THE MURDER OF JOHN THE BAPTIST.
IT must have been with His human heart full of foreboding sadness that the Saviour returned to Galilee. In His own obscure Nazareth He had before been violently rejected; He had now been rejected no less decisively at Jerusalem by the leading authorities of His own nation. He was returning to an atmosphere already darkened by the storm-clouds of gathering opposition; and He had scarcely returned when upon that atmosphere, like the first note of a death-knell tolling ruin, there broke the intelligence of a dreadful martyrdom. The heaven-enkindled and shining lamp had suddenly been quenched in blood. The great ForerunnerHe who was greatest of those born of womenthe Prophet, and more than a prophet, had been foully murdered.
Herod Antipas, to whom, on the death of Herod the Great, had fallen the tetrarchy of Galilee, was about as weak and miserable a prince as ever disgraced the throne of an afflicted country. Cruel, crafty, and voluptuous like his father, he was also, unlike him, weak in war and vacillating in peace. In him, as in so many characters which stand conspicuous on the stage of history, infidelity and superstition went hand in hand. But the morbid terrors of a guilty conscience did not save him from the criminal extravagances of a violent will. He was a man in whom were mingled the worst features of the Roman, the Oriental, and the Greek.
It was the policy of the numerous princelings who owed their very existence to Roman intervention, to pay frequent visits of ceremony to the Emperor at Rome. During one of these visits, possibly to condole with Tiberius on the death of his son Drusus, or his mother Livia, Antipas had been, while at Rome, the guest of his brother Herod Philipnot the tetrarch of that name, but a son of Herod the Great and Mariamne, daughter of Simon the Boëthusian, who, having been disinherited by his father, was living at Rome as a private person. Here he became entangled by the snares of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; and he repaid the hospitality he had received by carrying her off. Everything combined to make the act as detestable as it was ungrateful and treacherous. The Herods carried intermarriage to an extent which only prevailed in the worst and most dissolute of the Oriental and post-Macedonian dynasties. Herodias being the daughter of Aristobulus, was not only the sister-in-law, but also the niece of Antipas; she had already borne to her husband a daughter, who was now grown up. Antipas had himself long been married to the daughter of Aretas, or Hâreth, Emîr of Arabia, and neither he nor Herodias were young enough to plead even the poor excuse of youthful passion. The sole temptation on his side was an impotent sensuality; on hers an extravagant ambition. She preferred a marriage doubly adulterous and doubly incestuous to a life spent with the only Herod who could not boast even the fraction of a vice-regal throne. Antipas promised on his return from Rome to make her his wife, and she exacted from him a pledge that he would divorce his innocent consort, the daughter of the Arabian prince.
But "our pleasant vices," it has well been said, "are made the instruments to punish us;" and from this moment began for Herod Antipas a series of annoyances and misfortunes, which only culminated in his death years afterwards in discrowned royalty and unpitied exile. Herodias became from the first the evil genius of his house. The people were scandalised and outraged. Family dissensions were embittered. The Arabian princess, without waiting to be divorced, indignantly fled, first to the border castle of Machærus, and then to the rocky fastnesses of her father Hâreth at Petra. He, in his just indignation, broke off all amicable relations with his quondam son-in-law, and subsequently declared war against him, in which be avenged himself by the infliction of a severe and ruinous defeat.
Nor was this all. Sin was punished with sin, and the adulterous union had to be cemented with a prophet's blood. In the gay and gilded halls of any one of those sumptuous palaces which the Herods delighted to build, the dissolute tyrant may have succeeded perhaps in shutting out the deep murmur of his subjects' indignation; but there was one voice which reached him, and agitated his conscience, and would not be silenced. It was the voice of the great Baptist. How Herod had been thrown first into connection with him we do not know, but it was probably after he had seized possession of his person on the political plea that his teaching, and the crowds who flocked to him, tended to endanger the public safety. Among other features in the character of Herod was a certain superstitious curiosity which led him to hanker after and tamper with the truths of the religion which his daily life so flagrantly violated. He summoned John to his presence. Like a new Elijah before another Ahabclothed in his desert raiment, the hairy cloak and the leathern girdlethe stern and noble eremite stood fearless before the incestuous king. His wordsthe simple words of truth and justicethe calm reasonings about righteousness, temperance, and the judgment to comefell like flakes of fire on that hard and icy conscience. Herod, alarmed perhaps by the fulfilment of the old curse of the Mosaic law in the childlessness of his union, listened with some dim and feeble hope of future amendment. He even did many things gladly because of John. But there was one thing which he would not doperhaps persuaded himself that he could not doand that was, give up the guilty love which mastered him or dismiss the haughty imperious woman who ruled his life after ruining his peace. "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife" was the blunt declaration of the dauntless Prophet; and though time after time he might be led over those splendid floors, pale and wasted with imprisonment and disappointed hope, yet, though he well knew that it kindled against him an implacable enmity and doomed him to a fresh remand to his solitary cell, he never hesitated to face the flushed and angry Herod with that great Non licet. Nor did he spare his stern judgment on all the other crimes and follies of Herod's life. Other meneven men otherwise great and goodhave had very smooth words for the sins of princes; but in the fiery soul of the Baptist, strengthened into noblest exercise by the long asceticism of the wilderness, there was no dread of human royalty and no compromise with exalted sin. And when courage and holiness and purity thus stood to rebuke the lustful meanness of a servile and corrupted soul, can we wonder if even among his glittering courtiers and reckless men-at-arms the king cowered conscience-stricken before the fettered prisoner? But John knew how little trust can be placed in a soul that has been eaten away by a besetting sin; and since He to whom he had borne witness beyond Jordan wrought no miracle of power for his deliverance, it is not probable that he looked for any passage out of his dungeon in the Black Fortress, save through the grave and gate of death.
