Musings on Mark: The Demise of John the Baptist

The story of the death of John the Baptist feels like a hiccup in the narrative flow of Mark’s Gospel. In 6:6b-13 we read of Jesus sending out the Twelve to preach the message of repentance as well as to perform exorcisms and healings. Then in 6:30 they return to Jesus and “told him all that they had done and taught” (NRSV). In reality, the story of John’s death at the hands of Herod could be omitted entirely and not interrupt the narrative flow. But if we omitted it we would miss other themes that are found later in Mark’s Gospel.

The Arrest of John 

Early on in Mark’s Gospel we are told that John was arrested just before Jesus’ preaching ministry begins (1:14-15). This detail may seem incidental but the word used for “arrested” is a form of the verb paradidómi, a term used to describe Jesus’ own betrayal by Judas as well as when the religious authorities give Jesus over to Pilate (Mark 15:1) and Pilate giving Jesus over to soldiers to be crucified (Mark 15:15). On one level, the use of paradidómi is a kind of foreshadowing of what would happen to Jesus. It also serves a narrative function to create some suspense. The reader knows that John is a messenger from God (Mark 1:2-8) and functioned the vital role of the baptizer of Jesus (1:9-11) which initiates Jesus’ messianic ministry. With the mention of the arrest but no conclusion to John’s narrative, the reader is left wondering what happened to this veritable prophet of God. The exposition of 6:14-29 explains the Baptist’s fate.

But how it explains it also serves to foreshadow events in Jesus’ own life. The Markan author connects the story of John’s death to the activity of the disciples in 6:12-13: “King Herod heard of it [i.e. the work of the disciples], for Jesus’ name had become known” (6:14a). There is no indication that John ever performed exorcisms or healings; his ministry seems to have centered on preaching and baptism. And this explains why Herod is concerned when he hears about the activity of the disciples because he feared that a resurrected John was at work in the region with newfound abilities. That is, God raised John from the dead and imbued him with power to perform miracles.

Mark also reports that a resurrected John was not the only explanation for the stories of exorcisms and miracles that were circulating in the region. Some were claiming it wasn’t John the Baptist alive again but that it was Elijah, the prophet whose story is featured in the books of 1 and 2 Kings. And according to the prophet Malachi, Yahweh would send Elijah “before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” to “turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents” so that Yahweh “will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6). So there was somewhat of an eschatological expectation for Elijah’s return and given the kind of ministry the prophet had according to the Deuteronomistic Historian there would be the expectation of miraculous occurrings.

Who Is Jesus?

Herod’s wonder at the source of all the miraculous reports circulating in the region is the issue at the heart of the Gospel of Mark. To the question, “Who is Jesus?” we hear “John the Baptist” from Herod and “Elijah” or “one of the prophets” from others. The issue comes up again at the turning point in the Gospel of Mark for while on his way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27) To this the disciples respond with exactly what Herod and others had been saying: “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets” (8:28). And then Jesus puts the question to the disciples, the group that has been the closest to him in his ministry to Galilee – “But who do you say that I am?” (8:29a)

Peter’s response to this question reveals what Herod and others missed. Peter tells Jesus, “You are the Messiah” (8:29b). Yet this revelation of Jesus’ messiahship is to be held as a secret: “And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (8:30). It is only for the Twelve to know at this point and even then they still do not completely fathom it (see 8:31-33).

John’s Death and Jesus’ Death

The story of John’s death as recorded in Mark’s Gospel is nothing short of tragic. Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, had married the wife of Philip his brother (6:17-18). Her name was Herodias and, when John began telling Herod that it was unlawful for him to have married her, she wanted to have him killed (6:18-19). However, her hopes were dashed by Herod who feared John and protected him. Interestingly the text tells us, “When he [Herod] heard him [John], he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him” (6:20).

Herod’s birthday had arrived and with it festivities. He invited various leaders of Galilee as well as military officers (6:21). At this party, his daughter – also named Herodias – danced for him and his guests which pleased him. He told her, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it” (6:22). He is so adamant about it he even promises her “up to half of my kingdom” (6:23). The girl goes to her mother and asks her what she should ask for. “The head of John the baptizer,” she replies (6:24). She returns to Herod and tells him that she wants the head of John the Baptist given to her on a platter (6:25). The king, grieved by the request, nevertheless gives her what she asks for. He sends a soldier to get John’s head. He returns and gives it to the girl who then brings it to her mother (6:26-28). John’s disciples come to retrieve his body and lay it in a tomb (6:29).

The parallels between John’s death and Jesus’ own are hard to miss. Let’s lay out a few of them.

  • First, just as John was respected and revered by Herod and this kept Herodias from having her way to kill him, so also Jesus was respected and revered by the people, which kept the religious authorities from killing him (11:18, 12:12).
  • Second, just as John was killed on the day of a festival (i.e. Herod’s birthday), so also was Jesus killed at the time of the Passover.
  • Third, just as John’s death was the consequence of an insider (Herod’s daughter) conferring with the one whom he had angered (Herodias), so too Jesus’ death was the consequence of an insider (Judas Iscariot) conferring with the religious authorities he had angered (9:10-11).

The parallels aren’t perfect but they are there. And there are some interesting contrasts as well. For example, John’s disciples come to take the body and bury it. But before Jesus had been even crucified the disciples had already scattered (14:50; cf. 14:27).

So rather than the hiccup that it seems to be, John’s death serves as a prophetic parallel, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own demise. And in the Markan context, just as God’s reign was spreading before and after John’s demise, so too it spreads before and after Jesus’. For it is with his death that the power of God is made fully known by the young man at the tomb: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him; just as he told you” (16:6-7).

The reign of God was continuing to break through.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

 

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