“And Along Came John”

Proper 10, Year B

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 or Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

Mark 6:14-29

The Death of John the Baptist

14 King Herod heard of it,[a] for Jesus’ name had become known. Some[b] were saying, “John the baptizer[c] has been raised from the dead;[d] and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”[e] 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.”[f] And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”[g]
17 For Herod himself had sent[h] men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod[i] had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared[j] John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man,[k] and he protected him.[l] When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed;[m] and yet he liked to listen to him.[n] 21 But an opportunity came[o] when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.[p]
22 When his daughter Herodias[q] came in and danced, she pleased[r] Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”
24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately 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.”
26 The king was deeply grieved;[s] yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard[t] with orders to bring John’s[u] head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.
29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Proper Eleven, Year B
What follows in this chapter are some way-too-extensive notes on Mark 6:14-29. They will give you far more information than you ever thought you needed about the genealogical, economic, social and political background of this famous story of the beheading of John the Baptist. To make it even worse, at the end I’ve included several pages of fairly dense translation notes.
My apologies, I got carried away. However, If you can make it to the end, there is a fairly nice sermon that I preached on this text that utilizes a lot of the material below, but in a more user-friendly, “preacherly” way. Enjoy.
As usual, if anyone would like updates on this or any of my other blogs, click here and send me a note and I'll set you up.

1.      Note that Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, but it has the longest version of this story. Matt and Luke have it, but in a much briefer form: Matt. 14:1-12; Luke 3:19-20, 9:7-9. It might be an interesting question to ponder why in Mark’s eyes, the story looms so large. Is it because persecutions and assassinations of religious leaders had become a prominent fear in Mark’s time?
2.      Also interesting that this is the only place in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is not the center of the story. Actually in a subtle way, he may be, because there is a suspicion among many New Testament scholars that Mark is drawing parallels between the crucifixion of John and the Crucifixion of Jesus.
3.      Mark “sandwiches” this story in between two others, the sending out of the 12 missionaries (vv. 7-13) and the receiving them back in celebration (v. 30). This was a characteristic of the Lectionary reading two weeks ago about the woman with twelve years of a flow of blood and the young girl twelve years old. And it is a frequent motif of Mark (1:21-28; 3:21-35; 5:21-43). Mark uses the ends of the sandwich as a tool to color and interpret what goes on in between. The outsides give Mark’s “take” on what is happening on the insides. If that’s true, then the question is, what is Mark trying to tell us about John’s beheading as focused and interpreted by the sending and receiving of the missionaries?
a.      One likely possibility is to contrast the two lives of Jesus and John, both who came to a nasty end after proclaiming something about the Kingdom.
b.      A second possibility (and the one highlighted in my sermon on this passage) is to highlight a contrast between John’s preaching mission (which ended badly) and that of the disciples (which ended well). I think Mark is saying that sometimes the mission goes well and sometimes it goes badly. That’s the way life is. Sometimes you proclaim the Gospel and lives are changed, and sometimes you do it and you get your head handed to you on a platter.
That could explain why Mark puts the story here, which is actually years out of place chronologically.
Stoffregen notes that “Jesus warned them (the disciples who were being sent out) that some may not welcome them nor hear them. The good news does not overwhelm everyone—in fact, it can offend some.”[v] (Been there, done that.)
The “Sandwich” begins in v. 7, when Jesus sends out the twelve; and it ends in v. 30 when they return. It’s a story of a preaching mission that went very well sandwiched around the story of John the Baptist, a preaching mission that didn’t.
Juel (Mark, Augsburg Commentary) writes:
The return to John at a time when Jesus seems to be enjoying success and popularity introduces a sobering note into the story again. It serves as a reminder of what happens to preachers who threaten established authorities. The confusion between Jesus and John insinuates that a similar fate awaits Jesus. [p. 95][w]
Williamson (Mark, Interpretation Commentaries) concludes his comments on this section with:
One way to read the passage, then, is in terms of success versus significance. Success, as the world measures it, seen in the court of Herod. There we find the chief of state and his advisers, the military commanders, the leading people of the country; they are the ones who can afford leisure and pleasure; they can get what they want when they want it. John the Baptist, alone in his cell, doomed and helpless to save his life, appears in shocking contrast to the glitter of the successful people of his time. Our minds are perpetually and perversely fascinated by the wealth, power, and intrigue of Herod's court; yet the significance of the text lies in the death of that starkly simple prophet in Herod's prison. The Gospel here invites us to look closely at success ... and then choose significance as we follow Jesus on his way. [p. 124]

