Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion — Christ Before Herod

The scene of Jesus’ appearance before Herod is depicted in art by 18th-century painter John Valentine Haidt.

John Valentine Haidt, “Christ Before Herod,” 1762
John Valentine Haidt, “Christ Before Herod,” 1762 (photo: Public Domain)

Palm Sunday is perhaps the only day when the liturgy has two Gospels. Because of how the liturgy of Palm Sunday developed, the Gospel of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is read at the start of Mass in conjunction with the blessing of and procession with palms. Later, during the regular Liturgy of the Word, the Church reads the entire Passion of Christ according to one of the Synoptic Gospels. This year it’s Luke. (The Passion according to John is always the Gospel on Good Friday.)

Luke’s Passion runs from the Last Supper to Jesus’ entombment. Most of its details mirror Matthew and Mark. I want to focus on something unique to Luke. Luke’s Passion includes how Jesus was sent to Herod Antipas (Luke 23:5-12).

First of all, who was Herod Antipas before whom Jesus, about to die, stands? To answer that, we have to go back to Jesus as a child and another Herod.

Herod the Great (ca 72 BC – ca 1 BC) was the Roman client “King of Judea.” He reigned from about 34 BC until his death. Although he wanted to be “King of the Jews,” the people didn’t reciprocate the affection. Indeed, Herod himself was probably not Jewish but Idumean, a region near the south Dead Sea that was not considered Jewish. He clawed his way to power initially through his father, he overthrew the Hasmonean kings that the Romans had left in place after seizing Israel in 63 B.C. On top of it all, Herod initially bet on the wrong horse in the Augustus v. Mark Anthony civil war over the Roman Empire that followed Julius Caesar’s death, but he managed to repair his relations with the former when he was victorious. Herod’s religious and political legitimacy being, therefore, constantly in doubt, he ruled with a repressive and murderous hand to keep Rome — if not the Jews — happy.

When Herod died, his territory among his three sons: Archaelus, Philip and Herod Antipas. None of them was given the title “king.” They were “tetrarchs.” The Romans quickly deposed Archaelus, taking his territory under direct control — this was the direct jurisdiction of Pilate. Herod Antipas ruled Galilee until AD 39 when he fell victim to intrigues on the part of his nephew, Herod Agrippa (who appears in the Acts of the Apostles). The Romans exiled Antipas to what is now southwest France near the Pyrenees, and gave his territory to Agrippa.

Antipas had already appeared in the Gospels as the man who arrested and then killed John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12, Luke 3:18-20). Antipas had taken his brother’s wife, Herodias, for his own, violating the Torah (Leviticus 20:21). John called Antipas out, resulting in his arrest. Herodias then capitalized on Antipas’ lusts by getting him to promise anything to her daughter, Salome, after an exotic dance. She asked for John the Baptist’s head, and Antipas executed the Baptist. Then, as now, the leadership didn’t like being called out, especially on matters of sex.

Luke alone mentions Pilate remanding Jesus to Herod. It’s not clear he had to. Luke tells us that Herod happened to be “in Jerusalem at that time” (Luke 23:7). Jerusalem was not the seat of Herod’s power: Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, was. Antipas had built that city himself, named to curry favor with Emperor Tiberius. The Jews despised it as an utterly pagan city.

Antipas was probably in Jerusalem because of Passover, the most important of the three major pilgrimage feasts. While no observant Jew, his people were, which suggested the merit of putting in an appearance, perhaps something akin to Christmas and Easter Christians. 

Pilate’s gesture seemed more of a courtesy and, as Luke notes (v. 12), served to improve relations between the two men. Since we know that Pilate was squirming for a way to get rid of trying Jesus, “passing the buck” to Antipas seemed an out. If Antipas convicted him, it was off Pilate’s plate. If he didn’t, it was Antipas’ problem. That Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate was also not necessarily all bad: Antipas’ refusal to get involved bolstered Pilate’s case to do likewise and acquit Jesus.

Luke’s presentation of the “trial” before Herod presents the latter as an unserious clown. As with John, Herod had a curiosity about the much-spoken-of wonderworker. He was probably superstitious and thought it worth getting to know the man (see v. 8). Not being particularly religious, much less deeply believing, Herod would have been happy for a demonstration of the wonderworker’s arts. Jesus kept silence (as he would later before Pilate — see John 19:10-11, in Good Friday’s Gospel). The Jewish religious establishment, on the other hand, vehemently prosecuted its case (v. 10). Herod, his curiosity having passed and convinced Jesus was another stupid fanatic, simply gave up: this was no “trial,” but an audience and the king was bored. So Antipas “dressed him in an elegant robe” (v.11) and sent him back to Pilate. It’s not the only mention of Jesus’ triple divestiture of his clothes. The soldiers also clad him in a purple robe during their “king game” when crowning him with thorns, then leading him in front of the crowd as “the Man” (Ecce homo — John 19:2-5). Ultimately, Jesus loses all his clothes — including the seamless tunic that is a clear allusion to his High Priestly office (John 19:23-24) — when he is crucified and his garment gambled away. 