Hitherto, indeed, the timidity or the scruples of Herod Antipas had afforded to Johnso far as his mere life was concerneda precarious protection from the concentrated venom of an adulteress's hate. But at last what she had failed to gain by passionate influence she succeeded in gaining by subtle fraud. She knew well that even from his prison the voice of John might be more powerful than all the influences of her fading beauty, and might succeed at last in tearing from her forehead that guilty crown. But she watched her opportunity, and was not long in gaining her end.
The Herodian princess, imitating the luxurious example of their great prototypes, the Roman emperors, were fond of magnificent banquets and splendid anniversarles. Among others they had adopted the heathen fashion of birthday celebrations, and Antipas on his birthdayapparently either at Machærus or at a neighbouring palace called Juliasprepared a banquet for his courtiers, and generals, and Galilæan nobles. The wealth of the Herods, the expensive architecture of their numerous palaces, their universal tendency to extravagant display, make it certain that nothing would be wanting to such a banquet which wealth or royalty could procure; and there is enough to show that it was on the model of those
"Sumptuous gluttonies and gorgeous feasts
which accorded with the depraved fashion of the Empire, and mingled Roman gourmandise with Ionic sensuality. But Herodias had craftily provided the king with an unexpected and exciting pleasure, the spectacle of which would be sure to enrapture such guests as his. Dancers and dancing-women were at that time in great request. The passion for witnessing these too often indecent and degrading representations had naturally made its way into the Sadducean and semi-pagan court of these usurping Edomites and Herod the Great had built in his palace a theatre for the Thymelici. A luxurious feast of the period was not regarded as complete unless it closed with some gross pantomimic representation; and doubtless Herod had adopted the evil fashion of his day. But he had not anticipated for his guests the rare luxury of seeing a princesshis own niece, a granddaughter of Herod the Great and of Mariamne, a descendant therefore of Simon the High Priest, and the great line of Maccabæan princesa princess who afterwards became the wife of a tetrarch, and the mother of a kinghonouring them by degrading herself into a scenic dancer. And yet when the banquet was over, when the guests were full of meat and flushed with wine, Salome herself, the daughter of Herodias, then in the prime of her young and lustrous beauty, executed, as it would now be expressed, a pas seul "in the midst of" those dissolute and half-intoxicated revellers. "She came in and danced, and pleased Herod, and them that sat at meat with him." And he, like another Xerxes, in the delirium of his drunken approval, swore to this degraded girl in the presence of his guests that he would give her anything for which she asked, even to the half of his kingdom.
The girl flew to her mother, and said, "What shall I ask?" It was exactly what Herodias expected, and she might have asked for robes, or jewels, or palaces, or whatever such a woman loves; but to a mind like hers revenge was sweeter than wealth or pride, and we may imagine with what fierce malice she hissed out the unhesitating answer, "The head of John the Baptiser." And coming in before the king immediately with haste(what a touch is that! and how apt a pupil did the wicked mother find in her wicked daughter)Salome exclaimed, "My wish is that you give me here, immediately, on a dish, the head of John the Baptist." Her indecent haste, her hideous petition, show that she shared the furies of her race. Did she think that in that infamous period, and among those infamous guests, her petition would be received with a burst of laughter? Did she hope to kindle their merriment to a still higher pitch by the sense of the delightful wickedness involved in a young and beautiful girl, askingnay, imperiously demandingthat then and there, on one of the golden dishes which graced the board, should be given into her own hands the gory head of the Prophet whose words had made a thousand bold hearts quail?
If so, she was disappointed. The tetrarch, at any rate, was plunged into grief by her request; it more than did away with the pleasure of her disgraceful dance it was a bitter termination of his birthday feast. Fear, policy, remorse, superstition, even whatever poor spark of better feeling remained unquenched under the dense white ashes of a heart consumed by evil passions, all made him shrink in disgust from this sudden execution. He must have felt that he had been egregiously duped out of his own will by the cunning stratagem of his unrelenting paramour. If a single touch of manliness had been left in him he would have repudiated the request as one which did not fall either under the letter or the spirit of his oath, since the life of one cannot be made the gift to another; or he would have boldly declared at once, that if such was her choice, his oath was more honoured by being broken than by being kept. But a despicable pride and fear of man prevailed over his better impulses. More afraid of the criticisms of his guests than of the future torment of such conscience as was left him, he immediately sent an executioner to the prison, which in all probability was not far from the banqueting hall; and so, at the bidding of a dissolute coward, and to please the loathly fancies of a shameless girl, the axe fell, and the head of the noblest of the prophets was shorn away.
