“When Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, the one I beheaded, has been raised.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What lessons do you draw from a story that doesn’t make any sense? Well, not many usually. But what if that story happens to be in the Bible? In that case it feels like you should get something from it. After all, why would God have included it in the Scriptures if not to teach us something? That’s the whole point of 2 Timothy 3:16, right? Well, yes, but as Andy Stanly likes to say, “All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life.” Sometimes a story is just a good story for where we are. Let’s talk about one Mark includes here.
Jesus was getting famous. Like, really famous. His fame was beginning to spread beyond the borders of Galilee to the surrounding territories. And really, this shouldn’t surprise us in the least. If someone starts a powerful teaching ministry and performing miracles, that’s not something most folks are going to keep to themselves (even when instructed by that teacher to do otherwise). The healing of the demoniac in the Gerasenes, the healing of the woman with the chronic bleed without even touching her, and especially the raising of Jairus’ daughter would have become well-known quickly. Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees over the Law and specifically the Sabbath Law would have spread quickly as well. The religious elite were not a group you challenged–even when they were wrong–and Jesus had done it again and again and in very public settings.
But while people began to hear of Jesus’ name and His increasingly legendary deeds, they didn’t actually know who He was. He was an obscure carpenter from a small town. People like that don’t become famous. They don’t do incredible things. They stay where they are and accomplish a pretty limited set of insignificant tasks before they die. As a result, as word of Jesus’ exploits began to spread throughout the region, people began to try and figure out who He was really.
The guesses spanned the gamut and were all ones that made sense given how they understood the world to work then. He’s Elijah returned. He’s another of the prophets returned. He’s John the Baptist, resurrected. That’s what Herod thought. And as Mark was telling this part of the story, that particular guess prompted another story. This story doesn’t really have anything to do with Jesus. Perhaps he figured that his audience would want to know it. After all, John was incredibly famous. He was actually more famous than Jesus ever was. Jesus’ fame during his life was generally limited to Galilee and Judea. Everybody knew who John was. But then he disappeared, people stopped hearing about him, and no one really knew what had happened to him. He was like a celebrity today who hit the stratosphere of fame and then suddenly vanished. Most people went on about their lives, but a few years later started asking, “Whatever happened to him?” Perhaps Mark knew people would be asking and so he filled in the details.
As John’s ministry and fame grew, so did his ability to speak truth to power. It grew so big that he began taking some shots at the king. Literally. Whether John was called by God to begin calling out Rome’s regional governor (whom everyone called “King”) for his sins or whether he did that of his own accord we don’t know, but at some point, John the Baptist started to direct his prophetic ministry against King Herod. The specific issue he had in view was Herod’s marriage to his current wife, Herodias. Herodias had been married to Herod’s brother, Philip. Herod had been married to someone else as well. They had an affair, divorced their spouses, and married each other. John called them out for their infidelity and their illegitimate relationship.
Herod was used to this kind of thing given his position and was curious about John, so he was willing to indulge it. Herodias, on the other hand, was a woman scorned. She wanted John’s head. Herod had John arrested, but wouldn’t kill him as his wife wanted. Instead, he began to listen to him. He didn’t understand him and wasn’t really sure he believed anything he said, but he was intrigued. For all of Herodias’ pressure to kill him, he recognized that John was a righteous and holy man and so was afraid to actually do him any harm. Herodias bided her time.
Sometime later Herod threw a big party. During the party, Herodias’ daughter danced for all the guests. The context suggests this wasn’t some stuffy, ballroom dance. This dance was intended to seduce and delight. Herod was drunk and in a mood to show off for his guests, so he made a lavish promise to his step-daughter: “Ask me whatever you want, and I’ll give it to you. . .Whatever you ask me I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” This offer was intended to show of his wealth and generosity to his guests. He was thinking money or lands. Perhaps a palace or lavish garden to call her own. The girl went back to her mother and returned with her request: John’s head on a platter. Right now.
Herod was trapped. He did not want to do this thing, but he had locked himself in with his oath. He couldn’t not do whatever she asked lest he lose face and incur incredible shame from his guests. After all, why would he extend protection to a worthless Jew? He wasn’t starting to buy into their delusions about there only being one God, was he? His whole reputation and legacy was a stake, and even as intoxicated as he was, he understood that. So he gave the order and the executioner went immediately to John’s cell, cut off his head, and brought it in on a platter. (By the way, if you’ve ever wondered where the notion of delivering someone’s head on a platter came from, this is it.)
The story ends with John’s disciples quietly coming to get his body and burying it according to Jewish custom. Herod likely extended them the opportunity to do that as a small act of penance for what he knew was a crime. Perhaps he thought this small mercy would keep John’s God from being too upset with him.
So then, why do we have this story? Well, because we do. We have this story because it happened. We have this story because John was famous enough that people would have wondered about his death (a necessary precursor to the guesses that Jesus was John resurrected). There’s nothing particularly theologically significant about this story. Yes, there are some things we can learn from it. After all, all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. We can learn about the ugly fruits of holding a grudge. We can learn about the folly of making ill-advised oaths. We can learn about having moral courage to do the right thing from Herod’s bad example to the contrary. But I think the real reason this story is there is because it happened and Mark chose to tell us about it. That’s it. Take this story out and the rest of Jesus’ narrative would be completely unaffected. It’s a place holder between the disciples being sent off in pairs by Jesus and their returning to share their stories with Him which turned into the first feeding of the great crowd. And here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be more than that.
Bottom line: The Gospels are true. They are not just true theologically. They are true historically. Ours is an intrinsically historically-rooted faith. We don’t believe simply because our stories are better than anyone else’s. We believe because these things all actually happened. We don’t believe the Scriptures are true simply because they are the Scriptures and we’re supposed to believe in them. We believe in them because they have been proven historically accurate again and again and again. Stories like this one lend credibility to that point. Incidentally, archaeologists recently discovered the ruins of the palace where this whole episode took place. Read more about that here. In the end, the Gospels are worth your time because they are true. The Scriptures are worth your time because they are true. The Scriptures are worth your time because they reveal what’s true about God and the world He made all the way down to you and me. Take some time today to spend reading them. You’ll be glad you did.