This is the sixteenth installment, comprising Act 3. Scene 2, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the fifteenth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." 15 But others said, "It is Elijah." 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." 17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod 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 John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased 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; 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 with orders to bring John's 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. (NRSV)
In the entry for Act , Scene 1, I ended the post writing, “The scene ends here, in a sense, for as we move on through this Act, I will argue that the whole of Act 3 is intricately interwoven as one extended Scene, in which it is difficult to pull out any one thread, or move the camera. The whole of this Act functions as a lengthy A-B-A narrative sandwich, or better yet, a number of nesting A-B-A sandwiches in which each Scene explains the previous Scene and the one still to come. In addition, many themes which have been hinted at in the first two Acts will come to, if not resolution, greater clarity in this Act 3.”
This is the first of these nesting A-B-A sandwiches that are a part of the larger A-B-A narrative that comprises Act 3. The apostles have been sent out by Jesus to participate in his ministry in concrete ways established by his own words and deeds (A1), and they will report back to Jesus in 6:30 on their mission when they return (A2). But between their going and coming, Mark has inserted this chilling tale of John the Baptist’s demise at the hands of Herod Antipas. Mark transitions to this scene in a smooth yet revealing manner, telling us that Herod was aware of the activity taking place with Jesus and his disciples because Antipas was the one who had caused John the Baptist’s death and was worried Jesus might be John returned from the dead (6:14-16). In these three verses, Mark presents us the backstory and reveals Herod’s tormented state of mind: "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised" (6:16). This is not a question as presented in Mark, but a statement of fact.
Mark then describes the demise of John the Baptist, who, we find out, had criticized Herod Antipas’ marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias as illicit (6:17-18; Josephus also supplies a reference to John the Baptist’s death by Herod Antipas in Jewish Antiquities Book XVIII, 5.2). In Mark’s account, Herod finds it impossible to kill John the Baptist initially.
19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.
This is a psychologically persuasive scene: John is a worry for Herod, as a politician to whom John might pose a threat and as an individual, whose marriage has been denounced, yet there is a strange appeal in this odd prophet from the desert and “he liked to listen to him.”
The chance to do away with John the problem comes in the guise of trickery, a classic scene in history and drama, which in a number of forms makes its way into movies and plays today, either directly or indirectly. The one who promises something he cannot or does not want to deliver, without knowing he has even made the promise, is a classic dramatic dilemma. It is not simply trickery, though, which leads to the dilemma, it is Herod’s own hubris and rashness. In the midst of a great birthday party for Herod, his daughter – technically his stepdaughter and grandniece – dances and Herod promises to give her “whatever you wish” (6:22) and "whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom" (6:23). What his stepdaughter wants, though, he did not imagine: John the Baptist’s head. The daughter had consulted with the mother and she wanted John out of the way, his criticisms of her and her marriage silenced.
So when the daughter, also called Herodias by Mark, asks "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter" (6:25), Mark describes Herod Antipas as “deeply grieved” (6:26) yet in a bind because he did not want to disappoint the girl, or embarrass himself in front of his guests. The scene ends in a practical and descriptive manner: a soldier beheaded John; the soldier brought John’s head on a platter which Herod gave to the girl; the girl gave it to her mother (6:27-28). Following this mundane telling, we are given one more mundane fact: “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb” (6:29). End scene. Story over.
In fact, this last, mundane statement is where the charge of electricity is poured into the account. Why does Mark tell this story at all? Why does he insert it here? It is inserted into the midst of Jesus’ own disciples being sent into the mission field to carry on Jesus’ ministry but before they return. What can religious leaders expect from politicians if they cross them, if they catch their attention? What can disciples expect to occur to the one they follow? Mark is foreshadowing not just Jesus’ death at the hands of political leaders, remember he has already done this in 3:6, but the fact that when the teacher or prophet dies, or is murdered, the disciples are left with one final task: you put your teacher in the tomb. End of story. This is how religious thorns in the side end their lives, right? Disciples need to prepare for the end.
John W. Martens
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