Herod's Choice: The Beheading of John the Baptist
July 15, 2012
In Mark chapter 6:14, King Herod learns of Jesus' popular teaching and healing. The news of Jesus' rising star triggers an attack of paranoia on Herod's part and a flashback to his ordering of the beheading of Jesus' cousin John the Baptist.
Imagine Herod standing on a stage, which is dark except for the spotlight that illuminates him. Here is how I imagine a soliloquy by Herod would go as he introduces himself to the audience and attempts to justify his horrible actions.
The people are saying that this young, popular teacher and healer is John—whom I beheaded—raised from the dead. I know it's a far-fetched theory, but they may be right. I didn't want to have him killed, but I had no choice.
I am Herod Antipas, ruler of Palestine from 4 B.C.E. to 29 C.E. I realize that my family, the Herodians, had a reputation in Palestine for being abusive and corrupt. My father was Herod the Great who sent the wise men to look for the baby who was the "King of the Jews" (Mt. 2:8) and who arranged for the death of the infants (Mt. 2:16-18).
He wanted one of his sons to be "King of the Jews" when he died. I wasn't my father's top choice to succeed him. If other half-brothers hadn't been executed or imprisoned, I'd have never ended up as his choice as heir. I still didn't get all of Palestine. The Romans decided to divide it between me and my two brothers, Herod Archelaus (the one Joseph took his family to Galilee to avoid in Mt. 2:22) and Herod Philip. So you see, I had to prove that I could fill my father's shoes and that I could be a ruler that people would obey and respect.
I traveled to Rome in 29 C.E. On my way, I visited my brother Herod Philip and I fell in love with his wife Herodias, who also happened to be my own niece. She agreed to marry me when I returned to Rome, as long as I divorced my first wife Phasaelis. When I married Herodias, John the Baptist boldly criticized the marriage as incestuous. I understood his objection that the Mosaic Covenant did not allow for a man to marry his brother's wife except in the case of Levirate marriage, but I couldn't allow him to undermine my authority and credibility in public. I feared him because he was holy and righteous. I wanted to protect him, but I also wanted to keep my wife happy. When I heard him speak, I felt there could be a chance for me to untangle this mess. He made me doubt my own values and actions. He made me feel confused and troubled. At the same time, I couldn't stop listening to him.
So I had John put in prison and hoped that action would satisfy Herodias' desire for revenge against him. I figured being in jail might even protect him from himself. After all, I wasn't the only person he was criticizing with his bold preaching.
My birthday was coming up. I threw a banquet and invited my courtiers, soldiers, and leaders of Galilee. At the end of such banquets, when everyone has had a lot to drink, there is always dancing. This time I allowed Herodias' daughter (my stepdaughter) to dance. I knew her nubile beauty would stimulate and impress my courtiers. As she danced, I felt very unfatherly sensations. Who can blame me! She was so untouched and yet so tempting—so innocent, yet so seductive. There was a moment when seeing my courtiers salivating over her made me wonder if having my daughter dance for a bunch of drunken men had been a good idea.
When her dance was done, the applause was thunderous. After it died down, I called her over and heard myself offering her the moon, or anyway, half my kingdom as a reward for her titillating performance. In retrospect that was a mistake, but I wasn't' thinking with my brain. I was drunk and over-stimulated. It turned out to be a bad mix for John the Baptist.
She ran off, and I knew exactly to whom she was running. She came back fast. Her mother didn't want to give me time to change my mind. While I waited for her to return, I stood there with a confident smile pasted on my face for the sake of my guests, but inside I was thinking, "Please don't let her ask for what I'm afraid she's going to ask for."
But she did, and it was like a sword in my heart. I was deeply grieved. My thought was: "The life of an innocent man seems a high price to save face." But, as I looked out over the sea of faces of my guests, I felt like I had no choice. I had to give her what she asked for. So I gave the order to send a soldier of the guard to behead John in the prison and bring his head to the girl to take to her mother. I didn't want to see the head of an innocent, holy, and righteous man on a platter.
I know I had no choice, but still, I couldn't bear to see the consequences of my decision.
Now, as Herod remains on center stage under the spotlight, I imagine him looking toward the future.
Here he comes. We meet at last. Here is the young radical who called me a "fox" (Lk. 13:32)! Pilate has sent him to me to figure out what to do with him. I'm glad for the chance to meet him. After all, I've heard about him. Meeting him face to face, I realize he's not John the Baptist raised from the dead, though there is a slight family resemblance in their features. There certainly is a great family resemblance in their fearlessness. I try to get him to heal somebody or multiply some loaves or perform some other sign, but he refuses to speak. I learned from the debacle with John that I don't ever want to order the death of an innocent man again, but I can't release him. The people would go wild. So I send him back to Pilate.
Poor Pilate was put in the same position I was in with John and Herodias. He believed he was innocent, but couldn't risk angering the people and the religious leaders. Neither of us had a choice. I don't know why history has given us such a bad rap. People in power have a lot to lose. We should get a little credit for at least saying that we thought he was innocent before we gave him up to be crucified.
I didn't want to see John's head on a platter, and I didn't attend the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. I hate situations in which I have no choice, but in which the consequences of my decisions are too horrible to face.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), edited by Dr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley.
Josephus' Antiquities XVIII. 5.2 (The death of John the Baptist is recorded here.)
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Fortress Press, 2002).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.