The Legacy of John the Baptist—Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8B (Mark 6)

Mark 6:14-29 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’s name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias 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 give it.” 23 And he swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.


                The ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus were intertwined from the beginning. If we take Luke’s witness at face value, the connection began before their respective births. In the Gospel of Mark, which lacks an infancy narrative, the two do not have a family relationship, at least not an explicit one. Thus, John the Baptist serves as the forerunner of the Messiah. He is the one who will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. He did so by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John also spoke of one coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Before long Jesus of Nazareth comes to John, is baptized, receives God’s commission, and is endowed with the Holy Spirit represented by the dove who alights upon him  (Mark 1:1-11). These are messages we take up at Advent and on Baptism of Jesus Sunday. Now that we are in the season after Pentecost (Ordinary Time), John the Baptist once again appears in connection with Jesus. In this passage, we learn of John’s death on the orders of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and Tetrarch of Galilee, as well as the possible connection between the two.

                There is much more to John’s story than what we read in Mark’s Gospel. He is an interesting figure, whose story is largely unknown to most of us though his name is well known. One of the reasons we don’t know much about him is that he was overshadowed by the one who followed after him. That would be Jesus of Nazareth. The reason we know of him today is because Jesus elevated him. James McGrath, who is the author of an important popular biography of John the Baptist writes that “Jesus and John were linked, not just in the minds of their opponents and of early Christian authors but apparently also in the mind of Jesus himself. When we consider this, we realize that in our tendency to rush past John on our way to Jesus, we have made two mistakes. On the one hand, we have failed to pay adequate attention to someone who had a profound influence on Jesus. If we do not understand John correctly, we will misunderstand Jesus as well. On the other hand, we have missed an opportunity to allow what we know about Jesus to fill in our portrait of his mentor and thereby understand both better” [McGrath, Christmaker, p. 3]. As we ponder this passage and the connections between John and Jesus, is it possible, as McGrath suggests, that John was not just Jesus’ forerunner, but his mentor? Could it be that after John’s death, Jesus took over and expanded John’s ministry (after all he did draw to himself several of John’s disciples)? I don’t have time and space to go deeper into this question, but McGrath’s book should prove helpful on that score.

                In our reading from Mark 6, we find ourselves at the end of John’s ministry. Much of what we read here takes the form of a flashback to John’s execution on the orders of Herod Antipas. John’s name, and the nature of his death, come up because Herod is concerned about reports he had received about one of his subjects—Jesus of Nazareth. He was concerned about reports that Jesus was John the Baptist returned from the dead. Whether or not that was true, Herod was worried because Jesus was drawing followers, much like John had, and he worried that Jesus could be a thorn in his side, just as John had been. There were other options offered, including that Jesus was Elijah or perhaps he was a prophet. Of the suggestions made about Jesus’ identity, it is John who has Herod’s attention. While he had John beheaded so there was no possibility of a misdiagnosis. He lost his head. He was dead. But, could John have risen from the dead? Or might his attempt to behead a movement have failed, such that Jesus had taken the mantle of the movement? As McGrath writes: “The beheading of John was supposed to be the beheading of the movement. The ongoing life of the movement with rumors of a living head was a message to Herod: you have not stopped John’s movement, nor can you” [Christmaker, p. 129].

                That question as to whether John, whom Herod had ordered beheaded, had risen from the grave leads us back in time to the day that John lost his head. The context was a birthday party that Herod threw for himself. When you’re the king (or a reasonable facsimile), you can do such a thing. We’re told that Herod had John arrested because John had denounced Herod for marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. Therefore, Herodias had a grudge against this troublemaker. She wanted him dead but that was not in her power. That was the responsibility of her husband, who Mark tells us was afraid of John, “knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him” (Mk. 6:20). For some reason Mark seeks to distance Herod from John’s death, though Herod had every reason to want him dead. However, Mark offers us a rationale for Herod’s actions, which requires him to throw Herodias under the bus. The blame will go to her, letting Herod off the hook; though we can say that Herod is made to look the fool. Matthew and Luke take a different tactic and suggest that Herod wanted to execute him, though Matthew does note Herod’s fear of John’s popularity.

