In the Fortress of Machaerus
Pp Mark 6:14-29, Luke 9:7-9
2. The Event
The Concluding Verse
There are a couple of parallel passages which we need to deal with here in Mark 6:14-29 and Luke 9:7-9, each of which bears similarities to one another but also marked differences.
Luke’s record appears the most alien to Matthew and runs
‘Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the old prophets had risen. Herod said “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see Him’
without going on further to record for the reader the reason for John the Baptist’s execution at the hands of Herod Antipas.
For Luke, all that’s important is that Herod’s interest in Jesus is recorded, a theme he’ll return to in Luke 23:7-12 where he records the meeting which Jesus has with him shortly before the crucifixion. Indeed, these three verses prepare the way for that later passage and give an explanation of why it was that Herod was so eager to meet with Him.
This passage lies directly after the sending out of the twelve into the villages and towns of Israel (Mark 6:7-13, Luke 9:1-6) and it appears that both writers considered the event to have come about because Herod began hearing of the great things which the disciples, rather than Jesus, were doing in his jurisdiction - they also both record the return of the twelve sent out (Mark 6:30, Luke 9:10). They appear to be retaining the historical order of the passage but whether this is accurate is always difficult to say in the Gospels.
However, because Mark and Luke keep the same order and Matthew also notes that the visit to Nazareth immediately preceded the event (Mtw 13:53-58) as it does in Mark, the chronology would appear to be accurate - Matthew seems to have moved the sending out of the twelve into a separate chapter of its own (Matthew chapter 10) because of the volume of material which he had to deal with and record.
The implication from Luke’s statement that he had
‘...heard of all that was done...’
can’t be affixed to anything else other than the work of the twelve disciples and Mark also bears witness to the fact that Herod had ‘heard of it’ though we’re told in Mark 6:14 that Herod wasn’t so much interested in what the disciples were doing but, rather, in the name of Jesus that was being associated with the works that were being performed.
Luke’s passage records the testimony of the people that Herod either overheard, asked for their opinion or whose words had been reported back to him via his servants who were in the land on behalf of the king. The latter appears to be more likely for even the disciples had been hearing reports of Jesus as they travelled around and were able to report to Jesus when asked (Mtw 16:14) that some of the population were saying that He was
‘...John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’
and rumour seems to have been rife, the people being unsure just what to make of Him. Herod certainly seems to be stimulated in his mind by the reports which are brought and these are echoed in Mark 6:14-15.
Matthew and Mark both record Herod’s assessment of Jesus that he believed that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead (Mtw 14:2, Mark 6:16) and this because it initially seems that the powers that were being testified to were what one would have associated with John the Baptist.
This certainly appears a strange association if we take it at face value for we’re nowhere told of any miraculous signs or wonders that the Baptist performed whilst ministering to the nation. Indeed, his attraction seems not to have been in such an outward display of the power of God but upon his call to the populace to repent of their sins and to turn back to God.
It would appear, then, that Herod’s association with the power of Jesus lies solely in the fact that He also believed that John had been raised from the dead and that as a result of that act of God, the power to heal and do mighty works had been brought about in the new life of the Baptist after his death. That’s certainly the implication that we get from Mtw 14:2 where Herod is recorded as stating that his raising from the dead had directly resulted in those powers being present within him.
There aren’t any records in the OT of people being raised from the dead and then going on an itinerant healing and teaching ministry and any examples of that in contemporary Judaism have certainly been lost - it would appear that this was more of a superstition that had grown up around the conquering of death and less on any sound Scriptural principle or similar event in history. Mathag comments that there may have been a current belief that
‘...prophets...could return to the earth after their death and would do so in connection with the approach of the end of the age’
If that’s the case, then the people recorded as proclaiming Jesus as being John raised (Luke 9:7, Mtw 16:14) would naturally have been thinking along the lines that the time was fast approaching for the coming of Messiah and the establishing of the Davidic Kingdom, a threat to the security of Herod’s reign.
