Posted by: mattcolvin | November 30, 2011

The Death of John the Baptist

Thursday in the First Week of Advent: Matthew 14:1-12.

This one is short, so I’ll reproduce it here (NKJV):

1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the report about Jesus 2 and said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.” 3 For Herod had laid hold of John and bound him, and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. 4 Because John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.
6 But when Herod’s birthday was celebrated, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod. 7 Therefore he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask.
8 So she, having been prompted by her mother, said, “Give me John the Baptist’s head here on a platter.”
9 And the king was sorry; nevertheless, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he commanded it to be given to her. 10 So he sent and had John beheaded in prison. 11 And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 Then his disciples came and took away the body and buried it, and went and told Jesus.

Verses 3-12 are a framed narration, designed to give the background to Jesus’ ministry. John is at this point already dead.

Herod’s mistaken belief about Jesus’ identity is instructive about what sorts of things were thinkable about death and resurrection within a first-century Jewish worldview. Herod is orthodox about the reality of resurrection, unlike the Sadducees. Of course, Herod’s belief that Jesus is John come back from the dead can also be seen as evidence of a haunted conscience: Herod executed John partly to escape his criticism, but here is Jesus making an even bigger stir, and talking just as hard a line against him. Herod might have thought that he had decisively dealt with this new Kingdom movement by silencing John. He cannot have been well pleased to find Jesus in turn preaching the kingdom of God and making equally vigorous criticisms of Herod’s regime.

For John’s criticism of Herod’s illegal marriage to the wrongly-divorced Herodias should also be in our minds when we hear Jesus’ pronouncements about divorce. It is rather as though a preacher were to devote a whole sermon series to the question of adultery with interns… during the Clinton administration. There can have been no one who did not understand.

It is also haunting to hear that Herod originally refrained from putting John to death because “he feared the multitude, for they counted him as a prophet.” The same phrase will occur on other occasions: the chief priests will later refrain from arresting Jesus at first, during the Passover procession, “because they feared the multitude”; likewise, the chief priests and elders of the people in Mt. 21:26 refuse to answer Jesus’ question about John the Baptists “because we fear the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

Herod’s extravagant royal generosity to his (lascivious?) stepdaughter is phrased as a rash promise “to give her whatever she might ask.” Such promises can backfire, and it’s interesting that Jesus replies to the similar request of James and John (Mark 10:35) with a prudent question: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

BH-style interpretive maximalist free-associations for the day: Does Herod’s rash oath link him with Jephthah? Is Herod also situationally similar to Ahab, being led into deeper evil by his wife, and threatened by a pesky prophet who denounces his abuses “in the spirit of Elijah”?



  1. This passage is also a good lesson to those who oppose same-sex marriage. Marriage is a institution which relies upon an undisputed public meaning. However, one uncooperative prophetic voice that is respected and listened to can prevent the desired public meaning from taking effect. As long as the Church openly speaks out on the issue, same sex marriage cannot have the desired public meaning, and we will find ourselves subject to persecution and increased pressure.

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