While reading of the beheading of John the Baptist, I am reminded of such violence that occurs today. While not widely accepted, there are still individuals being beheaded. This may be by random violence (such as murder), or acts committed by individuals who are following a particular religious or cultural belief. But even in this digital age of violent video games, movies, and television shows, beheadings are still viewed as a gruesome spectacle. Can you imagine how such a thing was perceived during the time of Jesus? Yet this is what occurred, all to appease the whims of a young girl.
Mark 6:17-29 (KJV)
“For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly. And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he swore unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison. And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother. And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.”
Here we have Herod Antipas, smiling and nodding with approval, as his step-daughter swayed and twirled in front of him and his birthday party guests, her graceful figure filling them with longing. When her performance was done, Herod and the guests applauded. What a dance! So entranced by her perforrmance and the mood of the moment, Herod cried, “Ask me what you want, up to half my kingdom, and it is yours!” And he swore a great oath to confirm his promise. As a Tetrarch (ruler of one quarter of a Roman province) Herod was more than able to provide a handsome gift even by first century standards. Would his step daughter ask for a jeweled necklace? A dowry? A house? Herod and the guests waited to hear her request. The girl herself hesitated. Uncertain what to ask for, she whispered with her mother.
Down in the dungeons of Herod’s fortress (named Machaerus) a man’s fate was about to be decided. John the Baptizer was under lock and key in one of those gloomy holds. The cause was this: he had rebuked Herod for stealing another man’s wife, namely Herodias. This woman had been married to Herod’s quiet half brother, Phillip. Herodias was furious, and convinced Herod to arrest John. Herod was only too willing because he was suspicious of the large crowds John attracted.
However, once Herod got John in his lockup, he talked with him and found he liked the guy. He didn’t understand what John was saying about holiness and salvation, but it seemed to be something he should hear. Instead of executing John, he gave him visitation privileges. Execution would be a bad idea anyway. John had a lot of followers; why make them mad and risk rebellion?
Having made up her mind, Herod’s stepdaughter approached him. The guests and the king turned to hear what she would ask. “Give me now the head of John the Baptizer on a platter!” said the girl. Even the reckless, hardened lot must have drawn sharp breaths at the gruesome request. How quickly the indulgent mood melted. Did Herod’s face change? Here was an awkward demand! Used to thinking of people as objects, used to beheading men at a whim, it never occurred to him to say, “An incorruptible prophet like John the Baptizer is worth more than my whole kingdom.” Looking around at his guests, he saw only one thing. If he was to save face, he must fulfill his promise. He ordered the execution.
According to a long-standing tradition, John was beheaded on this day, August 29, probably around the year A.D. 28. What happened to John’s head, we do not know. His disciples came and buried the body. Remains alleged to be his were later taken to Alexandria, Egypt and placed in a specially built church. When John’s cousin Jesus heard the news, we imagine it hit him as hard as it would any of us. He tried to get away by himself for a time. John, who had preached Christ’s coming and prepared for His messianic ministry was needlessly dead in the prime of his life.