How Queen Esther Influenced the Fate of John the Baptist — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 7

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

I was fascinated by Nathanael Vette’s (NV) discussion of the highly probable influence of the story of Esther on the Gospel of Mark‘s account of the death of John the Baptist. It’s not a new theory that the biblical Book of Esther inspired some of the details in Mark’s account but NV takes us back to a version of the story that preceded its Hebrew or common Septuagint rendering.

A closer look at the passage, however, reveals a much greater resemblance to another Greek text of Esther: the so-called Alpha-text. (NV, 149)

A translation of the Alpha text can be read online at https://www.scribd.com/read/439782177/Septuagint-Esther-Alpha-Version. In the “Forward” (sic) of that online text we read of the Alpha text:

There are two versions of the Book of Esther in the various copies of the Septuagint, however, neither originated at the Library of Alexandria. The common version of Esther is found in almost all copies, while the rare version is only found in four known manuscripts, numbered as 19, 93, 108, and 319. This version follows the rare version, also known as the Alpha version, using the oldest surviving copy as a source text, the Septuagint manuscript 319, while also comparing the other surviving manuscripts: 19, 93, and 108. . . . .

The Alpha Texts version only survives in a few copies of the Septuagint, and based on its dialect, it was translated somewhere in the Seleucid Empire. The Alpha version is probably the oldest of the four translations, as it includes several unique elements that appear to have disappeared in later translations.

NV observes the following Alpha text matches in Mark’s scene of the death of John the Baptist:

  • a young girl (κοράσιον)
  • pleases (ἤρεσεν)
  • at a banquet (συμπόσιον)
  • a king vows (ώμοσεν)
  • with an oath (ὅρκος)
  • “up to half of my kingdom” (ως [τοũ] ήμίσους τῆς βασιλείας μου). — although the expression is common, the Alpha text of Esther and the Gospel of Mark alone “omit the genitive article” found in other manuscript lines of Esther)

The author thereby composed a banquet scene in which a king offers half of his kingdom to a young girl who instead requests the death of one man. (NV, 150)

Rabbinic literature of late antiquity refers to other variations of the Esther narrative and since details from these are also found in the Gospel of Mark it is reasonable to believe that Mark knew of and used versions of Esther now lost to us. NV refers to Roger Aus’s “meticulous” study of the parallels between Mark’s scene of the death of the Baptist and details found in the rabbinic and other versions of Esther. (Some of Aus’s study is outlined in another Vridar post, The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts.) The most significant point in common is that the one whom the young girl requests to be executed is decapitated and his head is brought into the scene of feasting for display “on a platter”.

The Rabbah, which bears no other signs of Christian influence, is unlikely to have gleaned this detail from the Gospel of Mark, whilst the fact the ‘head on a platter’ appears in both texts alongside or as part of Esther material suggests something more than serendipity. Far and away the most plausible explanation is that Mk 6:21-28 and Est. Rab. 4:9-11, though centuries apart, witness to a tradition extant in the first century CE which included the grisly image of a ‘head on a platter’ as part of the retelling of the Esther narrative. Thus, in addition to modelling the episode on a Greek version of Esther resembling the Alpha-text, the author of Mk 6:21-28 appears to have incorporated this traditional elaboration of the Esther narrative into the new story. By including traditional material along with the scriptural model. Mk 6:21-28 resembles other scripturalized narratives: the episode of Abram in the fiery furnace in LAB 6, although clearly depending on Daniel 3, reflects a tradition concerning Gen. 15:7 found in later Rabbinic interpretation: the same applies to the identification of Phinehas with Elijah in LAB 48:1; and the Testament of Abraham reflects the traditional comparison of Abraham and Job, as well as the legendary death of Moses. (NV, 151f)

Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse, Salome Dancing Before King Herod, 1887. From Joslyn Art Museum

NV’s point is sound, I am sure most of us will agree. But a couple of interesting side-issues surface. NV remarks on the failure of “the allusion-happy Christian commentators of late antiquity . . . to espy the Esther parallels in Mk 6:21-28 (par. Mt. 14:6-11)” yet those parallels are surely there by Mark’s design. This apparent failure of early Christian writers to notice a clear influence reminded me of a common criticism made against Dennis MacDonald’s thesis that the Homeric epics are frequently echoed in the Gospel of Mark: “No Church Father ever noticed the similarities; ergo, the thesis is a product of modern imagination!” If Homer had influenced the Gospel of Mark then we would expect to find some awareness of that process in the works of the Fathers. But here in NV’s discussion we have a clear case where a literary influence on the Gospel of Mark was not noticed by anyone in late antiquity. At least that’s what the surviving evidence indicates. Was even the author of the Gospel of Matthew aware of Mark’s Esther source material? NV suggests that he quite possibly wasn’t since he omitted the key line “up to half my kingdom” from his copy.

