John the baptist’s death.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 July

Mark 6.21-29, Matthew 14.6-12.

As I mentioned previously “Herodias,” as she’s called in the King James Version, is Herodia Salome (or as I’ve westernized it, Salome Herod), granddaughter of Antipater Herod, the first “King Herod.” She’s the daughter of Aristobulus Herod, the wife of Aristobulus’s half-brother Philip, and later the wife of Aristobulus and Philip’s half-brother Antipater, or “Antipas,” as he’s usually called. Yeah, that’s how it was in the Herod family.

You might recall Salome held a grudge against John the baptist, who at this point in the gospels was in Antipas’s prison. She wanted John dead for publicly criticizing her marriage. In those days before anyone thought to protect free speech, criticizing the Roman governor was considered sedition, and treason, and got the death penalty. So as the Roman governor of the Galilee, Antipas could’ve executed John whenever he pleased. But he didn’t, either because he feared the crowds Mt 14.5 or because he liked to talk religion with John. Mk 6.20 Pick your favorite explanation; the bible’ll back you up.

Salome’s chance came on Antipas’s birthday, when Antipas—who held the hereditary title of king, though not really the job—was feeling particularly royal. Probably fortified by drink. He decided to offer a royal grant to Salome’s daughter, his stepdaughter—who, following Roman custom, was also named Herodia Salome. I’ll just refer to the mom as Senior and the daughter as Junior.

Mark 6.21-23 KWL
21 An critical day came, because Antipas Herod threw a dinner party for his birthday
for his magistrates and generals, and the princes of the Galilee.
22 His daughter, Salome Herod, came in and danced.
She pleased Antipas Herod and his guests.
The king told the girl, “Ask me whatever you want and I’ll give it to you.”
23 Antipas promised Salome, “Whatever you ask me. I’ll give you up to half my kingdom!”
Matthew 14.6-7 KWL
6 When Antipas Herod’s birthday came, Salome Herod’s daughter danced in the middle.
It pleased Herod, 7 so with an oath he promised to give her whatever she wanted.

Salome Jr. was born in the year 14. Jesus’s ministry started round the time he turned 30, Lk 3.23 which would probably be the year 22, when Salome Jr. was eight. Both gospels call her a korásion/“girl,” which means younger than the age of adulthood, 13 years old. So that helps pin down the date for this story: Between the years 22 and 27.

But a lot of Christians imagine Jesus’s ministry was only three years long. Based on what? Well they imagine Jesus died at age 33 (mixing up the year 33 with his age), and if he started at 30, that gave him only three years for all the events of the gospels to take place. Plus the gospel of John only mentions three Passovers Jesus attended, which jibes with their theory. So if Salome Jr. did her birthday dance in, say, the year 32, that’d make her an 18-year-old woman.

And then people start to leap to all sorts of unsavory speculations about what sort of dance this was—as if a Judean princess is gonna cavort in front of every civic leader of a very religious region. (And their wives, y’know.) Or they imagine what sort of relationship Antipas had with his grandniece/stepdaughter—which considering how the Herods had that reputation for inbreeding, ain’t that far of a stretch for the imagination to go. So they like to imagine a lustful Antipas leering at the girl, offering her absolutely anything she wanted, with naughty thoughts about what he wanted running through his mind.

Not that unsavory speculations don’t run through their minds even if they realize Salome Jr. was still a little girl. Me, I figure this says way more about the speculators than Antipas. And they’ve been speculating for centuries. With all sorts of inappropriate art to go along with it.

Requesting John’s head.

What makes it more obvious that Salome Jr. was still a little kid, was the fact she didn’t know how to answer Antipas’s offer. Teenagers tend to know exactly what they want. Like “Ooh, I want to marry Uncle Philip.” (You only think I’m kidding. Turns out Antipas had two brothers named Philip—one of whom was Salome Jr.’s, dad, and the other Salome Jr. married, probably in her teens. Because that’s how it was in the Herod family.)

Little kids, in comparison, are more apt to respond, “Ooh, I can ask for anything?—then go seek someone’s advice as to what they oughta get. Exactly like Salome Jr. going to Salome Sr. I’m not sure when she asked her mother for advice because the gospels aren’t clear. Mark says she left to ask; Matthew says Salome Sr. knew Antipas was in a generous mood and had coached her daughter as to what to request.

Mark 6.24 KWL
Going out, Salome asked her mother, “What might I ask for?”
Her mother said, “John the baptist’s head.”
Matthew 14.8 KWL
The girl, who’d been prompted by her mother, said, “I want here, on a tray, John the baptist’s head.”

Roman banquets were known for their weird entreés: The Romans liked to eat strange foods—mostly so they could brag, “Oh yeah? Well I’ve tried [something you’d never think to eat].” Frequently doused in garum, their favorite fish-sauce condiment. “On a tray” kinda suggests John’s head was to be another odd course at the banquet.

Antipas hated the request. Killing John was politically dangerous in a province which deemed him a prophet, and if Antipas was superstitious (and likely he was) he’d have all sorts of bad karma for killing a holy man. Problem is, he was also a proud man. He swore he’d give Salome Jr. whatever she asked, and he wasn’t gonna back down in front of his guests. Remember, his birthday dinner had pretty much everyone of any importance in the Galilee, and you didn’t wanna become known as the governor who won’t keep his oaths.

Mark 6.26 KWL
=The king became grief-stricken:
Because of the promises and the guests, he didn’t want to refuse her.
Matthew 14.9 KWL
The king was grief-stricken. Because of the oath and the guests, he commanded it done.

Antipas was perílypos/“grief-stricken” (KJV “exceedingly sorry”), surrounded by sorrow. He really didn’t wanna do this, but he couldn’t think of a way out of it. It ruined his birthday.

Various commentators claim Antipas wasn’t authorized to kill John. Mostly because they don’t understand Antipas’s position: They presume his title “king” meant he was an actual king, and as a king of Israel he was duty-bound to follow the Law… and the Law required him to hold a trial before executing anyone. But Antipas was only a hereditary king, not king in his own right; he ruled the Galilee because the Romans appointed him its ruler. He was their governor. And he had to uphold Roman law, not God’s law—and Roman law only required trials for Romans. Antipas could execute any non-Roman he pleased, with or without a trial.

Other commentators imagine Antipas was in the same boat as the Judean senate—he didn’t really rule, but ruled under Roman supervision, and wasn’t authorized to execute anybody. That’d be true only if the Caesars had appointed someone to supervise Antipas. They hadn’t. Antipas was their governor.

Executing John would only displease the Romans if it triggered a revolt. The last thing the Romans wanted was civil unrest; it’d mean they’d have to spend money to equip an expensive army, march ’em to the Galilee, and crucify everybody. Exactly like they did 40 years later. It’s likely Antipas did fear a revolt, Mt 14.5 and didn’t wanna lose his job. But it was either risk the job, or lose any respect the Galilean leaders might have for him and risk his job that way.

So, like Pontius Pilatus with Jesus a few years later, Antipas decided his job was more important than someone’s life, and ordered John dead.

Mark 6.27-28 KWL
27 Quickly summoning a soldier, the king commanded a lookout to bring him John’s head.
Leaving, the lookout beheaded John in the prison 28 and brought John’s head on a tray.
He gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.
Matthew 14.10-11 KWL
10 Sending a soldier, he beheaded John in the prison 11 and John’s head was brought on a tray.
It was given to the girl, and she took it to her mother.

Mark says Antipas called for a spekulátora/“lookout,” one of the soldiers whose job was to go ahead of the army, check things out, and report back. Like a scout or spy. He’d have to be resourceful, so his generals could command him to do odd things one wouldn’t expect of an ordinary soldier. In this case, Antipas wanted him to behead John. Frequently bibles translate spekulátora as “executioner,” because that’s what this soldier ended up doing, but that’s not what his title meant. He wasn’t ordinarily an executioner, because Antipas didn’t ordinarily have people executed. But this was a special occasion.

So off to the prison the soldier went, got John, and removed his head. We don’t know details—whether he had John put his neck on a chopping block, or killed John and removed his head afterwards, or just went into John’s cage and held him down and started sawing. However the grisly deed was done, back the soldier came with a tray with John’s head on it… which went to the little girl, who presented it to her mom.

As for John’s body, his students came to claim it, and gave it a proper internment. From there, we’re not sure where it went; there are a bunch of conflicting traditions. One says Emperor Julian the Apostate had the body burned; another says the head’s on display at St. Sylvester 1 Basilica in Rome; the Muslims say he’s interred at the Prophet John Mosque in Sebastia, Palestine; and of course dozens of churches claim to have a piece of him somewhere.

Mark 6.29 KWL
Hearing of it, John’s students came and carried off his body, and placed it in a sepulcher.
Matthew 14.12 KWL
12 Approaching, John’s students carried off his body and buried him.
They went to report it to Jesus.

But in coming to report John’s death to Jesus, Matthew implies they sorta saw Jesus as John’s designated successor. Which of course he was. John tried to make that clear: He was to decrease, and Jesus increase. Jn 3.30 His job was to point people to Jesus, and he successfully did. No tyrant was gonna stop that. Arguably, no tyrant ever has.