Nazareth women

An ancient ‘to-do’ list for women

The modern view of women in the ancient Near East is that they were down-trodden, subservient to their husbands and burdened by many children. This could not be further from the truth. Pearl and gold crownThe home was important in Jewish religion. In our society, people associate prayer with a church. In the Jewish religion, both the home and the synagogue were places of prayer. A rabbi or scholar was in charge of prayer in the synagogue, but in the home, each individual woman in charge of a household was responsible for the prayer-services held in that home.

Women regarded the house as their kingdom. They ruled it. Men came and went from the house, but it was essentially the domain of the women. It is true that they worked hard – but then so did the men. Moreover, judging by the list of tasks performed by the ‘Woman of Worth’ described in Proverbs 31:10-31, they had aspirations we would regard as ‘non-traditional’.

This is what they aimed for in their lives – their ‘to-do’ list:

  • find a well-educated and well-to-do man as a husband – someone who could give them a comfortable life, and their children a good start in lifeMiddle Eastern woman with her child

  • spin and weave cloth, to make the family’s clothing and (in earlier times) the tents they lived in

  • make and sell finished items of clothing; this meant skill in weaving and embroidery

  • design and make suitable clothing for all members of the household

  • dress well and attractively, so that she was confident and her family was proud of her

  • keeping physically and mentally strong and fit; no lolling on silken cushions for the Woman of Worth

  • give religious instruction to the children: a mother was their first teacher, and the great influence on her children’s lives

  • gather food and assemble a varied and healthy diet for the members of the household; the Jewish dietary laws supported this

  • administer the finances of the family and oversee the family business, with all the necessary skills this involved

  • buy investment property wisely

  • supervise investments and make a profit from them, then re-invest the profits

  • perform charitable work and care for the poor; this was seen as one of the main duties of a Jewish woman

  • The Grandmother, Morteza Katouzian, 1986 organize the tasks of servants in the household

  • oversee the emotional and physical well-being of members of the household; she was the ‘go-to’ person in the household

  • be available at all times to anyone who needed her.

The list hardly mentions children – but not because children were unimportant. They were the center of a woman’s life, her crowning achievement and a great blessing given by God. Not having children was counted as a very great misfortune. The household that a woman governed was centered on the maintenance of a healthy and happy extended family.

The status of mothers and motherhood has been so down-graded in the modern world that it is hard to appreciate the honor given to biblical women who gave birth to children and raised a family. But such was the case in the ancient world, at least in the part of the world where Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth.
Women’s greatest achievement was to give birth, preferably to a boy. Their second achievement was to raise a child 

  • who believed and trusted in God
  • who respected tradition, and
  • who lived a good life.

Bible Study Resources

Read the following extract from the Book of Proverbs. If you are a wife and mother, check the items off against your own life. You’ll probably find you measure up quite well!

Pearl necklace10 When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls.
11 Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.
12 She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.
13 She obtains wool and flax and makes cloth with skillful hands.
14 Like merchant ships, she secures her provisions from afar.
15 She rises while it is still night, and distributes food to her household.
16 She chooses a field to buy; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She is girt about with strength, and sturdy are her arms.
18 She enjoys the success of her dealings; at night her lamp is undimmed.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.
20 She reaches her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy. Oil lamp
21 She fears not the snow for her family; all her charges are doubly clothed.
22 She makes her own coverlets; fine linen and purple are her clothing.
23 Her husband is prominent; he sits with the elders of the land.
24 She makes and sells garments, and stocks the merchants with belts.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come.
26 She opens her mouth in wisdom, and on her tongue is kindly counsel.
27 She watches the conduct of her family, and eats not her food in idleness.
28 Her children rise up and praise her; her husband, too, extols her:
29 “Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; she who fears the Lord is praised.
31 Give her a reward of her labors, and praise her at the city gates.
Book of Proverbs 30:10-31


Bible Study Activities

A Woman’s Life

Elderly womanInterview your own mother, or an older female relative. Try to discover details of her life, to understand her better. Ask some of the following questions, or compose your own:

1. What are the three major events in your life that you remember best?
2. Can you describe one of these events?.
3. What have you done that you are most proud of?
4. What did you find most difficult in your life?.
5. Did you learn about Mary and Joseph of Nazareth when you were at school?
6. If so, how were they portrayed?
7. What part did Mary or Joseph play in religious rituals you were involved in?
8. Did you try to imitate any of their qualities in your own life?

