MARK 6:14-29. THE MARTYRDOM OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
The opening words of this Gospel are: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophets, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you'” (1:1-2). The messenger was John the Baptist (1:3-11). John prepared the way for Jesus by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:4). After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee preaching much the same message, “Repent, and believe in the Good News” (1:14-15).
The mission of the twelve (6:6b-13) leads into this story of John’s martyrdom, but Mark concludes the mission story (6:30) only after telling us the martyrdom story (6:14-29). He sandwiches the martyrdom story within the mission story for a reason. The disciples’ mission is quite successful (6:12-13), and reassures us that God’s work continues unabated even in the face of the martyrdom of a great, Godly servant. Mark’s church needed to hear this, because they were suffering great persecution. We need to hear it too, because we, like God’s people through the ages, are prone to interpret difficult times as a sign that God is either impotent or uncaring.
This story serves another purpose as well. The deaths of John and Jesus warn us that God does not always reward faithful discipleship with an easy life. The prophetic Christian might be beheaded—crucified—thrown to the lions—expelled from college—fired from a job—required to apologize. The truth-teller’s road is narrow and filled with potholes. We should not expect applause for preaching prophetically.
MARK 6:14-16. JESUS’ NAME HAD BECOME KNOWN
14King Herod heard this, for his name had become known, and he said, “John the Baptizer has risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “He is Elijah.” Others said, “He is a prophet, or like one of the prophets.” 16But Herod, when he heard this, said, “This is John, whom I beheaded. He has risen from the dead.”
“King Herod heard this” (v. 14a). Hearing of Jesus’ ministry, Herod immediately thinks of John the Baptist, whom he killed some time earlier (1:14). The story of John’s death that follows, then, is a flashback to that time.
Herod Antipas is not really king, but tetrarch. That term originally meant “one of four rulers,” but came to mean a governor with limited authority.
• Antipas rules over Galilee and Perea (Matthew 14:1; Luke 9:7).
• His brother, Archelaus, rules over Judea and Samaria.
• A half-brother, Philip, rules over Gentile territories on the far side of the Jordan River and northeast of Galilee.
Antipas rules at Rome’s pleasure, and is subject to Rome’s guidance. He has reigned since 4 B.C., but will be deposed and sent into exile in 36 A.D. Consider that for a moment—Herod’s forty-year reign will come to an ignominious end not long after his involvement in the deaths of John and Jesus.
Herod’s name raises a red flag. Earlier, Herod the Great tried to kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 1-20). Herod Archelaus threatened Joseph and his little family (Matthew 2:22). Now Herod Antipas murders John the Baptist. The mention of Herod’s name warns us of trouble ahead.
“for his name had become known” (v. 14b). While this is the story of John’s death, it begins by mentioning both Herod and Jesus. The linkage of Herod, John, and Jesus is important to this text. We have seen linkages between John and Jesus from the beginning:
• Mary and Elizabeth celebrated their pregnancies together, and Elizabeth told Mary of the preeminent role that Mary’s son would play.
• John prepared the way for Jesus.
• John baptized Jesus, and his baptism became an occasion God to reveal Jesus’ sonship.
Now both John and Jesus are linked to Herod, who will play a role in their deaths (see Luke 23:7-15):
• Herod kills John for telling the truth. In due time, we will see Herod involved in Jesus’ death.
• Herod is ambivalent about John, as he will be about Jesus (Luke 23). Both Herod and Pilate will have misgivings about authorizing Jesus’ execution, but both will be persuaded by a crowd of people.
• John’s disciples “came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb” (6:29). Joseph of Arimathea will do the same for Jesus.
• Both John and Jesus continue to wield power after their deaths. The thought of John’s death continues to haunt Herod, and he believes Jesus to be John resurrected (6:16). Jesus will, in fact, be resurrected.
This, then, is more than a story about John. It is a story about Jesus—a glimpse into the death that he will die and the resurrection that will follow. John blazed the trail for Jesus both in life and in death.
The disciples will also find themselves on that trail. Norman Perrin discovered the following pattern (mentioned in Williamson, 123):
• John the Baptist preaches (1:4-8) and is delivered up (1:14; 6-17-29).
• Jesus preaches (1:14-15) and is delivered up (9:31; 10:33, 14, 15:1, 10, 15).
