King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ 15But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’16But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’
17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her.18For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not,20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias 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.’ 23And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ 24She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Translation: And King Herod heard--for his (Jesus) name became famous--and he said, "John, the one baptizing, has been raised out of death, and through this, the powers are working in him." But others said, "It is Elijah," and others said, "A prophet like one of the prophets." But when Herod heard, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For Herod himself sent forth and took hold of John and he bound him in prison because of Herodias, the wife of Philip, his brother, because he married her. For John was saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have the woman of your brother." But Herodias was having a quarrel with him, and was wanting him dead, but she was not able. For Herod was fearing John, knowing him a just and holy man, and was keeping him, and when he heard (was) much perplexed, and heard him gladly.
And a convenient day appeared when Herod, on his birthday, made a feast for his nobles and captains and the chiefs of Galilee. And the daughter of Herodias herself entered in and danced. She pleased Herod and the ones together with him. But the king said to the girl, "Ask me whatever you might wish and I will give you." And he promised her, "Whatever you might ask me I will give to you, until half my kingdom."
And she went out and said to her mother, "What might I ask?" But she said, "The head of John, the one baptizing." And she came in immediately, with haste, to the king, and asked, saying, "I wish that you might give to me right now, on a platter, the head of John the baptizer." And the king became very sorry, because of the oath and the ones sitting with him, he did not wish to reject her. And immediately, the king sent an executioner he commanded to bring his head. And he went and beheaded him in prison, and he brought his head on a platter and he gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. And when his disciples heard, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
Background and situation: Mark frames the story of Herod Antipas' murder of John the Baptist within the story of the mission of the twelve. In Mark, the twelve begin their mission in 6:7-13, which is followed by the Herod story in 14-29, which is then followed by a return to the mission in v. 30. Mark connects the two events, and places the Herod story within the larger context of the apostolic mission.
Herod Antipas: The "King Herod" mentioned in Mark is Herod Antipas, the son of King Herod the (so-called) Great. The father, a shrewd and ruthless political operator, ruled the region from 37 BC - 4 BC. Upon his death, his kingdom was divided between his three sons.
Antipas got Galilee and Perea. In political terms, Galilee was a region on the west side of the Sea of Galilee; Perea bordered the Jordan River in the region near the Dead Sea. Antipas' regions were non-contiguous. Technically speaking, Antipas was a "tetrach"--ruler of a "quarter"--and not a "king." Mark calls him "king" metaphorically--Herod is of the ruling elite.
The lection begins by noting that Jesus had become famous. Word about Jesus had even reached Antipas. Quite often in the Bible, rulers are portrayed as being the last people to know something. The king of Israel, for example, apparently didn't know about the prophet in Samaria, but a slave girl to a general's wife in Aram did.
Hearing about Jesus, Antipas proclaims that John the baptizer must have been resurrected. This would have been a rather "low" view of resurrection, even for that time. The pharisees, for example, looked for the "resurrection of the dead" at the end of time, not intermediate resurrections before then. It was not uncommon, however, for people to believe that someone's "spirit" had come back, or that they had become an angel of some kind.
Others mention the possibility that Jesus is Elijah--Elijah will appear in chapter nine--or "a prophet like one of the prophets." Antipas, however, continues to insist, grimly, that the one he himself put to death is now back. The stage is then set for a recounting of the death of John.
The death of John the baptist: In his history of the period, Josephus said that Antipas killed John because he was nervous over the John's high level of political support in the region--"Eloquence that had so great an effect on the people might lead to some form of sedition," said Josephus.
Herod decided, therefore, that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. (Antiquities, 18, v. 2)
Mark gives us a different reason. One should keep in mind that Mark is not writing to give us historical facts, but rather to give us an interpretation of the life of Jesus in the context of his times. Josephus' analysis is probably correct in terms of history, but Mark has a larger agenda.
Mark wants to expose the venality of the Herodian court by showing us what happens when the power structure gets together for a party. This is in sharp contrast to the party about to be thrown by Jesus in the two upcoming "feeding stories"--the feeding of the 5000 in 6:34-44, and the feeding of the 4000 in 8:1-10.
The juxataposition is stunning. The meal of Herod is about corruption and violence. The meals of Jesus reconcile both Jews and gentiles. The meal of Herod is for the upper-crust elite. The meal of Jesus is for the crowds. The highlight of the Herod "liturgy" is the ceremonious delivery of the head of the Baptist. The highlight of Jesus' meal is the giving of food for everyone. Mark wants us to see the contrast between the Black Mass of Herod and the Great Thanksgiving of Jesus.