You could, if you wish, answer some of these questions yourself, and jot down your ideas and memories. 


Mary’s life in Nazareth 

Read the heart-breaking ‘Prayer for a New Mother’ by Dorothy Parker, and spend some quiet time thinking about it.

Prayer for a New Mother
The things she knew, let her forget again —
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.
Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.
Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.
Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.


Daily Life in Nazareth

Try to imagine the daily life of Mary or Joseph, living in the little village of Nazareth.

  • What are the smells? The colors? The sounds? The smells?

  • What is the landscape? What time of day is it?

  • What is the mood of the people whose eyes meet yours?

  • Are the people old or young? Dark or fair? Good-looking or ugly? Tired or energetic?

  • What are they wearing (clothing, footwear, jewelry)?


    Palestinian woman in richly embroidered clothes, 19th century photograph

    Peasant women like Mary often had
    elaborately embroidered clothing for special occasions

Witch of Endor

Dangerous times

In the first four sentences of this story, the Bible gives us some essential background details:

1. The great prophet and adviser to the king, Samuel, has died. His wisdom is missed by all, high and low alike. Oddly enough, one of the people who misses him most is King Saul, even though Samuel has repudiated him and given his support to young David instead.

2. King Saul has made some sweeping reforms in Israel. Among them is the banning of all forms of magic and witchcraft. This included séances or any attempt to contact the dead. Saul has not killed the séance ‘mediums’, as they are called, but expelled them from the land of Israel. But it should be noted that the woman in this story faced death by stoning if she was caught trying to make contact with the dead.

A skull

3. The whole country is on the brink of an annihilating war, and Saul’s rule is about to end, amid wholesale slaughter of his family, soldiers and followers. He cannot match or hope to defeat the Philistine forces assembled at Shunem. They have a new tactic: previously they had fought in the hills, where their more sophisticated weapons gave them little advantage, and where the Israelites were on familiar terrain. Now they marched into the plain of Jezreel, keeping to level ground, and threatened to cut off Saul from the northern tribes who might have supported him.

4. Death stares him in the face. Saul prays desperately to God for help, but is greeted by silence. God, it seems, has abandoned him.

Map of the region where King Saul fought his last battle

Endor, where the witch lived in a cave; site of Saul’s last battle, and his death

The witch/medium of Endor

Driven to desperation, Saul reverts to the old ways. He asks his servants to find him a medium, someone who can speak with the dead. He longs to hear Samuel’s wisdom once more.

The search cannot have been easy for Saul’s servants, since all mediums have supposedly been expelled. But they are just as desperate as Saul, and they find just such a woman living in a cave at Endor.

Saul, of course, cannot be seen consorting with mediums, so he takes off his kingly robes and wears a disguise. The journey is difficult and dangerous: that he makes it at all is a sign of his desperation. When he meets the woman he immediately asks her to consult a spirit. There is no time to be lost, since the Philistines will probably attack at dawn.

She is reluctant. As events will show, she is no fool. Probably she knows quite well who Saul is. He is the king who has ordered the expulsion of all ‘witches’ like herself. But Saul insists, guaranteeing her safety. So the woman, the ‘witch’ of Endor, consents. She summons Samuel from the grave – or from Sheol, the Israelite land of the dead.

No comfort for Saul

The witch of Endor summons Samule

Samuel appears – to the woman, but not to the people beside her. Only she can see him or speak with him. Saul is overwhelmed, convinced that his old mentor is truly present.

Through the woman, Saul begs Samuel for help. He tells Samuel of the Philistine threat, and worse, of God’s silence. What is he to do?

He gets little comfort from the ‘spirit’ of Samuel – which is in reality the woman’s voice, and therefore her assessment of the situation. ‘Samuel’ tells Saul that God has turned away from him, that the Philistines will triumph, and that David, not Saul, will rule. Saul’s army, including Saul’s three sons, will be destroyed.

Keep in mind as you read these predictions that it is the medium/witch who is making them, not Samuel. This astute woman is able to predict the future because she is shrewd and well-informed, not because she has ‘magic’. Being a medium gives her freedom the speak the truth – a truth that no ordinary subject of Saul’s would dare to utter.

Deep in his heart Saul knows this, and he knows she is speaking the horrifying truth. He will die, his family and soldiers will be destroyed, and Israel will for the time being at least come under the heel of the Philistines. Saul collapses on the floor of the cave, unable to move.

