"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

The Beheading Of St John The Baptist On The Orders Of Herod Antipas

Salome and the Apparition of the
Baptist's Head by Gustave Moreau,
Watercolor painting, c. 1876,
(Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France)


itus Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE) was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian who chronicled Jewish history with special emphasis on the first century CE. He personally commanded the Jewish forces when they were under siege at Yodfat. He was subsequently captured by the Romans after he reneged on the group’s suicide pact. His captors spared his life and would later grant him freedom and Roman citizenship. He repeatedly called for surrender to the Romans. After the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, he lived in the emperor’s palace as a dignitary and scholar. To his fellow Jews, he was labeled a traitor.

Most modern scholars consider the reference (e.g., in Book 18, Chapter 5 of Flavius Josephus’ work The Antiquities of the Jews [c. 94]) to the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist to be authentic. Although, a number of differences exist between the statements by Josephus regarding the death of John and the New Testament accounts, they bolster Josephus' passages as being free from interpolations (i.e., the insertion of something of a different nature into something else, since a Christian interpolator would likely have edited them to correspond to the synoptic gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke). Josephus' works are positioned next to the Bible as sources of ancient Palestine's history. John the Baptist, is not only hailed as the forerunner to Jesus, the Christ, but he also serves as an important reference point for the man Jesus in history. A number of religious scholars agree that the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John, described in the synoptic gospels and by a number of other canonical and non-canonical sources, is almost certainly a historical event.

Josephus brings a more political rather than religious perspective surrounding the martyrdom of John the Baptist by beheading. Usually it is thought that it came as a result of a vengeful request made by Herod Antipas' step-daughter Salome and her mother. Herod initially resisted killing John, precisely because he was known by all as a holy and highly respected man. The gospels of Matthew (Mt 14:1-12) and Mark (Mk 6:14-29) recorded that Herod Antipas had John the Baptist arrested and imprisoned after the prophet condemned the king’s marriage to his wife, Herodias, as illegal, because she had previously been married to his own brother, Philip. He was a famous figure attracting perhaps hundreds or thousands of followers from Jerusalem and Judea. Despite his renown, John humbly made it clear that he himself was not the Messiah. He foretold the coming of Jesus: “one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Mt 3:11). According to Josephus, "Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause" (The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5:2).

Josephus writes that sometime after baptizing Jesus John the Baptist was killed at the palace-fortress of Machaerus, located near the Dead Sea in modern Jordan. The palace was occupied at the time by the son and successor of King Herod the Great, Herod Antipas. In The Antiquities of the Jews (Book 18:116-19), Josephus confirmed that Herod Antipas “slew” John after imprisoning him at Machaerus. Josephus also identified Herodias’ daughter as Salome, albeit, the gospels do not mention the girl's name, and Josephus did not state that John was beheaded upon the girl's requestFr JM Manzano SJ