The fortress of Machaerus in the Jordanian desert has stood in ruins ever since the Romans razed it in the year 72. But even in its heyday, Machaerus was nothing more than a grim hilltop fort overlooking the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, its four watchtowers keeping a wary eye on Petra to the south and Philadelphia (today’s Amman) to the north. It was the perfect place to lock a troublemaker in prison and hope that the world would forget about him.
Sometime around the year 30, in the reign of the emperor Tiberius, the puppet ruler Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, began to worry about the presence of just such a troublemaker on the western border of his territories: a fellow Jew named Jochanaan, an ascetic preacher, had begun to offer people purification by bathing them in the waters of the Jordan River. The man’s wild eloquence was drawing crowds of followers, including a young Jew named Yeshua bar Joseph, who would soon be gathering his own band of disciples. Jochanaan’s message seems to have had political as well as spiritual overtones, or at least Herod thought so. And so the tetrarch arrested Jochanaan, took him as a prisoner to remote Machaerus, and there had him put to death. It should have been a quick assassination, a provincial despot’s quiet purge of a minor local demagogue. Instead, the slaying of the man we know as John the Baptist unleashed forces of incalculable power.
The incident receives brief mention in the book called Jewish Antiquities, written by the Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in the 90s, some sixty years after the events he describes. Josephus also mentions Herod’s stepdaughter Salomé, a perfectly proper princess who eventually reigned as queen of Armenia. Not a whisper of scandal attaches to her name, although her mother, Herodias, had excited gossip—and the Baptist’s vocal disapproval—when she married Herod Antipas after divorcing his brother. Two other early accounts of the Baptist’s death, however, pin blame for his beheading on the daughter Herodias had borne with her first husband.* The more detailed version of the story comes from the Gospel of Mark, paralleled in briefer form by the Gospel of Matthew:
And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee;
And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.
And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.
And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What…
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