Mark makes a skillful attack. In his portrayal of this incident, the perogatives of royalty are exposed as profligate and deadly. Moreover, he plays on a particular political weakness of Antipas, his (false) Jewish bona fides.
In the ancient near east, among the potentates and plutocrats, marriage was a matter of politics. Antipas' first marriage was to the daughter of Aretas, the king of the Nabateans. It was a political marriage. Nabatea, on the southeast border of Antipas' Perea, was a regional power, and a potential threat to Antipas.
While on a trip to Rome, Antipas had stayed with his half-brother, Herod, and had an affair with Herod's wife, Herodias. Antipas divorced his first wife, the daughter of Aretas, and married Herodias. Aretas later went to war against Antipas, some say because of the insult to his daughter and himself, and defeated him. Herodias also happened to be Antipas' niece.
Mark refers to Antipas' brother as Philip, though the brother's real name was Herod. Mark might simply have been in error, or, more likely, he is using a Greek name for Herod so as to connect the ruling party with the "hellenizing" of the region. (Greek culture--"hellenizing"--was perceived by many as a threat to the Hebrew culture of the region. In Mark's thinking, Philip represents Greek culture and the baptist represents the Hebrew prophets.)
The focus of John's criticism is not precisely clear. He's not objecting to Antipas' divorce per se, nor even to the idea of a second marriage. The Sadducees would have opposed the second marriage because Antipas' new wife was also his niece, but that is not stated in Mark, and it is hard to see the Baptist invoking a Sadducean argument. (The pharisees, who generally opted for broader interpretations, would have allowed marriage to one's niece.)
John's only stated objection is Antipas' marrying his brother's wife. He may be interpreting the situation in light of Leviticus 18:16--"You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness."
If so, this would seem to be more a criticism of the affair that preceded the marriage than the marriage itself. In any case, by saying that Antipas' marriage is "unlawful," John is accusing Antipas of being out-of-step with Torah.
The Herodians were Jewish--sort of. The family converted when the Jews, very uncharacteristically, were proselytizing in the region of Idumea. The Herodian family did not have a long connection with Israel, and did not operate in a way that was particularly "Jewish."
In fact, Antipas may have been interested in Herodias in the first place because she was a daughter of the high priest. Herodias was, therefore, Jewish royalty. Antipas may have been thinking that marriage to Herodias would burnish his weak Jewish credentials.
John's critique is a form of first century "wedge politics." It was a reminder to the people that Antipas, their supposed "king," was not really one of them.
The dinner party was a typical soiree of the powerful. Antipas is hosting the nobles (megistasin), the army officers (chiliarchois) and the Galilean big shots--protois tes Galilaias, "the first ones of Galilee." Government, the army, and the commercial interests are all represented. The people would have understood these to be the very forces oppressing them. The powerful are all in cahoots.
The "daughter of Herodias" came in and danced. This was probably Herodias' daughter by her previous marriage, though this is not made clear. It would seem that any daughter produced by Herodias and Antipas would have been, at this point, much too young. (On the other hand, Mark uses the word korasion for the girl, which is a diminutive and may mean "little girl.")
The girl's dancing "pleased" Antipas and his guests, so much so that Antipas twice makes a drunken boast to give her a big gift. The girl consults her mother who wants the head of John. The girl rushes right back in--she came "immediately" and "with haste"--to ask for John's head "right now." Antipas then feels committed to follow through with his boast in order to save face.
Foreshadowing: The death of John foreshadows the death of Jesus. In both cases, political violence is rendered in order to maintain the status quo. As the followers of Jesus take up his mission, they are to take heed that such a mission could result in the same destiny that met their leaders.
We are given a hint that the supposed followers of Jesus will fail at their task. We are told that the disciples of John came and took care of his body (6:29). When the twelve disciples are faced with a similar situation at the death of their leader, Jesus, they did not take care of the body or place it in a tomb. Instead, they ran away--yet another failure of the twelve in Mark's gospel.
Antipas has the power of capital punishment, which is the power of death. Jesus, however, has the power of life, which, though not directly stated in this lection, is implied at the beginning when Antipas says that Jesus is really John "who has been raised." By raising this possibility, Antipas unwittingly expresses fear that his power, the power of death, has been broken.
Image: Benozzo Gozzoli