It is hard to believe that the biblical character associated with two of history's immortal phrases— "Bring me the head of John the Baptist" and "The Dance of the Seven Veils"—is not even named in the Bible. Fleetingly mentioned in the New Testament Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Salome is identified simply as the daughter who so inflamed a king with her sensual dancing that he granted her request to behead the prophet who preached the coming of Christ.
Yet she has become a creature of legend, her story commandeered and bent to the imaginations of countless artists, writers, and dancers centuries after she lived.
Maybe it was all her mother's fault.
Salome's mother, Herodias, was a granddaughter of Herod the Great, the King of Judea from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. In the account of Flavius Josephus, the first-century historian, Herodias's first husband was her uncle, Herod Philip. After the birth of their daughter, Salome, she left Herod for her husband's half brother Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee.
This rather incestuous union was repeatedly criticized by the prophet John the Baptist. "It is not lawful," he told Herod Antipas, "for you to have your brother's wife." At the same time, the religious movement John began was growing in popularity, threatening Herod Antipas with a rebellion among his subjects. In fact, Herod's military losses in a border war with the King of Nabatea were seen by many subjects as divine punishment for his marriage to Herodias after he had divorced Nabatea's daughter. In an attempt to weaken John's influence, Herod imprisoned him in the remote fortress of Machaerus on the cliffs above the Dead Sea in southern Perea. John's popularity, however, made Herod reluctant to martyr him through assassination.
At a celebratory banquet given at the palace fortress at Machaerus, the story goes, Herodias deviously arranged for Salome to dance for the pleasure of her stepfather. The sensual dance, although it is not described in detail, so delighted Herod—and, by implication, so aroused him—that he offered "even half of my kingdom" to the young girl. Delivering her well-planned coup de grâce, Herodias instructs the girl to make one request: "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter."
The king, though deeply shocked, is nevertheless unable to retreat from the magnanimous offer he made in front of so many witnesses. So John is retrieved from his prison cell, and his head is cut off. The head, sitting in a pool of fresh blood, is brought to Salome on a tray. She then gives it to her mother.
Gruesome in its details, and even more stunning in its portrayal of the young girl's lascivious dance, the drama of Salome has long been suspect. "Some scholars have questioned the entire story," writes Ross Kraemer in Women in Scripture. Kraemer cites, among other discrepancies, Josephus's account of the death of John, as well as differing dates in the Gospel and Josephus accounts that would have made Salome the wrong age for the role. Kraemer says it seems likely that "the entire narrative is a fabrication."
Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament studies and director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, also questions the historical accuracy of the dance of Salome. "Her existence—including her marriage to the king of Chalcis—is noted by Josephus," says Levine, "and he'd have no reason to invent her. As for whether she danced for Herod Antipas and his friends, or whether she was involved in the death of John the Baptist—highly, highly doubtful."