In darkness and in secrecy the scene was enacted, and if any saw it their lips were sealed; but the executioner emerged into the light carrying by the hair that noble head, and then and there, in all the ghastliness of recent death, it was placed upon a dish from the royal table. The young dancing girl received it, and, now frightful as a Megæra, carried the hideous burden to her mother. Let us hope that the awful spectacle haunted the souls of both thenceforth till death.
What became of that ghastly relic we do not know. Tradition tells us that Herodias ordered the headless trunk to be flung out over the battlements for dogs and vultures to devour. On her, at any rate, swift vengeance fell.
The disciples of Johnperhaps Manaen the Essene, the foster-brother of Herod Antipas, may have been among themtook up the corpse and buried it. Their next care was to go and tell Jesus, some of them, it may be, with sore and bitter hearts, that his friend and forerunnerthe first who had borne witness to Him, and over whom He had Himself pronounced so great an eulogywas dead.
And about the same time His Apostles also returned from their mission, and told Him all that they had done and taught. They had preached repentance: they had cast out devils; they had anointed the sick with oil and healed them. But the record of their ministry is very brief, and not very joyous. In spite of partial successes, it seemed as if their untried faith had as yet proved inadequate for the high task imposed on them.
And very shortly afterwards another piece of intelligence reached Jesus; it was that the murderous tetrarch was inquiring about Him; wished to see Him; perhaps would send and demand his presence when he returned to his new palace, the Golden House of his new capital at Tiberias. For the mission of the Twelve had tended more than ever to spread a rumour of Him among the people, and speculation respecting Him was rife. All admitted that He had some high claim to attention. Some thought that He was Elijah, some Jeremiah, others one of the Prophets; but Herod had the most singular solution of the problem. It is said that when Theodoric had ordered the murder of Symmachus, he was haunted and finally maddened by the phantom of the old man's distorted features glaring at him from a dish on the table; nor can it have been otherwise with Herod Antipas. Into his banquet hall had been brought the head of one whom, in the depth of his inmost being, he felt to have been holy and just; and he had seen, with the solemn agony of death still resting on them, the stern features on which he had often gazed with awe. Did no reproach issue from those dead lips yet louder and more terrible than they had spoken in life? were the accents which had uttered, "It is not lawful for thee to have her," frozen into silence, or did they seem to issue with supernatural energy from the mute ghastliness of death? If we mistake not, that dissevered head was rarely thenceforth absent from Herod's haunted imagination from that day forward till he lay upon his dying bed. And now, when but a brief time afterwards, he heard of the fame of another Prophetof a Prophet transcendently mightier, and one who wrought miracles, which John had never donehis guilty conscience shivered with superstitious dread, and to his intimates he began to whisper with horror, "This is John the Baptist whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead, and therefore these mighty works are wrought by him." Had John sprung to life again thus suddenly to inflict a signal vengeance? would he come to the strong towers of Machærus at the head of a multitude in wild revolt? or glide through the gilded halls of Julias or Tiberias, terrible, at midnight, with ghostly tread? "Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?"
As the imperious and violent temper of Herodias was the constant scourge of her husband's peace, so her mad ambition was subsequently the direct cause of his ruin. When the Emperor Caius (Caligula) began to heap favours on Herod Agrippa I., Herodias, sick with envy and discontent, urged Antipas to sail with her to Rome and procure a share of the distinction which had thus been given to her brother. Above all, she was anxious that her husband should obtain the title of king, instead of continuing content with the humbler one of tetrarch. In vain did the timid and ease-loving Antipas point out to her the danger to which he might be exposed by such a request. She made his life so bitter to him by her importunity that, against his better judgment, he was forced to yield. The event justified his worst misgivings. No love reigned between the numerous uncles and nephews and half-brothers in the tangled family of Herod, and either out of policy or jealousy Agrippa not only discountenanced the schemes of his sister and unclethough they had helped him in his own misfortunesbut actually sent his freedman Fortunatus to Rome to accuse Antipas of treasonable designs. The tetrarch failed to clear himself of the charge, and in A.D. 39 was banished to Lugdunumprobably St. Bertrand de Comminges, in Gaul, not far from the Spanish frontier. Herodias, either from choice or necessity or despair, accompanied his exile, and here they both died in obscurity and dishonour. Salome, the dancerthe Lucrezia Borgia of the Herodian housedisappears henceforth from history. Tradition or legend alone informs us that she met with an early, violent, and hideous death.