                So, we come to the birthday party/banquet Herod threw for himself. We’re told that Herod invited his courtiers and officials—the important people in his realm. After dinner, when it was time for the entertainment, his daughter, whom Mark named Herodias, entered the room and danced for Herod and his guests. We should note that in Matthew, it is Herodias’ daughter, who remains unnamed, who dances for Herod (Mt. 14:1-12). In Luke, there is no mention of the party, only that Herod had John executed (Lk 9:7-9). As for the name Salome, which has been attached to the dancer, it is not to be found in the Gospels. So there is a bit of confusion here as to the dancer’s identity, but whatever the identity of the dancer, in Mark’s telling of the story, Herod finds himself in a predicament. What to do about John.

                Hollywood and legend have created a certain image of what happened here. The daughter of Herodias is portrayed as dancing a rather erotic dance, while a drunken Herod lusts after her. This leads to the famous wager. He tells the young woman that he’ll give her whatever she desires, up to half the kingdom. After she consults with her mother, she asks for John’s head on a platter. Since he made this offer in front of his friends, he can’t go back on his word. Thus, word is sent to have John beheaded. The head is then presented on a platter to Herodias, while the disciples of John come to claim the body and bury it. As for the young woman, she appears to be a pawn in a power struggle between her mother and her father/stepfather.

                The passage ends with Jesus being told of John’s demise.  No Jesus isn’t John returned from the dead. He is, however, the one who carries on and expands John’s ministry, taking it in new directions. Though he too will face death at the hands of the powers and principalities. By mentioning Jesus at the end of this passage, Mark reminds us that these two prophetic figures, though different in style and possibly even in purpose, are interconnected. Both of them serve to represent God’s presence in the world, and both will end up martyred.              

           As noted earlier, this is a flashback episode. We learn of John’s death in Mark because Herod is trying to make sense of what he is hearing about Jesus. He wonders if there is a connection between the two. This leads to the belief that somehow John had risen from the dead and had continued his ministry. In this story of John’s death, we see a prelude to Jesus’ death. Even as John’s ministry could not be destroyed by his execution, we will learn soon in Mark that the same would be true for Jesus, though Mark’s version of the resurrection is truncated. That Mark brings up the possibility of resurrection here is important in that it lays the foundation for what is to come. The idea of the resurrection had become an increasingly popular view among first-century Jews, in part as a way of making sense of lives, especially holy lives, cut short by death. It served as a sense of justice for those who gave their lives for God’s realm. William Placher notes that “resurrection hope arose in the context of belief in God’s justice. Some good people, faithful Jews, did not lead long and happy lives. They suffered and died young, and they might not have any descendants at all. Such stories seemed even more common in the tragic years of Israel’s exile and subjugation. If God is just, then death cannot be the end of these people’s stories” [Placher, Mark, p. 92].

                For Herod then, resurrection is a sign of judgment on himself. It is a reminder that God is just and that God will redeem God’s people, especially when they suffer from injustice. Ultimately Herod’s struggle is not with John, but with God. Jesus’ presence seems to confirm Herod’s deepest fears that he had been wrong about John. That Jesus had taken up that ministry, suggested that he could not stop what God set in motion. In our day, when many Christians have been seduced by promises of power and protection, giving support to unholy alliances, how might the story of John’s execution offer a different path? For John himself, his life was cut short, but his movement lived on. The same was true for Jesus’ earthly existence, but his movement lived on. The question for us is how will embody that movement. Vanthanh Nguyen asks a pertinent question in this regard:

                To have a share in the ministry and destiny of Jesus, discipleship will cost nothing less than everything. The question is now put to us: Are we willing to speak up or set the record straight under whatever conditions we find ourselves in? When we see injustice, suffering, or abuse, are we willing to call wrongdoing what it is? May we never sway from our role as disciples who are being sent out (apostellō) to be messengers of the good news.  [Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, p. 181]. 

 Image Attribution: Benabarre, Pedro Garcia de, and workshop. Banquet of Herod, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved July 6, 2024]. Original source:


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