It could be objected that Jesus’ ministry had begun a while before John had been executed and that it would have been impossible for Herod to have seen Jesus as being a revived John the Baptist. But, as Matmor points out
‘...he was probably not well informed about what must have seemed unimportant movements at the grass-roots level’
and Jesus’ name appears only to have come to his attention at the time of the sending out of the twelve rather than at the very inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, part of his territory over which he had jurisdiction.
Herod seems to only have regard for the signs which Jesus had been doing rather than for the teaching which He’d everywhere been proclaiming. No mention is made that Jesus’ words were bringing repentance to many or that what He was saying was so radically different that He was beginning to antagonise the Jewish leaders of the population.
Rather, Herod is only concerned with power - and that in the working of the miraculous. Certainly, even today, there’s nothing quite like a report of the miraculous to bring people scurrying to the place where it’s all happening either out of curiosity or to get their own physical needs met. I’ve worked on a few campaigns that have been billed as ‘healing crusades’ and, with good publicity, it’s very easy to fill the church building with people who have all sorts of ailments and incapacities.
And this with not even the slightest of mentions that the Gospel will be preached!
There’s one puzzling sentence in Luke’s record which has Herod saying (Luke 9:9)
‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’
and which fails to tie in the Baptist’s raising from the dead with Jesus. It appears, however, that this is a record of the first thoughts that were going through Herod’s mind when the reports were initially being brought. He knew that John was dead because it appears from the Gospel text that He’d witnessed the presentation of the head to Herodias (Mtw 14:11) but he struggled to find an accurate assessment of the One who’d risen almost in His place overnight to continue where he left off - albeit very differently!
Perhaps troubled by a guilty conscience, he found that an association of Jesus with John was difficult to accept and so began desiring an opportunity when he might have a direct discussion with Jesus (Luke 9:9) for the reason which Lukgeld supposes that he might
‘...ascertain whether He was really John or not’
This appears to be the best assessment of the situation and both Mark and Matthew’s statement that Herod came to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed a resurrected John the Baptist may be a record here of what took place at a later date in the context of the incident. At first it would appear that Herod didn’t know what to make of the situation.
It’s possible for us to take the Pharisees’ warning to Jesus later on in time in Luke 13:31 that He should
‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill You’
as being an accurate expression of Herod’s change of heart when he finally equates John with Jesus but, coming from the lips of the Pharisees, I think it unreasonable to take the pronouncement at face value and there’s a certain degree of scepticism in my own mind that they were accurately representing the king.
After all to discredit the Messiah by having Him flee in the face of an advancing enemy would have played directly into their hands. It may have simply been another one of their ploys to try and trap Jesus into an action or comment that would have undermined His position amongst the people.
In the Fortress of Machaerus
I have previously dealt with the trouble which John the Baptist brought on Herod Antipas’ position, of his arrest and imprisonment and a description of the fortress Machaerus in which John was held until being beheaded on a previous web page and the reader should access these notes to acquaint himself with the details of John’s story up until this point when we have a record of an event which seems to have transpired sometime previous to the reports which were being brought to Herod concerning Jesus.
There’s no way that Herod could ever have assessed Jesus to be a resurrection appearance of John (or, perhaps better, that the people could have believed such a thing - Luke 9:7) unless he’d been buried and the fact of his death been widely spread around the nation.
Where this actual incident is meant to have occurred, however, is difficult to be certain about. We know that John was very much alive in Mtw 11:2-6 and that Luke places the same incident (Luke 7:18-23) even closer to his record of Herod’s assessment of the situation but we have no way of knowing what time scale we’re looking at as covering these two passages.
All that we can say is that it wasn’t an excessive amount of time and that John’s execution could even have occurred while the messengers were returning to him at Machaerus with Jesus’ answer to his question (Mtw 11:7) - indeed, it might already have occurred before they ever reached Jesus as the distance between the two places would have meant at least a couple of days travelling, even if they had known exactly where Jesus was and went straight to Him.
