One Man’s Family
This week we read and reflect on Mark’s account of the beheading of John the Baptizer. In a previous incarnation of our Lutheran lectionary, this reading was omitted. On the one hand, this is therefore new territory for exploration and research (Hurrah!). On the other hand, this is such a weird text to read and then solemnly intone, “The Gospel of the Lord.” What are we humble preachers supposed to do with this gossipy tale? Why does the writer of Mark include it in the account? How in the world do we find in this text “the Gospel of the Lord”?
Perhaps, by the end of the week, we may find some answers to those questions. Or, like the writer of Mark, we may need to leave the questions hanging. We’ll see.
First, let’s figure out the structure and location of the text. The story of John’s execution is the middle part of another Markan sandwich. Mark 6:6b-13 is Mark’s report of the sending of the disciples into the Galilean mission field, two by two. Mark 6:30-32 gives the report of the mission work and Jesus’ counsel that they all ought to take a little break to re-charge a bit. This latter paragraph also provides the bridge to the next intercalation – the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which comes between the invitation to rest and Jesus’ actual retreat for prayer in Mark 6:45-46.
Remember that these Markan sandwiches are invitations to allow the interior section to inform and interpret the exterior sections of the textual sandwich. We should begin, then, by observing that the story of John’s execution is supposed to tell us as the readers something about discipleship that The Twelve do not know. Perhaps the message is that speaking truth to power as disciples can cause disciples to lose their heads. The gospel of the Lord? We’ll see.
The connection between the outside and inside elements of the sandwich is that Herod takes notice of the reports of Jesus’ activity and that of his disciples. The “it” in Mark 6:14 (of which Herod heard) is a somewhat non-specific. But it’s clear that the word is getting out and making its way to high places in the Galilean political world.
Be sure to note that the question posed by the writer of Mark in this section remains the same. Who is Jesus? Who are people saying that he is? Some, according to the writer, were saying that Jesus was John the Baptizer returned from the dead. This, of course, means that the execution of John had taken place earlier and will now be described as a flashback. Others were sure that Jesus was the reincarnation of the Hebrew prophet of prophets, Elijah. Still others were describing Jesus as a generic prophet like the great prophets of old. We will see this same recitation in Mark 8, when Jesus turns the identity question to The Twelve.
Herod is of the opinion that Jesus is John returned from the dead to haunt and taunt him. Why would Herod have such anxieties? That’s why we get the flashback narrative of the execution – to describe this odd relationship between Herod and the Baptizer and how, according to the writer of Mark, it all came to such a bloody end.
The “Herod” in this account is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. The use of the dynastic name, “Herod,” can cause confusion among readers of the text. We are not talking about the terrible tyrant on Matthew’s infancy stories who tries to manipulate the Magi and who orders the Slaughter of the Innocents. No, the “Herod” in Mark’s account is Herod Antipas.
It’s probably useful to make sure we have this detail straight in our thinking. In addition, we may need to briefly remind our listeners that this is the case, just to clear up any confusion. And it may be worth mentioning that the Christian scriptures tend to see all the “Herods” as coming out of the same mold. That’s probably why the dynastic name is used rather than the personal name. If there’s anyone reborn, perhaps Mark is saying, it’s nasty old Herod the Great, now in the person of his spineless and scheming son.
When Herod the Great died, the Romans divided Herod’s kingdom into four parts. Each of the Herodian sons who got a share was called, therefore, a “tetra-arch,” a ruler of one-fourth. Later, we’ll talk about why it is that the writer of Mark’s gospel refers to Herod Antipas as a “king,” even though he is never granted that title. I’ve noted before that I don’t think any of the vocabulary choices in Mark’s gospel are sloppy or accidental. Mark’s irony is quick and surgical. That ironic style is part of the report about Antipas here.
