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."
Both Kraemer and Levine say Salome's story bears more than a passing resemblance to an earlier Roman narrative. "The story of Salome's dance appears to be modeled on the 2nd-century B.C. story of a Roman senator, Lucius Quinctius Flaminius, who, at a dinner party with a paid attendant—courtesan may be the nicest term—beheaded a man upon her request," Levine explains. "She wanted to see what a decapitation looked like."
Levine says readers of Mark and Matthew, "if they knew this earlier story, would see Herodias in the role of the courtesan." And the dance itself would have been a very improper event, Levine notes, saying a member of the royal household would never have performed for friends of the king. "The ancient world is not like today, where the kids are trotted out to play the piano for guests."
The motivations for the Gospel writings are also open to question, Levine points out. "Mark and Matthew use the story to show the corruption of the Herodian court in Galilee and the weakness of Herod Antipas; he is depicted as ruled by, or at least manipulated by, his wife, much as Pilate is seen as manipulated by the high priest or the crowds." In other words, says Levine, "once we look at the story as part of a narrative, it can be seen to emphasize other Gospel scenes."
Not so fast, says Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. "I consider it rather pathetic that any scholar should doubt the historicity of the biblical references to Salome," he says, "since all reports in the Gospels regarding Herod Antipas, his second wife, Herodias, and her dancing daughter accord perfectly with outside information on these people."
Maier points out that Josephus was an expert on the Herodian dynasty, figured out Salome's name, and pinpointed John the Baptist's execution site as Antipas's fortress palace. "The mound still stands today," Maier says, "waiting to be excavated." Details of the Salome event dovetail perfectly with the biblical version, Maier says, concluding, "Any critic who uses this episode on which to superimpose a question mark has chosen a hopelessly wrong target."