I previously quoted Josephus’ work which mentioned John the Baptist - both his ministry and his arrest - on the previously cited web page. Unfortunately, Josephus only records concerning John’s death (Antiquities 18.5.2) that
‘...he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death’
and we’re told nothing concerning the events which surrounded it. For this, we have to solely rely on Matthew and Mark’s account, a parenthesis which stops the direct flow of thought from the end of Mtw 14:2 to Jesus’ decision to withdraw to a lonely place in Mtw 14:13.
Matthew’s record of the event is somewhat shorter than Mark’s - as has been the case on numerous other occasions throughout the Gospel, and I shall be referring to Mark to attempt to get a fuller picture of what it was that exactly took place. It certainly seems as if John was treated more like a special and valued guest by the king than as an enemy (Mark 6:20b) and that, although he’d had him arrested, he was also fearful in case anything should befall him which would have reflected upon his own throne and which could have undermined its security before the people (Mark 6:20a).
But, whatever protection and allowance Herod had granted John - even to the point of permitting his followers access to him (Mtw 11:2-3) - one word of carelessness caused Herod to do to John what he’d most feared to do, causing, it can be imagined, guilt and regret which may have plagued the king for months to come.
Certainly, his identification of Jesus with John may be more a result of the fear that God would bring back upon his own head what he’d done than it would be a conclusion to a logical thought process.
Both Mtw 14:6 and Mark 6:21 speak of the reason for the feast being given as the occurrence of Herod’s birthday. The Greek word is used only twice in the entire NT (Strongs Greek number 1077) and both times in the context of this passage. It comes from another Greek word which can be used in connection with one’s birth.
Ungers begins the short article entitled ‘Birthday’ by stating
‘The custom of observing birthdays was very ancient and widely extended’
and this is naturally obvious if we assume that, when the Law, for instance, commands that (Ex 30:14)
‘Every one who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering’
there would have been a necessity to accurately remember the date of one’s birth so that the age might be accurately determined. However, passages such as Ex 7:7 where Moses is said to have been ‘eighty years old’ is a more general observation which doesn’t mean that those mentioned were exactly that age on that specific day.
Zondervans also comments (my italics) that
‘The celebration of the anniversary of one’s birth is a universal practice, for in most human societies the privileges and responsibilities of life are attached to the attainment of a certain age’
If the recording of birthdays was particularly important and widely remembered, however, it’s surprising that, from the entire Bible, we have only two records of such an event and both of these mention only great kings - Herod in the NT as previously noted and Pharaoh in Gen 40:20 when the fulfilment of Joseph’s interpretation comes about.
Therefore, the Bible certainly seems to indicate that it was important for those in authority to know the year of their birth but, for the more ordinary person, never once is a birthday recorded as having been celebrated after the birth of that child.
A couple of years ago, I was giving some help to a friend of mine who was trying to trace his family tree back as far as he could and we were searching specifically for one individual around the beginning of the nineteenth century to be able to stretch the genealogical record back even further. What we both discovered was that, at that time when literacy wasn’t very high, names were variously spelt along with hazy memories of dates of birth and even the location from which the new resident had come sometimes conflicted at different dates in the person’s lifetime.
When censuses began to be recorded, the person making an accurate compilation of birthdays and ages had to rely on whatever he was being told by the people he encountered and the age of the person changed sometimes by a matter of five years over a ten year period!
If birthdays seem to have been forgotten amongst those in a society who had no documentary evidence - such as a birth certificate - why would we imagine that it was any different in the days when the records that were apparently kept relied more on the genealogical history (that is, from which tribe one was descended) than on recording an exact date of birth?
The two Biblical examples that have come down to us from the pages of Scripture record the birthdays (it appears) of one Egyptian ruler and another Idumaean king and, although it’s reported that the Persians held such times in very high honour, none of these could be strictly included as being representative of Jewish practice.
