Historical Intersection: The Baptist and the Apostle


I did not go up to Jerusalem to those who were Apostles before me; rather, I went into Arabia — Galatians 1:17.

John the Baptist was dead.  Herod Antipas had had him executed to placate the cruelty of Herodias, his second wife, who had demanded that the king deliver to her the prophet’s head.  An ugly night fueled by too much wine and lewd dancing provoked Antipas and in a moment of weakness he gave into the will of the beastly Herodias through her daughter, Salome, whom Antipas had long desired. [1]  

Saint Mark attributes John’s death to the rage of Herodias on account of his accusation against their illicit marriage whereas Josephus traces the conflict to political threat posed by John’s growing popularity.  Herodias’s initial inability to silence John is traceable to Antipas’s peculiar fascination with him.  She had the entire scenario planned and the gospel places the blame on her for goading Herod into making his foolish promise.  Would that she could have delighted in the place she earned for herself in history.   

The marriage of Antipas and Herodias outraged pious Jews in the region for it broke the law of Moses on two counts. First, the law forbade a man to marry his brother’s wife, even when the brother had died, and second, the law did not permit a man to marry his niece and Antipas was the uncle of Herodias by marriage.

So when John appeared along the banks of the Jordan River decrying the marriage Antipas arrested the preacher and held him at Machaerus, to silence the cries from John, who said, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”  Antipas kept John imprisoned at the fortress, on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.  There the king invited his courtiers, generals, and the leading men of Galilee from the capital city of Tiberius for a vacation to celebrate his birthday, where he kept John imprisoned for his protection — and to keep him from public view. [2]  The less anyone saw or heard of John the better and Antipas wanted to keep him for himself.  He discovered that John was a truly good and holy man and his words impressed the king.  John’s preaching moved Herod deeply and left him feeling disturbed.  Herodias held no such respect for John and wanted him dead.  But she could do nothing so long as her husband continued to be taken in by this mesmerizing preacher.  And so she waited for the opportunity to do him in.  

That night of the party the door to the king’s chamber swung open and in paraded the servant with the flat round dish aloft, the blood-matted hair of the Baptist’s head hanging over the edge of the platter.  The women expressed surprise that their ploy had worked but Herodias savored the vindication.  Antipas was forced to view the result of his order that led to the execution of his most-prized possession.  Mark presents Antipas as caught between his public boast that he would give the girl what she wanted and the sobering reality of the fulfillment of the request.  True, Antipas was a man of his word, but he valued his own credibility more than the life of a man he claimed to respect and admire.  How good could his word be? 

There are other dimensions to Herod Antipas apart from his relationships with Jesus and John.  Antipas was born before the birth of Christ and he outlived Jesus by about ten years.  Antipas, “that fox” so-named by Jesus for his avariciousness and guile, once engaged in a border dispute over the city of Damascus at the time that Saint Paul met Jesus outside the city walls and began his public ministry as an apostle.  War had broken out between Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, and Aretas IV, ruler of the Nabataeans.  “Semi-settled Arabs, potent in means, astute in politics, played an important part in those turbulent days” [3]  The Nabataeans are among the peoples listed by Saint Luke in the Acts of the Apostles that received the Holy Spirit long before Paul brought the Word of God into Arabia.  The Nabataeans were ready and waiting for Paul in the late-30s when he arrived to fulfill his divine commission.    

But even before that, before Antipas imprisoned and executed John, he was married to Phasaelis, an Arabian princess, the daughter of Aretas, whose  realm was the Arabian desert, southwest of the city of Damascus near where Paul received his revelation.  Antipas had married Phasaelis and he “lived with her a long time.” [4]  The marriage was a political union that Antipas had entered into as a young man in order to protect his territory against Arab raids.  Then in AD 27 he embarked on a diplomatic mission to visit with Caesar and he lodged with his brother at Rome where he fell in love with Herodias, his brother’s wife.  Antipas and Herodias agreed to divorce their spouses so that they could marry each other but before Antipas returned from Rome to the city of Tiberius, his capital in Galilee, the princess Phasaelis learned of her husband’s plan to repudiate her and she returned home to her father at Petra, the capital of Nabataea. 