Swords from ancient Canaan

Swords from ancient Canaan

The woman comforts Saul

Plate of hot food with bread

This is when the woman shows the compassion and good sense that are the qualities of a woman of worth. Instead of retreating from the broken figure of Saul, she does the sensible and compassionate thing: she offers him food. She knows that, in the turmoil of this terrible day he has probably not eaten.

Now she offers this man, who has persecuted and exiled all the mediums like herself, a simple, nourishing meal. She gives him fresh-baked bread and succulent calf meat. Strengthened, Saul gets up and goes out to meet his fate.

The ‘witch’ of Endor has

  • made a shrewd assessment of the political situation and its likely outcome
  • forgiven Saul for the misery he brought to all the mediums of the land and
  • helped and comforted him as best she could.
The death of Saul on Mount Gilboa

The death of Saul and his sons on Mount Gilboa

The death of Saul and his sons on Mount Gilboa


Notes, extra information on this story

Women gleaning in the fields

Israel’s religion flatly rejected the practice of magic. It was strictly forbidden. Despite this, superstition and magic always persisted among the Israelite people. In times of religious revival it might seem as if magical practices had been eradicated, but in fact they remained bubbling away below the surface, ready to reappear on the slightest excuse – even though, for example, witchcraft could be a capital offense (Exodus 22:18). It should be noted that the woman in this story faced death by stoning if she was caught trying to make contact with the dead.

Of course, ordinary people got around these laws in various ways. For instance, Leviticus l9:9-l0 directs that at harvest-time, the corners of fields, the gleanings of corn and the fallen grapes in vineyards shall be left for the poor and the foreigner (see the story of Ruth). This probably continued an ancient custom of leaving some of the harvest for the spirits of the corn and other crops, so as to ensure a good harvest the following year.

Necromancy

The Bible forbade necromancy (seeking guidance from the dead) in no uncertain terms:
“There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, Copy (2) of Eye asny one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).

Necromancers who invoked “ghosts and familiar spirits” were apparently fairly numerous, for more than one king attempted to stamp out the practice. Saul tried to ban the activities of sorcerers and necromancers, yet at the end of his life even he turned to such a woman (l Samuel 28:7-25). The urge to seek guidance from ancestors and the recently dead was apparently strongly rooted in the hearts of men and withstood official opposition and outright prohibition.


Paintings: the Witch, Samuel, and Saul

Samuel and the Witch of Endor, Martynov, detail of the witch

Samuel and the Witch of Endor, Martynov, detail of the witch
Martynov’s witch is calm, solemn, sure of her power.

Martynov, Saul, Samuel and the Witch of Endor

Martynov, Saul, Samuel and the Witch of Endor
Saul seems to have already received Samuel’s forecast of doom, and clasps his forehead in anguish. He turns towards the viewer, as if to face his future. The witch is the dominating figure in this painting: it is she who holds the power.

Witch of Endor, Edward Henry Corbould

Witch of Endor, Edward Henry Corbould
Corbould seems to have drawn on a gypsy woman for inspiration for his witch. Her face is in shadow, but her summoning hand is still raised. Samuel is bowed. He can offer no hope to his former favorite, Saul.

The Witch of Endor, painted in 1777

The Witch of Endor, painted in 1777
The gates of Sheol are parted, and Samuel appears. Saul’s body language shows a man making one last, desperate plea for help from his former mentor, Samual.
The witch is nowhere in sight.

The Witch of Endor, Nicolai Gey

The Witch of Endor, Nicolai Gey
The red of Saul’s cloak evokes a horrifying image of how his blood, and the blood of his three sons, will be spilt on the following day. Samuel is a remote figure, other-worldly, without pity or emotion

The Witch of Endor, Mattias Stom

The Witch of Endor, Matthias Stom
This later painting is more realistic. Samuel clasps the shroud around him as he tells Saul there is no hope. The witch is almost like a nurse or healer, not a frightening figure as in other paintings. Saul too seems calm as he listens to his former friend and adviser.


Bible text for the Witch of Endor

3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land. 4 The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6 And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. 7 Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at En-dor.”

8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9 The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” 10 But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.

15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16 And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 18 Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. 19 Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”

20 Then Saul fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. 21 And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your servant has obeyed you. I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me. 22 Now therefore, you also obey your servant. Let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” 23 He refused and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him, and he listened to their words. So he arose from the earth and sat on the bed. 24 Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, 25 and she put it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.

a widow’s mite

True generosity

The widow is unnamed, just a face in the crowd. Despite this her story has been told and retold over many centuries.