Ungers uses Jer 20:14-15 to suggest that birthdays were held in honour amongst the Jews, but the Scripture makes no mention that any such event occurred amongst the nation, the prophet regarding his birthday simply with abhorrence because of what had become of his life.
Zondervans also cites a couple of Scriptures after which they conclude (my italics) that
‘In spite of the absence of documentary material, it seems obvious that birthdays held their annual importance’
But the quotes from John 9:21 where the parents of the blind man declare their son to be ‘of age’ and the record of Jesus attending the Passover when He was ‘twelve years old’ (Luke 2:42) are hardly valid texts which substantiate this view. The former simply infers that the ex-blindman was obviously capable to make his own defence without any inference being made that he had reached a certain age calculated from an exact birth date and the latter can be accepted as speaking of an age which was ascertained by the counting of festivals which had passed after the birth of the child - that is, Jesus attended the thirteenth Passover after He’d been born so that He was obviously twelve years old or, in a different way of working it out, the twelfth Passover meant the twelfth year of age!
Matmor states strongly that the celebration of birthdays was not an Israelite custom and that, if Herod was doing this, it was (as Knutson)
‘...in accord with a Hellenistic custom; there is no evidence for the celebration of birthdays in Israel in pre-Hellenistic times’
Josephus does record for us birthday preparations being made in Antiquities 19.7.1 for the Roman Emperor Agrippa probably around the year 40AD and only some ten years after the incident recorded for us in Matthew’s Gospel. Josephus writes that
‘...when Agrippa was solemnising his birth-day...he gave festival entertainments to all his subjects...’
This doesn’t, of course, comment on what was transpiring in Judea but at least it does show us that Roman leaders were in the habit of remembering their birthdays when they came to power (unfortunately I don’t have the resources available to me to accurately determine whether the underlying Greek word is the same as that employed in the Gospel. It’s also possible that, because Agrippa reigned such a short time, it would be possible to prove that the word could only be taken to be referring to a birthday).
Besides, if birthdays were radically important in the Jewish society of Jesus’ day (but have gone unrecorded from contemporary records), why wasn’t that date recorded? Of course, the Bible appears generally to be unconcerned with specific dates throughout it’s pages and most of the dates that have been assigned to events come from a determination of time from other ancient civilisations, so that my argument is largely without foundation!
Zondervans disagrees with Edersheim’s position of seeing the ‘birthday’ referred to in Mtw 14:6 as representing a celebration of the king’s accession and undermines the latter’s position by simply stating that the author makes his point
‘...without valid reason that the celebration was to mark the anniversary of Herod’s accession’
However, Edersheim does give a good reason why he takes this view and a quote of his entire footnote here is in order. He writes
‘The expression “generia” leaves it doubtful whether it was the birthday of Herod or the anniversary of his accession. Wieseler maintains that the Rabbinic equivalent (“ginuseya” or “giniseya”) means the day of accession, Meyer the birthday. In truth, it is used for both. But in Abod Z 10a [presumably the Talmudic tractate Abhodah Zarah] (about the middle) the Yom Ginuseya is expressly and elaborately shown to be the day of accession. Otherwise the balance of evidence is in favour of this view. The event described in the text certainly took place before the Passover and this was the time of Herod’s death and of the accession of Antipas. It is not likely that the Herodians would have celebrated their birthdays’
If the reader accepts that the author of Matthew’s sources from which he compiled his manuscript were predominantly Hebrew, then it’s the more likely that the day of accession is being referred to and that the translation was an interpretation which could even have made sense to the translator but which could cause a slight misunderstanding before a predominantly Gentile readership.
Vines notes that this usage of the Greek word is not found in the body of Greek literature that’s come down to us from ancient times but, as an aside, he notes that the word is used
‘...of a festival in commemoration of a deceased friend’
though this is an even more unlikely interpretation here in Matthew than in understanding it as an indication of Herod’s date of accession unless a remembrance of his father’s death was tied in with the accession to the throne.