V. 14: Herod the “King”
He was not really a king. He was a tetrarch (see the genealogy section), but he always wanted to be a king, and it’s possible that Mark was being ironic calling him that. According to David Fiensy, “when his wife, Herodias's own brother Agrippa was later made ruler over adjoining territories and was given the title “king,” she was filled with envy and pushed Antipas, against his will, into going to Rome to pursue the same title.”[x] And R.T. France adds, “[Caesar] Augustus specifically refused to grant Antipas this title enjoyed by his father, so he remained tetrarch until he was deposed in a.d. 39…it was his active campaigning for that title which led to his eventual dismissal and exile.”[y]
In v. 14, Herod hears for the first time that Jesus has sent out the twelve on a preaching mission and ponders who Jesus might really be. According to the conversations around him, some thought he might be either John, or Elijah, or some other prophet. But then Herod weighs in saying he figured that Jesus was a resurrection of John, whom he had had beheaded.
This is an odd and somewhat backhanded introduction to the story, because it turns all of the beheading story into backstory—something that had taken place months, if not years earlier—into an explanation for why Herod thought Jesus was John. It fits together oddly, but there it is.
The various theories they list of who Jesus might be probably reflect a number of the various views on him that were swirling around. One of them most certainly was that John was resurrected in the body of Jesus. It sounds odd to us today, but was likely prominent at the time. Herod believed it; the “street” believed it. And one goal of Mark in retelling this story was to refute it. Robert Price asks, “It is remarkable enough to know that some believed John had been resurrected; but what are the implications of an early belief that John rose from the dead and then became known as Jesus?”[z]
v. 16, Here’s a subtle but important point: when Herod says he thinks that Jesus is John raised from the dead, among other things, it shows that Herod now believes Jesus is his enemy. It’s interesting to add to this the fact that every time Herod or the Herodians are mentioned in Mark, they all “imply some kind of hostility to and threat to the work of God.[aa] See Mark 3:6; 6:14-29; 8:15, and 12:13.

V. 17 ff. Herod was frightened of John and had him arrested.
We know that Herod was frightened of John because he was beloved by the masses and if they followed him they might want to overthrow Herod. Josephus says that Herod assassinated John solely because he was a political threat to Herod. What was it about John’s preaching that made Herod see him as a danger politically?
Here are a few things in John’s teaching that could have precipitated the arrest.
·        First, when John attacked Herod for marrying Herodias, the public shame of such an act probably was damaging to Herod’s reputation.
·        Second, the act probably had political dimensions as well. Herod’s first marriage was with the daughter of the King of Arabia. No great love story, but a political marriage to keep peace between the two countries. But then scandalously, he threw off his Arabian wife, and married Herodias and put the entire province in danger. A question we need to answer here is, why did Herod do that? Obviously it had to do with his inability to keep his brains out of his pants when he met Herodias, but didn’t he have any consideration of what the ramifications for peace in the territories might be? (Silly question.)
“Tangled kinship affairs (which Mark does not have altogether correct) provide the backdrop for the story by accounting for the enmities being played out. That Herod fears John is an indication of how far John has risen in the public assessment of honor and is one of a number of indications of Herod’s weakness. Dancing, most commonly done at weddings, is often quite erotic and usually done only for extended kin. Here officers and 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. 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 honor bound to keep his word. Had he not done so, his officers would no longer have trusted him.”[bb]

A Translation Problem in v. 22.
While it is probably true that the young girl who came in to dance for the drunken birthday party was Herod’s Wife’s daughter from a previous marriage, the text itself does not make that clear. The girl is unnamed and could be either Herod’s daughter, Herodias, or Herodias’ daughter, Salome. Josephus the ancient historian, says that Herodias’ daughter was Salome.
The differences don’t have to do with interpretations of the text, but with Greek variants in the text. Bratcher and Nida’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, say that while the “weight of the external evidence” leans toward saying that it is Herod’s daughter, the sense of it is the opposite. Historically, it almost cannot be Herod’s daughter.[cc] And besides, when she gets the promise of anything up to half of Herod’s kingdom (a stupid promise, but he was drunk. You’ve never done something stupid when you were drunk?), v.24 says she went out to talk it over with “her mother.” Bruce Metzger says of translating this, that it “is very difficult to decide which reading is the least unsatisfactory.”

You can see the two options here:
NIV: “When the daughter of Herodias came in…”
Which would make her Salome, according to other sources, though her name is not used here. That she is Herodias’ daughter is supported by v. 24, where she goes up to Herodias and the text calls her her mother.
NRSV “When his daughter, Herodias, came in…”
Which would make her, well, Herodias. This translation is better attested in the manuscripts, but it contradicts v. 24. The other one is smoother and more clear. It fits with v. 24, but has weaker attestation.
Ultimately the translation preferred by most scholars today (I think) is the one that makes her Herodias’ daughter. But that doesn’t get us around the fact that it’s a complicated and messy verse.

A little genealogy
This Herod is the son of Herod the Great, who, under the larger rule of Rome, was nominal “King” over all of what was known as Judea. He had four sons (by more than one wife), two of whom play roles in this story. He died at about 4 b.c.e and Rome allowed his kingdom to be divided up among the sons, each getting roughly a quarter of the holdings, making each of them a “Tetrarch,” meaning a holder of a quarter. The Herod in this story is Herod Antipas. He is called a “Tetrarch” by Matthew and Luke but Mark calls him (incorrectly) a “King.” The IVP Commentary suggests that Mark may have chosen that title with a touch of irony in his voice because in a.d. 39 he attempted to establish himself as king for life and was deposed by the military and sent out of the country (or was that Egypt?).[a]

His quarter of his father’s land was Galilee and the region of Perea across the Jordan River and he was allowed to be governor on it for more than forty years, from 4 b.c.e. to 39 (when he had the unfortunate and unwise encounter with the military over his repeated claim to be King). He not only executed John the Baptist (Matt 14:1; Luke 3:19), he was also the one who executed Jesus’ (Luke 13 & 23).

