2020-12-20

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

According to Mergui’s discussion of midrashic techniques, the two queens, Esther and Jezebel, naturally invite comparison and contrast. As opposites or syzygies they attract attention as a pair.

The “midrashic” minded author of the gospel wants to create an Elijah figure to herald Jesus and he sees that Elijah is hunted down by Jezebel. Mergui continues (my/Google’s translation):

Jezebel’s letters are forgeries designed to overturn the written law that Naboth appeals to; Esther’s letters likewise overturn a decree that “cannot be overturned” — the word of the king. Both narratives — those of Jezebel and Esther — are stories of inversion that decide the fate of God’s people.

In addition, luck would have it that the numerical value of these two names (eliyahu and yoHanan) is identical, and equivalent to that of the messiah (52). We are therefore in the presence of a double loan. Is there at least a connection between these two sources of Mark? Apparently none. No relationship between Esther, virtuous queen who saves her people, and Jezebel, bad queen who brings them misfortune. Esther would rather be the antithesis or the inversion of Jezebel. However, these two queens have common traits:

they both proclaim a fast
and send letters
bearing the royal seal.

It is precisely this false resemblance and this true opposition that interests the midrashic mind. We know that the notions of opposition and inversion are closely related to eschatology — as causes of the End, and also as their consequence. In the field of eschatology, the antinomy, the rejection of the law, the generalized inversion of values, are indications of the imminent coming of the messiah. Ultimately, total opposition to the Law would instantly bring about the end of time and the coming of the messiah. Conversely, if one can say so, the coming of the Messiah provokes, paradoxically, a new inversion, positive this time, of all things, and in particular, strangely enough, a relaxation of the law. Now, we will see that Esther and Jezebel are figures of eschatology. (Mergui)

Eschatology? Both Jezebel and Esther signal to readers events we imagine to prevail at the “end times”. The people of God are threatened with annihilation. The “apocalyptic” scenario of Esther is brought out more obviously in the “additions to Esther”.  See the “apocalyptic dream” of Mordecai as found in the additions:

In the second year of the reign of Ahasuerus he saw this: behold, a mighty earthquake shook the earth; confusion, fear and trembling took hold of all creatures. And behold, two dragons cried out against each other and prepared for battle, and all the nations of the earth fled at their voice. Among them was a small nation and all the other nations stood up against this small nation to erase forever its memory of the earth. On that day there was darkness throughout the earth. The little nation was in great distress, they implored the Lord. Then the dragons clashed with anger and ferocity and no one could separate them. Then Mordecai saw that a small stream of water flowed between the two dragons and separated them, ending their fight. Then the little current grew bigger, became a flooding river, like a sea, and flooded the whole earth. And he still saw: and behold, the sun arose over all the earth, and there was light upon the world. And the little nation was glorified, and those who were exalted were brought down, and peace and truth reigned over all the earth.

Mergui comments:

The two dragons that clash are Mordecai and Haman. The little stream (ma’ayan) is Esther. We have here a little apocalypse which attests to the eschatological nature of the Megillah of Esther

If you suspect we are cheating by bringing in a noncanonical addition to Esther, be reassured that the above may well have been known to the author of the Gospel of Mark:

Recent research on the Scroll of Esther points to various stages within the development of the book. The LXX, while basically following what is today called the Masoretic Text, at many points paraphrases or inserts motifs not found in the Hebrew, such as Ahasuerus’ feast in chapter one as a wedding feast. It also incorporates six “Additions” to Esther, probably primarily designed to make the Scroll more acceptable as part of the “canon.” As is well-known, for example, the term “God” never appears in the MT of Esther. These additions were certainly made before the first century C.E. . . . 

The earliest other datable use of the Book of Esther is found in Josephus, who writes at the end of the first century C.E. Aramaic-speaking, born in Jerusalem ca. 37-38 C.E. of priestly descent, and having grown up there (Vita 5- 8), he retells the Esther narrative in Ant. 11. He is not only acquainted with the Additions in the LXX, he also betrays good knowledge of haggadic material, such as his description of the vessels employed at Ahasuerus’ feast in Esther 1, and the Persian custom of forcing banquet guests to drink wine continually (11.187-88).

In b. Meg. 10b-17b and in Esther Rabbah, many later rabbis, the “Amoraim,” are cited. . . .  Finally, the term “our rabbis taught,” which occurs a number of times, also points to early traditions.

