Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

91. The Death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29; Matt. 14:1-12; Luke 9:7-9)*

It was a strange complex of historical events which led to the tragic death of John. One of the sons of Herod the Great, Herod Philip, spent most of his life in Rome. He married Herodias, his niece, the sister of the Herod who had the apostle James put to death. Another son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, who (under the Romans) was the ruler of Galilee, fell in love with Herodias and lured her away from her husband. But this marriage meant abandoning the wife he had already. She went back to her father, Aretas, the king of Arabria Petraea. War followed between the two kings, and Herod’s army suffered a disastrous defeat.

These events boiled up soon after the baptism of Jesus. John deemed it his duty to rebuke Herod for his flagrant disregard of the Bible’s principles of marriage. Such blatant evil, coolly practised by one of its rulers, was not likely to be without effect on the morals of the nation. How could John call the Jews to repentance and at the same time appear to ignore this wickedness in high places? So he not only denounced the king’s behaviour to the crowds who assembled to hear his preaching, he also somehow gained access to Herod’s presence and rebuked him to his face.

John a prisoner

There was no doubt in Herod’s mind that John was a man of outstanding holiness. More than this, he probably believed him to be a prophet of the Lord. But the inevitable and implacable resentment of Herodias had to be appeased somehow, so Herod had John arrested and
thrown into prison in the fortress of Machaerus (Mt. 4:12; 11:2). It seems likely (Mt. 17:12; Mk. 8:15) that the Jewish rulers supported Herodias in bringing influence to bear on Herod. After John’s open denunciation of them (Mt. 3:7), they had no love for the prophet, and would be glad to see him out of the way. Josephus says (Ant. 18.5.2.) that Herod feared John’s influence over the people. That was probably the official reason for John’s imprisonment.

All this happened eighteen months or more before John’s execution. Tristram, a late-19th century traveller, claimed to have explored the ruins of Machaerus and to have found two dungeons with “small holes still visible in the masonry where staples of wood and iron had once been fixed. Presumably one of these was where John spent many miserable months.

The wrath of Herodias was far from being appeased. Mark’s vivid phase means “she had it in for him”. At the very least she wanted John put to death (Mk. 6:19). Herod was willing to do this (Mt. 14:5) in order to please her, but he dare not because of John’s great reputation with the people. The text seems to imply that Herodias made attempts to get rid of John, but these failed because “Herod feared John... and kept him safe” (Mk. see RV).

From time to time John was brought out of his cell to discourse to the king. With unbroken spirit he kept on insisting: “It is not lawful for thee to have her”-on two counts: this was adultery, and it was a union specifically forbidden by the Law of Moses (Lev. 18:16).

Evidently John made such an impression that Herod “did many things” (Mk) which John commanded, but it was not in him to get rid of that “whorish imperious woman”.

Nevertheless, with a strange inconsistency, “he heard John gladly.”

A Second Elijah

The entire situation, bizarre in the extreme, bore an amazing resemblance to the experience of Elijah. Herod was like Ahab — well-intentioned and outstandingly able, but weak and corrupt and quite under the thumb of his unscrupulous wife. Herodias was every bit as masterful and vicious as Jezebel, and just as determined as her colourful prototype to advance the influence and power of her husband. In later years her efforts in that direction were to bring about his ruin and exile. Elijah escaped the wrath of his Herodias by the skin of his teeth. John was not so fortunate.

Although the text does not say so explicitly, it looks as though all the circumstances leading up to John’s death were carefully and cunningly contrived by this implacable adversary.

For nearly two years Herodias nursed her resentment and schemed for revenge. There could be no comfortable married life with her unlawful husband until John was out of the way, for he activated Herod’s conscience too much and too often for comfort.

Birthday Celebration

At last her patience and persistence were rewarded, and her lust for revenge was fully satisfied.

The Bible mentions only two birthday parties, and both of them were thoroughly pagan in character — as of course, almost all birthday parties are to this day, instead of being occasions of thanksgiving to God and opportunities for re-consecration to His service.

Herod’s birthday was celebrated with a feast and a drinking party with his nobles and the representatives of Rome (Mk. 6:21 RVm) who, of course, must always be flattered and consulted. The tables and divans are to be imagined as set out to form a large square. Into the midst of the assembly came Herodias’ daughter, to entertain them with her dancing. This item in the party was not a sudden inspiration on the girl’s part, but one may be sure — carefully schemed and prepared for by her mother. At this time Salome (Shalom!) would be about sixteen. It is known that she had two husbands within the next five years.

Salome’s Reward

The character of the dance and the quality of the appreciation of it may well be imagined. The tipsy king was moved to ridiculous extremes of enthusiasm for Salome’s lewd performance. “Ask what you like as a gift from me, and you shall have it—to the half of my kingdom”. He was not too drunk to have the wit to compare himself to the great Persian king Ahasuerus granting lovely Esther’s request, even to the half of his kingdom (Esther 7:2). But he had sufficiently lost control of himself to go on repeating the fantastic offer, reinforcing it with a wild variety of Jewish and pagan oaths as they came to mind (Mk. 6:26 RV).

In high delight Salome danced away to her mother to ask how she should best take advantage of the king’s munificence. And so completely was she under the domination of Herodias that she was even prepared to fall in with the horrible scheme now put to her. No doubt, over the past year or more she had been cleverly and thoroughly brain-washed by Herodias into a hatred of John the Baptist almost as cold and bitter as her mother’s.

So, without a moment’s loss of time, so that Herod should have little opportunity for second and wiser thoughts, back she went to the banqueting hall. “I want here, right now, the head of John the Baptist on a dish”.

Herod trapped

The horror of the demand brought Herod nearer to being sober than anything else could have done. He was deeply sorry that through his own folly the life of John was now forfeit. More than this, he was vexed that he had allowed himself to fall into what was now clearly seen to have been a carefully contrived trap. In his dilemma a really strong man would have said: “No! what you ask is more than half my kingdom. Put some other request”. And most of those reclining there would have concurred with the decision. By their silence those who could have protested but didn’t made the crime theirs also. But doubtless Herodias had amongst the guests special friends who were acquainted with her evil scheme and she would insist: I “Herod, you have sworn! You cannot go back!” So since Herod was really a weak man, and a I rather fuddled weak man at that, trying to appear strong, he spinelessly concurred, and gave the necessary instructions.

There is here a remarkable similarity to the situation Pilate was to find himself in a year later. He, too, was a weak character who, wishing to spare his victim, nevertheless gave way to external pressure. Like Herod, he granted a feast-time boon, and was trapped by his own offer, so that, very reluctantly, he had to order execution.


It was only a matter of minutes. In the dungeons down below, John, mystified but resigned, said his brief prayer of faith and submitted his neck to the reluctant axe of the executioner. There was a moment of horror as that austere face looked down on Herod .Antipas for the last time, and then the maiden bore away the ghastly reward of her lascivious performance, that her inhuman mother might feast her eyes in triumph on the head of her enemy. Here the gospels describe the “damsel” by a word which suggests “raven”, the ghoulish unclean bird of prey. She was her mother’s daughter! And Herodias, so Jerome records, pierced with a skewer the tongue that had bluntly spoken the divine rebuke of her wickedness.

Not for nothing do the gospels choose an unusual word for Herod’s “birthday”, Classically it meant “a feast in honour of the dead”. Here, surely, is one of the Bible’s most mordant examples of dramatic irony.

The feast went on, but as a birthday party jt was ruined beyond repair. The story of it went round the Roman Empire. One scholar has pointed out that there is an almost certain echo of it in the writings of Persius who died about A.D. 60.

Herod, it may be guessed, spent the next day in recriminations against his wife, in self-excuses, and in religious devotions in the hope that the God of Israel would not make him answer for it.

Disciples of John, who had been permitted to visit him in prison almost as they liked, learned, when next they came to the prison, of the ghastly fate that had befallen him. There was no difficulty about getting custody of the body — and of that gory severed head. (If the head of John had been kept as a grisly memento in the castle, would Herod have considered the possibility of John rising from the dead?) These remains of their revered leader they carried away, perhaps to the family tomb, and, interment completed, they went with haste to tell Jesus.

John and Jesus

It was very soon after this that the impressive stories about Jesus now came repeatedly to Herod’s notice. Hitherto the king had not taken Jesus very seriously.

Now he began to wonder about the prophet of Galilee and his possible connection with John. Various popular guesses were reported to him.
Some who believed (mistakenly) that Elijah had been taken away to heavenly glory said about Jesus: “Elijah has been manifested” (Mal. 4:5).

Others, less definitely, conceded that he might be some other OT prophet, perhaps inclining to identification with Samuel who was famous for his institution of the schools of the prophets. Jesus and his group of preaching disciples seemed to follow the same pattern. And did they not read in Holy Scripture (again, mistakenly) that the dead Samuel had appeared to king Saul, so perhaps John would reappear to Herod.

Herod was a Sadducee (cp. Mk. 8:15 with Mt. 16:6), with a cynical contempt for the widely-held belief in the resurrection of the dead. But he had heard John discourse on this aspect of the purpose of God. And now the sensational accounts reaching him about Jesus combined with his uneasy conscience to give credence to a popular speculation which made nonsense of his Sadducee scepticism: “John has been raised from the dead”. Was there a family likeness between John and Jesus which encouraged this idea?

Herod fastened on this suggestion, and kept on talking about it. How could two such remarkable men appear within weeks of each other? “John I beheaded” (in his self-reproaches he made no excuses), “but who is this of whom I hear such things?” (Lk).

The guess crystallised out into a firm opinion: “It is John whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead”.

Thereupon Herod made repeated efforts to see Jesus (Lk).’ He wanted to see some of the startling miracles he had heard about (Lk. 23:8). More than that, he wanted to say: “It wasn’t really my fault.”

But Jesus, made aware of Herod’s purpose, kept well away, and left Herod to his sleepless nights.


How came the gospel writers by the remarkably intimate detail which this account of John’s death includes?

Almost certainly the explanation lies in the mention (in Acts.13:1) of Manaen the teacher in the early ecclesia who “had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch”. There is evidence that this Manaen was probably the son of a rabbinic family which enjoyed the favour of Herod the Great. Then, again probably, he is to be seen as the source of much of the detail in this vivid narrative. He would be present when John and Herod talked together. Through him disciples of John would get permission to visit their leader in prison. It would be through his mediation that these disciples were given John’s body for burial. And it would be to him that Herod would express the doubts and speculations in his mind about Jesus.

Notes Mt.14:1-12

Philip. Not the Philip of Lk. 3:1. But for this one mention in the gospels, this Philip is an unknown quantity.
Instructed. What a sharp contrast with Dt. 6:7 LXX which has precisely the same word.


RV: much perplexed is tempting, but lacks really good textual support.

Gladly; s.w. Pr. 9:17 LXX.
Unto the half of my kingdom. Thanks to the evil influence of Herodias, later in life Herod was to lose all his kingdom and suffer banishment to Gaul.
The Gk. text has “the head of John the Baptist” at the end of the sentence as a very dramatic climax.
Exceedingly sorry. Vexed, annoyed; cp. Jn.21:17; Rom. 14:15; Mk. 3:5; Mt. 14:9; 18:31; 17:23; 26:22. It was also used classically for “harassed” (with reference to guerilla warfare) Mt. 26:37; Mk. 10:22; 1 Pet. 2:19.

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