Another son of King Herod was Philip, and he was tetrarch of the more remote northern and eastern parts. His rule was from 4 CE to 34 CE. His wife (I’m not making this up) was also named Herodias, and was Philip’s niece, King Herod’s granddaughter

Herod’s first wife was from the daughter of Aretas, king of Petra. It was an arranged marriage for diplomatic reasons, which usually ran something like, “I’ll take your daughter, if you promise to not invade my country.” Or, in some instances (like this one), “I’ll give you one hundred miles of good farmland out of my country, if you will give me your daughter.” (Personally, I’ve always believed that if some king had to give up land in order to get a wife, he must be just reeeeeeeal ugly, but that’s just my opinion.)

According to Josephus, the scandal took place one day when Herod Antipas and Herodias were on some kind of road trip to Rome (or perhaps Argentina). They kind of forgot to reserve two rooms when they stopped for the night at the roadside Holiday Inns, nd when she got home she divorced her husband Phillip and Herod divorced his wife and then they got married. Politically, this was important because his first wife’s daddy, Aretas, immediately declared war on Galilee and invaded. Hotshot Herod, who always thought he was a king anyway, sent forces to the border to fight back but was vastly outnumbered (Aretas, was, after all, a real king and a much bigger army) and Herod’s forces got knocked on their pitooey. Which means, more seriously, that his vanity and lack of sexual boundaries made him willing to risk and lose the lives of hundreds of people so that he could have an affair and show off how tough he was (or how tough he thought he was).  “Willingness to sacrifice others to maintain honor, prestige, and power remains one of the great temptations of persons in positions of authority.”[b]

This little affair is critical to today’s story because the infidelity and the divorce follow-up was at least one of the issues that John the Baptist was haranguing the governor about while he was in jail. According to Josephus, the reason why he was put in jail in the first place was that Herod was worried about the mass crowds John was gathering for his sermons and baptisms and thought they were political. He may have been correct about that, though history may have washed away some of John’s political rhetoric. But once he was in prison, he evidently also was pestering Antipas about his loose definition of marriage vows. This pissed off his wife, Herodias, and she wanted to kill him outright. She was livid. How dare John claim there was something wrong and immoral about their having an affair, throwing their spouses under the bus, and putting the peace of the country at risk?

The scandal according to Mark is actually not described in terms of the dumping of his first wife (which was pretty slimy and precipitated the war with Petra), but in terms of his taking his brother’s wife away from him. One could take one’s wife if he had passed away, but Philip was alive and well, and that was against the law (Lev. 18:16; 20:21). “Jewish law did not allow a woman to divorce her husband, but Herodias apparently took advantage of her roman citizenship to divorce her husband, but Herodias apparently took advantage of her Roman citizenship to divorce her first husband under Roman law (a point which will be relevant when we come to Jesus’ pronouncement in 10:12). The marriage was thus doubly scandalous, and John could expect to have Jewish public opinion on his side in denouncing it.”[c]

She couldn’t kill John herself, however, because Herod kind of liked the guy and liked listening to his prison harangues, though Mark says he really didn’t understand much of what John said (know the feeling, it happens to me all the time).

Which comes back to the reasons why Mark includes this story here.
·        One reason focusses on Herod: to show that some people can hear the word of God and change and others remain in their evilness.
·        The other reason focusses on John, but is oddly similar: sometimes you can preach the word of God and do God’s work and it goes well [as with the twelve who Jesus sent out on the preaching mission] and sometimes you can do the right thing and you get your head handed to you on a platter.  

Stoffregen offers the following as a possible sermon illustration of Herod:
There were two brothers in Georgia during the 1950’s. One decided that in opposition to the dominant culture of the day, he was going to support and participate in the formation of a multi-ethnic community. The other worked as an attorney for a prominent law firm. Both were Christians and attended church regularly. As the multi-ethnic community formed and social pressure forced them into court proceedings, the one brother asked his attorney brother to help them with the legal work. The brother refused, saying that he could lose his job. The pressure increased to help with a reminder that he was a Christian. The lawyer responded, “I will follow Jesus to his cross, but it is his cross. I have no need to be crucified.” To this his brother replied, “Then you are an admirer of Jesus, but not his disciple.”