• The disciples preach (6:7-13) and are delivered up (13:9-13).
Herod sees Jesus as “John, whom I beheaded,” raised from the dead (v. 16):
• People expect Elijah to return before the end (Malachi 4:5-6), and Jesus tells the disciples that John is Elijah (Mark 9:13; Matthew 11:14).
• People respect prophets—at least long-dead prophets—but John is their first prophet in centuries. It is true that Jesus is also a prophet, but he is also more than a prophet (8:27-30).
• It wouldn’t make sense to think that Jesus would be John resurrected, because Jesus and John were contemporaries and knew each other. But Herod is haunted by his guilt in beheading John—and is concerned that John’s spirit has come to haunt him in the person of Jesus.
• Soon Peter will correctly identify Jesus: “You are the Christ” (8:29).
“But others said, ‘He is Elijah” (v. 15). Based on the prophecy of Malachi 4:5, the people of Jesus’ day expected Elijah to return to usher in the day of the Lord. In this Gospel, John is Elijah the prophet. Jesus said, “Elijah has come, and they have also done to him whatever they wanted to, even as it is written about him” (9:13).
There are close parallels between this story and the story of Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel (1 Kings 16):
• The sin of both kings involves their marriage to wicked women (1 Kings 16:31; Mark 6:1-8).
• Both Elijah and John challenge their respective kings prophetically, causing both Jezebel and Herodias to scheme murder.
• Both kings are weak men who find themselves caught between their confrontation with a prophet and their fear of a strong wife.
• But Jezebel fails in her attempt to kill Elijah, while Herodias succeeds in her effort to kill John.
MARK 6:17-20. HERODIAS SET HERSELF AGAINST JOHN
17For Herod himself had sent out and arrested John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for he had married her. 18For John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19Herodias set herself against him, and desired to kill him, but she couldn’t, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he did many things, and he heard him gladly.
“For Herod himself had sent out and arrested John, and bound him in prison” (v. 17a). Josephus says that John was imprisoned at Herod’s order at Herod’s palace at Machaerus in southern Perea, a place far removed from Tiberius, where we believe this banquet takes place. However, the executioner’s quick action in vv. 27-28 suggests that John is a prisoner in the palace at which the banquet takes place.
“for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for he had married her” (v. 17b). Herod Antipas arrested John and imprisoned him because of John’s opposition to Antipas’ marriage to Herodias, formerly the wife of Herod’s brother, Philip.
The Herod family tree is both complex and disturbing. Herod the Great married several women who bore him seven sons. Herodias is the daughter of one of these seven sons and marries two of the other seven sons—which means that both of her husbands are also her uncles. Herod the Great was quite paranoid, and murdered three of his seven sons for fear that they might try to depose him. Of the remaining four sons, three marry either Herodias or Herodias’ daughter (Barclay, 150-152).
“For John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife'” (v. 18). John exhibited great courage in criticizing the king for violating Torah law by marrying his brother Philip’s wife (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21). That would have been legal if Philip were dead (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), but Philip is very much alive.
“Herodias set herself against him, and desired to kill him, but she couldn’t, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe” (vv. 19-20a). We are surprised at Herod’s response to John’s criticism—he “kept (John) safe” (v. 20). It sounds as if Herod’s motive in arresting John may have been twofold—to curtail John’s criticism and to protect John from Herodias’ wrath. If John is in Herod’s custody, he cannot provoke Herodias further, and he is also beyond Herodias’ reach.
“for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man” (v. 20). Even though John is a simple man with no trappings of power, Herod is afraid of him. Even though John confronts Herod, telling him things that Herod prefers not to hear, Herod protects him. Even though Herod surely has advisors who readily offer comfortable counsel, he is drawn to John’s rock-solid integrity. As preachers, we need to remember the authority of holiness and truth.
Herodias, formerly Philip’s wife and now Herod’s wife, is a different story. She “had a grudge against (John), and wanted to kill him” (v. 19). Frustrated by Herod’s protection of John, she bides her time and waits for her opportunity. Herodias is the archetypal evil queen, much like Jezebel.
Jewish rabbis taught that a good woman might marry a bad man and hope to reform him, but a good man should not marry a bad woman lest she drag him down. The truth is that neither a bad man nor a bad woman is any bargain. The New Testament tells Christians to be equally yoked—to seek a believing spouse (2 Corinthians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 7:12-15).
