Was this an Oriental dance?
The biblical story of Salome and John the Baptist, gruesome, dramatic, and sensational, is very familiar to many, if not most, in the Christian world even to those who do not actively support the religion.
In the Christian bible’s New Testament, the Gospels of both Matthew and Mark provide a brief account of how Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee in ancient Palestine about 2000 years ago, came to order the execution of John the Baptist, also known as John the Baptizer, a major figure in the foundation of Christianity.
Matthew and Mark tell how, on the occasion of a birthday celebration, Salome, Herod’s stepdaughter, performed a dance that so delighted Herod, he rewarded her by saying, as an oath, that he would grant her any wish to the extent of half his kingdom. Salome asked her mother Herodias what to do and Herodias told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herodias carried a hatred of John the Baptist because he had loudly and publicly denounced her marriage with Herod as being adulterous because their union followed the divorce of Herodias from her first husband, who was the half-brother of her new husband Antipas, and who was still alive. Such a marriage was in conflict with the Mosaic law of the Jewish people.
Over the centuries, the story of Salome has acquired a lurid reputation in the imaginations of many, some of whom suggest that her dance must have been exceptional to have caused such an extreme response from Herod, that it was probably an ultra sensuous and erotic Arabic belly dance.
But it is hard to believe that a dance performance, however exotic, sensuous, or whatever, could ever possibly evoke the rash promise claimed to have been made by Herod Antipas, and even less reasonable that the specific request could be the response, and finally that even if those did take place that Antipas would have granted such a macabre wish.
The bible story prompts the conclusion that it could have been some form of the Oriental dance that we recognize as the belly dance and since the belly dance is the established topic of this blog-site dealing with Arabic belly dance, it is appropriate to dig a little deeper to identify sources, knowing also that Salome has been a favorite subject and inspiration in literature, art, and music.
As it turns out, the sources are few, in addition to the two Gospel references of Mark and Matthew mentioned above, the only other reference relating to the events leading to the execution of John the Baptist is a non-biblical account provided by Josephus, a Jewish historian and military general, also known as Flavius Josephus, who will be referred to below.
Those three simple short references of little detail have inspired painters, dancers, composers, to almost an industry of gory depictions of Salome with the decapitated head of John the Baptist. Famous among them being Oscar Wilde’s stage play Salome, and based on that there is a one act opera, Salome, by Richard Strauss, and there are so many paintings by some of the greatest of artists, too numerous to mention, but giving the world many wonderful works of art.
The only date we have for the death of John is obtained from the writings of Josephus who places it at no later than 36 CE, (CE = Christian Era) whereas the Gospels merely date John’s death to before the crucifixion of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark was written, it is believed, between 65 and 75 CE, some 30 to 40 years after the event and most scholars date the Gospel of Matthew to between 70 and 100 CE. So neither of them were contemporary to the dates ascribed to the death of either John or Jesus. Josephus lived from about 37 to 100 CE, so he was near contemporary, if his date of before 36 CE for John’s death is correct
And what do those few references tell us?
First the Gospels: It is interesting to note that the specific name of Salome does not appear in the Gospel verses dealing with the dance but in both Matthew and Mark the dancer is identified as the daughter of Herodias and would therefore have been the step daughter of Herod, the daughter of his wife from her first marriage. And we do not know the age of the daughter.
In the contemporary English translation of the New American Standard Bible, the six verses of Matthew, chapter 14:6 to 14:11, tell us:
6 When Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.
7 Thereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked.
8 And having been prompted by her mother, said, ”Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist”.
9 And although he was grieved, the king commanded it to be given because of his oaths, and because of his dinner guests.
10 And he sent, and had John beheaded in the prison.
11 And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl and she brought it to her mother.
The verses from Mark, chapter 6:18 to 6:27, tell the very same story and neither authors name the dancer. Strange perhaps that the daughter was not named, so how do we know her name? From Josephus, he identifies her as Salome, but separately, in a passage dealing with family relationships not related in any way to the death of John the Baptist,
Josephus: In his book: Jewish Antiquities, chapter 18, Josephus tells of the execution of John but with no mention of Salome or Herodias or the name of any daughter whatsoever, or a banquet or a dance.
Josephus simply states that Herod was fearful because of the influence John had over the people that might lead them to rebel. Herod thought that by putting John to death it would prevent any mischief he might cause and that if it was not done, he himself would end up regretting it. In the words of Josephus: “Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, and was there put to death”.
So those are the three short references, two of which mention a dance and the death of John being the result of the fulfillment of a foolishly vowed promise made by Herod Antipas and the third attributed to a political move to pre-empt any unrest by his subjects, as it happened it was successful in as much as no unrest occurred.
None of the three reasons can be ruled out, they could all be true and the world will continue to accept the biblical verses. But if one version had to be chosen, the scientific guideline rule of Occam’s Razor might be applied, which basically states: when faced by alternative and equally plausible explanations it is wisest to select the one with the least number of factors, the easiest to understand. In which case I would conclude the Josephus reason is best, Herod Antipas acted to protect his own interests.
And what about the dance, if there was one? That does bring up a couple of points, one is that we don’t know the age of the daughter who danced, she may have been a girl, quite young, and secondly, whatever her age, would it be acceptable in those regal circumstances that a female royal family member would be called upon to entertain a select group of powerful men under the command of the king? And if a dance, what is the likelihood that it would have been a sensuous form of belly dancing?
On the first point, from visiting the Gilded Serpent website, in an article by Qan Tuppim, I learned that the old testament Greek from which the bible was translated refers to the daughter as a “korasion”, meaning a young girl not old enough to be married. And on the second point it is stated in the same article that it was appropriate for women to dance for their male relatives. But as noted above, the banquet guests included many males who were probably not relatives.
So, the supposed exotic and inflammatory belly dance of the real Salome is a fiction for which the bible is not responsible. But of course, there are other events described there that are not fiction, and some of them might be considered erotic or inflamatory. But that’s another story.