January 27, 2007

Mark 6.14-29

King Herod heard of it; for Jesus' name had become known. Some said, "John the Baptiser has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him."

But others said, "It is Elijah."

And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old."

But when Herod heard of it he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Phillip's wife, because he had married her.

For John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias' daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it, even half of my kingdom."

And she went out, and said to her mother, "What shall I ask?"

And she said, "The head of John the Baptiser."

And she came in immediately and with haste to the king, and asked, saying "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptiser on a platter."

And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head.

He went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.

When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

7 Comments:

At 6:34 PM, Blogger david said...

The irony here is that the most powerful of the powerful are also victims of their own power. herod must submit to the manipulations of a dancing girl who forces him to do what he most fears.

Herod and me and the rest of us locked in a power game we imagine we can control -- but sometimes the truth gets revealed despite or best mind games.

 
At 10:16 PM, Blogger forrest said...

John is a great inconvenience to this Herod, dead or alive.

Letting a dancing girl take the rap ("I had to do it; it was a promise I'd made to my stepdaughter") was one way out of the inconvenience of John alive, while offering some relief from the embarrassment of ordering John's death. In 1st Century Israel (as in contemporary America or any other monarchy) it is not what people know that a ruler fears--but what they are willing to say in public.

This marriage was a promotion for Herodias, and seemed like a potential asset for Herod. For this ruler of Israel who was not (strictly-speaking) Jewish, Herodias represented a chance to emulate David (by marrying the daughter of a former king) and to connect himself to the Hasmonean dynasty (descended from the family of Judas Maccabee.) There was some danger that this wife might prove too popular and ambitious, but their father had already faced that kind of situation with their mother Mariamne, and dealth with it by murder, so that Herod does not expect any further such trouble.

To make all this possible, Herod first had to put away his Nabatean former wife, who has already escaped and fled to her father, setting the stage for the war that eventually leads to Herod's death--which many people, according to Josephus, eventually come to see as divine punishment for killing John.

The immediate problem, as John puts it, is that Herodias is Phillip's wife. This is no problem in the Roman society that Herod aspires to emulate. If his brother was dead, marrying his wife might be a traditional good deed--but with a live brother, it is considered "uncovering his brother's wife's nakedness" something which is simply not done in good Jewish families.

John is not just interfering with Herod's personal love life here; this is a political affair throughout. Herod lives amid the politics of Roman civilization, grandiose public buildings, and elite rule; John within the theological politics of a peasantry impoverished by the taxation that funds Herod's lifestyle. Herod may be curious about this pious nuisance, in hopes of learning something that might yet win him the hearts of his subjects--but they come from two different worlds, and just won't fit into the same political bed. Enter the dancing girls.

 
At 7:27 AM, Blogger david said...

You certainly may be right.

But that is not how Mark presents Herod. Mark presents Herod a genuinely afraid of John and as the pawn of his own harem.

This leaves me with two possibilities.

1) Mark is writing sufficiently distant in time and place that the specific political dynamics are lost to him and he just gets it wrong.

Or, my thesis,

2) he's engaged in a certain amount of historical revisionism to make a theological and spiritual point. Namely, once you take the first steps toward sin (illegitimate power), you become its slave rather than its master.

Either option has implications for present (pastoral/spiritual) practice.

 
At 8:30 AM, Blogger Larry said...

Seems striking to me that Mark, usually of relatively few words, spent so many of them on this story.

One more pure speculation: John had worshippers in Mark's day, representing an alternative to 'Jesus worshippers'. This story can be seen as Mark's attempt to resolve the tension between these two communities.

 
At 6:54 PM, Blogger forrest said...

Herod is known to be afraid of John's following. The disapproval of his hard-line rural Jewish subjects is a continuing feature of his reign by all the history we've got on him. So is the family politics, as in Petronicus' later joke that he'd be safer as Herod's pig than as one of his sons.

While Herod might have acquired a touch of superstitious piety via his political situation, his visible motives were all about making it socially in the Roman world while working up a reputation as a generous contributor (of money extracted from the peasantry) to Temple building. Herod's fear of John's tongue gets John arrested, but makes executing him risky. So we've got no reason to think that Herod's sudden interest in long religious conversations reflects more than a "dammit-we-forgot-the-damned-prayer-meeting!" sensibility.

John is a significant public figure, even to Josephus (who gave Jesus, at best, a brief mention--much of which was obviously added by a devout Christian copyist, entirely out of tune with the original author's beliefs & behavior.) It requires no particular Markan ax to explain his interest in John's martyrdom, which outraged all pious opinon of the day--still remembered years later, as an explanation for Herod's defeat and death.

Herod's behavior here, even at a party, would have been as scandalous in Hellenistic circles as it would have been to his own subjects. So the story is not strictly credible--and Josephus, who would have found it a striking literary tidbit, did not use it. The "specific political dynamics" that gave rise to the story, however, were the sort of gossip any normal Middle-Easterner would remember for decades.

 
At 5:15 AM, Blogger david said...

I look at the story again. It ahs a peculair structure now that I think of it.

Its out of chronological sequence. This should be in a kind of preamble to Jesus' ministry but instead its sort of an aside. Part of the agenda here would seem to be to put brackets around the Baptiser -- to say Jesus is the legitimate successor -- he carried on the work.

 
At 12:54 PM, Blogger forrest said...

Sequence. Let's see. Jesus meets John, who (I think) annoints him, whereupon Jesus goes out to the wilderness for further input.

John meanwhile is arrested. Jesus, hearing of it, takes up his own part in the movement.

Herod, I think, keeps John in storage for a rather long time. He doesn't know what to do with John, but meanwhile keeping him will intimidate his followers (and other uppity people) without risking a crisis. In Matthew we've got some of John's disciples coming to Jesus with a message around this time, asking (roughly) "Are you taking up your part here, or should I look for a new contender?" This doesn't necessarily mean that John believes he made a mistake (Although the David/Saul story certainly shows that a prophet's choice is open to revision) but John is at the least unhappy with the view where he is and wants to give Jesus a push.

Then (about now, if Mark is really interested in strict chronology, which may not be the case) Herod kills John, for whatever reasons, and probably does try to duck the blame, though it doesn't help. This particular incident is unlikely, without other confirmation (and it would have made a stir!) but it doesn't seem misplaced in time.

 

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