Herod, hearing John, “did many things, and he heard him gladly” (v. 20). We would expect Herod to close his ears to John’s criticism, but holiness and truth have great power. People in positions of power tend to surround themselves with “Yes men”—people who tell them what they want to hear. They do so because they prefer flattery to criticism—they don’t want their subordinates to raise objections to their program. But sometimes, like someone who has overindulged on candy, the ruler who has heard nothing but flattery yearns for something more substantial— something more nourishing— a word of truth.
MARK 6:21-25. THEN A CONVENIENT DAY CAME
21Then a convenient day came, that Herod on his birthday made a supper for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. 22When the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and those sitting with him. The king said to the young lady, “Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” 23He swore to her, “Whatever you shall ask of me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24She went out, and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” She said, “The head of John the Baptizer.” 25She came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.”
“Then a convenient day came, that Herod on his birthday made a supper for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee” (v. 21). Herodias’ opportunity finally comes as a result of her daughter’s dance (v. 22). Herod has assembled his key officers for this birthday party. Herodias sees that Herod is vulnerable, because he cannot afford to appear weak or indecisive in the company of these powerful men.
“When the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and those sitting with him” (v. 22). Due to differences in the ancient manuscripts, some translations say “Herodias,” while others say, “the daughter of Herodias.” Matthew’s account says that it was the daughter of Herodias (Matthew 14:6). Josephus tells us that Herodias’ daughter was named Salome.
The dance was most likely a licentious dance that most fathers would quickly stop—but not Herod. The Herod family is known for debauched behavior, and this scene is believable based on what we know about Herod from other sources.
“Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you” (v. 23). Herod’s offer of half his kingdom is a sham, because Antipas has no authority to give (or to sell) the lands over which he rules (Edwards, 187).
Little does Herod guess what the daughter will ask. She seeks advice from her mother, who tells her to ask for the head of John the baptizer (v. 24). “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her” (v. 26). Like Pilate, Herod’s convictions melt easily in the face of a crowd.
Herodias asks only for John’s head; Salome adds her own personal touch—”on a platter”—an especially macabre touch for a banquet setting (v. 25).
There are a number of parallels between this scene and the story of Esther—parallels that would be quite apparent to early Jewish readers of Mark’s Gospel:
• Both Esther and Salome gain advantage over their enemies at a banquet.
• Esther won the king’s favor (Esther 5:2) and Salome “pleased Herod” (v. 22).
• Both kings offer up to half of their kingdoms (Esther 5:3; Mark 6:23).
• While Esther did not ask for the death of her enemy, Haman, her exposure of his treachery resulted in his being hung from the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai, Esther’s uncle (Esther 6). Salome asks for John’s death, a request that Herod quickly honors.
• The major difference between the two stories is that Esther sought only to expose Haman’s treachery so that she might save her people—her motives were pure. We cannot say the same for Salome and Herodias.
MARK 6:26-29. HE WENT AND BEHEADED JOHN
26The king was exceedingly sorry, but for the sake of his oaths, and of his dinner guests, he didn’t wish to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent out a soldier of his guard, and commanded to bring John’s head, and he went and beheaded him in the prison, 28and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the young lady; and the young lady gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard this, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.
“Immediately the king sent out a soldier of his guard, and commanded to bring John’s head, and he went and beheaded him in the prison” (v. 27). The king dispatches a soldier to bring John’s head on a platter, which is done.
The guard “brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the young lady” (v. 28a). The head is presented to the daughter, who gives it to her mother. It is hard to imagine a girl and her mother who could face such a gory sight, but Mark notes no distaste on the part of either one.
“When (John’s) disciples heard about it, they came and took his corpse, and laid it in a tomb” (v. 29). This is another parallel with Jesus’ burial. While Jesus’ disciples will abandon Jesus and fail to claim his body (14:50), Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple, will take care of the burial (15:43-46).
Josephus reports an interesting sequel to this story. To marry Herodias, Herod Antipas divorced his first wife, who was the daughter of King Aretas of Nabatea. To avenge the insult, Aretas will start a war with Herod Antipas and soundly defeat him. That, among other things, will lead to Rome deposing Antipas and sending him into exile in Gaul. Early Christians saw this as punishment for Herod’s role in the executions of John and Jesus.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan