It’s All in the Presentation
On December 16, 2019, a panicked mother called the Bullitt County, Kentucky, 911 Center. She was reporting that a man had stolen her car with her baby in the back seat. “Please find this bastard!” she told the police dispatcher. “Want his head on a platter!” Soon police apprehended and arrested the man they charged with kidnapping and auto theft (for starters) for carjacking the woman’s SUV with her 13-month-old child inside, but not before the man led them on a 100-mph chase, ending in a crashed vehicle.
“I want his head on a platter!” This is a demand for punishment that is certainly swift, certain, and severe. It is also a wish, intended or not, to subject the offender to a punishment that is humiliating, degrading, and commensurate with the worst possible crime. The phrase appears to originate in our gospel text for this week.
The unnamed girl consults with Herodias, her mother, regarding the nature of her request to Antipas. “What shall I ask?” she inquires. “The head of John the Baptizer,” her mother replies. The girl immediately re-enters the banquet hall “with haste,” returns to the “king” and says, “I want you to give me at once upon a platter the head of John the Baptizer.” The girl apparently adds the urgency of the request and the manner of presentation on her own.
Perhaps it’s a small detail, but it is intriguing. It’s worth spending some time with Richard Swanson’s comments on this matter in order to absorb the grisly symbolism of the scene. Up to the moment when the girl issues her request, Swanson writes, “it was possible to read the scene as a contest between Herod and Herodias, a contest that was conducted on the unwitting body of a little girl. She is sent in to dance,” Swanson continues, “she is sent back to Herod, and John is executed” (page 192).
Then she adds her own flourish to the demand. “Why the innovation on her part?” Swanson asks. Perhaps she’s “getting into the spirit” of the event, enjoying the contest, “and may be adding humiliating details to the ritual of execution” (page 193). This is the disturbing description of the additional instructions. “John’s head is brought out as if it were the next course in the banquet,” Swanson notes.
“If this is the implication,” he continues, “then she has just rung all the rituals that go with ceremonial cannibalism. John, the enemy,” Swanson notes, “is to be treated as food” (page 193). Hurtado concurs with this description. “The gruesome request presents the daughter as adding a touch of evil humor to her mother’s suggestion. On a platter,” he argues, “makes the head of John a kind of meal course at this wicked banquet” (page 98).
The other alternative, Swanson suggests, is that the girl does not wish to deal with “the mess that would be made if a bleeding severed head were to be brought into the room. A plate would contain the gore,” he notes, “she might hope in her innocence” (page 193). Which is the right perspective, Swanson wonders, and answers, “Yes.”
Swanson notes that we might find some eucharistic foreshadowing in this story. Jesus will say to his disciples, “This is my body for you.” The fact that the account is placed shortly before the Feeding of the Five Thousand in Mark’s gospel gives some additional support to this suggestion. It is also a grim reminder that when we hear the glowing reports from The Twelve as they return from their missionary journeys that the price of success might well be homicidal homage from the rulers of this world.
Why does Mark emphasize this detail – the head on the platter – in the account? Kraemer suggests that early Christians wanted “to refute not simply the suggestion that John the Baptist has been resurrected but more precisely the possibility that Jesus is John raised from the dead by telling a narrative in which the body of John is desecrated in a manner that makes it impossible to resurrect it, at least physically, by severing the head from the body, and by leaving the head with Herodias while burying the corpse” (page 341).
We need to take a moment to remember ancient views of the nature of resurrection. Suffice it to say, Jews of the time expected that whole bodies were required for the resurrection at the end of the age. That’s why it was so important for bodies to be buried intact and for the bones of those bodies to remain in one collection even after the flesh had decayed away. It’s also why it’s noteworthy that the writer of Mark uses the word for “corpse” in Mark 6:29 rather than the word for “body.” John was not entombed intact and therefore could not be resurrected, in the view of the ancients.