Pilate argued that Antipas also had “not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him” (Luke 23:15) but eventually yields to mob “justice” and sends Christ to the cross. (Luke, unlike John, does not discuss Jesus’ scourging, although in Luke Pilate speaks of having “him flogged and then release him” (v. 22 — the same mechanism to buy time found in the other Gospels).

The scene of Jesus’ appearance before Herod is depicted in art by John Valentine Haidt (1700-1780). 

Haidt was born in what is today Gdańsk, Poland — then Danzig, Prussia. He emigrated in 1754 to what would become the United States, becoming a Moravian preacher in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 

There are other, more famous artists who depicted Christ before Herod, e.g., Duccio de Buoninsegna or Albrecht Dürer. I chose Haidt because he tells us something about American religious history and its contribution to culture and, if you want to see the painting, you only have to go to the Moravian Historical Society in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Haidt settled in Bethlehem, a project of the Moravian church founded only 13 years before his arrival. William Penn’s Pennsylvania colony provided relatively broad religious toleration, which brought many small, often pietistic and pacificist sects, especially from regions in the German cultural sphere. These groups — Moravians, Mennonites (which would include the Amish), efforts to create eschatalogical religious communities like Ephrata, Pennsylvania, Schwenkfelders — all settled in eastern Pennsylvania. 

According to an article from Pennsylvania History, Haidt came from a family of artists and studied in Berlin, receiving a prize from the King of Prussia. His religious devotion to the Moravian cause and his artistic abilities caught the attention of Count Zinzendorf, who supported Haidt. Haidt eventually took a position in the Moravian Church and emigrated to America.

As an artist, he divided his work between religious subjects and portraiture of notables in the Moravian community. The Moravians seemed to have valued him more for the latter. That was not unusual. Portraiture is very prominent in 18th-century American colonial and early Republican art: these people were keenly interested in their history, and there was no JCPenney Portraits. 

“Christ Before Herod” shows Jesus arraigned before the Galilean tetrarch. Jesus is the central figure, clad in a bright white (indicative of innocence)? He is also the only figure who looks at the viewer — it is Jesus, soon to be “lifted up” in his Passion, who draws you to himself (John 12:32) and into the scene. Being drawn into the scene is also important, because it reminds us that all people, who are sinners, have a part in Jesus’ Passion and Death, not just the historical figures on the canvas. The fact that Jesus faces the viewer more than Antipas appears also to suggest this. So does the unusual tilt of the picture, reinforced by the tiled floor (which distorts the perspective and size of presumably Herodias). Haidt seems to want to draw the viewer into this salvific event.

The question of perspective in this painting is, indeed, interesting. If you follow the light and want to make Herodias’ proportion look right, it seems you need to say you are looking at the scene from the upper right (a heavenly?) perspective. But to draw us into the painting means having Christ — the only peaceful figure in the painting — looking to the lower left. Was this deliberate or just a painter, no matter how skilled, in the backwoods of colonial Pennsylvania?

The history depicted in the painting is a mishmash. Jesus, his accusers, and the guard all have first century attire and appearances, but not Herod and Herodias. Their garb and the throne room fit more in 18th-century Prussia than first century Israel. The eagle on the wall just above Jesus’ left cheek, is the typical symbol of Rome. The room and its occupants are — but for Jesus and Herodias — otherwise in hues of red, appropriate both to the royalty of Haidt’s day as well as perhaps indicative of their guilt in spilling this Man’s blood.

I chose “this Man” deliberately, because while the Gospel of John tells us it was Pilate who pointed to Jesus with the words “Behold, the Man” (Ecce homo), Haidt’s Antipas seems almost to say the same thing with his walking stick. Antipas points at Jesus. Jesus alone looks at us. “Behold, the Man.”

Luke makes no mention of Herodias in connection with Jesus’ appearance before Antipas. So, why is she in the picture (although her face is averted from us)? Perhaps because it’s likely that if Herod went to Jerusalem, he took her with him. Perhaps because Matthew (Matthew 27:19) makes mention of the wife of Pilate (whom tradition names Procla), who tried to dissuade her husband from having anything to do with “that righteous man” and so Haidt tries to make a parallel. The parallel would not be wholly accurate, however, given that Herodias was the driving force in having John the Baptist killed. Perhaps Haidt simply wanted to add one more guilty sinner, which Herodias undoubtedly was, although in this case her face is averted from us. The faces of the primary Pharisaical accusers, on the right and left, diligently press their case, while the others — especially the guard — seethe with simple hatred. 

But isn’t that what sin is?