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Joanna, Salome, & the Court of King Herod Antipas in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)

Joanna, a patron of the early Jesus movement and the wife of King Herod Antipas’ household manager, Chuza, is a rather minor character in the Gospel accounts but she serves an important role for an adaptation like The Chosen. Because The Chosen is seeking to tell the story of Jesus from the perspective of ordinary people, in order to capture biblical events involving influential politicians like King Herod or Pilate, we need a more ordinary point-of-view character present. That’s where Joanna comes in. Joanna serves as the audience’s window into the hidden world of elite Roman politics - while also providing us insight into the group of wealthy patronesses who helped keep the ministry of Jesus afloat. Below, I’ll explore how The Chosen adapts the biblical material about Joanna as well as the sleazy court of King Herod Antipas that surrounds her.


[If you’re looking for my review and analysis of The Chosen Season 4 Episode 1, you can find it here.]


Joanna in The Chosen Season 3
Joanna in The Chosen Season 3

Joanna in Scripture

Joanna only shows up twice in Scripture and both instances are in the Gospel of Luke:

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him,  and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. (Luke 8:1-3, ESV)

And

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. (Luke 24:1-12, ESV)

Based on these two references, we can gather a few basic facts about Joanna:

  • She was closely associated with Mary Magdalene and traveled with the followers of Jesus.

  • Jesus appears to have healed her or freed her from some form of demonic oppression.

  • As the wife of a wealthy and influential man, Herod’s household manager, Chuza, she helped bankroll the ministry of Jesus.

  • She was one of the initial witnesses to the empty tomb.


We can also draw some less-obvious inferences about Joanna if we ask ourselves why Luke even mentions her at all. From a narrative perspective, Joanna is a superfluous character. The first reference to her is simply a listing of female followers - it’s not like she plays a concrete narrative role. The second reference is more substantial from a storytelling-perspective. But, if we assume (like most scholars do) that the Gospels of Luke and Matthew generally draw on the earlier Gospel of Mark, then even this reference to her is strange. Since Joanna isn’t mentioned in the empty tomb account found in Luke’s primary source material (the Gospel of Mark), Luke must be going out of his way to include her, even though she doesn’t really add anything to the story. The only reason for Luke to do this is as a form of attribution. That is to say, Luke mentions Joanna in order to suggest that she is one of the eyewitnesses that herinterviewed while writing his account (Luke 1:1-4).


The likelihood that Joanna is one of Luke’s eyewitness sources is increased if we consider how the court of King Herod Antipas plays a more prominent role in Luke’s writings. Although Luke doesn’t give us as many details about the death of John the Baptist (though he could have done so simply by drawing on Mark), his Gospel is the only account that mentions the story of Herod’s encounter with Jesus during Holy Week (Luke 23:6-12). This seems to suggest that Luke had a source that was acquainted with the inner-workings of Herod’s court. It’s plausible to conclude that Luke learned about these unique stories by interviewing Joanna.


Joanna in The Chosen Season 3 & Season 4

Although The Chosen mostly follows Luke’s account in its depiction of Joanna, it does make a few changes. In The Chosen, Joanna isn’t healed by Jesus. We also don’t see her traveling with Jesus and his disciples. Instead, the show emphasizes the two unique roles that she plays: as a witness of the inner-workings of Herod’s court and as a patroness to the Jesus movement.


Both of these elements show up during our first encounter with Joanna in Episode 1 of The Chosen Season 3. Joanna sheds light on the condition of John in the shadowy dungeon of Herod - and even goes so far as to sneak Andrew in to meet with John for one last time. She also offers treasure to Mary Magdalene and Tamar, which they are eventually able to sell in order to provide for Jesus’ ministry.


Joanna’s role as an eyewitness becomes even more prominent in Season 4. In Episode 1, Joanna is our primary point-of-view character within the household and court of Herod during the events leading up to John’s execution. Although she isn’t present for the execution itself (perhaps a clever nod to how the event isn’t described in as much detail in Luke), Joanna sees most of the build-up and is the one who reports John’s death to the disciples. Later, in Episode 8, Joanna serves as our POV into the machinations of King Herod and Pilate. Her connection to Pilate’s wife, Claudia, suggests that Joanna will also serve as a source of information regarding Pilate’s role in the trial of Jesus.