Vv. 21-28, A few Final Comments about the “Birthday” Party:
It’s worth noting that birthdays were not celebrated in Israel. There were only three or four birthdays even mentioned in the entire Bible. Herod, however, was culturally more Roman than Hebrew, and in any case, there is no indication that this party had much to do with birthdays.  His guest list was all political cronies. Here’s who he invited:
1.      Tois megistasin, “chief nobles.” Civil officials, government officials.
2.      Chiliarchos. Literally, a “Commanders of 1,000 men.” A roman title for the heads of the state military apparatus. Bratcher and Nida say that “the word is used here in the general sense of high ranking officers” (p. 197).
3.      Protois, “Prominent men.” Leading people from important and influential families.[d]

“The degenerate nature of Antipas’ splendid banquet contrasts vividly with the wholesome simplicity of the very different feast which will follow next in Mark’s narrative (6:39-43).[e]

6:22 “When his (step) daughter came in and danced…”
There is some question about how old the girl is. Guesses range from around twelve to twenty. The fact that she has to ask her mother indicates to some that she must still be quite young. However, “on any reading, Herod’s vulgarity is perverse; after taking his brother’s wife (cf. Lev 20:21), he lusts after his wife’s daughter (cf. Lev 20:14).”[f]

6:23 Half of my kingdom:
Herod’s pledge is not backed up with any authority; as a Roman vassal he has no authority to give away any of his kingdom. But then, he’s drunk and, remember, he thought he was a king.

6:24. The girl has to go “out” to ask her mother. Some commentators see this as women partying in one dining hall and the men in another. Other commentators say that Herodias and her mother were waiting just outside for the menfolk to get so drunk that they would inevitably promise the sexy young girl anything and then she could ask for John’s head. Either is possible and neither mess with the gist of the story.

For what it’s worth, Josephus characterizes Herodias the same way that Mark does: a jealous, ambitious schemer.

The exact location where John is being held is not mentioned in the text, but it’s relevant to the story because it would have to be close to the party or else they couldn’t have sent guards to him for his head and bring it back while the party was going on (unless it was a very, very ,very, very, long party). Josephus says that it was in Herod’s fortified palace at Machaerus, in Peraea, which would make it pretty far away. So, either John had been brought in for a while and was there during the time of the party, or they had it at another location closer in. “Excavations at Herod’s fortress Machaerus suggest two dining halls, one for women and one for men.”[g] So, it is entirely possible that they were in fact at Machaerus and that the women were in one dining hall and the men were in another, and John was in the prison room.

