Summary: The discovery of a throne platform beside a courtyard at Herod’s palace has prompted archaeologists to conclude they have found the spot where John the Baptist’s death sentence was given.
But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. – Matthew 14:6-7 (ESV)
Archaeologists Believe This is Where John the Baptist Was Sentenced to Death in the Bible’s Account
It is a dramatic and gruesome account recorded in two of the Gospels of the New Testament. Herod Antipas, son of King Herod the Great, had John the Baptist executed after promising to grant any request of a woman who had pleased him with her dance. She asked for the head of John.
According to Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37-100) these events took place in AD 29 at Herod’s mountaintop citadel of Machaerus. The remains of Machaerus sit above the Dead Sea’s east shore in modern Jordan. Now, a Hungarian Franciscan team of archaeologists headed by excavation director Győző Vörös think they have discovered the pavilion at Machaerus where the deadly dance of Salome, the daughter of Herodias, elicited the fatal pronouncement.
King Herod’s Palace Fortress at Machaerus
After King Herod the Great’s death, his kingdom was divided among his sons called tetrarchs. Machaerus was the most powerful stronghold in the portion ruled by his son Herod Antipas, which included Galilee and parts of Jordan.
The key to the conclusion by Vörös and his team that they had likely found the very floor where the dance took place was the discovery of a semi-circular niche beside a courtyard. The 7,000 square foot courtyard had originally been unearthed in 1980, but the remains of the throne were only recently recognized. The original level of the floor is lost, but evidence uncovered by the archaeologists last year points to a set of stairs leading to an elevated platform on one side of the hall where the throne sat from which Herod Antipas would have watched the dance.
Vörös recently published the discoveries in the book Holy Land Archaeology on Either Side: Archaeological Essays in Honour of Eugenio Alliata (Fondazione Terra Santa, 2020). The team is working to make reconstruction images of the courtyard for the book.
The team also uncovered a myriad of other archaeological finds at the site from the same era. ”During our excavations we have corrected many of the false archaeological reconstructions from previous excavations,” Vörös said. (See the magnificent flooring in Herodian style discovered on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.)
Some archaeologists have cautioned against jumping to conclusions as far as pinpointing the spot, especially until more work is done. However, while the Bible does not name the location, it does seem very likely that the performance leading to the beheading of John the Baptist took place within the walls of this fortress. In agreement with the report of Josephus, Vörös argued that the fort at Machaerus was the only royal palace that Herod Antipas inherited from his father, making it “a perfect place for his birthday party.”
In AD 71, fresh off its role in crushing the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem, the Roman Tenth Legion would destroy Machaerus. Two years later they would go on to capture Masada.
The Bible’s Account of John’s Beheading
The Bible’s account of this episode is covered in the Gospels of Matthew chapter 14 and Mark chapter 6. They tell of John the Baptist objecting to Herod Antipas taking as his wife Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s brother Philip. This clearly violated the law of Moses and this rebuke of Herod is also recorded in Luke 3:19-20. Herod did not kill him out of fear of the people who recognized John as a prophet, but he had John thrown into prison to quiet his pronouncements against him. (Investigate the possible site of Jesus’ trial found in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem.)
It was at Herod’s birthday party that Herodias’ daughter, named Salome, performed her dance. The Bible does not mention Salome’s name, but this detail is supplied by Josephus. Herod was so pleased that he promised her anything she wanted as a reward.
And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” – Mark 6:23 (ESV)
Prompted by her mother, Salome gave her grisly response.
…“I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” – Mark 6:25 (ESV)
Because his oath had been made before his guests, Herod sent the executioner down to the prison to behead John. The account of Josephus adds this commentary:
For Herod killed him [John], who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, (Josephus Ant 18.5.2 §117)
Ongoing Archaeological Excavations at Machaerus
The finds at the fortress of Machaerus fire the imagination in their connection of the biblical account to the real world. Vörös stated. “Josephus’ history together with the biblical literary sources are in full harmony with the archaeological research and excavations of Machaerus.”
Excavations will continue in the lower parts of Machaerus, where John the Baptist was likely imprisoned. After the execution John’s disciples are said to have buried him, perhaps in the Machaerus necropolis. His grave has been lost. However: “We are confident that we will be able to uncover the last details of this biblical drama,” Vörös added. We look forward to future finds that will cause us all to Keep Thinking!
TOP PHOTO: The niche of the royal Herodian throne at Machaerus. (Credit: Győző Vörös)