The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts

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by Neil Godfrey

Here’s another contribution to our quest for the origins of John the Baptist as found in the synoptic gospels. Recent discussions have centred on the account found in Josephus — see

We have also seen Dennis MacDonald’s suggestion of a Homeric influence in the death of John the Baptist and in his wilderness setting.

So now it’s time to see how other texts, in particular the biblical narratives about Esther and Jezebel, shaped the Gospel accounts.

But first let me interrupt myself with this note: The idea of John the Baptist as an Elijah figure who has to come before the Messiah is not a staple of early Christian beliefs. The Gospels of Luke and John do not present John the Baptist as another Elijah. Rather, they both strongly indicate that they want readers to think of Jesus himself as the newly arrived Elijah. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist is made to explicitly declare he is not the Elijah to come. In that gospel Jesus himself has been interpreted as an Elijah figure, that is, both as the Elijah at his first coming and the conquering messiah when he comes in glory (even if that means from the time of his crucifixion and resurrection). I suspect that this Elijah motif being applied to Jesus in the fourth gospel is the reason the author moved the cleansing of the temple scene to the beginning of his ministry — to make more sense of the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would come suddenly to the temple. For a detailed discussion of the Gospel of Luke’s Jesus as Elijah see Jesus the New Elijah.

So the Gospels of Mark and Matthew stand alone in the canon with their interpretation of John the Baptist as Elijah.

Gustave Moreau, L’apparition 1876

The Influence of the Book of Esther

The daughter of Herodias pleased (ἤρεσεν) Herod and he said,

Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you, up to half of my kingdom! (Mk 6:23)

Here is a widely acknowledged loan from Esther where the Persian king Ahasuerus promises Esther three times. In Esther 2:9 (LXX) we read that “the young girl pleased (ἤρεσεν)” the king who responded:

Then said the king unto her, What wilt thou, queen Esther? and what is thy request? it shall be even given thee to the half of the kingdom. (Esther 5:3; 5:6; 7:2)

Even the head on a platter is found in later versions of Esther:

It is interesting, moreover, that the late Esther Rabbah, perhaps reflecting earlier traditions, describes the head of the former queen being brought in to the king on a platter (4.9, 11) and is thus parallel to the gory conclusion of our story.

From the sefaria.org site:

“If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you (Esther 1:19)”: He said to him: “My lord king, you bring forth the word from your mouth and I will gather her head on a plate“. . . .

“The proposal was approved by the king and the ministers (Esther 1:21)”: He decreed and he brought her head on a plate. (Esther Rabbah 4:9, 11)

At this point we should ask why the evangelist calls Herod Antipas a king even though historically he was not a king but a tetrarch, “a ruler of a fourth part” of the divided kingdom of Herod the Great.

The title “ king” is technically inaccurate …, but its repeated usage here is probably not just a Markan mistake. It is, rather, an example of the evangelist’s irony, for it is prominent in a passage in which Herod is outwitted and manipulated by two women and hamstrung by his own oath and his fear of losing face before his courtiers (cf. J. Anderson, “Dancing Daughter,” 127). Throughout the passage, moreover, we see that this supposed “king” is not even in control of himself, much less of his subjects; he is, rather, overmastered by his emotions, which swing wildly from superstitious dread (6:14, 16) to awe, fascination, and confusion (6:20), to a sexual arousal that seems to border on insanity (6:22-23), to extreme depression (6:26). In this context his pretensions to royal authority (6:16, 27) appear almost farcical; Herod is one who merely appears to rule (cf. 10:42), whereas actually his strings are pulled by others. This ironic portrait of “King” Herod is Mark’s version of a common antityrannical theme, the germ of which is present in the Old Testament (e.g. Pharaoh, Ahasuerus in Esther, the king in Daniel) but that is more explicitly developed in the Greco-Roman sphere from Plato to the Cynics and Stoics: the tyrant is not a true king but a slave to his own passions (Plato Republic 9.573b-580a, 587b-e), and his claim to sovereignty is belied by his inability ׳ to enforce his will and avoid what he hates (Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus 1.19.2-3; cf. 1.24.15-18 and Schlier, “Eleutheros,” 493). (Marcus, 398 f. My bolded highlighting in all quotations)

(Incidentally, I think the same argument applies to Pilate in the mock “trial of Jesus”. The author is not attempting to exonerate Rome at the expense of the Jews but is deploring the failures of both, making an utter mockery of Roman power. See also: Mark’s and Matthew’s Sub Rosa Message in the Scene of Pilate and the Crowd by Andrew Simmons; or at https://www.jstor.org/stable/23488265)

So Herod and Ahasuerus match each other.

Yet doubts must arise. How can a tale so totally unlike the one we read in the Gospel of Mark come to the author’s mind as source material? How can the virtuous Esther possibly be used for an account of the seductive dancer?

Maurice Mergui offers an answer to that question in Comprendre Les Origines Du Christianisme: De L’eschatologie Juive Au Midrash Chrétien.

A Jezebel-Esther syzygy Continue reading “The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts”