John the Baptist and Herod Antipas

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Msgr. + Samuel Sostre
Bishop of the Anglican Free Communion

Why was it in the hands of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee in the north, to punish John the Baptist for his preaching when it should have been in the hands of the governor of Judea, in the south, where John actually preached according to the Bible? Did Antipas have any authority in Judea?

It is said that, at the age of thirty, John started to preach on the banks of the river Jordan. He preached against the evils of the time and called men to repentance and baptism. His message to people was to repent as the Kingdom of God was coming. He baptized many people and, thus, was named John the Baptist. Now, John was born in Judea and “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea”. The Judean wilderness or desert was a rocky tract of land in the Judean province lying between Judea as such and the western shore of the River Jordan and the Dead Sea. It was a desert terrain, thinly peopled and an almost uninhabitable mass of barren ridges extending the whole length of the Dead Sea and a few miles north along the Jordan.

However, most scholars agree that John baptized at “Bethany beyond the Jordan” , on the eastern bank, on the other side, of the river.
The Bible also tells us that John was incarcerated and eventually killed by Herod Antipas. The purpose of this article is to ask the question: if John preached in Judea and Antipas was the ruler or tetrarch of Galilee (two regions distant from one another and under different rulers), what authority did Antipas have to condemn John? Did John at any time move to preach in Galilee to fall under the rule of Antipas? How is it possible for Antipas to condemn a citizen of Judea that was ruled by a Roman governor, without any coordination with him?

We must remember that upon the death of Herod the Great in the year 4 BC, Rome refused to name another king for the region later called Palestine and divided the rule of the land among three of Herod’s sons: Phillip, Antipas and Archelaus. Philip inherited the northeast part of his father’s kingdom, which included Iturea and Trachonitis; and possibly Gaulonitis, and Trachonitis, and Paneas (according to Josephus).

Herod Antipas was made tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Archelaus was made ruler of the province of Judea which included Judea, Samaria and Idumea (old Edom). Archelaus, not being very efficient in his new job was deposed and a Roman governor was assigned to govern Judea in the year 6 AC. By the time John began to preach, Judea had already become a Roman province . Antipas had no authority or say in how the law was applied in Judea. How could he then arrest and kill John the Baptist; a man born in and ministering in Judea? The Bible never mentions that John moved to Galilee to exert his ministry there.

Locations of John’s ministry

As we mentioned before, John ministered in Judea, mostly in the desert or what was also called the wilderness of Judea. This region was under the control of the Roman governor. However, the Bible also tells us that John crossed over to the eastern shore of the Jordan River to perform his baptisms and, most definitely, to preach. The main location for this ministry was called Bethany. The eastern shore of the lower part of the Jordan River and the upper half of the Dead Sea fall within the territory of Perea and, as we said before, it was ruled by Herod Antipas. If John spent a significant portion of his ministry in Perea and broke any real or imagined rule in that region he could be punished by Antipas.

Now, we are told that during the party in which Salome and Herodias asked for John’s head, Antipas,”reluctantly” ordered one of his executioners to go, behead John and bring back his head on a platter. According to the Biblical account, all this was apparently accomplished fairly quickly. It is unlikely that the soldier left the party in Galilee, travelled 100 Km to Judea, killed John and was back by the time suggested in the narrative or, at least, before the head began decomposing. Where were they?

According to the historian Flavius Josephus, John had been beheaded in the Machaerus fortress, in Transjordan . Machaerus was also located in the inferior portion of Perea, the territory on the east side of the River Jordan controlled by Antipas as he was the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. A territory where John was performing his baptism ministry and where he, most likely, preached against any happenings he considered sinful.

Machaerus had been built by the Hasmoneans. It was subsequently destroyed and Herod the Great had reconstructed it making in the interior of the fortress a magnificent palace, where Antipas frequently resided. It is likely that he gave a great feast there, during which and according to the Bible, Salome executed the fatidic dance and the fatidic request .

This scenario makes sense. John preached and ministered in a region beyond or on the other side of the River Jordan, in Perea. His preaching somehow placed him at odds with Herod Antipas . Herod was residing in Machaerus at the time. And had John imprisoned right there at Machaerus. When Antipas made the decision to kill him, the executioner had a short distance to travel. John was incarcerated and executed right there at Machaerus. As John was exercising his ministry in Perea, it was Antipas and not Pilate who had to deal with any “wrongdoing” on the part of John the Baptist.

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