Mark 6 gives us the very finest soap opera in the New Testament! It is fully worthy of a stage play, and so it happened when Oscar Wilde wrote his scandalous account of the story of John the Baptiser’s grisly death in the play, “Salome,” written in French in 1893, translated into English in 1894. The play was quickly banned from the stage, due both to its salacious depiction of the heroine as well as its use of biblical characters, long found dangerous and often forbidden as subjects of plays. And the fact that the highly controversial Wilde, a man publically accused and found guilty of homosexuality, was the author of the piece did not help its reputation either. In 1905 the German composer, Richard Strauss, set Wilde’s play to music with the same title. It triumphed in numerous world opera houses, save Vienna where Gustav Mahler was forbidden by the city’s censors to perform it, calling it both blasphemous and obscene. I have seen several productions of this opera, and it is a harrowing experience, both musically and visually, though I think that Strauss has captured the lurid New Testament tale extremely well.
The role of Salome, daughter of Herodias, is very dark in the play, and very demanding in the opera. In both cases, she is raised up beyond her depiction in Mark’s account. For him, it is Herodias who demands that Salome ask Herod for the head of John the Baptiser, while in play and opera it is in fact Salome, at her repulsive and slithery best, who makes the demand, and then at the end of the drama literally makes love to the severed head! Clearly, Wilde and Strauss were more interested in the horrors of dramatic effects than was Mark. Still, however, Mark’s portrayal is lurid and memorable in its own right.
The history that lies behind the story is very complex and worthy of its own stage play. Mark begins his story in 6:14 by announcing Herod Antipas’s great fear in response to the reports of Jesus’s acts of power. In fact, many of Herod’s citizens were claiming that Jesus was somehow “John the Baptiser raised from the dead,” and as a result he had been granted miraculous powers. Some others spread the rumor that Jesus was in reality Elijah, the long-awaited forerunner of the Jewish messiah, while others were saying that at the very least he was one of the prophets from their own Jewish tradition. Jesus’s own disciples will repeat these rumors at Mark 8:28. Herod is immediately convinced that the crowds are right; “John, the one I beheaded, has been raised” (Mark 6:16)! And that cry leads to the flashback story of how that had happened.
Mark plainly did not know the full details of the real life soap opera that was the family of Herod the Great; that story was difficult to keep clear even in its own time. The Herod of his story is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who was not in fact any sort of king, but rather tetrarch of Galilee and Perea while Jesus was active in his ministry. Herodias, Herod’s wife, had actually been wife of Antipas’s half-brother Herod, and not wife of his half-brother Philip. Antipas’s father, Herod the Great, had ten wives, the first five of which gave him seven sons, the first three of which Herod had executed for treason. Herodias was daughter of one of those executed half-brothers, thus making her niece of both of her husbands (told you it was complicated!). She divorced her first husband, and Herod Antipas divorced his first wife, daughter of a nearby king, in order to marry her. Philip was married to Herodias’s daughter (Mark 6:22) from her first marriage, elsewhere called Salome.
John the Baptiser had rebuked Herod Antipas for his marriage to Herodias, saying, “It is not right for you to have your brother’s wife,” resting his attack on Lev.18:16 that forbids sexual relations between brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Lev.20:21 goes on to call such a marriage “impurity,” and the match will thus remain childless. Mark says that Herodias “nursed a grudge” against John for his assault on her good name, and wanted desperately to get rid of him. But she had a problem; her husband was terrified of John whom he knew was an “upright and holy man, and so protected him” (Mark 6:20). In fact, Herod listened to John often, and though he could not understand much of what John was talking about, he “listened to him eagerly.” This is a delightfully comic portrait: Herod listening eagerly over and over to the holy man, but having not a clue what he was talking about! Strauss captures this portrait of Herod well in his opera, making the tetrarch a dramatic buffo tenor (that is, a comic tenor, albeit with a commanding voice) who attempts to convince both Herodias and Salome not to harm John, because, he says again and again “Er ist ein Heilger Mann” (“He is a holy man”).On one festival day, Herod holds a banquet for his birthday for his courtiers, his army commanders, and the significant citizens of his province. “And the daughter of Herodias came in and captivated Herod and his dinner guests by dancing” (Mark 6:22). Strauss wrote one of most familiar pieces, ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils” to depict this sultry scene of seduction. Herod is overcome and quite captured by the sensuous dance, and says to the dancer that she may ask him for whatever she wishes, and he will grant it (Mark 6:22), “even up to half my domain.” He is smitten indeed! The girl asks her mother what she should ask the tetrarch, and Herodias, seizing her chance long awaited, tells her to demand John’s head, which she immediately does, adding that she would like the head “on a platter, right now” (Mark 6:25)!
Herod, we are told, was “regretful” (“deeply grieved” NRSV), but because he had made his oath, and because of his dinner guests, who heard him vow, he did not want to refuse her and thus lose face. In Strauss’s opera, there is a musical tug of war between Salome and Herod, as he offers her jewels and other wonderful gifts, but she rejects all the substitutes, crying, “Ich will den Kopf von Jokanaan” (“ I will have John’s head”)! Herod sends the executioner to John in prison, and the head is brought on a platter and presented to the girl who gives it to her mother. As I have said, in the play and opera, Salome makes love to the head in such a disgusting way that even Herod is appalled by her repulsive behavior, and calls the executioner: “Man tote dieses Weib” (“Some one kill this woman”), and she is killed as the curtain rings down.
Mark ends his play differently. “When his (that is, John’s) disciples heard about it (the execution of their leader), they came and got his body and put it in a tomb” (Mark 6:29). Unlike Jesus’s own disciples at the end of his life, these disciples act responsibly toward their dead master; Jesus’s disciples will turn away and flee (Mark 14:50), leaving only the three women to attend the tomb. Though Mark does not name the dancing daughter of Herodias, at the end of his story one of the three women who watch over Jesus’s tomb is named Salome. Could this be Mark’s subtle suggestion that the earlier depraved woman has found a kind of redemption later in her life? Since Mark does not name the daughter of Herodias, that can only remain speculation.
Mark spends quite a bit of narrative time on this story. As I have tried to show, some of its elements are connected to later and earlier parts of his narrative. But I wonder if whether the story was simply too good to pass up, too memorable to avoid telling. In any case, Mark’s narration led to two powerful dramas, play and opera that have kept his story alive for us in fresh ways. I commend them to you as ways to enhance the wonder of the ancient tale and to enrich your own evaluation of it.
Among other things, this story indicates the sordid and dangerous time in which Jesus lived and warns the reader that any who cross the powers that be risk their very lives. So it is with John, and so it will be with Jesus.