Main themes of the story

  • It is not the size of a gift that matters, but what remains after it has been given (see below)
  • Just before this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching and debating in the Temple courts. He has been surrounded by the opulence and luxury of King Herod the Great’s newly constructed Temple. Money, money, money, everywhere. This story encapsulates his reaction to the values (or lack of them) behind the lavish buildings on the Temple Mount.

The story of the Widow has two parts:

1. Jesus sees her as she places her offering in the Temple Treasury

2. He points her out to his disciples as a model of true generosity


Who was the widow?

Fayum portrait

Immediately before this story begins, we are given a hint as to why it appears in the gospels at all. After all, the woman in the story is a nobody, penniless and alone in a society that values wealth and family connections. Why is she even mentioned?

What we discover is that she has something all the rich people in the Temple courtyard will never have: the admiration of Jesus of Nazareth.

We are given a hint of who she is by the positioning of her story. In the previous chapter there has been heated controversy about a whole range of questions: who is God, whom should we obey, what are our responsibilities? And the words written immediately before her story begins mention the way poor people’s rights are trampled on by the rich and powerful:

38 And in his (Jesus’) teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places
39 and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts,
40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Groundplan, Jerusalem temples of Ezra and HerodIt’s worth remembering that in the years immediately preceding this incident, King Herod the Great had taken over large areas of Jerusalem to provide land to extend the Temple Mount and its huge administration blocks, colleges, and priests’ quarters. You can see this by comparing the ground plans of the earlier Temple precincts (built by Solomon and Ezra) with the grand Temple built by King Herod. At right are two plans,

  • one of the Temple Ezra constructed on the same scale as Solomon’s Temple,
  • and the other, grander Temple Herod built at the time of Jesus.

The extra land needed for Herod’s Temple precinct must have been gained by the demolition of existing buildings. It’s very possible that ‘widow’s houses’ had actually been destroyed to make way for the new Temple buildings, and even that the widow in the story had been among those robbed of their homes in this land repossession..

What was the treasury?

The ‘treasury’ mentioned in the story could have been one of two things:Pile of gold coins

  • a specially designated room next to the Women’s Court or
  • a receptacle for offerings; along the colonnade which surrounded the Court of the Women there were thirteen chests with trumpet-shaped openings (Hebrew sapaiw) provided for offerings from the worshippers.

The ‘small copper coins’ mentioned in the story were the smallest amount in circulation at the time of Jesus, the least valuable coin available (see an example at the top of this page). A ‘penny’ was the Roman quadrans, which was 1/64 of the daily wage for an ordinary worker.

Reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple built by King Herod the Great

(Above) Reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple built by King Herod the Great. The Women’s Court, where Jesus saw the widow, is the courtyard in the left of the picture.

Reconstruction of the 1st century Temple in Jerusalem

(Above) Reconstruction of the 1st century Temple in Jerusalem. The Women’s Court where this story unfolded is in the upper left of this photograph

painting of the Presentation in the Temple

This painting of the Presentation in the Temple shows the steps leading up into the Men’s Court of the Temple; women were not allowed past this point.

What happened?

Jesus sat at some vantage-point in full view of this part of the Temple. He was probably weary from the day’s prolonged debates. His eye fell upon the solitary figure of a poor widow who put in two copper coins (Greek lepta, the smallest copper coin in use) which the evangelist Mark, for the benefit of his Roman readers, computes in terms of Roman coinage as equivalent to a penny (Greek kodrantés).

He called the attention of the disciples to the woman. She had given two of the tiniest coins in circulation (‘mites’) as her offering, alongside the large gifts of the rich. In the sight of Jesus her gift was the greatest, for what God measures is not so much the size of the gift as what remains after it has been given. In this particular case the donor had given her whole income.

The lesson of the story is that Jesus’ first concern is not what men have, or give, but how they give it. Money in itself has no value in the kingdom of God; so Jesus refused to count totals. Instead he looked at the motives of the donor. The essence of all true giving is sacrifice, and the value of every gift relative, not absolute.

Notice that in Luke’s retelling of the story, Jesus contrasts the rich donors and this poor widow not once but three times, to emphasize the glaring difference between the two sorts of people.


The Bible text

Mark 12:41-44

41 And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.
42 And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny.
43 And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
44 For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

Luke 21:1-4

1 He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury;
2 and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins.
3 And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them;
4 for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.”

Reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem


Notes

  • This story brings welcome relief after the heat of controversy preceding it, for here is one who, in her simplicity, gave to God everything she had. It was no doubt positioned deliberately by Mark, because he put the story of the devouring of widows’ houses immediately before (verse 40).
  • 41 It is not certain that there was a building called the treasury (Greek gazophylakion) but along the colonnade which surrounded the Court of the Women there were thirteen chests with trumpet-shaped openings (Hebrew sapaiw) provided for the offerings of the worshippers. At some vantage-point in full view of this part of the Temple Jesus sat, probably wearied by the prolonged teaching/arguments of the day. The lesson of the whole story is that Jesus’ first concern is not what people give but how they give it. Money in itself has no value in the kingdom of God; so Jesus refused to count totals but looked at the motives of the donor (see 2 Corinthians 8:12).
  • 42 Therefore when his eye fell upon the solitary figure of a poor widow who put in two copper coins (Greek lepta, the smallest copper coin in use) which Mark, for the benefit of his Roman readers, computes in terms of Roman coinage as equivalent to a penny (Greek kodrantés, a transliteration of the Latin quadrans, ‘a farthing’)
  • 43, 44 In answer to the question of how Jesus came to know the amount of her gift, he may have discovered by quite ordinary means which are not disclosed; but in any case the question is irrelevant to the story. The essence of all true giving is sacrifice, and the value of every gift relative, not absolute.

princess salome story

Salome:the name comes from the Hebrew word ‘shalom’, meaning ‘peace’

Herod and Herodias were both family names stemming from the Greek word ‘heros’, meaning hero or warrior

Main themes of the story

  • The misuse of power. John the Baptist makes a valid objection of the marriage between Herod Antipas and his brother’s wife Herodias. For this he is punished with sudden death. Powerful people brook no criticism.
  • Making women carry the burden. History blames Herodias and her daughter Salome for the death of John the Baptist, but what about the ruler Herod Antipas? He was the ultimate authority, yet he shifted the blame onto them, the women of his own family.

The story of Salome raises two questions:
1 Who were Salome, Herodias and Herod Antipas? Salome’s and her treacherous family. Why did they hate John the Baptist? The political world of 1st century Palestine.

2 What were her motives?: (Mark 6:17-20, Matthew 14:1-5 Bible text below.)
Why did Salome collude with her mother (and possibly Herod Antipas) to kill John the Baptist

Everyone thinks they know this story well. John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, whose step-daughter Salome danced at a banquet and demanded John’s head as a reward. Herod Antipas acquiesced because he had an incestuous passion for his step-daughter, John died, and Salome and her mother Herodias were cast as villains forever.

Here are some facts that add a deeper layer to the story.

First of all, who was Salome?

Salome was the daughter of Herodias, about 14-16 years old at the time of John’s death. She was on the threshold of marriage herself, ‘a green fruit come to ripening’.

Salome as a degenerate seductress, in a Ken Russell production

Salome has been repeatedly demonized by male artists and writers, as in this Ken Russell production (above)

She had been brought up in the sedate court of Philip, her real father, a dull but competent man. Her mother Herodias was a clever woman but bored and frustrated in Philip’s court. For little Salome, it was probably a secure environment. Then her life was disrupted by her parents’ divorce.

The divorce happened because Herodias had fallen deeply in love with her husband’s step-brother, Herod Antipas. In Jewish law, a marriage between them would be incestuous, but they went ahead. In doing so, they played into the hands of critics of the royal family, among whom was John the Baptiser. At the time there was an unremitting war of nerves going on between John’s political/religious sect and Salome’s family.

Salome was politically astute enough, even though young, to see the danger her mother was in from John the Baptist. She reacted in a way normal for children who experience any assault on their mother: she became very protective. When it came to the crunch, she was prepared to use her sexual power to do whatever she had to, to protect her mother. In dancing before the guests at the banquet, she was saying to Antipas ‘do now what you should have done already, and protect my mother’.

What sort of person was she? The Greek words ‘to korasion’ were used to describe Salome at the time John’s head was given to her, and when she later took the head to her mother. The words describe a well-born young woman of marriageable age.

Ironically, these same words were also used in connection with the daughter of Jairus, whom Jesus cured. These two young women were both of high social status, though from different worlds. It was a phrase that implied respect. Putting it in the context of John’s severed head may have been an ironic attack on the Jewish royal family: Salome’s a princess, but look what she did!