[a]Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament, electronic ed., Mk 6:14 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997, c1993).
[a] This phrase is preceded by kai, “and.” It would have been very helpful to put this in the translation, because it connects Herod’s thoughts on Jesus and John, to the previous story. Leaving it out cuts it off from what has just occurred.
[b] “Some” (elegonλεγον). Impersonal plural. Not, “they said” but “some said.” The KJV has elegen, which is similar, but has an “e” instead of an “o” and means, “he was saying,” which is very likely incorrect. No modern translation follows the KJV in this. Some, however, give it as an alternative reading.
[c] “The baptizer” Matthew and Luke use the noun form (βαπτίστης, baptistēs), as a title, Mark prefers the participle ( βαπτίζων, ho baptizōn), as in “the one who baptizes, or the baptizer,” as the nrsv has here. Note v. 6:25, which is one of only two instances in his Gospel of the word being used as a noun (the other is Mark 8:28).
[d] “[Has been raised] from the dead” (ek nekrōn). More like, “raised out of the dead.” Cf. Mark 9:9, 10, 12:25, 16:14.
[e] “These powers are at work in him” (ἐνεργοῦσιν αἱ δυνάμεις ἐν αὐτῷ, energousin hai dunameis en autōi). Some interpreters suggest, “Mighty deeds are done by him.”
[f] Expected in scripture to return to life on earth were Elijah (Mal 4:5) and a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15).
[g] The questions of Herod in 6:14-16 reflect confusion in popular messianic expectations and anticipate similar questions in 8:27-30. Following “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised,” the Texus receptus adds ek nekrōn, “from the dead.” But few modern translations follow this.
[h] “Sent” (πέστειλα, apesteilas). Verb, past participle, aorist, singular, masq. Having sent. See above on “send,” v. 7. Some have seen an intentional parallel from mark between Jesus sending out the Twelve to do good and Herod sending out the guards to arrest John and do evil.
[i] Gk he (nrsv note).
[j] “Feared John” (ephobeito ton Iōanēn). Imperfect tense, meaning that it is a continual state of fear. Bratcher and Nida prefer “he held (John) in awe.” It fits the context of the story better.
[k] “Holy man” (hagios). This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel where a human is called “Holy.”
[l] “Protected him” (sunetērei) Imperfect tense, again, meaning that he continued keeping John safe. France adds that the word “indicates protection from Herodias rather than keeping in custody, though the latter was also, of course, true” (p. 257).
[m] Other ancient authorities read he did many things, nrsv, note. The NET Bible notes, call the alternative reading here “virtually nonsense,” and say it is an “unintentional corruption,” caused most likely simply because “baffled” and “did” look alike in Greek. The word is πόρει, ēporei, “baffled,” “confused,” bewildered.” The majority of the manuscripts have the verb ποιέω, poieō, “I do,” which led to the nrsv’s alternative (and the kjv’s major) reading, “he did many things.” But the better manuscripts have πορέω, aporeō, “I am at a loss,” which fits much better to the story and leads to Herod’s being perplexed. NET notes, “The variation may be no more than a simple case of confusion of letters, since the two readings look very much alike.” The point, if this is the correct reading, is that John was saying things that either Herod was not able to understand or (less likely) Herod chose not to understand them. The Complete Word Study Dictionary has, “Not knowing how to proceed, speak, or act.” Thayer’s Greek Definitions has, “not to know which way to turn.”
[n] “He liked to listen to him” (hēdeōs ēkouen). Imperfect tense, meaning that he continually enjoyed listening to John. Implication is that he did it often, ongoing. This is the only time that this term shows up in Mark. Mark has very few words like “gladly” or “liked” in it.
[o] “Opportunity came” (genomenēs hēmeras eukairou), literally, his “day of opportunity,” “Lucky day,” “well timed.”
[p] That is, politicians, military, and the wealthy. They included, “the lords (megas great ones), the high captains (chiliarchos commander of a thousand soldiers, a Roman cohort), and chief estates of Galilee (prōtos the first-ones of Galilee, or the chief men). This was a notable gathering, composed of men from governmental, military, and civil life” (Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies: Volume One)
[q] Other ancient authorities read the daughter of Herodias herself (nrsv, note). “The reading adopted in the translation, τς θυγατρς ατο Ηρδιάδος (tē thugatro autou herōdiado), is supported by א B D L Δ 565 pc; it is also the most difficult reading internally since it describes Herodias as Herod's daughter. Other readings are less awkward, but they do not have adequate external support. The reading τς θυγατρς ατς τς Ηρδιάδος (tē thugatro autē tē erōdiado, "the daughter of Herodias herself") is supported by A C (W) Θ Ë13 33 Ï, but this is also grammatically awkward. The easiest reading, τς θυγατρς τς Ηρδιάδος ("the daughter of Herodias") is supported by Ë1 pc, but this reading probably arose from an accidental omission of ατς in the previous reading. The reading τς θυγατρς ατο Ηρδιάδος, despite its historical difficulties, is most likely original due to external attestation and the fact that it most likely gave rise to the other readings as scribes sought to correct it.” (NET Bible Note)
[r] “Pleased [Herod]” (erēsen). Only here in all of Mark. Delighted. Does it have a sexual tone to it?
[s] “The king was deeply grieved” (perilupos genomenos) “a concessive clause, the participle, an ingressive aorist, indicating entrance into a new condition” (Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies, Volume One).
[t] “Soldier of the guard” (σπεκουλάτωρ, spekoulátōr); gen., from the Latin, “speculator,” “spy.” A soldier, a sentinel. “These were soldiers forming the bodyguard of kings and princes who also, according to oriental custom, acted as executioners” (The Complete Word Study Dictionary). It “originally meant a military scout, but came to be used of soldiers with a special commission, for instance, as bodyguards or when detailed to carry out an execution” France, p. 259.
[u] Gk his (nrsv note).
[v] Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical notes at CrosmMarks, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x14.htm.
[w] Cited in Stoffregen, Ibid.
[x] David A. Fiensy, College Press New Testament Commentary: with the NIV (College Press Publishing Co. , 1994)
[y] R.T. France, the New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), p. 252.
[z] Robert Price, Was Jesus…, cited in Michal Burton, Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark: Chapter 6, http://www.michaelturton.com/Mark/GMark06.html#6.p.14.29
[aa] France, p. 255.
[bb] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (1992), pp. 216-217.
[cc] Bratcher, Nida, Handbook on the Gospel of Mark (New York: UBS, 1961), p. 198.
[dd]Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament, electronic ed., Mk 6:14 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997, c1993).
[ee] Pheme Perkins, Mark, New Interpreter's Bible, p. 599.
[ff] France, pp, 256-257.
[gg] Bratcher and Nida, p. 197.
[hh] France, p. 255.
[ii] Craig S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993).
[jj] IVP Bible Background Commentary

A Possible Sermon on this Passage
Proper Eleven, Year B
Mark 6:14-29

This is an enormously complicated passage. I could spend all of my time just listing the back story and never get around to the sermon itself. It is also a highly unusual passage, for two reasons. First because this is the rare story in the Gospels that has almost nothing to do with Jesus. He never shows up in the entire tale. At the very beginning he is mentioned once, when Herod thinks that Jesus might be John the Baptist raised from the grave, and then the story goes off to tell about how it was that Herod came to kill John, and Jesus is never mentioned again. The second reason is that it is unrelentingly dark. There is no good news in this story. It starts off talking about death and then ends in death. It’s an awful story, and it’s strangely out of place. The whole story is a memory of something that had happened years earlier, and it is sandwiched in between two parts of another story that are, oddly, nothing but good news…but I’ll get to that in a moment.

I’ll try to go through the entire story, piece-by-bloody-piece, with enough back story that you know what is going on, but not so much that you doze off, and then I’ll TRY very hard at the end to bring all of this to a conclusion that feels at least a little bit like a real sermon. You let me know when I’m done if I succeeded in that.

