Sunday school teachers be warned: do not ask your underage students to research Salomé on the Internet.
There are, to be sure, interesting commentaries on the Web, but Google serves up hundreds of hyper-erotic images from the exercised imaginations of Titian, Aubrey Beardsley and more recently aroused artists.
Oscar Wilde, whose 1893 play Salomé veers far from the biblical account, provided one of the most vivid portrayals of Salomé. Wilde imagined she had fallen in love with John the Baptist and was homicidally spiteful when he prudishly spurned her. In 1988, British director Ken Russell added a new dimension to the play by creating an unlikely context for it. In the film Salomé’s Last Dance, Wilde escorts his lover Lord Alfred Douglas to view an erotically enhanced version of his play.
The story of Salomé lends itself to overwrought interpretation. And few bible stories have received more artistic attention than her famous dance.
No one knows what Salomé looked like or what her dance actually involved. If it really involved seven veils, as latter day pundits suggest, you’d think a dancer entwined in so much cloth would wilt in Palestinian sweat. Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite artists (bless their hearts) imagine Salomé discarding every stitch of veil early in the dance, although more conservative Victorians prefer to dress her in billowy bloomers modeled after Ali Baba’s winter wardrobe.
Both Salomé and the dance are left to our imagining, although – given what we know of human nature – we might safely assume she was beautiful and that the dance involved more rather than less unveiling.
Most of what we fantasize about Salomé is from other people’s imagination. She has been sculpted, frescoed, and painted for two millennia. Richard Strauss and Antoine Mariotte wrote early twentieth century operas based on Wilde’s play. Florent Schmitt and Akira Ifukube composed ballets about her. Thousands of poems and songs have been written about her. Dozens of films have been produced about her or involving her, including my personal favorites starring Theda Bara in 1918 and Rita Hayworth in 1953.
Even today, Salomé shows up in unexpected places. HBO’s randy True Blood portrayed her as a two-thousand year-old vampire who complains the bible misrepresented her: “They made me a convenient villain, a symbol for dangerous female sexuality,” she sniffs before she drops her robe. “But I was just a girl.”
If the portrayals of Salomé seem farfetched, it’s important to remember that they’ve never been particularly near fetched. The bible doesn’t even mention her name, which is provided by an ancient historian, Flavius Josephus, author of Jewish Antiquities, who reports she is the daughter of Herodias.
In his account, Josephus reports with obvious disapproval that Herodias “took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod (Antipas), her husband’s brother.”
It’s impossible to know whether Herodias switched husbands out of calculating self-interest or because Herod suggested the switch. There are plenty of precedents for kings doing what they please, including King David himself who arranged for the death of Uriah the Hittite so he could marry Uriah’s wife Bathsheba.
Divorcing a living husband seems magnanimous by comparison, but the biblical account finds no virtue in Herodias.
John the Baptist – possessed of a fatal combination of eloquence and recklessness – condemned her publicly and Herod arrested him.
Dragged before the king, John expressed his view with perilous clarity: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herod already knew that. But he recognized John as a “righteous and holy man” He was also well aware of the size of the crowds that followed the Baptist, and felt it was expedient to listen to John.
Mark notes that the king, though perplexed by what John said, “liked to listen to him.” Perhaps the Baptist was tweaking Herod's vestigial conscience.
But Herodias, who would have lost everything if Herod had been convinced to set her aside, didn’t like what she heard at all. She plotted to have John put to death.
Her chance came on Herod’s birthday when the king hosted a banquet for his courtiers and supporters.
In the midst of the banquet, Mark reports, Salomé came in to dance. Mark offers no details and describes no veils, but whatever she did “pleased Herod and his guests.”
It must have been some dance. Future artists may be excused for speculating that only a young, beautiful and uninhibited girl could have induced the king to make such an injudicious and idiotic promise: “Whatever you ask me,” he said with a shallow wheeze and beads of sweat on his upper lip, “I will give you, even half my kingdom.” Herod was thinking with a part of his anatomy not lodged between his ears.
Half the kingdom was not a bad deal. Had Salomé been able to think on her feet, she could have seized an opportunity that would have made her as powerful as Herod and more powerful than her mother.
But Salomé’s frontal cortex was still developing, and perhaps she was pathologically dependent on her mother. “What should I ask for?” she asked Herodias, who didn’t need to think about it. Her response was calculating, vengeful and psychopathic: “The head of John the Baptizer.”
