Sundays on Mark (16): the death of John the Baptist

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on Mark’s gospel

This week Mark 6:14-29: the death of John the Baptist

Politics and power, always close to front stage in the gospels, converge with grim effect in the next section of Mark’s story. His structure links the increasinlgy dramatic impact of Jesus with the fate of John. The story recounts, in Mark’s dispassionate style, an all too believable mix of political self-preservation, revenge, sexual manipulation and weakness.

Herod Antipas, tetrach of Galilee & Perea 4BC-AD39, the son of King Herod the Great who appears most in the gospels, is both self-protective in arresting John (who was operating in his area) and intrigued and impressed at the same time by the uncompromising courage of the prophet.

Mark works backwards from after John’s death with rumours of his resurrection and identification with Elijah reaching Herod, who is fearful and perhaps guilty.

Josephus locates John’s imprisonment in the formidable fortress of Machaerus built by Herod the Great, down near the Dead Sea and the Judean wilderness [pictured]. Antipas has married his niece, Herodias against Jewish law. John’s criticism challenged both his religious credentials and raised political sensitivities since his first wife who was from neighbouring (and powerful) Nabatea (think of the magnificent hidden city of Petra – I was lucky enough to visit some years ago, it went way beyond already high expectations). Josephus records the Nabateans inflicting a crushing defeat on Antipas in AD36.

Back to the story:  – how the details of what happened was compiled Mark does not say. He is obviously working from a well established story, one that fits the murderous Herodian family all too well. Herodias’ scheming is clever and effective, using her daughter (Josephus names her as Salome, a teenager at the time) to exploit the weakness of Antipas infront of his military and political elite with a likely sensousally pleasing dance (showing how much the Herodians had been influenced by Greek culture, this was no traditional Jewish party).

A story of courage of the prophetic word confronting poltical power. A story of the faithful ‘forerunner’ meeting his end in brutal violence at the hand of a pragmatic politician, echoing the same fate of his Messiah. A story of God’s purposes not thwarted by freely chosen evil.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, we pray today for Christians around the world who are being persecuted, imprisoned and martyred for following Jesus and speaking out against injustice and sin. Strengthen, bless and encourage them in the power of your Spirit and may your good purposes triumph over evil. Amen.

John the Baptist Beheaded

14King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

15Others said, “He is Elijah.”
And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”

16But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

17For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

21Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.

The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

24She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”
“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.

25At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

26The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

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