Jesus’ renown has grown. As he moved his ministry into the Galilean hills rather than simply around the Galilean lake and he sent his disciples in six teams throughout the villages in those hills, his fame increased. Even some political leaders were beginning to take notice. Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee in the north and Perea in the south, noticed.
Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, ruled from 4 BCE to 39 CE. The narrator calls him a “king,” but officially he was the tetrarch (the ruler of a fourth of his father’s kingdom–the purple area in the map below). Perhaps the title “king” is mocking Herod since he was removed from his position precisely because he requested the title of “king.” Or perhaps it was simply popular usage in Palestine. Whatever the case, for the first time, a political leader has taken an interest in Jesus.
Herod is concerned with the same question the disciples asked, “Who is this?” Some opponents have already called him a blasphemer or an ally of Satan. But others thought he was Elijah, the one who would come before the Messiah. Still others thought he was simply another prophet. But Herod had his own opinion: “This is John the Baptist whom I beheaded and is now risen from the dead.” Wow! Why would he think that?
John was imprisoned in Perea just about the time that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee (Mark 1:14) and it appears that Herod did not become aware of Jesus until after John was already dead. But what Herod heard about Jesus reminded him of John. Perhaps their preaching about the kingdom of God, righteousness, and judgment was so similar. Perhaps Herod thought Jesus’ miracles were evidence of a resurrected John. No doubt this instilled fear in Herod. Had John returned to judge Herod? Herod needed to know who Jesus was because he had killed John.
The Gospel uses this moment in the narrative to tell its readers the rest of John’s story. It is a martyr story–the first of two in the Gospel: first John, then Jesus. Both leading heralds of the kingdom of God within the Gospel are martyred. Both killed by political leaders. Empires oppose the kingdom of God. Mark’s original readers know this all too well as they suffer from Roman persecution.
Herod imprisoned John in response to his preaching–for the sake of his wife, Herodias. Herod had divorced his wife and married his half-brother Philip’s wife (and another half-brother Philip would eventually marry Herodias’daughter, Herod’s step-daughter). Levitical law explicitly forbade this (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21). Herod himself was not Jewish (his mother was Samaritan) but his wife was. John’s rebuke must have deeply offended her. He was imprisoned to silence him but Herodias wanted him dead.
Herod, however, was fascinated with John. He sensed John was a godly man and he enjoyed listening to his preaching. But when he heard him, Herod was disturbed or disquieted. It gnawed at him and worried him. When Herod heard about Jesus, this worry surfaced again. Politically, John had to be silenced, but existentially Herod knew there was more to John than met the eye. He played the middle of the road–he kept him safe in prison.
Herodias, however, wanted him silenced permanently and her opportunity eventually came through her daughter Salome. (We know her name from Josephus, Antiquities, 18.5.4.)
Herod invited his governmental officials and leaders from Galilee and Perea to a birthday banquet at his palace fortress in Machaerus (in Perea on the eastern side of the Dead Sea) where John was imprisoned. Such Roman banquets were lavish and often extended for days.
But this banquet is infamous for the dance of Salome. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the dance itself. Many have understood it as an erotic dance, but this is unnecessary. In fact, it appears that Salome was between twelve and fourteen (cf. Harold Hoehner, Herod Antipas, 154-156). Even Romans would have viewed an erotic dance by the young daughter of the “king” as unseemly. It is more likely that she was an exceptional talent and enthralled her audience, especially Herod. Her young age is perhaps indicated as well by the fact that she consulted her mother about how she should respond to Herod’s response to her performance.
His gesture was a typical exaggerated offer from one of higher rank to one of lower rank (cf. 1 Kings 13:8; Esther 5:3, 6; 7:2; Luke 19:8). It was as if I had said to my daughter, “I’ll give you anything you want” but with the pre-understanding that there are limits to that gesture.
She requested, at her mother’s instigation, John’s head on a platter–no doubt an allusion to the banquet setting. Herod reluctantly conceded to the request as he could not deny her given his boast in front of all his officials. He could not lose face in their presence.
John was martyred. He died for the sake of the kingdom of God. He was killed by a political leader. He was killed because, as a righteous person, he proclaimed righteousness.
We might imagine that the disciples of Jesus knew this story. Some of them had followed John before Jesus called them. John’s disciples buried John and the beheading of John was public knowledge; the news may have spread through the officials present. (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.5.2, notes the ministry and execution of John.)
We might imagine that the disciples of Jesus remembered the execution of John when they realized that Jesus, too, was headed to death. The disciples fled in terror before the prospect of such an end. Peter denied Jesus.
Heralds of the Kingdom of God die. Peacemakers are put to death. Disciples of Jesus are persecuted. Jesus was martyred; his disciples were martyred. Announcing the reign of God is often heard with hostility, opposition and ridicule. Jesus’ call to “take up your cross and follow me” perhaps does not sound so easy after all.