Season 4 also highlights Joanna’s role as a benefactor for the Jesus movement. The show goes out of its way to give us a scene in which the disciples receive treasures sent by Joanna and it even shows us how the disciples would have taken that treasure and sold it to meet their daily needs while engaging in ministry.


Joanna in The Chosen Season 5 (**Spoilers & Speculation**)

As I’ve already suggested, Joanna will almost certainly continue to play an important role as a POV/witness to the events happening behind closed doors in the courts of Herod and Pilate. However, her decision to separate from her husband, Chuza, on account of his blatant adultery may make it more difficult for her to serve as a financial benefactor for the disciples going forward. But I suspect that this decision sets Joanna up to play another biblical role - one not traditionally associated with her character.


When Joanna leaves Chuza at the end of Episode 8 of The Chosen Season 4, most modern viewers will assume that she is effectively divorcing him. That is what a modern woman would do in a similar circumstance. But in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, women were generally not allowed to divorce their husbands unilaterally. Although there are a few known cases in which prominent women were able to do so (often with the backing of an even more prominent political figure), most women were simply stuck (which is one reason why adultery was so rampant). While Joanna probably comes from a rich family, it’s unlikely that she has more political clout than her husband, Chuza. Given his connection to King Herod, if Chuza doesn’t want to let Joanna go, he can probably prevent her from divorcing him.


So, even though Joanna has physically separated herself from Chuza, she may still be bound to him legally. And that means if Joanna were to engage in any sort of romantic relationship with another man, according to the legal standards of the day, she could be accused of committing adultery. Do you see where I’m going with this?


One of the most famous stories about Jesus is about an encounter with a woman caught in adultery:

 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11*, ESV)

[*The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not include this story. Many scholars wonder whether it was an independent tradition that was inserted into John by a later scribe.]


Given how beloved the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is, I find it hard to believe that The Chosen will not include it in Season 5. My theory is that Joanna’s decision to leave Chuza at the end of Season 4 is setting her up to play the role of the adulterous woman in Season 5. While this would be a rather controversial direction for the show to take, it would serve several functions:

  • Our emotional investment in the scene and in Joanna would be amplified

  • The show would avoid having to set up yet another tertiary character

  • The weakness and unfaithfulness of the disciples (Judas, Peter, and everyone else in the Gethsemane) will almost certainly be a major thematic emphasis of the season

  • The advantage that the Pharisees are seeking to gain by confronting Jesus with the dilemma would be even clearer (i.e. either force him to order the execution of his follower or expose him as a friend of sinners)


Keep in mind though that I don’t have (or want) any insider information to confirm my theory. We’ll just have to wait and see if I’m correct!



King Herod Antipas and his wife, Herodias
King Herod Antipas and his wife, Herodias

Salome & the Court of King Herod Antipas in Scripture

King Herod Antipas the Tetrarch (not to be confused with his father, King Herod the Great of Matthew 2 or King Herod Agrippa I of Acts 12) is mentioned on several occasions in the Gospel accounts, almost always in a negative light. The Pharisees tell Jesus that Herod is seeking to kill him and in response Jesus calls him a “fox” (Luke 13:31-32) - probably a slighting reference to how Herod was unclean, treacherous, and destructive. During Jesus’ trial, Pilate sends Jesus over to Herod to get input and we’re told that Herod “had long desired to see [Jesus], because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him.” However, when Jesus refuses to answer questions or perform miracles, Herod sends him away, mockingly dressing him in fine clothing (Luke 23:6-12).


Herod’s most substantial role in the Gospel accounts is in the story of John the Baptist’s execution:

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.”  But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:14-29, ESV)

This story highlights a couple aspects of Herod’s character:

  • Herod is a fool, ignorant of God’s revelation. His conclusion that Jesus is a resurrected John the Baptist doesn’t make a lot of sense from a  biblical perspective - which is exactly what we would expect from a man who also proves himself ignorant of the Torah’s laws about marrying his brother’s ex-wife.