[Antipas’] wife, having discovered the agreement he had made with Herodias, and having learned it before he had notice of her knowledge of the whole design, she desired him to send her to Machaerus, which is a place on the border of the dominions of Aretas and Herod, without informing him of any of her intentions.  Accordingly Herod sent her there, as thinking his wife had not perceived anything; now she had sent a good while before to Machaerus, which was subject to her father, and so all things necessary for her journey were made ready for her by the general of Aretas’s army and by that means she came into Arabia, under the conduct of the several generals, who carried her from one to another successively; and soon she came to her father, and told him of Herod’s intentions.[5]

How did Phasaelis learn of Antipas’s plan to divorce her and send her back to Petra?  Herod’s steward, Chuza, was the husband of Joanna, one of the prominent women of Galilee who followed Jesus and supported his ministry with their own means —  in Joanna’s case, money no doubt earned by Chuza from working for Herod.  Chuza and Joanna served in the house of Herod and became aware of the preaching of John that drew attention to Herod’s courtship of Herodias.  Word of Jesus’s ministry as proclaimed by the Baptist outside the walls of the palace was impossible not to hear and even harder to ignore.  The truth penetrates even the strongest garrison.    

Retribution for the offense committed against  the princess by Antipas was a long time coming; Aretas avenged his daughter when, in AD 37, during a war occasioned by a border dispute, he routed the Galilean army. [6]  Herod’s mother was of noble Nabatean descent but there had always existed considerable tension between the Nabataeans and the Herods, partly because the Romans had given Herod regions that had formerly belonged to Aretas (hence the mission to Rome where Antipas met Herodias).  The pinnacle of the Nabataean power came under Aretas IV (9 BC—AD 40) its most distinguished ruler and during the early days of the encroaching Roman empire Aretas was able to seize control of Damascus as his own dominion expanded.  For ten years the Arabian king had mulled over how to retrieve the city of Damascus and its surrounding regions and to vindicate Phasaelis.  Then the opportunity presented itself and Aretas amassed his forces and struck. 

So Aretas made this the first occasion of his enmity between him and Herod, who had also some quarrel with him about their limits at the country of Gamalitis.  So they raised armies on both sides, and prepared for war. … All Herod’s army was destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives … who joined Aretas’s army.  So Herod wrote about these affairs to Tiberius [Caesar], who, being very angry at the attempt by Aretas, ordered Vitellius to make war upon Aretas and either to take him alive and to bring him back in chains, or to kill him and send back his head.  This was the charge that Tiberius gave to Vitellius, the Syrian governor. [7]

Roman forces led by Vitellius preserved the status quo but four days into the campaign a letter came notifying Vitellius that Tiberius died and Vitellius was called back to Rome.  Tiberius would have preferred to have the weak-hearted Antipas in control of Damascus rather than Aretas, an irascible feudalist who was known to be disobedient and unpredictable.  Both rulers were puppets but Antipas was more pliable than Aretas.  The retreat of the Romans and the betrayal of Antipas’s army by turncoats bolstered the confidence of Aretas, who, through his diviners, determined that the offending forces should not breech Petra, and so his forces overtook Damascus.  Saint Paul was somewhere in the middle of this moment of history, either hiding out in the city from the Jewish authorities seeking his life, or standing in the square and proclaiming the new Great Truth of his life: that Jesus Christ was Lord.  Or, he might even have entered into Arabia and was on his way inadvertently through the cities of Bostra and Philadelphia and heading toward Petra, to evangelize the king.       

 The story of Antipas, Aretas, and John is significant in the life of Paul because it forms a background and sets the stage for Paul’s arrival in Damascus and his retreat into Arabia in the mid-30s.  Paul gives his account of how he escaped from Damascus because Aretas wanted him dead (2 Corinthians 11:32).  Saint Jerome says that this instance of Paul being let down over the wall of Damascus in a basket is highly significant because, “it is the one episode by Paul that can be dated.”   It is believed that the “three years” comprising Paul’s time in Damascus and Arabia occurred between AD 36—39; Aretas took control of the city in 37 after Tiberius Caesar died after Paul arrived. 

 The experience of Paul with Aretas was preceded by his retreat into Arabia immediately after he met Christ face to face, as he relates in Galatians 1:17: “I went into Arabia.”  The region of which he writes is what the Romans came to call Arabia Petraea, or the Transjordan.  These were desert districts to which Paul fled for solitude and to discern the course that God had charted for his life.  “Again, one of the greatest souls of the True Religion started his career from the desert” [8]. Paul’s Arabian experience brought him to the Mountain of God, Horeb, or Sinai, in the footsteps of Moses and Elijah, but also face to face with Aretas the king to fulfill his commission to carry the name of Jesus to gentiles, kings, and Jews.     

 [1] Mark 6:22ff

[2] New Jerome Biblical Commentary NT p. 609-610

[3] Montgomery, James A. Arabia and the Bible. New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1969.

[4] Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18:5:1

[5] ibid.

[6] Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Catholic Church. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1963

[7] Josephus 18: 5:2: par 118.

[8] Montgomery.

(© 2011 Father Raymond Tucker Cordani, MFA, MDiv)


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  • noelfitz

    I regret that I am critical. However I wish Fr Cordani was more accurate. Previously he kindly and courteously pointed out to me that the genre of his writing is not historical accuracy, but I would like if I could have more confidence that his facts are correct.

    The start of his article is questionable, as he wrote “John the Baptist was dead. Herod Antipas had had him executed to placate the cruelty of Herodias, his second wife, who had demanded that the king deliver to her the prophet’s head. ” This is not really so since we read in the Gospels “(HA) brought his (J the B’s) head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother” (Mk 6:28)
    and “The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother” (Mt 14:11).

    Fr Cordani also wrote “First, the law forbade a man to marry his brother’s wife, even when the brother had died”. Yet we read in the Gospel “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’” Mt 22:24.

    Also Philip was Herod’s half brother. There is also a question as whether Philip married Herodias. One reads, http://www.livius.org/he-hg/herodians/philip.htm, “Herodias was never married to Philip.”.

    I regret criticizing a young priest, but I think it is important to have confidence in the accuracy of the information in CL. In CL articles should build us up in the faith, and we should have confidence in them.

  • It strikes me more as a legendary account and precise details of what did or didn’t happen are unimportant. Different Gospels frequently present differing accounts of Jesus’ works; because stories vary, does that mean they are not true? Ask 20 people who were present at the time of JFK’s assassination 50 years ago what happened – and you will get 20 different accounts which all agree on the principal facts but differ in the particulars.

  • noelfitz

    many thanks for your reply.
    Like everything you write I agree with you.

    As a Catholic I do not want to be excessively Sola Scriptura but my point is that we should stick to Scripture. It is not a history text, and may be wrong in details. but we should stick to it. As I wrote the head of J the B was given to the daughter of Herodias, not to Herodias.

    It is as easy, if not easier, to believe the Gospel accounts, than to change them.

    I would like to see contributions from others here. I would hope more than a handful of us read CL.

  • Kenneth Jones

    Not to worry, NF. We’re out here reading along with you and PH.

    Personally, when my eyebrows go up as I run across something that seems amiss, I often find you’ve already made a note of it.

    Don’t stop commenting; but I think it’s not necessary for a lot of ‘What he said!’ to be posted along with your remarks.

    I will try to think of some original thoughts…


  • noelfitz


    thanks for your post. I appreciate it.

    Due to a former incarnation (i.e. before I retired) I used to be in a job, where a lot of us were picky (pedantic??). It went with the territory. But here in CL we ought to be positive and build up and encourage ourselves, with God’s help, so I hope I am never negative or put people down.

    I will avoid so many “what he said”s.