So the first thing I need to say to you about all of this is about this guy, “King” Herod, who is at the center of the story. If most of us think of someone named “King Herod,” the first thing that comes to mind is the guy the three wise men went to visit, with the big star in the sky, who killed off all the little babies under the age of four to keep Jesus, “the king of the Jews” from growing up. Well, that guy is not this guy. That was this Herod’s father. Herod had four sons (from a variety of wives, which I won’t go into now) and at least one daughter (though historians are notoriously silent about daughters). When he died, Rome (which pretty much owned Israel back in those days) split up the “Kingdom” of Israel into four sections and placed each of King Herod’s sons over one of the sections (there seems also have been one section given to the daughter, but there is almost nothing written about her, so we can’t be certain). So, the man called “Herod” (sometimes Herod Antipas) in today’s passage was not a real King; he was a “Tetrarch,” a term that simply means someone who rules over a quarter of the land. And the land he got to rule over was “Galilee,” which most of us have heard of, and a place called “Perea,” which most of us have not.

Incidentally, though he was not really a King, he always wanted to be one and called himself king and tried to act like one. He had all of the pomp and vanity of a King without any of the power and influence or property. In fact, it may well be that the reason why Mark called him a King was out of irony, that he always called himself by that title, and Mark was maybe poking a little fun at him. More on that later.

However, even though he never quite made it to being a real King, he did come very close to being like his father in one way. He wanted to be just as much of a scumbag as his father had been and in that, by all accounts, he may have succeeded. So, to start with this morning, I’m going to share with you the four (and maybe five) biggest sins of “King-Wannabe Herod Antipas.”

Sin one: His first wife was named Phasaelis, and she was the daughter of King Aretas IV, of neighboring Nabatea.[1] He acquired her by cutting a deal with her daddy, King Aretas, to settle a border dispute. The deal was something like, “You give me your daughter and I’ll give you about three hundred miles of good farmland along our common border.”
Now, I know that was not unheard of in those days, but it has always seemed to me that if you are a king and you think that that is a good trade, then she has got to be a real prize or you have to be real, real ugly, but that’s just my opinion.) At the very least it shows that his heart wasn’t in his wife.

The second sin was a little more serious. It seems that one day this Herod was on his way to Rome for a meeting and he stopped off along the way to visit his brother, Philip and his wife, Herodias. Incidentally, Herodias was the real King Herod’s granddaughter, and was named after him, and if you think about it, that made her also Philip’s niece, which was not exactly illegal, but at least a little complicated. So, as it happened, while this Herod there, he and Herodias became (shall we say) “friends,” and she decided to accompany him on the long and boring buggy ride up to Rome. Probably just to keep him company, of course, because it was a long trip. But you know how things happen, and after about a month or so, they sort of stopped checking into the motels each night and asking for two rooms…if you know what I mean… And then after they finally got back home again, she filed for divorce and married Herod.

By the way, her soon-to-be ex-husband, Philip, was the poorest of all of King Herod the Great’s sons. He had been cut out of the will when his father died (long story for another time) and received the tiniest piece of the kingdom to rule over. It was kind of like son Herod Antipas received Wisconsin and son Philip got Rhode Island. So, when she met Herod, who actually ruled over the center of the old Kingdom, she jumped at the chance to move up in the world.

The only requirement that Herodias put on Herod was that he divorce his own wife, Phasaelis. However, when they got back to Jerusalem, they found out that when she had gotten wind of the scandal, she snuck out and ran back home to Nabatea, which meant that Herod married Herodias without being able to get a proper divorce first. So, in addition to being an adulterer, and a wife-stealer (is that a word?) Pasaelis’ action also made him also a bigamist. (That may be the only piece of justice in the whole story.)   

Now in addition to all of this being just a bit immoral, it was also patently illegal. Adultery, divorce, remarriage, and then bigamy, were all illegal in those days, and these two people hit the quadruple crown. But, as you know, Herod thought he was a king and kings can do anything, so he got away with it. They actually claimed that by virtue of their being employed by Rome (and Herod was educated in Rome), they, therefore, were Roman citizens (though it’s not clear historically that that was true), therefore they could play by Roman divorce laws. And by Roman law, you could do pretty much anything you wanted as long as it didn’t block trade routes or scare the horses…

By the way, their little sin also nearly lost him his entire country, because after Phasaelis’ father got wind that his daughter had been thrown under the bus (so to speak), he declared war on Perea, one of the two provinces that Herod ruled over. And Hot Shot Herod, who always thought he was a king, sent forces to the border to fight back but was vastly outnumbered (Aretas, was, after all, a real king and had a real army) and Herod’s forces got knocked on their pit-tooey.[2] Which means, more seriously, that his vanity and lack of sexual boundaries made him willing to risk and lose the lives of hundreds of innocent people so that he could have an affair, and break the rules, and show off how tough he was (or how tough he thought he was).[3] Pheme Perkins, who teaches New Testament up at Boston College, used to say that “Willingness to sacrifice others to maintain honor, prestige, and power remains one of the great temptations of persons in positions of authority.”[4] And she’s right.

