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This paper explores androcentric symbolism of the heretical woman as a literary topos to justify male superiority via the biblical interpretation of John the Baptist’s beheading and the purported influence of Herodias and Salomé, wife and stepdaughter of Herod Antipas. The gospels allege that this mother and daughter manipulated Antipas to execute John, which does not align with the historicity regarding the pragmatic, political motives Antipas likely had. Nevertheless, the circumstances under which Herodias and Salomé appear in the Christian Testament have consequently framed their portrait, which church tradition has preserved as an example of sinful, deviant, and heretical behavior. This paper argues that the degree of influence these women had in the execution of John the Baptist may have been deliberately constructed to convey the “dangers” of womanly influence and unorthodox behavior.

This case study provides an analysis of extrabiblical primary source literature—including the writings of Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Josephus Flavius, Suetonius, and Bernard of Cluny—alongside the gospel narratives of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. This paper also incorporates the necessary secondary historical source material, with a special emphasis on the various perspectives from modern feminist scholars of the Bible and early Church history. Additionally, this research will briefly address this particular biblical narrative’s contribution to the femme fatale complex in art and literature and its relative feminist interpretations. Ultimately, this methodology will reveal a constructive use of Herodias, Salomé, and their alleged role in John the Baptist’s execution as a paradigm for understanding how the topos of the heretical woman developed throughout the different phases of this religious tradition, as well as within the context of Western patriarchal culture.