Death of John the Baptist

Jesus messes things up.

January 31, 2016

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Commentary on Mark 6:1-29 

Jesus messes things up.

He disrupts people’s perspectives of who they are and who they can be. And this is not always welcome news. It is not euangellion (“good news”) to everyone. For some, this gospel, packaged in the person and performance of Jesus Christ, does not herald their victory but their defeat. It defeats their notions of who they are and who they can be.

In Mark 6:1-6a, we find Jesus attempting to minister in his hometown. However his teaching is met with astonishment that quickly turns to offense. They cannot get past the fact that they know him and they know from where and from whom he has come. It seems that the people are offended by Jesus breaking the mold of their preconceived notions of who they are and who they can be. According to them, the identity of Jesus can be summed up with his occupation, parentage, and sibling connections. There is no room to receive anything from him beyond that. Consequently, their offense stems from a “crabs in a barrel” mentality: they do not want Jesus to escape the limits of their mutual environ. And whereas this metaphor may aptly describe this situation and may fairly critique the reactions of Jesus’ hometown residents, rarely does the fact that the barrel is not the crab’s natural habitat come into play.1

Indeed, the people in Jesus’ hometown are in a barrel. Their existence under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire is an unnatural habitat. Although Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth has no social, political, or religious significance, it is located four miles northeast of Sepphoris. Sepphoris was sympathetic to Roman rule and enraged the rest of Galilee when it refused to rebel against Rome in 66 C.E. The people in Nazareth’s reaction suggest that they too do not want to risk association with Jesus, who has drawn “great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sideon” (Mark 3:8).

Perhaps escape from the barrel was too painful a thought. In fact, the freedom to be and do more than is expected or even desired is frightening. Sometimes, it is just hard enough to survive without someone tipping the barrel, climbing out the barrel, rocking the barrel, or doing anything within or outside of the barrel that might cause retaliation against the rest of the crabs. Therefore, they use rejection to try to pull him down.

Yet, tipping the barrel, he is. Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and deeds of power have people claiming that John the Baptist has been raised from the dead (Mark 6:14). Even Herod, the one responsible for John’s death, believes the same (v. 16). A resurrection? The reality, the possibility of such is not even questioned. Mark presents it as a reasonable explanation for what is taking place. However, the assertion of a resurrection is by no means innocuous.

For a first century Jew, resurrection was “part of a larger picture of what God was going to do for the nation and indeed the world.”2 Moreover, resurrection was connected to hope and hope is one of the most dangerous things oppressed people can have. N. T. Wright, when writing about resurrection from a Christian perspective notes that its roots are Jewish and “turned those who believed it into a counter-empire, an alternative society that knew the worst that tyrants could do and knew that the true God had the answer.”3 To speak of resurrection then, is to speak of God intervening into the course of human events and existence in a way that upsets the status quo. Therefore the keepers of the system are in danger of losing their system and therefore the status that the system provides. This is good news for the crabs, but bad news for the barrel. But if the crab is committed to the barrel, it is bad news for that crab, too.

Herein lies the inner conflict of Herod as presented by Mark. Herod is the client king placed over Judea by Rome. He is also a crab in the barrel, but the barrel is far more amenable to Herod than his fellow Jews. The amenities that Rome provides Herod make barrel living comfortable. However, his political favor rests in his ability to keep the other crabs peacefully living in the barrel. Therefore, he must exercise sovereign control. No one can tell him what he can or cannot do, not even a “righteous and holy man” (Mark 6:20) like John. Should he concede to the validity of John’s condemnation of his marriage to Herodias, he submits to John’s moral authority. This would diminish his power for the one who rules the king rules the kingdom.

Therefore, Herod arrests John (Mark 6:17) and eventually beheads him (vv. 26-27). For Mark, the reason behind John’s arrest is twofold. On the one hand, John had spoken against his marriage to Herodias and Herod needed to silence John’s condemnation. On the other hand, Herodias wanted John dead not detained. Therefore, Herod’s imprisonment was a form of protection because according to Mark, “Herod feared John” (v. 20). Yet, this protection only lasted as long as it did not interfere with his political standing. Once his oath was given, he maintained his word and therefore his standing at the cost of John’s head.

As Mark recounts the details of John’s death within his narrative, his audience already knows of the death of Jesus. In this story, Mark begins to connect their deaths: both men are “handed over” or “betrayed” (paradothenai, Mark 1:14, 3:19; 14:41); the means by which they are executed (beheading and crucifixion) are the most shameful ways of killing a person during this time; and both deaths are the result of their preaching (6:18; 14:62). Finally, the people’s assertion that John has been raised from the dead (6:14) prepares Mark’s audience for Jesus’ prediction of his own resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:34) and the young man’s message at the empty tomb (16: 6).4

Although John’s ministry and death foreshadow Jesus’, he has not arisen from the dead. Jesus will. According to Mark, the heavens have been torn open (Mark 1:10). The tomb is empty (16:6). Jesus has gone ahead and God is loose in the world.5

Crabs, get ready! Barrels, beware! Jesus is going to mess things up.


1 @trecunn_d25 on Twitter. “People say black people hold each other back like crabs in a barrel, conveniently neglecting the crab’s natural habitat is not a barrel.” [cited 12 October 2015]. Online:

2 N.T. Wright, “Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins,” Gregorianum 83 no. 4 (2002): 619.

3 N.T. Wright, “The Resurrection of Resurrection,” Bible Review (2000): 63.

4 Raquel S. Lettsome, “Mark,” in Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament (eds. Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David Arthur Sánchez. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014) 189-90.

5 Donald H. Juel, Augsburg Commentary: Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990), 233.

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