Concluding, we should note that the celebration of birthdays were not important to the Jews of Jesus’ day and that we can find no Scriptural justification for doing the same in our own present day society. That they are celebrated is simply a reflection of the modern day regard for the day of birth.
However, that Herod was celebrating his birthday when this incident took place is the most likely explanation even though we wouldn’t be wrong to accept the alternative view that it was, rather, his succession that was being remembered - especially if the compilation of the Gospels was done predominantly from Jewish texts which could have been understood to be implying something which they weren’t.
2. The Event
In the previous section, we looked at the statement by both Matthew and Mark that the event which was the reason for bringing together the crowds as at a festival before Herod Antipas was none other than either the king’s birthday or a celebration of the anniversary of his succession to the throne.
Here, we shall very briefly look at the actual circumstances surrounding the execution of the Baptist seeing as the Scriptural account seems to be quite straightforward in its interpretation of the event. That the king had wanted to put John to death is plain from Mtw 14:5 but that he found it impossible to carry out his desires is also stated by the observation that Herod feared the people who held him to be a prophet from God and putting John to death might necessarily have caused civil unrest even to the point of an uprising against the throne.
Therefore, with John securely locked away in prison (though he was brought out to appear before the king on numerous occasions it would appear - Mark 6:20) the situation remained largely in the form of a stalemate. Though Herodias, his wife, must have approached him on more than one occasion to execute the Baptist, Antipas appears to have been able to withstand her requests and demands.
However, with the celebrations taking place in Machaerus, there arose an ‘opportunity’ (Mark 6:21) for Herodias, Antipas’ wife, who hated John presumably for what he’d been proclaiming against her divorce from Philip and remarriage to Antipas (Mtw 14:3-4).
By noting that an opportunity arose, we shouldn’t think that this situation was in any way contrived to bring about the death of the Baptist but that, as circumstances unfolded, the oath which Herod took upon himself (Mark 6:22-23) gave Herodias a unique chance to rid herself of someone that she regarded as a sincere threat. It’s more likely that she ‘couldn’t believe her good fortune’ than that she sent her daughter in to dance before the king that she might secure a promise of a gift.
Herodias’ daughter (it’s from Josephus in Antiquities 18.5.4 that we learn that she was named ‘Salome’) who danced before both Herod and his guests seems to have been somewhat perplexed by the open-ended promise which was given her and which offered the opportunity to claim even half of Herod’s kingdom for herself (Mark 6:23) but, after consulting with her mother, she returned into the hall to fulfil her desire to see John’s death.
It is, perhaps, strange for us to think of a dance being able to illicit such a response from anyone - and more especially from a king who should be in control of his senses - but, for whatever reason, Herod took such delight in the dance that he immediately felt the need to reward her with whatever she wanted.
Commentators make much of the scene and various ones attribute drunkenness to the men who were watching Salome dance before them and that the dance was erotic in nature and so summoned up sexual desire within both themselves and the king to which he was ultimately responding.
If this is the case, the pledge that half of his kingdom would be given her if she so required may have been more of a proposal of marriage than a promise which he was not expecting to be taken to the full!
Whatever the exact reason for Herod’s oath, it’s difficult for us to go beyond the realm of Scripture at this point even though it certainly seems reasonable to presume that there must have been more to the king’s pleasure than a single dance, however skilfully it may have been performed!
An oath was considered binding in all transactions in ancient Israel and a secure assurance that what had been said was both truthful and would be carried out. With so many witnesses present, the king was unable to withdraw it without there being a severe undermining of his own position and authority.
Therefore, he finds himself cornered into a position which, initially, he had wanted to bring about (Mtw 14:5) but which he had run from when he realised the mood of the people and what it might stimulate amongst them.
