Read, Mark and Learn – Day 15

First we have to get clear who King Herod was. “Herod” is the name of a family of rulers of Judea starting with Herod the Great who was the king when Jesus was born. The Herod family ruled the area of  Judea under the authority of the Romans. Herod the Great was not a natural born Jew. He was from the kingdom of Nabatea to the South. Like many Nabateans and Edomites, he and his family adopted the Jewish religion and customs. As such, although he called himself the King of the Jews he was loathed by the pure Jewish people and despised not only for his not be a ‘true Jew’ but also for his compromise with the ruling Roman authorities and his decadent and violent lifestyle.

When Herod died the Romans divided his territory among three of his sons. Herod Antipas was given the region of Galilee and Peraea. Archelaus was given Judea and Philip ruled the territory east of the Jordan river. The story is very complicated, but put simply Herod Antipas fell in love with his brother Philip’s wife Herodias (who was also his niece) Antipas divorced his own wife to marry her. (There is some dispute which of Antipas’ brothers Herodias was first married to) The bottom line is that Herod Antipas divorced his wife to marry his brother’s wife. This was sinful according to Jewish law not only because he married his brother’s wife, but because she was his niece and therefore the illicit marriage was compounded by incest.

Mark picks up the story of John the Baptist’s death and Herod’s involvement and cuts across to tell this story at this point for a couple of good reasons. First of all, he shows that Jesus’ fame is growing. He has now come to the attention of King Herod. It is suggested that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life or that he is even Elijah the prophet. We must remember that the Jews of the time were bristling with excitement because certain prophecies that heralded the coming of the Messiah had all come true. According to the Old Testament prophets the Messiah would come when the Jews returned from exile to their land. They had done so. The Messiah would come when the temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt. It was rebuilt more splendid than ever by Herod the Great. Another prophecy was that the prophet Elijah would return to prepare the way for the Lord. Many people thought John the Baptist was the Elijah figure. Therefore the whisperings were excited and disturbing. “Was Jesus John the Baptist returned? Was he the long looked for Elijah figure or was he just another prophet/preacher like any other?”

Mark uses the debate to make clear that Jesus is not just a prophet like any other. This is shallow gossip. It is also a correction to one of the major misunderstandings of Jesus’ identity: that Jesus is just another prophet. He is simply another preacher or holy man like all the others who have come along from time immemorial. In fact every major heresy treats Jesus as just another religious teacher. Mark keeps us guessing. No, this is not the answer. Jesus is something other than just another religious teacher like all the others.

We then come to the story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom. Mark had not told us much about John the Baptist, but this story in its detail stands like a little story within a story. It is as if Mark is re-telling it having heard it from other sources. The story gives us a glimpse of who Jesus is up against. Herod is clearly a decadent, superstitious and dangerous character. He crushed John the Baptist without too much worry. He’s worldly, violent, vain and unpredictable. Mark also uses this story as a foreshadowing of what is to come. We will meet this mercurial and malevolent character again, and this time Jesus will face his own fate at Herod’s hands.

Finally, the story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom allow us to learn more of the background and context of the gospel story. Jesus is working on a stage that is complex in its relationships. The Jews themselves are made up of various factions–all of whom have a differing opinion of Jesus. The political context is fraught with complexity–the Herod family is full of intrigue, murder, sabotage, blackmail and deceit. The Roman overlords’ politics are interwoven with the Jewish complexities. Jesus is in among all this as a lamb among wolves. In the bigger picture Mark is showing us the ways of the world in all their evil machinations–all the greed, lust, violence and decadence. In the midst of this Jesus shines with his wisdom and innocence. His power and pure authority show up the Herods and Caesars, the Scribes and Pharisees of this world. By telling the story Mark reveals to us how Jesus stands out  like a light in the darkness and we see in St John’s words, that “the darkness could not comprehend the light.”

Therefore Mark shows us the ultimate conflict which exists still in our own lives: the conflict between Christ and the world–the conflict between the light and the darkness–the conflict between purity and decadence–between life and death.

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