In light of all these materials, it may be legitimately assumed that haggadic comment on the very popular Scroll of Esther began at a very early time (LXX and the “Lucianic” Greek text) and was continued into the first century C.E. (Josephus) and beyond. (Aus, 25)

We are familiar with the Jezebel connections with end-time apocalyptic imagery. Revelation 2:20-23

You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. . . .

The Whore of Babylon of Revelation, like Jezebel in the same book, is a mother guilty of sexual licence, leads the unwary astray, consumes unclean food, rides with kings, guilty of shedding the blood of prophets, and suffers a fate of being devoured (Duff 90 f)

Here are more of the Jezebel-Esther connections/oppositions:

  • Esther is a Jewish wife of a pagan king, Ahasuerus. Jezebel is a pagan, wife of a Jewish king, Ahab.
  • Jezebel dominates a weak king and uses her position for a criminal purpose. Esther, on the other hand, almost faints before a terrifying king, and it is her weakness that seduces the king.
  • Jezebel expands the kingdom but is eaten by dogs; Esther’s Jews are without land, in exile, yet she destroys the pagans.
  • The names of Ahab (aH-ab, brother and father) and Ahasuerus (aH, ve-rosh, brother and head) are close

For Mergui, that last point about the similar sounds and meanings of the Hebrew names is very significant to Jewish authors who thought “midrashically”. Mergui, it needs to be noted, also argues that Hebrew text lies behind our Greek gospel: behind many of the Greek names and other key ideas lie potential Hebrew words whose puns and other wordplay has been lost in our Greek editions. One other example: the name Naboth, Jezebel’s victim, is close to the Hebrew word for prophet (nabi) and such detail would not escape a “midrashically” minded author. (The early third century Origen in his Commentary on Matthew plays with the image of decapitation as symbolic of the Jews cutting off the head of prophecy, Jesus Christ. Mergui suggests that Origen may still have access to some of the earliest thinking behind the gospel narrative.)

Beyond the canon

Besides the similarities between the Markan tale and the biblical book of Esther, there are also some significant nonbiblical parallels to the banquet scene.

In the apocryphal Jewish book of Judith, for example, a woman uses her attractiveness to beguile a man and cut off his head.

In several non-Jewish stories, moreover, a king is forced, against his own true desire, to grant a favor at a banquet.

Herodotus (Histories 9.108-13) describes how Xerxes was constrained, by the Persian custom that at royal banquets every favor asked must be granted, to accede to his wife Amestris’ desire that her own sister-in-law be turned over to her; Amestris subsequently tortured and maimed this rival, just as Herodias uses the opportunity ׳ provided by Herod’s banquet to have her enemy murdered (cf. Gnilka, “Martyrium,” 88).

Josephus, similarly, recounts an incident in which the emperor Caligula, pleased by a banquet that Agrippa I had arranged in his honor, insisted that Agrippa ask him for a favor; when the favor turned out to be the rescinding of Caligula’s own order to erect his statue in the Jerusalem Temple, he w׳as forced to accede because he, like Herod in our story, “regarded it as unseemly to break his word before so many guests” (Josephus Ant. 18.289-304).

Livy, moreover, in recounting the life of Crassus, recoils at the horror of staining a feast with the blood of an innocent man to gratify the whim of a prostitute (History of Rome 39.43), and Plutarch describes the bringing of the head of an enemy to a king at a feast (Parallel Lives, Crassus 33.1-3; cf. Hoehner, Herod, 165-67). (Marcus, 402)

John the Baptist’s death in context

I’ll bypass the many obvious links to the death of Jesus and single out the immediate context: bracketing righteous women with daughters, pointed out by Joel Marcus in his commentary.

Mark 5:24-34 the righteous hemorrhaging woman and the daughter of Jairus

Mark 6:14-29 Herodias and her daughter

Mark 7:24:30 the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter

o0o

Whatever way we look at it — through historical sources, through Jewish and non-Jewish literature, through midrashic possibilities — the death the John the Baptist narrative in the synoptic gospels offers an adventure in exploration.


Aus, Roger. Water into Wine and the Beheading of John the Baptist: Early Jewish-Christian Interpretation of Esther 1 in John 2:1-11 and Mark 6:17-29. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press, 1988.

Duff, Paul B. Who Rides the Beast?: Prophetic Rivalry and the Rhetoric of Crisis in the Churches of the Apocalypse. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 27. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Mergui, Maurice. Comprendre Les Origines Du Christianisme: De L’eschatologie Juive Au Midrash Chrétien. Objectif Transmission, 2015.


 

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Neil Godfrey

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