It seems likely that Herod could have withdrawn from the obligation of his oath by appealing to what was both morally upright and acceptable within the Jewish culture of his day - after all, John had received no trial and stood to be executed at the whim of a king who chose to grant either life or death to all his subjects. Mathen comments that Herod could have insisted that
‘I promised to favour you with a gift; I certainly did not promise to commit a crime’
but though he could have chosen this path, the thought may never have actually occurred to him and, not being in the position of ever going back on what had been uttered in his normal affairs of the throne, naturally saw to completion the outworking of his promise. It’s impossible to know exactly what went through Herod’s mind in that instant when he was asked to execute John the Baptist but it would appear that he made no attempt to get himself out of his obligation.
Although, as I’ve noted above, commentators see Herod as being in a drunken stupor by this time in the evening’s proceedings, it could also be the case simply that he wasn’t as rational a man as we try and give him credit for and that his rash oath was only reflecting the equal rashness of his character.
However, without further ado, he chooses to honour his promise and John the Baptist is executed. Herodias’ will has been done but the reader can’t help but wonder just what it was that her daughter gained from following after her mother’s advice.
She could have had wealth and riches, could have had towns under her control and palaces built for her - instead, she got a head (excuse the pun). Of what use was that to her? It’s worth pointing out that the word used here in Mtw 14:11 translated ‘girl’ (Strongs Greek number 2877) is one which is used more especially of someone of quite a young age - perhaps a ‘teenager’ would be a good interpretation though in the lower years and even, possibly, younger than thirteen.
It’s used of the girl who Jesus raised from the dead in Mtw 9:24-25 who’s also described as being twelve years of age (Mark 5:42) and it’s probably true to say that, confronted with such a generous promise, she naturally wanted the advice of her mother to know how to use her prize. Unfortunately, she hadn’t reckoned with her mother’s hatred and bitterness and she lost out on something that she could have used for her own advantage - perhaps her mother was even able to convince her that John’s death was to her own advantage.
The Greek word which the RSV translates ‘platter’ (Strongs Greek number 4094) is one which primarily, as Vines, meant a board or plank and subsequently came to be a word used to represent various articles made from wood. As such, the object should be taken to be something fairly large and sufficient for the job it’s being made to perform and our regular word ‘plate’ is perhaps the best option to describe it.
What the mother and child actually did with the head is far from certain but that it wasn’t given to John’s disciples seems a fair assumption from Mtw 14:12 which speaks of them coming to retrieve the body and to lay it in a tomb.
Herodias is a figure who’s a central character in this story - more so in Mark’s version of the story - and her character is such that the believer can learn significantly from her as to what not to do in their own life. It would be superfluous for me to write that she wasn’t a follower of Christ for that appears obvious and would never have encountered Jesus, perhaps not even when her husband did shortly before His death (Luke 23:6-12).
She’s a woman who appears to have lived her life solely on the principle of self-worth and self-importance for there’s reflected in the records we have of her in the Gospels the outworkings of an astute mind and quick perception in situations which could be taken and used for her own ends.
While the believer should be equally quick to jump at opportunities which present themselves to them, Herodias did it solely for the pleasure of satisfying her feelings of hatred towards John the Baptist. But we need to start at the beginning to see how one act of rebellion against the Word of God culminated in the murder of John the Baptist.
At each stage of the developing process, however, she had opportunity to confess her sin to God and to receive forgiveness, but she chose, rather, to give full expression to her feelings and to have them outworked through the opportunity that eventually presented itself.
First and foremost, though, Herodias was selfish.
She wouldn’t accept a word spoken against herself by anyone (Mark 6:17-19) and certainly not from some religious preacher or other who hadn’t the resources available to be considered on a par with her position as wife to the king. Even the truth about her illicit marriage with Herod Antipas wouldn’t be accepted by her from the mouth of God’s messenger.
This hardening of the heart has already been commented on in the life of the scribes and Pharisees in Mtw 12:24-35 and 13:10-15, paralleled in the Psalm from which the quote of Mtw 13:35 comes where Israel, although they’d been given incredible opportunity to believe that God was for them, still hardened themselves to His moving in their midst, rebelling when they had opportunity and turning to do their own will and purpose throughout the nation.