  • Herod is a weak man trying to look strong. He fears John and knows that he shouldn’t kill him, but he allows himself to be pushed into doing so by his manipulative wife. By contrast, we see true strength both in John, who is willing to speak truth in the face of imprisonment and death, and in John’s disciples, who are willing to risk their lives to retrieve his body.

  • Herod’s kingdom is the antithesis of the Kingdom of God. This story centers around a feast and is set alongside another story about a feast - the feeding of the 5,000 (and the walking on water story). Whereas Herod’s arrogant offer, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” can only be fulfilled by taking the life of another man, Jesus is able to offer his followers an abundant feast by trusting in the abundance of the Father. Herod reveals himself to be a selfish, empty, and impotent king, while Jesus reveals himself to be the generous lord of abundance and the ruler of the waves and winds.


The characterization of Herod’s wife, Herodias, and her daughter, Salome, is fairly straightforward. Herodias is treated as a wicked and manipulative schemer, set on killing John. Salome is given almost no agency. When offered a boon, instead of choosing something for herself, she allows her decision to be dictated by her mother. Although we’re told that her dancing pleased Herod and his guests, we’re not told how or why.


Salome performing the Dance of the Seven Veils in 1953's Salome
Salome performing the Dance of the Seven Veils in 1953's Salome

Salome and the Court of King Herod Antipas in Hollywood

The story of Salome dancing before the court of King Herod Antipas and the subsequent beheading of John the Baptist was once a quite popular subject during the Golden Age of Hollywood - back when biblical adaptations were even more popular than they are today. While the Bible itself doesn’t tell us much about the dancing of Salome, many artists and filmmakers have portrayed the dance as overtly sexual. This notion was popularized by Oscar Wilde’s controversial 1893 play, Salome, which features “the Dance of the Seven Veils” - a kind of elaborate strip tease. Wilde’s play was adapted over subsequent decades into a variety forms and eventually influenced major Hollywood productions like 1953’s Salome and 1961’s King of Kings. 


Hollywood portrayals of Herod Antipas are more diverse. Based on the sexual interpretation of Salome’s dancing, Herod is often characterized as lecherous and dissolute, a man shamelessly consumed by a perverse lust for his own niece/stepdaughter. To communicate his intemperate character, films like Jesus Christ SuperStar and The Passion of the Christ have portrayed him as fat, foppish, and unserious. His desire to meet Jesus and see miracles is generally not portrayed as a sincere religious pursuit but simply a hunger for entertainment and spectacle.


Salome & the Court of King Herod Antipas in The Chosen Season 4

Because Joanna is our POV character in the court, King Herod is a rather distant figure. We get relatively little dialogue from him, especially in Episode 1, and what he does say gives us little insight into his interior life. While clearly prone to drunkenness and easily manipulated by Herodias, he doesn’t come across as an ignorant fool or a foppish weakling. Perhaps because he’s so distant and silent, he maintains a formidable aura. Thus, instead of undercutting Herod, The Chosen focuses on presenting his ruthless and oppressive court as the antithesis of the humble and sacrificial kingdom of Jesus.


The way that The Chosen portrays Salome and her dancing is striking - in part because of what the show doesn’t do. In sharp contrast to the typical Hollywood approach, in The Chosen the dancing of Salome is not a lurid affair. Her attire is form-fitting but modest (at least by modern standards), her choreography is acrobatic and precise, not sultry or suggestive (no belly-dancing or stripping here), and her facial expression is intense and focused - unlike what you’d expect from a seductress. Herod’s expression as he watches her is hard to read, but he doesn’t seem to leer or salivate. In my eyes, he came across more like a demanding judge. Perhaps most importantly, we’re given a somewhat superfluous peek into the grueling training that Salome went through to prepare for the performance and we see how much she’s being pressured, not to be seductive, but rather to be precise. It’s as if the show is going out of its way to orient us toward seeing Salome as a legitimate artist and not a sexual object. And perhaps that is what The Chosen is doing - either out of a genuine conviction that the sexualized reading of the biblical material is mistaken or simply out of a desire to keep the content of the show family-friendly.


