December 23, 2008

Antipas' "Birthday" after Purim

The Gospels strongly suggest Herod Antipas’ birthday party fell one to three weeks before the third Passover of Jesus’ ministry. In Cheney’s chronology this was 31 AD, which may mean Antipas was born sometime in early March. That much alone is worth considering, for what it’s worth. But that’s not the interesting part of this post. This is:

At that party, Antipas quoted the Old Testament! When Salome pleased him with her dancing, the tetrarch of Galilee offered her anything she wanted “up to half my kingdom”. As I was recently reminded, these were the words of Xerxes to Esther. Was the old, Hellenized, Arabian/Idumean/Samaritan tetrarch really quoting Hebrew Scripture? How likely is that?

Hoehner thinks it must have become a proverbial saying by then, but Hoehner also discounts the timeline at this point with an uncharacteristically a-historical view of the passages in question. I think the timeline of Mark 6 (and parallels) is clear at this point. (See note at bottom.) More importantly, preserving the obvious timeline here gives us a much better, perfectly reasonable explanation for Herod’s sudden expertise at Old Testament citation.

Nothing we know about Herod Antipas suggests the old Fox was much given to quoting scripture. But a party two weeks before Passover was a party held two weeks after Purim! Surely Herod had also taken the excuse to throw a similar party on the second night of Purim, which was the Feast of Esther, and surely that night’s entertainment would have included a professional oration on the dramatic tale of Esther in Persia. Furthermore, not only is the quotation at issue the climax of that story, but the exact wording gets repeated three times.

Not only does that quotation make a memorable part of the story, but Antipas and all his guests would have been extremely familiar with the story, having heard it once a year for all their lives. As a parallel example, modern secular people who may or may not care much for Christ still know the Christmas story. And while that story may not come to their minds a whole lot in April or June, they find their memories refreshed throughout the month of December. Many people, especially upper class folks, pay respectful attention to official holiday traditions, and it's common for Christmas references to linger on up to a week or two later. (In many places, Baby Jesus gets put inside “King Cakes” until at least February.) In this same kind of way, I believe Herod Antipas was unlikely to be thinking of Xerxes and Esther at any time other than the weeks before and after the Purim holiday.

So then, one to three weeks after Purim, Antipas throws another party. He probably threw it in the same palace, with many of the same guests, with some of the preparations being the same and some different. Attending two parties like this, upper class guests would no doubt have in mind the previous one, looking forward to a repeat of certain delights while anticipating some changes as well. In this case, it seems, that feeling must have extended to the entertainment.

At Herod’s birthday feast, Salome probably danced during a certain part of the evening, at which his guests would expect entertainment. The most natural time for this would have been the same part of the evening the Purim storyteller filled with his speech just a week or two before. In that case, not only would the words of Xerxes be fresh in everyone’s mind, the timing of Herod’s quoting them would have paralleled the recent party. This gives Herod even more reasons to reference the memorable quotation. Given this extra context, it seems the tetrarch was simply playing to the crowd and reminding them pleasantly of his last party. Quoting scripture had nothing to do with it, and the timing of the seasonal citation would have perfectly underscored the sense that his exact wording wasn't meant at all literally.

For a complementary twist, it has been suggested that Herod’s party wasn’t about his birthday at all. The Greek word in Mark & Matthew can refer to the birth of his rule over Galilee. The earliest Antipas could possibly claim to have begun that rule was on the death day of his father, Herod the Great. By the Hebrew calendar, that day (in 4 BC) fell not less than five days after Purim and not less than 16 days before Passover. (That last figure is by my own calculation of Ptolemy’s ride to Antioch and back. See this post.) In other words, Herod died about one or two weeks after Purim. Obviously, that fits perfectly into our range.

So – whether to celebrate his birthday or the birth of his rule – it seems extremely certain that Herod Antipas held this party a week or two after Purim. The following two or three weeks gives just enough time for the events of Mark 6:27-44, Luke 9:7-17, Matthew 14:10-21 and John 6:1-14.


A few final notes, for the record: The timeline of these passages is not compared to the sequence of text, but the sequence of events. Herod sends the executioner to Machaerus. John’s disciples receive a headless corpse, bury it, walk up to Galilee, find Jesus and tell him the news. Then Jesus withdraws, finds his disciples, relocates to a grassy slope outside Bethsaida, and the crowds find him there. That unbroken chain of action must take place in-between the party and a time which was still not yet Passover. By all reasonable estimates, those logistics require one to three weeks. Obviously, that fits perfectly into our range.

This is another example of what I mean by text centered versus event centered. Biblical Scholars have discussed the textual parallels at length. We ought to discuss things like WHY Herod Antipas was thinking about Xerxes & Esther at that event, or even – and here’s a thought for another day – whether Herodias was inspired by Esther’s story to come up with her plan in the time in-between these two parties!

Generally, Classical Historians seem more balanced at this – they critique the text, but they keep in mind the overall goal is to reconstruct actual events. Indeed, why Christian and Biblical scholars have been so purely text driven may be a historical question of a whole other sort. But I’m way over my word quota for this post… ;)

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