Sin number three. Herod Antipas’ father, Herod the Great, had several massive building programs in his lifetime as ways of showing off his “greatness” to the power people back in Rome. Herod, the younger, who always wanted to be a king, tried the same thing. He built up, almost from scratch, two cities. One was Sepphorus, a major city that you’ve probably never heard of, that was just about four miles west of Nazareth (hometown of Jesus) and the other was on the Sea of Galilee. You can tell he built it in part to suck up to Rome, because he called it “Tiberias,” which was the name of the new Emperor. Think of them as vanity cities. Never mind that they both cost a gazillion dollars and that he broke the backs of the citizens of Israel, forcing them to build for him for near-starvation wages, or that he skimmed money off of the building appropriations to pad his own bank accounts, for him, all that was important was that he looked good to the important people back in Italy where his real audience was. He built and built and built, and at the end of decades, hundreds of local people had died in the projects and thousands impoverished, but Herod got his fancy new cities. Incidentally, in Tiberias, he had a terrible time even getting anyone to move there because he built it over a cemetery, and NO ONE wanted to move into a home over the bodies of their ancestors. So he had to populate the city with foreigners or pay lapsed, non-religious opportunistic Jews, willing to move there for a fee.[5] Tiberias, which we will see again in two weeks with the story of the feeding of the multitude in John 6, became the most hated place in all of Galilee after that.

So, sin number three, is massive, heartless vanity and greed.   

To get to sin number four, I’m going to have to step back and say a few words about John the Baptist. We all know who John is: Cousin of Jesus, born about the same time, mother was Elizabeth. He had his own ministry and followers, and Jesus may even have been in John’s community for a while. He was baptized by John and never started his own traveling itinerant ministry until after John was killed.

John’s ministry was seen by both the religious and political authorities as a major threat. To the Religious leaders, he offered a way into a relationship with God that bypassed the strict rules and regulations of the “Church” (I actually mean the Temple and Synagogue, but for our purposes, it functioned about the same back then as what we might think of as a “church” today). The Priests and Pharisees prescribed extremely stringent rules for worship that were so harsh that only a very small number of people could obey them sufficiently or even afford them. The “kosher” laws that Jews try to follow today are a distant descendent of those rules but are nowhere near as lengthy and cumbersome. The result was that people stayed out of “church” in droves. People would come to Jerusalem three or four times a year to one of the festivals, like Passover or Yom Kippor, but mainly to sell their crops in the market, and while there they might go and sacrifice a dove in the Temple, but that was about the extent of their religious involvement.

But along comes John, who stood out in the desert by the Jordan river and says, “what you believe and what orthodox rules you obey are not as important as your behavior and your relationship to the Kingdom of God. Just go into the water, wash away your old life and take on a new one and welcome into the kingdom.” That totally cut him off from the “church.” They hated him. For one thing that kind of teaching cut into the profits they made from selling the sacrifices. For another it threatened their leadership and authority. So, as important as he was as a religious leader at the time (and he is mentioned in some detail by the historians of his day), not one religious leader came to his defense when he was arrested.

He also angered Herod and his cronies by his dabbling in politics, both personal and public. For one thing, according to Luke, John was preaching that if anyone had too many clothes, they should give some of them away. And if they had too much money, they should give some of that away too. If they worked in the IRS, they shouldn’t gouge their customers; if they worked in National Defense, they shouldn’t take bribes. None of these things endeared him to people in authority. There is also some evidence that he got wind of Herod Antipas’ building-program money-skimming scam and threw that into his critique on occasion. So, imagine that you were Herod and you were trying to be the BMOC in Galilee and your people were restless and angry already, and here comes this odd prophet guy who holds mass rallies of thousands and thousands of poor people (many of them are poor because of you), and preaches sermons about how rich folk ought to give away their money and how you, Herod, shouldn’t have scammed that money from the poor schleps who you forced off of their farms to come build for you. What would you do?

What he did was to send out the National Guard one night and haul old John to jail.

To make matters worse, John had also been blathering, to anyone who could listen, about all of the unseemly details of the Herod/Herodias marriage scandal. And that shot down any chance he ever had of being Facebook friends with Herodias. In fact, she hated him, because it was undermining her own pyramid climbing by hanging out with Herod, the King Wannabe. She really hated him. She had wanted to send out a couple of goons of her own long before this to pick him up and give him the old concrete shoes routine in the bottom of the Jordan River.

Interestingly, the nrsv and most other translations say simply that she had a “grudge” against him. That’s relatively accurate, but the Greek word that they are translating there, enéchō, can also be translated “to be intertwined with.” Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t it true that sometimes you can hate someone so much that your very being becomes intertwined with the one that you hate? Your life begins to be determined by the life of the one you hate. You can’t let go of the person because you can’t let go of your hate. I think a little bit of that was what was going on with Herodias over John. Her hatred so possessed her that her life became intertwined with his in a demented, hurtful, murderous way.  

But before she got a chance to do something herself, husband Herod beat her to it. He put John in the basement dungeon of a palace out in Machaerus, up in the northeast part of Galilee and Perea. Verse 20 says that by keeping John in jail, Herod was “protecting him.” It’s an odd word to use here because it doesn’t say who he was protecting John from, but I don’t think it’s wildly off the mark to say that it might have been Herodias.

