While often seen as a biblical villain, Herod Antipas seemed a better ruler than his father.
Herod Antipas, who infamously ordered the execution of John the Baptist and who questioned Christ at the offset of His Passion, is often viewed as a biblical villain. While he appears in the Bible several times, we have very little record of the man and his reign aside from what is in scripture. Examinations of archaeological sites, however, suggest he may not have been an ineffectual leader and he didn’t seem as enthusiastic about putting down the Jewish people as his father, Herod the Great.
Herod Antipas was named Tetrarch over one-quarter of his father’s kingdom by Emperor Augustus and he reigned over Galilee and Perea from 4 B.C. to 39 A.D. Bob Campbell of Odessa American suggests that Herod may have been Jewish himself, although he was not practicing. This could explain why the Jewish people were not thrilled with his rule, as he was something of an apostate and he answered to Roman, not Jewish, law.
We first encounter Antipas in the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark, when he orders the death of John the Baptist. John, Jesus’s cousin, had been decrying Herod for taking his niece/sister-in-law, Herodias, as his concubine. To modern sensibilities, this sounds scandalous in its own right, but John was more outraged that Herodias was married to Antipas’ brother, Herod Philip, who was still alive.
The narrative goes that Herod Antipas was drunk and delighted by Salome — the daughter of Herodias and Herod Philip — who danced for him, and the king told her that he would give her anything she asked in return for the display. Salome was convinced by her mother to request John the Baptist’s head on a silver plate.
It is here, however, that the Biblical Archaeology Society suggests that Herod Antipas may not have been thrilled with the idea of killing John. They reference an article from the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review, in which it is noted:
Both gospels state that Antipas was actually saddened by Salome’s request to have John beheaded (Matthew 14:9; Mark 6:26), and they seem to blame Salome and her mother, Herodias, for John’s execution. Bound by his own oath, Antipas is nevertheless forced to fulfill his promise to Salome.
We can tell that Herod was haunted by his decision to kill John the Baptist, because in both Matthew 14:1-2 and in Mark 6:14-16, where he learns about Jesus, he immediately compares the Christ to his cousin, suggesting that Jesus may be the reincarnation of John. He states aloud:
“This man is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why mighty powers are at work in him.”
When Jesus was sent to Herod by Pontius Pilate, Herod was described by Luke (23:8) as excited to see him, and it is noted that Herod had wanted to meet Jesus for a long time. Then, the Gospel tells us that “[Herod] questioned [Jesus] at length, but [Jesus] gave him no answer.” While we do not know exactly what questions were asked, it is possible that Herod was grilling Jesus for information to determine whether he was indeed another incarnation of John the Baptist.
Herod received no responses to his questions and he became agitated and began to mock Jesus. The sudden change from excitement at meeting Jesus to malicious ridicule could very well suggest that Herod’s fear of a risen John the Baptist may have overwhelmed him, causing him to become hostile when his fears were not dissuaded. Following this line of thought, it is possible that Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate, not because he thought Christ was a dissident, but because he feared that he may truly have been John the Baptist.
While this theory does not paint Herod Antipas in a flattering light, it is marginally better than a lunatic ruler who simply wished to see Jesus crucified for the sake of it. It also suggests that Antipas could have been more religiously inclined than previously thought, as he believed that John the Baptist had considerable power.
Evidence found through archaeological work, however, is a bit more complimentary, as it shows a ruler who seemed not to want to burden the Jewish people too much with his rule; the cities he founded were kept small, he minted few coins with his face so as not to draw the ire of the Jews, and he ordered no mass killings of Jewish children, as his father had.
In fact, The Biblical Archaeological Society notes that the region appeared to flourish under his rule, even in rural areas. They write:
As Jensen explains, this does not match earlier proposals of a devastating urban elite’s exploitation of a uniformly poor peasant population. Despite his enigmatic and sometimes inimical depiction in the New Testament, Antipas seems to have been a fairly passive but successful ruler of Galilee.