Ps 95:7-11 also urges the children of Israel to
‘...hearken to His voice! Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness’
recording a time in the nation’s life when they saw the power of God and yet chose to rebel against Him. This sin was similar to that of Herodias who turned away from the simple observation of the Baptist to oppose both the messenger and the message.
It would have been far better to separate from what God had found distasteful than to continue walking in what had been plainly revealed to be against His will for, in so doing, there came upon her a hardness from which it was difficult for her ever to break free.
Secondly, Herodias was living in unforgiveness and Mark 6:19 records that, even though John hadn’t sinned against her, she held a grudge. Under the Mosaic Law (Lev 18:16, 20:21) it was a simple case of transgression from which there was little that was open to a personal interpretation where a man takes his brother’s wife when his brother is still alive.
It wasn’t even that Antipas had been unmarried and looking for a wife when he chanced upon Herodias but that he’d taken steps to deliberately divorce his former wife so that he could be joined to her (see my notes on my previous web page for the circumstances surrounding the incident). By any interpretation, it was obvious that Herod had taken action against the Mosaic Law for his own ends and John’s pronouncements concerning the relationship were supremely accurate.
But Herodias couldn’t find it in her heart to forgive the man (even though no sin had been committed against her) who not only had been spreading God’s pronouncement amongst the nation concerning her marriage but who was probably continuing to make God’s views on the matter known to Herod whenever he met with him (Mark 6:20).
This unforgiveness thus led to the desire for vengeance (Mark 6:19,21) and, when the opportunity presented itself to her, she took it with both hands, thinking not of the prize which Salome, her daughter, had won for herself, but of the satisfaction she would get from seeing one of her most hated enemies put to death - this also being a good illustration of her selfishness and of how she was prepared to use whatever came to hand to get her own will done. The opportunity at the celebrations couldn’t have been better for, in front of numerous guests, Herod had sworn an oath and obligated himself to carry our whatever was required of him.
It would never have occurred to Herodias to leave vengeance to the Lord and to bless her enemy (Rom 12:14-21) but this was necessarily what the Lord required (Ex 23:4).
Following on from this we see her manipulation of people to achieve her own ends.
In Salome’s case (Mark 6:22), she found someone she could use - the daughter of her previous marriage with Philip - who she persuaded to carry out her desire to see John executed. She had no concern for her own daughter in this regard and, far from triumphing in the promise that had been granted her, chose to deflect it to her own advantage.
And she manipulated Herod additionally (Mark 6:24) probably knowing him to be weak-willed and incapable of going back on a sworn promise. She would have known her husband all too well and, like Jezebel in the OT, would have known just how far it was possible to push him to achieve all that she desired.
Love, however, doesn’t manipulate people for its own ends (Rom 13:10, I Cor 13:5) and whatever we think of her relationship with her husband, it remains a sad fact that her ‘love’ couldn’t have been very deep. But love never can run deep when there’s bitterness and hatred in one’s heart.
Finally, and as a dramatic conclusion to the process which her selfishness had outworked through her, Herodias murdered. It would be an easy thing for us to push the blame onto either Herod or Salome though each of these in their own way could have prevented the event from happening - Salome because she must have known that murder was wrong and Herod because he had the opportunity to flatly refuse to give the command for the execution.
But Herodias here is the one who ultimately is responsible for John’s death where Salome and Herod are only the instruments she uses to achieve it. It’s too simple for Herodias that the Mosaic Law stated that murder shouldn’t be committed (Ex 20:13) and long before John’s head is taken from off his shoulders, she’s already committed murder in her heart through her bitterness and unforgiveness (Mtw 5:21-22).
Repentance was the only way out for Herodias but it was a path that, consistently, she refused to take. Just as with David so many years previously (II Samuel chapter 11 - see my previous notes), an initial contemplation of a thought that she could do as she pleased and its subsequent development led to grosser sin which ultimately resulted in murder as an attempt to cover up the original personal transgression.
