he knew Antipas would have little to no respect for a prophet of the LORD. There was a better-than-average chance he’d suffer for saying what he did.

John said it anyway.

Not because he was dumb, or foolhardy, or didn’t care about consequences, or figured God would rescue him, or had useful political connections that might finagle him out of prison. He did it because it’s what prophets do. They tell the truth. If the result is people attack the messenger… well it’s part of the job description.

When we American Christians encounter any sort of opposition whatsoever, we scream bloody murder about how our rights are being violated. Not that it’s wrong for us to do so; in a democracy, defending our rights is important. But it just goes to show what a significant difference there is between how we stand up for the truth, and how John did it. We have a safety net; we have our Constitution. John had nothing but God.

And think about this: God did let Antipas kill his prophet.

When we American Christians go into other countries, we often expect our safety net to protect us there as well. Now that’s dumb. Our American citizenship and rights aren’t gonna work on foreign warlords. And that’s pretty much what the Roman Empire consisted of. Organized warlords, which they called the senate, each of whom could raise and fund an army if he wished. No rights whatsoever, ’cause any of these warlords could kill you for whatever reason, and the only thing stopping him was the threat of families going to war—and if your family had no power or wealth, there was no threat at all. Imagine that for a homeland, and you have a much better idea of what John stood up against. And the sort of guts it took to speak the truth anyway.

Considering the safety nets we do have, exactly why don’t we speak up more often?