This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on July 12, 2015.
These verses present a unique narrative in Mark’s Gospel; the focus is not upon Jesus. Up until this point, Jesus has occupied center stage, but for one brief moment the spotlight shifts totally to another, John the Baptist. The shift happens in 8:14-16 with Herod’s identification of this rumored Jesus as John the Baptist raised from the dead. While other popular identifications speculated that Jesus was Elijah or a prophet like of old, Herod’s paranoid assessment becomes his haunted truth, “John has been raised.” He is guilt-haunted because Herod understands his personal responsibility for the death of John by repining, “I beheaded” him.
The execution of John by Herod, with its graphic content, occupies all of verses 17-29. John’s death is so significant the Jewish historian Josephus (A. D. 37-100) in The Antiquities of the Jews (18:116-119) also records (although with differing details) this event. Readers/listeners encounter in verses 17-29 a flashback to the event. Like a television show or movie, the author gives readers the backstory of how John the Baptist was arrested, imprisoned, plotted against and beheaded. The backstory of palace intrigue is filled with plots within plots, a weak king, a scheming wife, a complicit daughter, and willing henchmen. The story is driven by the actions of the characters and is meant to generate strong feelings towards each of the individuals involved in the narrative.
Herod, who features prominently, is Herod Antipas (20 B.C.-A.D. 39), the son of Herod the Great. While Mark labels him king, actually his title was tetrarch (ruler of a quarter). He ruled only a fragment of his father’s original territories; yet, he harbored hopes for being king and following in his father’s footsteps. This narrative, however, illustrates his character as being anything but kingly material. Writers reveal character in two ways, by telling or showing; Mark does both. He specifically tells readers that Herod “feared John” (4:20). If kings are courageous, Herod is not. Mark also shows the foolishness of Herod with his ill-conceived oath to give Herodias’ daughter whatever she asked. He speaks before he thinks, not the characteristic of a discerning and wise ruler.
Mark paints Herodias with colors dipped in the Hebrew Scripture. Her methods of manipulation motivated by vengeance reflect the portrait of Jezebel who manipulates her husband king Ahab (1 Kings 21:5-14) and who nurtured a deep hatred of God’s prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-3). John the Baptist drew Herodias’ hatred because his public message about her marriage to Herod (6:17), a violation of purity norms (Lev. 20:21), humiliated her. In a world of shame and honor, she had to respond, and her response was the desire “to kill him” (6:19).
If Herod is duped, and Herodias is cunning, her daughter is a pawn in this game of thrones. In most translations, she is unnamed. While the identity of the daughter is ambiguous (Herodias’ daughter, most translations; Herod’s daughter named Herodias, NRSV; or Salome, in Josephus), her main role is helping to spring a trap on Herod who is taken with her dancing (v. 22). Often her dance is considered erotic and sensual. This interpreter, however, may speak more to modern sexual projections upon the passage. Nothing in the passage suggests this interpretation.
John the Baptist, who is the focus of the passage, never utters a word. Only his words from the past are recalled, words that sealed his death warrant: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (6:18). John is portrayed as a prophet who spoke truth to power. And while Herod’s perceptions and insights are dull and incorrect on many levels, he accurately understood John as, “a righteous and holy man” (6:20).
The climax of the palace intrigue is the trap into which Herod foolishly fell with his oath. It occurred within the context of a banquet celebrating Herod’s birthday. This theme of eating and banqueting is continued even to the grotesque and macabre scene of John’s head being “served up” on a platter. The shadow of this macabre banquet scene falls forward into the very next narrative of the feeding of the 5,000 (6:35-44).
Skilled writers like Mark often juxtapose scenes that help mutually to interpret each other. Here is a perfect example where a preacher could highlight the difference between a feast of Herod and a feast of Jesus. Herod and his entourage eat and banquet like elites where only the few and privileged participate, but Jesus feeds the 5,000 like a king who empathizes with the masses and their need for food (6:37). While Herod’s banquet ends in violence, Jesus’ banquet ends in peace with the hungry being filled.
A possible insight for the preacher from this narrative is that Jesus, while absent from the story, is nevertheless always hovering in the background with foreshadowing. For example, the question of Jesus’ identity, whether he is John the Baptist, Elijah, or like a prophet of old, is echoed in the pivotal scene in Mark 8 when Jesus puts the question directly to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). The death and burial of John also prepares readers for the death and entombment of Jesus.
One might note different types of fear occur in Mark’s Gospel. The fear represented by Herod (or the peoples of Gerasene, 5:15) causes them to miss the truth that is in their midst represented by Jesus. Fear grounded in a sense of the holy, however, allows individuals to draw near to Jesus and recognize that God is in their midst.
Finally, the strategic placement of this scene between the disciples’ commission to mission (6:7-13) and their successful completion of their mission (6:30) illustrates that prophetic deeds and message, such as John’s, can be accompanied by suffering. The reality of suffering will always exist whenever prophetic words challenge power.
Dr. David M. May
Professor of New Testament
Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Shawnee, KS
Tags: Herod, John the Baptist, Herodias, beheading, prophet, fear