The “Who is Who” in Matthew 14: 1-12

Jan 21, 2015 by


The Old Church Slavonic passage we are reading this week and the next, Matthew 14: 1-12 tells the story of the death of John the Baptist (in Russian: Иоанн Креститель),an itinerant preacher who is said to have baptized Jesus. Many scholars (e.g. Sanders 1985: 91 and Dunn 2003: 350) believe that Jesus was a follower or disciple of John. According to John 1: 36-40, some of Jesus’ early followers had previously been followers of John (Harris 1985). John the Baptist is also mentioned in the writings of Josephus Flavius and is an important religious figure not only in Christianity, but also in Islam (where he is known as Yahya ibn Zakariyya), the Bahá’í Faith, and Mandaeism. The two main New Testament narratives that involve John the Baptist are “Baptism of Jesus” and “Beheading of St. John the Baptist”. The former is found in Mark 1, Matthew 3, Luke 3, and John 1. Besides our passage, Matthew 14, the story of the death of John the Baptist is also found in Mark 6 and Luke 3. The story has also been the subject of many icons and works of Western art, including the dramatic painting by Caravaggio, depicting Salome with John’s head on a platter (see on the left).

Let’s now get acquainted with the other characters in the story. First mentioned is Herod the Tetrarch, also known by his nickname Antipas (in Russian: Ирод Антипа). He was a son of Herod the Great, a Roman king of Judea, best known for his monumental building projects throughout the kingdom, including the expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (aka Herod’s Temple), the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, and the fortress at Masada. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Herod Antipas shared the rule of Judea with his two stepbrothers Herod Archelaus and Herod Philip II (aka Philip the Tetrarch). The three brothers had the same father, Herod the Great, but different mothers. And confusingly, they also had a brother named Herod Philip I (he will be important to the story later on). However, the land once ruled by Herod the Great was not divided evenly between three brothers: Archelaus got half of Judea, while the other half was divided between Antipas and Philip II. Hence, those two brothers were called “tetrarch”, or “ruler of a quarter”. (For more on Herodian Tetrarchy see here).

One of Herod Antipas’ most important contribution was the construction of his capital Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (in what is now northern Israel). Tiberias was named in honor of Antipas’ patron, the emperor Tiberius, and later became an important center of rabbinic learning: it was there that the Masoretes worked between the 6th and 10th centuries CE on a system of diacritical notes to encode what they thought was the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew.


Next comes Herodias, in Russian Иродиада (see reproduction on the left of Herodias by Paul Delaroche). Her entire family tree would make anyone’s head spin, but the most relevant fact for our story is that she was the daughter-in-law of Herod the Great, twice: first, by marriage to his son Herod II (aka Herod Philip I), and again by marriage to another son, Herod Antipas (aka Herod the Tetrarch in our passage). According to Flavius, “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”. To marry Herodias, Antipas also divorced his first wife Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. According to the New Testament accounts, it is this marriage between Herod Antipas and Herodias that was publicly disapproved of by John the Baptist, leading to Herod’s womenfolk—Herodias and her daughter, identified by Flavius as Salome, daughter from Herodias’ first marriage to Philip I—asking for John’s “head on a platter” (quite literally!). However, different accounts disagree as to whether Herod the Tetrarch really wanted John the Baptist dead. According to Mark 6:20, Herod knew that John “was a just and holy man, and he protected him”. In Mark’s version of events, Herod agreed to execute John simply to fulfil the promise he had made to Salome. But Matthew 14:5 tells a different story: “and although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet”. The promise to Salome broke the deal, so Herod decided to go on with the arrest, despite the potential backlash from the masses. Flavius appears to side with Matthew’s take on the events as he writes: “lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his [John’s] power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise), [so Herod] thought it best [to put] him to death”.




Dunn, James D. G. (2003) Jesus Remembered. Eerdmans.

Harris, Stephen L. (1985) Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield.

Sanders, E.P. (1985) Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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