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Herod Antipas: The Would-Be King

July 16, 2018

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2018


Psalm 85:8-13           Mark 6:14-29

This is not the sermon I preached yesterday, but a remembrance of topics I covered…

After Jesus sends out the twelve out to heal and cast out spirits and teach about the realm of God, and before they return to report on their success, the Gospel of Mark relates the drama surrounding the death of John the Baptist. It is a historical aside, meant to cast light on the stories around it (which we will talk about in the sermon next week) and to foreshadow the resistance Jesus’ ministry is about to encounter and the death he himself will experience in Jerusalem.

I framed the sermon with an account of the recent public misuse of scripture by Mark Harris, Jeff Sessions, Franklin Graham, and Mike Pence, with full anticipation that we will hear more of the same as the Senate moves toward confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court Justice. It is our responsibility, as people who hold these texts to be sacred and as scripture to speak up and speak truth, or they will cease to be scripture – God’s liberating word – and will simply function as a tool of expediency, authority, and club with which to beat people. I then deconstructed Mark Harris ideology by exposing his biblical ignorance.[i]

As Carmen Gray is fond of saying, “I just don’t think they’re reading the same Bible we are.”

I then suggested that Herod Antipas is a good example of a supposed leader playing fast and loose with people’s sacred traditions to advance his own purposes and consolidate his own power. The story of Herod Antipas, the ambitious would-be king, is crucial for understanding the Baptism Movement that John was leading as well as the Kingdom Movement that Jesus was leading. Here are the basic points I made (at some length):

  • ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT UNDER HEROD THE GREAT – Herod the Great (the great polygamist, oppressor, real estate developer, tyrant, strong man) conquered and pacified Israel on behalf of Caesar Augustus during the Roman Civil Wars. He did so by ousting the Hasmonean family who had led Judea (with aspirations of leading Galilee) for nearly 100 years. For this he was given the titles ‘King of the Jews’ and ‘Friend of the Romans.’ To consolidate power, he led a program that biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has described as Romanization through Urbanization for Commercialization. Essentially, he integrated Judea into the Roman Empire by building cities in order to make money and solidify his reputation. These cities (Caesarea, a port city on the Mediterranean; Sabastia, a military fortress and theater in the heart of Samaria; and Caesarea Philipi far in the north) brought in trade, taxes and tourists by offering new markets, revenue collection centers, and a sparkling new reputation for Palestine. At the center of this strategy was the expanded Temple in Jerusalem with its Gentile Court for tourists and pilgrims, aspiring to make it one of the wonders of the world. This program was successful, co opting the priesthood into accommodation, but was also accompanied by regular and stiff resistance by the people. Herod’s economic program had skipped over Galilee, however. The process of Romanization through Urbanization for Commercialization was left to his sixth son, Herod Antipas, to carry out during the lifetimes of John and Jesus.[ii]
  • ANTIPAS: THE WOULD-BE KING – Herod Antipas dearly wanted to be king like his father, but Caesar Augustus refused to grant him the title. Upon Herod’s death, the Emperor gave Judea (half the kingdom) to Herod’s oldest son Archelaus with the title ethnarch (leader of people). He was fairly incompetent and was quickly replaced by direct Roman rule in the form of Pontius Pilate. The Emperor gave half of what remained (parts of contemporary Syria and Lebanon) to his son Philip, and the remaining quarter, Galilee and Perea, to Antipas, giving each of theme the title tetrarch (leader of quarters). Though the reign of Antipas (4 BCE – 29 CE) would be the first time a ruler of Galilee lived in Galilee, this was a great disappointment to the would-be monarch, so Antipas began what would be a life-long campaign to become king.
  • THE EXPLOITATION OF GALILEE – Drawing on the scholarship of Richard Horsley and the quotable summaries of Dom Crossan, I outlined Antipas’ building program, first of his capitol city of Sepphoris as a military fortress, market and tax center in the heart of Galilee, and then of Tiberius as a new capitol on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to draw pilgrims, tourists and traders traveling the Spice Road across the water to Galilee. He renamed his first capitol after Emperor Augustus, and the second capitol after the new Emperor. To build these cities, however, he had to heavily tax the people and conscript labor, deeply disrupting community and village life, and he violated all forms of religious sensibilities by depopulating villages and (in the case of Tiberius) digging up a cemetery. I emphasized that much of the poverty, illness, and feeling of being possessed that John and Jesus encountered in their role as prophets came from this process of internal colonization carried out by the Herods, and it is interesting that John drew people away from these cities, and Jesus refused to visit them. And still, Emperor Tiberius refused Antipas the title of King.[iii]
  • A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE – Returning to the framing theme of the sermon – the cynical use of ‘religion’ to consolidate power and manipulate the sacred for political purposes – I noted that our gospel story emerges from Herod’s attempt to shore up his religious credentials. The Emperor had previously married Antipas to a Nabatean princess, the daughter of King Aretas IV. Aretas was at that time growing fabulously wealthy from the Spice Trade passing through his kingdom and his capitol/capital in Petra (now Jordan). This is the same trade Antipas wanted to draw across what he now called Lake Tiberius into Galilee). This was a smart political marriage because of helped keep peace on Rome’s borders, but Antipas secretly divorced his Nabatean wife and instead married Herodias (who was married to Antipas’s brother Philip, the other tetrarch). Herodias was a close as you get to Jewish Royalty, being of the Hasmonean family and a descendant of the High Priest John Hyrcanus. The divorce and remarriage (and incest – Herodias was also Antipas’s niece, the daughter of another brother) were political moves to bolster his religious cred. The first problem is that King Aretas was highly offended when his daughter was sent packing. This led to a brief war between Galilee and Nabataea, during which Antipas suffered a humiliating defeat. The second problem was that John the Baptist, a strong opponent of Antipas’s aspirations, called out his hypocrisy.’ Manipulating the people’s hopes and religious sensibilities (regarding the Hasmonean family) did not work for Antipas because prophets like John and Jesus called him out. For this John was arrested, and then killed, and Jesus was placed under surveillance. (The Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Mark, fleshes this out in more detail).[iv]
  • THE END OF ANTIPAS – I briefly pointed out that Antipas’ life campaign to be king ended in disappointment and exile. After the death of Tiberius, the new emperor, Caligula, gave Galilee to another of Antipas’s brothers (Herod Agrippa) and sent Antipas and Herodias into exile in France where they ultimately died.