Salome dancing in The Chosen Season 4 Episode 1
Salome dancing in The Chosen Season 4 Episode 1

The way that The Chosen portrays Salome’s dancing is also striking on account of what the show does do. While the show avoids the perverse implications of the sexual interpretation, the dancing of Salome still comes across as perverse and unsettling for other reasons. Some of Salome’s contortions look like the kinds of unnatural movements we’d expect to see in The Exorcist. The rattling and clanking of her necklaces and the accompanying musicians evoke the sounds of a snake. Moreover, her stare comes across as almost hypnotic. Instead of embodying the power of sexual lust, Salome seems to symbolize the malign influence that dark spiritual forces have over those in power. 


Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Salome herself is a demon or demonically-possessed. In fact, The Chosen tries to humanize her and portray her as a fairly innocent child who’s simply trying to please her demanding and manipulative mother. But in obediently carrying out her mother’s will, Salome unwittingly becomes a tool that the principalities and powers use to achieve their destructive ends. The sinister overtones of her dancing subtly hint at this abstract, unseen reality.


Do you have any thoughts on the portrayal of Joanna, Salome, or Herod? Want to push back against any of my analysis or predictions? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


 

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6 Comments


Great article as always.


I agree that it's very likely Joanna will be dovetailed into becoming the woman caught in adultery. The Chosen has been very clever in its adherence to the Economy of Characters, meaning that it makes more sense to streamline two characters' stories down into one character when possible, especially when one of those characters is otherwise unidentified. The biggest downside to this is that it can strain credulity to justify one known character somehow being the identity of a well-known (but unnamed) character that's never been linked to that character before. My only issue with a lot of these anonymous Bible characters is that a good chunk of the power of those stories is that thei…


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That's interesting that you read the dance and Herod's portrayal as sexual - and especially since you didn't already think of the underlying biblical event as sexual. I'd love to poll viewers and get a sense of what the consensus is. This wouldn't be the first time that the show was understated in the way that it hinted at sexuality. Anyone else reading - feel free to chime in with your impression!

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Yes, your mind is working just like mine! Writers could easily make the romantic feelings occur between Andrew and Joanna. And they wouldn't have to pay a new male actor, because Noah James is already there. How convenient! You are correct, the religious leaders could easily accuse a couple of an adulterous liaison, even if they are just embracing or maybe even kissing. I do believe the writers set up something of a bond between Andrew and Joanna, and the two did ride together in a carriage back to Herod's palace.


After all, Lancelot and Guinevere never committed adultery, they were merely discovered together, and this blew up into charges of adultery. Ages ago, I remember talking to a frien…


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That's a good point about the dangerous situations breed transient romance. Shared grief can as well. The more we discuss the Andrew/Joanna angle, the less crazy it seems to me. I guess we'll see!

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Hi,

First the easy one. I believe The Chosen could have taken the opportunity to develop Herod's character more thoroughly. It would have meant he needed to be a cast member at the end of Season 3. According to Mark 6:20, Herod liked listening to the imprisoned John the Baptist. Likely this was a series of conversations that went on over a period of months, conversations that had the potential to be quite revealing of Herod. Too bad, opportunity lost!


Now as to Joanna, it would not bother me if she ended up being the woman caught in adultery. I'm pretty neutral, even if such a plot device seems controversial.


One thing is sure about Joanna: She left Chuza a…


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I agree regarding Herod. It would have been ideal for us to get a little more of Joanna in Season 3, which would have allowed us to see the tension that Herod feels regarding John. I know it's hard for the show to fit everything in though.


I think you've put your finger on the weakest part of my prediction - while there's sufficient set up with regard to Joanna's ambiguous marital status, there's not much set up emotionally or with regard to a potential paramour. But, to be fair, they could be saving that set up for Season 5 itself. If the affair happened in, say, Episode 3 or 4, there would be time for the show to do…


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