I would recommend that, if you have the time and access, that you (re)read the article in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible on “Herod (Family)” by Sandmel. Herod the Great inherits a reign that had displaced the failing Hasmonean rulers, the heirs of the Maccabees. He solidifies his hold on the territory through political marriage and strategic murder. He wends his way through Roman imperial intrigue, allied first with one contender and then another, eventually persuading Octavian (Augustus) that a productive ally was a good ally, regardless of events leading up to the new alliance.
Herod the Great was an advocate of Roman power and Jewish accommodation. He was not regarded as a Jew by most of his subjects, but he was perceived as brutally effective. He was known as a monument builder, a skillful manager of the relationships with Rome and the Jerusalem priesthood, and a thuggish murderer – even of his own family – when that suited his purposes. He died in about 4 BCE.
Herod’s territory was divided up among three (or four, depending on the time period) surviving sons: Archelaus, who was Herod the Great’s principal successor, Philip, who has tetrarch of the northwest part of his father’s realm, and Antipas, who wanted to be “king” (the role given to Archelaus), but who ended up as tetrarch of the northeast part of his father’s realm – the part including Galilee and Perea. Later Agrippa, mentioned in the Book of Acts, succeeds Archelaus in a rump version of his father’s former kingdom (and is actually named “king” by the Roman senate in 37 CE).
And that’s the simplified version of things!
Antipas was the man who wanted to be king but never got the chance. Certainly, one of the reasons the writer of Mark’s gospel uses the title of “king” for Antipas is to do some historical nose-tweaking of Antipas and his successors. Of course, as readers of the gospel account, we also know who the real King of the Jews is, and we shall see how that plays out in the later chapters of the gospel of Mark.
Then there’s the marital history that stands behind our text. Philip was married either to Herodias or to Salome, daughter of Herodias. The gospel sources and historical reports outside the gospels (mostly Flavius Josephus) disagree on many of the details. Josephus also disagrees with himself on numerous occasions! The writer of Mark believes that Philip was married to Herodias and (perhaps) that Salome was indeed a step-daughter to Herod Antipas.
Antipas was first married to the daughter of the King of Nabatea. When he met Herodias at a family do, he became infatuated with Herodias. Philip died (conveniently), and Antipas divorced his first wife. That divorce was regarded by the King of Nabatea as an insult and a breach of an agreement. As a result, the King of Nabatea sent his army against Agrippa’s forces (inconveniently) and soundly defeated them. Nevertheless, Antipas married Herodias and took her (and her daughter, the writer of Mark assumes) into his household. Please note that the name “Salome” does not appear in the gospel accounts but only in Josephus.
This is the situation to which John the Baptizer points, according to the writer of Mark’s gospel. Prohibitions against such a marriage existed in Jewish scripture and legal codes. Whether John the Baptizer actually made such a “moral” critique is a matter for some debate, since it’s not nearly so clear cut, for example, in the works of Josephus. But at the very least, this tortuous marital and extra-marital history depicts Antipas as a prisoner of his own passions long before the dance recital that leads to John’s untimely demise.
The Herodian intrigues continued long after John’s corpse was buried. Eventually, Antipas is outmaneuvered by Agrippa in the imperial court. Antipas ends up banished to Lyons, in France, accompanied by Herodias, where he dies.
As will become clearer as we go along, neither the writer of Mark’s gospel nor Flavius Josephus can be counted on to give us what we moderns would call “history” – a carefully researched and “objective” rehearsal of what actually happened. Efforts to force the gospel accounts into that mold do violence to the intentions of the gospel writers and misunderstand ancient models of history writing. Therefore, I will have no interest in adjudicating “what actually happened.”
The more important question for our purposes is this. What does the writer of Mark’s gospel intend to communicate in this text about the identity of Jesus and the identity of the disciples? The writer makes it crystal clear that this is the real agenda for this text and for the whole gospel account. We readers know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. How does this text help us to deepen and expand our grasp of that good news?
References and Resources
Sandmel, S. “Herod (Family).” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press, 1962. Pages 585-594.