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The Passion of St. John the Baptist

The relating of John the Baptist’s death is the B section of a sandwich, the main panel of this iconic triptych. The sandwich means mighty works wrought by the disciples in the previous passage are the fruit of fearless fidelity in proclamation, suffering, and death, exemplified by John, forerunner of Jesus.

A literary artist, Mark is about to mess with narrative time. This passage will finally relate what ultimately happened with John the Baptist after his arrest, mentioned way back in Mark 1:14. But it’s set up here as a flashback: Herod (Antipas, son of Herod the Great and brother of Herod Philip, whose wife, Herodias, he stole, forsaking his own wife, a daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas IV) hears of the disciples’ working of these signs and wonders and credits it to John the Baptist being raised from the dead (6:16). Why?

Following Herod’s declaration, readers learn what happened to John the Baptist, as Mark now tells us in detail. In summary, in a moment of weakness, Herod had John summarily executed as part of an evening’s entertainment.

But why does Mark tell the story now? To suggest that death brings life and, John being Jesus’s forerunner, that, after Jesus’s death and Resurrection, such healing signs and wonders will advance the kingdom of God throughout the world. The prior passage in Mark 6:7–13 thus foreshadows the successful mission of the Church (represented by the apostolic Twelve, its first bishops and priests), and in a way, Herod is ironically right: John the Baptist has been raised after a fashion in Jesus, for whom John served as prophetic forerunner. Jesus continues John’s ministry of proclamation even while transcending it with healings and exorcisms and expanding it by doing so through his disciples, his Church.

The scene connects John’s and Jesus’s stories deliberately, foreshadowing what will happen to Jesus. Indeed, the responses to Jesus’s inquiry at Caesarea Philippi about what people think about his identity (“Who do men say that I am?”) in Mark 8:27–30 are first found here in 6:14–16. In both passages, people reportedly think Jesus is (1) John the Baptist raised again, (2) Elijah, or (3) one of the prophets (compare 6:14–15 with 8:28). Next, Herod identifies Jesus with John the Baptist raised from the dead (6:16), while Peter will identify Jesus as the Christ (8:29). Finally, the circumstances of John the Baptist’s death are related (6:17–29), standing in parallel with Jesus’s first Passion prediction (8:31).

Mark then informs readers that Herod imprisoned John at the behest of Herodias, Philip’s lawful wife whom Herod stole, for condemning the marriage (6:18), which violates Levitical law (Lev 18:16 and especially 20:21). Herodias, femme fatale, wants John dead, while Herod does not (6:19–20). Herod “knows” John is “a righteous and holy man” (6:20), and yet, when push comes to shove, he chooses the expediency of summary execution over principle.

Pilate knows and does likewise. He tries to get Jesus released, as he knew “it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up” (15:10), and yet, like Herod, also chooses the broad path of expediency: “Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barab’bas; and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified” (15:15).

There’s more. John dies alone, like Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. And as in Jesus’s crucifixion, all humanity is implicated as complicit in the crime. Pilate, the Roman, accedes to the desires of the chief priests and crowd that Jesus be crucified. Herod Antipas, a partial Jew ruling at Rome’s behest, accedes to the women’s demand that John be beheaded so as not to suffer embarrassment in front of “his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee” (6:21)—precisely the “Herodians” who conspire with the Pharisees to murder Jesus in 3:6, the Pharisees against whose leaven Jesus will warn in 8:15, and who will try to trap Jesus in 12:13 with their question about paying taxes to Caesar. In both executions, Jews conspire with Gentiles, thus representing all humanity, to kill those sent to redeem humanity.

Herod’s craven caving to the wicked whims of his wife reminds readers of another royal power couple, Ahab and Jezebel. Jezebel orchestrates Naboth’s murder and incites Ahab to take possession of his vineyard (1 Kgs 21:1–16), and Elijah is sent to condemn Ahab and Jezebel for their crime (1 Kgs 21:17–26). John is, in Mark’s world, Elijah come again, and so Herod and Herodias are a new Ahab and Jezebel.

The sumptuous luxury of the banquet contrasts with John’s austerity but finds parallels in Jesus’s own festive feasting (see Mark 2:15–22), which prefigures the sacrificial meal of the Eucharist. Thus a macabre contrast is established between Herod’s banquet and Jesus’s Eucharistic banquet. John’s head is produced on a platter as if it’s the next course of the night’s meal, perhaps best accompanied with some fava beans and a nice Chianti, while Jesus gives his own Body and Blood in his sacred sacrificial meal.

Finally, while John and Jesus suffer deaths of extreme indignity, they both enjoy dignified burials. “When [John’s] disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb” (6:29), just as Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’s crucified body in a tomb (15:46).

Adapted from Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark

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