Salomé rushed back to the king and asked for John’s head “on a platter,” the additional touch seeming to be an embellishment of her own.
The king, though reportedly “deeply grieved,” ordered it done. The irksome baptizer was no more.
And Salomé, not even mentioned by name in the gospels, has gone down in history as the evil harlot who caused it to happen.
It’s an interesting theory, and all the beguiling portraits of the beautiful young temptress are diverting. But the evidence of her connivance is weak.
At no point in the biblical story or Josephus’ history does Salomé appear to be a calculating seeker of power. If anything, she seems to be a powerless pawn, a hostage to the powerful parties that struggle for supremacy in Herod’s palace. Her docile acquiescence to her cruel mother (“What should I ask for?”) is passivity in the extreme.
Herodias appears to have little regard for her daughter beyond her usefulness as a sexual appliance to accomplish a devious end. Once Salomé has accomplished that goal, she disappears from history. (She is not the Salomé the disciple who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion in later passages in Mark.)
Clearly it is Herodias who deserves history’s condemnation. She was a ruthless pursuer of power, devoid of conscience, and utterly unworried about who she used to get to the top.
And what about the king himself? He is, after all, the only character in the story who had the power to change its direction. He could have intervened at any point and didn’t. Mark reports that the king was “deeply grieved” by the way things were going. All that proves is that he might have had an embryonic conscience. It doesn’t prove he had the will or the integrity to do anything about it.
Herod Antipas is a frightening example of what can happen if weak and stupid men are given too much power. What, history asks, could he have been thinking when he offered to give his stepdaughter “whatever you ask”? Was he aroused to the point of lunacy and desperately seeking to gain her sexual attention? Or was he too drunk to understand he was making promises he shouldn’t keep?
Okay, men do dumb things and powerful men are no exception. But Herod was making one stupid decision after another. When Salomé asked for John’s head, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.”
Question: What’s worse than breaking a solemn oath to do something stupid? Answer: Carrying out that oath by doing something unsurpassingly evil.
The king could have redeemed himself by turning his back to Salomé and addressing his guests:
“I pray you and God will forgive me for swearing to commit an act that would be evil in God’s sight. My good intentions have been betrayed by my wife and by my daughter. I will not make this mistake again.”
Unfortunately, kings are not good at admitting mistakes and redressing wrongs. But we can be sure Herod knew he had made a mistake. When rumors began to circulate around the palace that another preacher – Jesus – was actually John resurrected, the blood drained from Herod’s face. His reaction reminds us of MacBeth when he saw the ghost of the murdered Banquo:
Avaunt! And quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou has no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with.
Herod was haunted by the mistake he made, but kings are not good at admitting mistakes or redressing injustices. Neither are popes and presidents. In that regard, little has changed in two thousand years.
But if Herod Antipas was having nightmares about his treatment of John, Christian traditionalists will be tempted to wonder whether the king had similar visions at the time of his own death.
Orthodox and other Christians believe John appears to persons who have not accepted Jesus at the time of their deaths. The tradition is that John preaches the Gospel to the dying unredeemed to give them one last chance for salvation.
Baptists, with their contrarian views on the role of saints, may not be able to accept Saint John the Forerunner as an all souls witness of last resort.
But Baptists readily acknowledge the salvation of the thief on the cross, who turned to Jesus with his last breath after a lifetime of crime and sin. And Baptists honor John as the voice crying in the wilderness, a relentless crier who never ceased invoking repentance until his head lay silent on Herod’s platter. If God would choose any one to bring last-chance salvation to the dying damned, it would be John.
If nothing else, the tradition denotes the importance of John’s role in God’s plans. Even Josephus, the contemporary Jewish historian, expressed it well (albeit with rambling prose):
“(John was) a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.”
Mark the taciturn Gospel writer states it more clearly:
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins … He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:4, 7-8)
Politicians and opportunists like Herodias and Herod Antipas looked upon John’s call to repentance as a summons to revolution and they knew they would not be safe until he was silenced.
They were correct in a way; John called upon the weak and powerful to repent of their sins and be just, and neither Herod nor Herodias knew how to retain their power by treating their minions with justice.
But John was also the forerunner of an even more profound revolution, a spiritual revolution in which God’s son provides the means of reconciling all humanity with its creator, eradicating sin and death for all time.
Herod and Herodias knew John was important, but they had no idea just how important he was in God’s eternal design.
And despite their best efforts to shut him up, his proclamation still resounds with a power they could never have imagined.