I ended by saying that there will always be tyrants, or those who aspire to be tyrants: this is how the world currently works. But there is also a prophetic script of speaking truth to power regardless of the consequences and of resisting oppression by rebuilding communities all in the firm conviction that the solidarity of the cross and the resurrection of the martyrs is assuredly the way of Jesus. Herod will be haunted by the thought that Jesus himself is John risen from the dead, or Elijah come back to call Antipas a modern Ahab and Herodias and contemporary Jezebel (this seems to be Mark’s perspective), or at the very least a prophet like the prophets of old. Any one of these options should have caused Antipas to question his abuse of Galilee, but they did not.

It is also sobering that John is killed on the whims of a scheme, a misguided promise, and a dance. Even the presence of Jesus, in the flesh and on the earth, cannot prevent his murder, but Jesus can take up the task. Jesus, too, would call Herod ‘that fox,’ warn people against the ‘leaven of Herod’ and refer to him as ‘a reed shaking in the wind’ and mock his ‘fine clothes’ and the luxury of his ‘palace. While John opposed his local ruler and his Roman sponsor and was (most likely) killed for it in Galilee, Jesus would oppose the leadership in Judea and their Roman sponsors and will be killed in Jerusalem.

Finally, in each case, of John and Jesus, we see what faithfulness looks like – steadfast loyalty to a higher purpose, what Jesus will call the kingdom or realm of God – a different economic, social, religious and political order, on earth as it is in heaven.

Such, I said, was the true ‘core calling’ of all of us – men, women, and children.


Herod (Hérode), by French painter and Bible illustrator James Tissot, in the Brooklyn Museum

[i] On Mark Harris, see for example

[ii] See Peter Richardson, Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans. (South Carolina, 1996).

[iii] A highly readable summary of Antipas’ ambition, from which I have obviously drawn, can be found in chapter three of John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. (HarperCollins, 2007). More detailed analysis of the economic program the effects on village communities can be found spread throughout the work of Richard A. Horsley, but particularly “The Roman Imperial Economy in Jesus’ Time” in Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All. (WJK, 2009).

[iv] Zora Neal Hurston captures the complicated family relations in her short story, told from the perspective of an elderly Herodias, in “The Seventh Veil” in The Complete Short Stories (HarperCollins, 1995). Hurston dramatizes the relationship of Antipas and Herodias as a love story. For the politics of this marriage, and the fallout with King Aretas, see Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. (Grossat/Putnam, 1997).

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