The most obvious difference between the Esther and Markan plots is the role of the women. In the former they are the saviour and victim while in the latter they are agents of murder; in the former it is the villain who is executed, in the latter it is the righteous one who dies. Since I have mentioned Dennis MacDonald above it seems apropos to step back from NV’s discussion for the moment and recall an alternative explanation for these plot and character reversals:

Some interpreters have attributed Mark’s tale to a variant oral tradition of the death of John, while others have attempted to isolate literary influence, especially the opening chapters of Esther and its vigorous interpretation in postbiblical Judaism. Esther probably did influence Mark’s narrative, but it is not clear how Esther alone could have generated this account. In several respects, the stories are radically different. For example, in Esther one finds no love triangle between a woman and two husbands. The two women in Mark are villains who secure the death of the Baptist, but their counterparts in Esther, Vashti and especially Esther herself, are heroines. Whereas Esther made noble use of Ahasuerus’s offer of half of his kingdom, Herodias and her daughter abused the offer and asked for the head of John. If Mark borrowed from Esther, why did he demonize the women? Mark’s tale shares many characteristics with Greek and Latin novellas that narrate murders at banquets, sometimes birthday parties or victory celebrations, and always hosted by noblemen whose power extends to capital punishment. The banquet provides predictable details for the setting: drinking, dancing, dialogue, and debauchery. Among the guests is someone, often a lover, who wheedles, begs, or tricks the ruler into murdering someone, often at the feast itself. The result is ironically hideous: a feast befouled by human blood; indeed, the punch of such stories derives in part from this disgusting irony. If one were to propose the most likely genre for Mark’s tale, it would be just such court novellas.

Several details in Mark’s tale suggest also the influence of Homer’s account of the murder of Agamemnon. . . . (MacDonald, 78 – my bolding in all quotations)

Copying my vridar.info notes of MacDonald’s subsequent discussion:

Deaths of John the Baptist and Agamemnon

      1. Both stories are told as flashbacks.
      2. Both have a faithless wife who leaves her royal husband for a near relative,
      3. and who seeks to kill John/Agamemnon
      4. each of whom is a threat to their affairs.
      5. In both stories her new husband holds a royal banquet which is polluted by a murder,
      6. (both by beheading — art depicts Clytemnestra beheading Agamemnon with an axe).
      7. Just as the murder of John the Baptist anticipates the fate of Jesus, so the murder of Agamemnon foreshadows the perils to be faced by Odysseus.

So are we looking at ironic reversals or an additional literary influence or both?

NV’s explanation for these differences is consistent with what we know from a more extensive analysis of the Gospel of Mark and we have:

Whilst the function of the Esther material in Mk 6:21-28 is certainly not typological – in which case, it would make John the Baptist Haman the Assyrian, which hardly seems plausible – it could serve an ironic function. Mark, ever the ironist, flips the logic of the Esther narrative on its head: whereas in Esther the righteous are vindicated by executing the wicked at a banquet, in Mark, it is the wicked who are vindicated by executing the righteous at a banquet. (NV, 154)

In part 5 of this series I suggested that the differences between episodes of Elijah-Elisha and John-Jesus could be interpreted as thematic reversals by the Markan author. I could have used the term “ironic reversals”. (Irony, with specific mention of “Markan irony”, has been referenced in part 4 in this series.) NV simply noted the differences in that instance suggesting that they pointed to quite different original stories unrelated to each other. But in the case of John the Baptist’s death he does allow for “Markan irony” as the explanation for the differences from Esther. Indeed, NV finds that the historical problems with the Gospel’s depiction of John’s death (e.g. Herod erroneously being called a king, Herodias’s first husband wrongly named) mean that the whole story “strains credulity”, and after considering the various elements of the account,

In the final analysis, the distinctive narrative details of the Markan episode have a legendary quality to them. (NV, 153)

I agree. They do “have a legendary quality to them”. But we base that judgement on comparisons with evident source material and comparable tales. It would be the same with material that we assess as having some historical reliability: we would have to base that judgement on independent witness or corroboration.

NV appears to take for granted the authenticity of Josephus’s description of the death of John the Baptist (yet authenticity is not beyond reasonable doubt) and once again introduces the possibility of historical sources influencing the “scripturalization” of the narrative:

It could be the author had access to other details about the execution of John that brought Esther to mind. It might even be the execution of John originated in the promise of a ruler to a young girl. Whereas one can only speculate as to the historical sources for the episode in Mk 6:21-28, a literary source is readily available. (NV, 156)

And if a literary source is readily available, possibly even more than one, then Occam’s Razor reminds us that the hypothesis becomes unnecessarily complex if one is to speculate that a historical event was also part of the author’s inspiration.

MacDonald, Dennis Ronald. The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Vette, Nathanael. Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. London ; New York: T&T Clark, 2022.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “How Queen Esther Influenced the Fate of John the Baptist — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 7”

  1. Or it could be that the banquet scene was written by an early editor of GMark, who fleshed out and dramatized a messenger’s account of the death of John the Baptist. The editor at least (and possibly also Mark) used the Alpha version.

    This scenario explains the anomalous presence of a lengthy story-told flashback entirely irrelevant to the otherwise fast-moving, tersely narrated story of Jesus.

    1. Yes — it is at first glance an odd-looking intrusion into the main narrative. It has all the detail of the Passion Narrative but with a thick dose of all that today we would call “Orientalism”. It is either an outlier to the original narrative or we still need to learn more about the original or the head on a platter scene or both.

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