Mark narrates in 6:14-29 the incident about Herod and John the Baptist in a way that makes the reader see it as endowed with a symbolic meaning. What we get is a perverted counter-eucharist: a deipnon among the Jewish political leaders which is dominated by the passions of the body (sexual desires) and in which the head of John the Baptist is served on a plate. (Fortunately, I am not the only one to read the story like this; cf. . . . . van Iersel B.M.F 1998: Mark. A Reader-Response Commentary, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 164, Sheffield).
This is from Henrik Tronier, Philonic Allegory in Mark [link downloads a 264 KB PDF file. Source:
http://www.pitts.emory.edu/hmpec/docs/TronierPhilonicAllegoryMark.pdf]. I feel incomplete not having read van Iersel, and feeling financially boa constricted when I see that the price of even a second hand copy is well in excess of $100!
Until I read this in Tronier’s article, almost the only literary criticism of this John the Baptist beheading passage that I had ever encountered was commentary on its rambling and irrelevant character, standing out as a curious out-of-place anomaly in the otherwise consistently terse pre-Passion narratives in Mark’s Gospel. The only exception to this pattern that I can recall at the moment is Dennis MacDonald’s linking it with popular stories of the murder of King Agamemnon (on his return from the Trojan War) by his wife Clytemnestra.
So in the absence of $130 to spare on Iersel, here are a few initial observations that might give reason to see this detailed anecdote as more meaningful than rambling after all:
- John the Baptist’s death is signalled by Jesus as a forerunner of his own death. What “they did to John” they will do to Jesus, too.
- It was not Herod’s will to kill John the Baptist, since he knew he was a good man, but he was pressured by his wife; Pilate is arguably reluctant to kill Jesus, knowing him to be innocent, but is pressured by the priests.
- Herodias wants John dead because he condemns her sin; Jesus is hated by the priests for exposing their hypocrisy.
- Both the deaths of John and Jesus are associated with ensuing resurrections. Herod believes Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead.
- John the Baptist’s followers reverentially bury him; not the disciples, but a few women followers and Joseph of Arimathea, bury Jesus.
- Herod promised his girl whatever she asked, up to half his kingdom; disciples of Jesus (James and John) asked Jesus to grant their desire — to sit on either side of him over the entire kingdom. But Jesus said such a request was not in his power to grant.
- Herod’s special feast and Jesus’ last supper both take place on momentous days: Herod’s birthday and Passover. A secular and a holy memorial juxtaposed.
- At both feasts there was a betrayal and entrapment.
- Both Herod and Jesus suffer grief, sorrow, when realizing what they had to follow through — Herod because of is promise, Jesus because of his piety. (John the Baptist probably suffered a twinge of grief, too, at least for a moment.)
- The most vivid detail is that the head is served on a dinner dish. Herod had thought Jesus was John the Baptist. Jesus had instructed his disciples to “eat his flesh”. (MacDonald points to the possibility that Mark here was also drawing on a scene in Book 10 of the Odyssey in which cannibalism also features.)
The parallels are multiple. What is the simplest explanation for the tale in Mark, unique in this Gospel for its rambling and gruesome character?
- That Mark had a literary relapse and waxed ramblingly out of character?
- That Mark’s source here (in Aramaic or other) was unique in being written on a much longer or wider piece of papyrus or parchment?
- That Mark was filling out the story to draw as many links with the death of Jesus as he could?
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