Who was Herodias?

Herodias’ marriage to her first husband had not been a success, though it had produced Salome. Then she fell madly in love with Philip’s half-brother, and he with her. They broke every rule so that they could marry each other, and they faced social condemnation because of it.

Herodias, being the woman in the situation, was blamed more than Antipas. Perhaps this was because she came from a priestly family. The punishment for daughters of priestly families who behaved improperly was very severe. John the Baptist Was this another reason for John’s condemnation of her incestuous marriage? Was her sin worse because she came from a priestly background?

John, called the Baptist attacked Herodias at least as much as he attacked her husband. She looked to Antipas to do something about it, but of course he did not. It was not in his nature. He was passive, where Herodias was a woman of action. But she was also politically clever, and she knew she must bide her time, even though she seethed with frustration.

Who was Herod Antipas?

Antipas seems to have been insecure, both personally and politically. His father Herod the Great had been a brilliant madman. Among many other atrocities, he strangled his princess-wife in a fit of jealousy (real or feigned?) and also murdered two other sons. Royal families seem to spawn the occasional madman, and the Hasmoneans were no exception. Antipas learned early that the best course of actions was to be passive.

A selection of luxurious tableware from a painting excavated at Pompeii

He is presented by history as a libertine (sex, banquet, luxury), but in fact he never had the multiple wives his father had, nor the murderous family feuds. He liked to utter threats rather than take action, hoping the threat would do the job.

He was a man of his time, believing in magic and magicians. He was also interested in theology and ideas.

Herod Antipas, called by Jesus ‘that fox’, not because he was cunning but
because he was needlessly destructive,
as foxes are

Fox_face

Herod Antipas, called by Jesus ‘that fox’, not because he was cunning but because he was needlessly destructive, as foxes are

He may have had a roving eye, since people believed it when he made an extravagant promise to Salome – or didn’t believe it but were clever enough not to say so.

Antipas preferred to put things off than take decisive action. He only made a claim for his throne after his aunt, the older Salome, promised to help him. So, as in other events in his life, it was a woman who organised things for him. He did not actually leave his first wife. She left him. And as a final example, John had been denouncing him for quite some time before Herod consented to act.

So Herodias and Salome could not simply persuade him to act against John. They had to lever him into a position where he had no option other than to kill the prophet.

Ancient Greek jewellery. Curiously enough,
a snake was a symbol of eternal life.

Ancient Greek jewellery. Curiously enough, a snake was a symbol of eternal life.

The truth is that the whole episode of Salome’s dance was probably a sham, to get rid of John the Baptist without losing too much face. Antipas has probably done this sort of twisty thing a dozen times before.

The question is, was Antipas a party to the plan from the beginning? Did the three of them, Antipas, Herodias and Salome, decide the whole thing together? It is highly likely. Antipas’ lavish promise seems too improbable for a man who procrastinated.

What were Salome’s motives?

Salome was a young woman whose mother Herodias was under attack from an outsider, John the Baptist. Her response was to be protective of her mother. She stood by her mother and the interests of the Herodian family.

Was Antipas attracted to her? If so, it would have made her uneasy, but she was shrewd enough to realise it was something that could be used to her family’s advantage.

In the end, Salome was as ruthless in disposing of an enemy as her grandfather Herod the Great had been. She was the lion’s cub.

What happened to her afterwards?

The gospels have no further mention of Salome, but history does. According to Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, Salome married Philip the tetrarch and afterwards Aristobulus, the grandson of Herod and brother of Agrippa. (Josephus: Antiquities 18.5.4) She was what is nowadays called a ‘royal’, and seems to have had a long and comfortable life.


The Bible text Mark 6:17-29

17 For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Hero’di-as, his brother Philip’s wife; because he had married her. 18 For John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Hero’di-as had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Hero’di-as’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out, and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Matthew 14:1-12

1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus; 2 and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.” 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Hero’di-as, his brother Philip’s wife; 4 because John said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. 6 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Hero’di-as danced before the company, and pleased Herod, 7 so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9 And the king was sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given; 10 he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus.


Paintings of Salome

Salome, Jean Benner


Herodias and Salome with the head of John the Baptist Onorio Marinari


Salome, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530


Salome with the head of John, Sebastiano del Piombo


Salome with the head of John, Bernardino Luini

 


Salome’s Dance, Iman Maleki, Morteza Katouzian

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