Her unforgiveness changed to the desire for vengeance - and the seeking of an opportunity to outwork that desire. Finally, the manipulation of those whom she should have loved was used as the means whereby she achieved her ultimate desire for murder.
So, when we ask the question as to who was responsible for the death of John the Baptist, we may lay the blame at the door of both Herod and, to a lesser degree, Salome but, truthfully, there was only one guilty party, Herodias.
The Concluding Verse
Mtw 14:12, the concluding verse of our passage, ends the incident recorded surrounding the death of John the Baptist and reads that
‘...his disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus’
Mark 6:29 adds the phrase that the disciples laid John’s body in a tomb and we should note here that the two contrasting phrases - one that he was buried and the other that he was laid in a tomb are two ways of describing the same incident.
I noted in my comments on Mtw 12:40 that commentators take the phrase there on the lips of Jesus that He would be ‘in the heart of the earth’ as being indicative of Him being in the ‘dwelling place of the dead’ rather than for it to simply mean that He was in the tomb - because it’s not stated that he was ‘laid’ in the tomb, the literal implication is that he was buried under six feet of earth.
By comparing these two passages in our current incident, however, we can see that being buried and being laid in the tomb appear to have been used interchangeably for one and the same event and that ‘burial’ didn’t need to imply that a hole in the soil was dug into which the dead body was inserted before being covered.
It’s natural when reading this passage and on into the next verse to join verses 12 and 13 together and so to see Jesus’ withdrawal into a lonely place (Mtw 14:13) as being the result of John’s disciples telling Him about the death of the Baptist at the hand of Herod (Mtw 14:12) but it seems better to take Mtw 14:3-12 as a parenthesis which has been included here as it is in Mark to explain the declaration of Herod Antipas that’s being presented to the reader in Mtw 14:2.
Therefore Jesus’ withdrawal away from the public eye is because Herod began directing his eyes towards the increasing popularity of His ministry and that, should Herod go one step further and decide that Jesus needed to be imprisoned because He was none other than John, it would stop the work which God had given Him to do.
Theoretically, it would be much easier for Jesus to be taken than it would have been for John for the Baptist was normally on the western banks of the Jordan and away from the land over which Herod held direct control. Galilee lay under his jurisdiction, however, and Jesus could have been taken south to the city of Tiberias on the shores of Galilee before being removed to Machaerus where John had been imprisoned.
Far from Jesus standing resolute against Herod and thinking that God the Father wouldn’t possibly let anything happen to Him before His time, He takes immediate steps to get out of the king’s way when He knows that the attention that’s being directed towards Him could be a disadvantage to fulfilling the work which He’s been given to do.
There’s a sense of attack and withdrawal throughout Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, where there are times when He stands up openly to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom while, at others, He feels it necessary to withdraw. Both are in keeping with One who trusts in God - but only the person who moves with the Spirit will ever be able to perceive the correct time at which each is to be done.
By coming to tell Jesus that John had been executed, Matmor suggests that the writer of the Gospel
‘...may be saying that some at any rate of John’s followers now considered Jesus to be their leader’
This may well have been the case but we shouldn’t think that with a certain immediacy all John’s disciples moved over to the Kingdom preaching of Jesus. We know that John’s influence continued long into NT times (Acts 19:3-4) and that there remained a ‘Baptist’ movement in Israel even after his death is more than likely.
But many, to be sure, would have believed John’s declaration concerning Jesus (John 1:29-34) and, being free from their ministry to their master upon his death, would have allied themselves with Him. After all, though the religious leaders had been people than John had singled out for condemnation (Mtw 3:7-10) and from which there would have been a fair amount of angry response even if it was only in their own hearts rather than spoken openly (implied by their failure to answer Jesus’ question in Mtw 21:25), Jesus had responded with words that justified John’s ministry (Mtw 11:7-15) - though the disciples of John may only heard the report of what had been said rather than directly (Mtw 11:7).
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