Kraemer’s view depends on reading Antipas’ statement that John whom he beheaded had been raised as more of a question – “Has John, whom I beheaded, been raised?” This is a possible interpretation of the text and the one that Luke takes for granted in Luke 9:7-9. Kraemer argues that the writer of Mark is not wondering why John was executed but rather why John was executed by decapitation (page 342).
Kraemer argues that the narrative need of the writer of Mark brings about this story in the gospel account, not any actual historical involvement in the execution by Herodias and her daughter. That may or may not be the case, but it doesn’t really impact the import of the story in the text itself.
Kraemer’s concluding point in the article is well-taken, however. This story has developed a life of its own in later Christian (and secular) literature as a convenient trope “to vilify these women far beyond anything in the gospels themselves.” This portrayal suggests, he argues, “that subsequent Christians have been particularly fond of the representation of voluptuous, seductive, evil Jewish women, who may serve, perhaps, as a counterpoint to the virtuous and generally chaste women who attend Jesus at the cross and at his burial, and witness to his resurrection” (page 349).
Part of the import of this story, according to Kraemer, is to set up an intentional contrast between Antipas and Jesus. “In Mark,” he writes, “Antipas’s execution of John is represented as the intentional choice not of a ruler whose decisions are grounded in the judgment and self-control appropriate to masculinity but of a man fall victim to his own appetites and desires, something many ancient writers understood as a feminine frailty” (346). Antipas surrenders to his base, animal nature and loses his male honor as actor, agent, and author of his own fate.
“My primary purpose here,” Kraemer notes, “is to suggest that concerns about gender may play some additional role in the formation of a narrative that implicates Herodias and her daughter in the death of John, through their exercise of indirect power and the manipulation of a weak, emasculate ruler whose lack of sufficient masculine self-control enables Herodias to accomplish her destructive (female) desires” (page 347). There’s no extra credit for long sentence in journal articles, but perhaps there should be.
Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that the dancing itself is a sign that Antipas is a dishonorable and therefore weak ruler. “Dancing, most commonly done at weddings, is often quite erotic and usually done only for extended kin,” they argue. “Here officers and the leading men of Galilee are present. In non-elite eyes, honorable males would not allow a female family member to perform such a display; their failure to prevent her from doing so pegs them as shameless.”
“It is also shameful for any man to be bewitched by the proverbial sensuality of a woman in public,” they continue. “Since the maximum a woman could receive was only half of what a man was worth, Herod offered everything he could. The oath made by Herod was made in front of guests. He was therefore,” they conclude, “honor-bound to keep his word. Had he not done so, his officers would no longer have trusted him” (pages 216-217). Antipas was in control of no part of the situation.
At the time of the story, honorable women were expected to remain indoors and out of view in order to retain their purity and virtue. “In the royal households, for the most part, no one was greatly troubled over these customs,” Jeremias writes (page 361-362). Instead, in the royal households of the time, it was typical for the women to exercise influence, control, and power with and sometimes in spite of their husbands. Especially when it comes to the Herodians, this story has the ring of truth about it.
For the writer of Mark’s gospel, this story accomplishes several things. First, John is “Elijah,” not the Messiah. We, as readers, know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Second, John cannot have been resurrected since his body was not intact. Resurrection is for Jesus, not for anyone else in the story. Third, we can see what a weak pretender to the throne looks like in comparison with Jesus, the real King. This comparison foreshadows a similar contrast between Jesus and Pilate in the passion account in the Gospel of Mark.
Fourth, we can see the depths of human cruelty expressed in the careless privilege of the elites and the real risks involved when one is perceived as a threat to that privilege. I find several resonances between this account and accounts of lynchings in the United States, both historically and in the present moment. More on that, perhaps, downstream.
References and Resources
Jennifer A. Glancy , ” Unveiling Masculinity : The Construction of Gender in Mark 6:17-29,” Biblnt 2 (1994): 34-50.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.
Kraemer, R. (2006). Implicating Herodias and Her Daughter in the Death of John the Baptizer: A (Christian) Theological Strategy? Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 321-349. doi:10.2307/27638363.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Sandmel, S. “Herod (Family).” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press, 1962. Pages 585-594.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.