As it turns out, though, that wasn’t the end of the story. Actually, in spite of John’s sharp tongue, Herod seemed to actually like him. He liked the way that John talked about religion and theology and politics. So, every now and then, late at night, Mark says that Herod would sneak down to the dungeon when the wife and kids were getting ready to turn in and were watching “dancing with the Stars,” and the two of them would have these long talks. Mark says that Herod couldn’t always understand what John was talking about—it was a little over his head—but he was still fascinated by it all and enjoyed their little chats.

Herodias, on the other hand, still hated John and just bided her time waiting for when she could finally get to him.

One day—nobody knows for certain how many months or years later—Herod held a big party, interestingly, up in Machaerus, for the mayors, governors and military brass of Galilee. Mark called it a “Birthday Party,” but Jews didn’t have birthday parties in those days, so, given the guest list, it was most likely a big feast to buy favors with all of the other dignitaries in his realm. It went on for days with truckloads of wine and food. Finally after several days of this, the drunken men said to him, “You got any entertainment up here, or just more liquor?” So, Herod sent out and asked Herodias’ daughter, Salome, to come in and dance for them. I don’t know if I’m now on sin four or five, but any way you look at it, this has got to be a sin too. Salome was about twelve or thirteen at the time, and her step-father was asking her to come in and do the nearly-nude “Seven Veils” thing for a bunch of depraved, drunken politicians. I don’t know what she did for them or what they did to her afterwards (and I don’t really want to know), but at the end of it all, Mark says that Herod and the men had been “pleasured” (aréskō) by her performance. That’s not a term usually reserved for just complimenting the ice scream. In fact he was so pleased that he offered her up to half of his kingdom as a reward. Of course that was a stupid offer by any standard, but he was drunk, so what would you expect?

Now, Salome didn’t have a clue about what to ask for—she was just a kid—so she ran next door to where her mother had been waiting for her and said, “my step-daddy just offered me anything I wanted up to half of his kingdom. What should I ask for?” And her mother, who had been waiting patiently for months now to avenge the person who she hated so much that her entire life had been intertwined in the hatred, said, “I have just the thing. Go tell your step-father to give you the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

(Incidentally, have you ever wondered where the expression, “to have your head handed to you on a platter” came from? This is it. It came from this story. )

So, that’s the end of the story. Herod sent a guard out to John, the guard cut off John’s head and brought it back to the girl, who gave it to her mother. She was pleased because she finally got her way; Herod was grieved because he wasn’t strong enough to go back on his stupid pledge and save the life of his friend; and John the Baptist was dead. 

So, what’s the moral of this story? Well, it’s not much because this is one of the most unrelentingly dark and evil stories of the New Testament. Almost totally bereft of good news.

However, there is one thing. It’s small, and it’s subtle, but I think it’s important and I want to share it.

Remember what I said at the beginning about this story being sandwiched in between the pieces of another story? Just before this one Jesus sends out the twelve Apostles on a teaching/preaching mission. And after it the Apostles come back and tell wonderful stories about how well it went. But in between that is this dark and grizzly murder of John.

Ever wonder why that is? Have you ever wondered why this sweet story of a successful preaching mission that ended nicely is interrupted by a story of a very unsuccessful preaching mission that ended very, very badly? Maybe that is it. Many Bible scholars believe that this was just the point: that Mark wanted his readers, who were going through uncertain times and trials, to know that both can happen. Sometimes you will be called by God to proclaim the good news of love and acceptance, you will be called to challenge our nation’s leaders and stand up for the weak and the powerless, and it will all go well. Sometimes the people will change, the leaders will repent and the Kingdom of God will be moved one inch closer. But then on other occasions, you will be called to do exactly the same thing to the same people, and for the same people and you’ll have your head handed to you on a platter.

I think that that is the message that Mark wants us to hear. Sometimes the call to mission and teaching and justice is a success and sometimes it is not. Sometimes you will prevail and good will happen, and sometimes you will fail and stumble back. That’s the way life is. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that Mark intentionally jammed these two very deeply contrasting stories together on purpose to say that failure is just as much a part of life as success is. Take it in stride. We are called by God to be faithful to the very, very end. We are not called to be successful. Sometimes we will be and sometimes we will not, but in the end, never give up. Never give up. Never give up.


[1] More commonly known today by historians as “Arabia,” but “Nabetea” by the Jews, Greeks and Romans of the time.
[2] “Pit-tooey,” from petomai/πέτομαι, v. masc. passive participle, genitive, sing. 1) To fly, or flying, as in spit flung from mouth, “Ach, pit-tooey.” 2) lower part of human back anatomy from which waste might “fly” when running too hard without taking precautions. (See Rev 12:14; Rev 14:6; Rev 19:17). Frequently used as pejorative for something one falls on in a failed attempt to overpower one’s ex-wife’s father.
Actually, the emperor of Rome had to send in troops to bail Herod Antipas out, but before they could engage in battle the Emperor passed away and the general in command pulled back to wait for instructions from the next Emperor, who then called the whole war off. Aretas won.
[3] K.C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the time of Jesus (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress, 1998), p. 45.
[4] Pheme Perkins, Mark, New Interpreter's Bible, p. 599.
[5] Jonathan Reid, “Excavating Jesus,” in Religion Today: www.bibleinterp.com/articles/excavating_Jesus.shtml (accessed 2012).