Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

If there’s a hint of good news surrounding John’s death, it resides in his followers who refuse to be intimidated

Detail from painting depicting Herod's banquet, by Pedro García de Benabarre, ca. 1470
Image: Pedro García de Benabarre, Herod's Banquet; licensed under CC0.

July 14, 2024

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Commentary on Mark 6:14-29

The story of John’s murder is dreadful throughout.

The Bible includes a number of tales that take us inside the courtrooms of immoral, unprincipled, and self-absorbed leaders. There is no Esther or Daniel in this one, however—no one who can serve as a circuit breaker to prevent the ruler’s stupidity from becoming deadly. Nor is there a humorous element that allows the story to function as satire. This is a depiction of noxious people with little impulse control who hold positions of power.

This passage also, as we learn at the end, tells a story of faithful resistance and courageous hope.

Unclean spirits, like those Jesus encounters across Mark 1–5, are hardly the only ones who resist the inbreaking of God’s reign. Herod and Herodias all on their own possess enough depravity to execute a prophet who dares to speak truth to power.

Mark does not disclose how Jesus responds to John’s beheading, but it requires little effort to imagine. Recall that Jesus launches his public ministry in the aftermath of—and perhaps as a direct reaction to—John’s arrest (Mark 1:14). Presumably, John’s demise gives Jesus a glimpse into his own possible future; this is the fate of too many prophetic truth-tellers. John prepares the way of the Lord in death as well as in life (1:3).

If we’re going to take seriously Mark’s acid criticism of the villains in this story, we need to know who they are. This “King Herod” is Herod Antipas, a son of the infamous Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. Antipas was a “tetrarch” whom the Romans installed as a ruler over Galilee. His power was close to absolute. As long as he protected Roman interests and did not overly antagonize his subjects, he could treat a low-status prisoner like John however he chose.

Herodias, the tetrarch’s wife, had divorced one of Antipas’s half-brothers. Mark refers to him as Philip, but other ancient sources identify him as Herod. (It was a popular name in that family.) John denounces Antipas, probably publicly, most likely on the basis of Levitical laws (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21). Antipas was not exactly known for his good morals.

According to other sources, Herodias had a daughter from her previous marriage named Salome. That could be who Mark is referencing, perhaps mistakenly, with the name Herodias. It is possible that Mark means a daughter or stepdaughter named Herodias whom we do not know from other ancient literature. More likely, Mark means Salome. It is not clear how old she is or why she dances to entertain Antipas and his elite guests. She may have no choice in the matter.

The daughter and her dance have been interpreted as paradigms of temptation and striptease. The hypersexualized orientalism surrounding the nearly mythical figure of “Salome” and a “dance of the seven veils” in modern art makes it important to disentangle the biblical story from a racist and misogynist reception history. There may be undertones of eroticism in Mark’s account. If so, they are more implicit than explicit. Furthermore, Mark does not present the daughter as utterly innocent, although she is more of a pawn than anything else in the story’s schemes. (Note that she adds to her mother’s demand the macabre detail that John’s head be presented “on a platter.”)

It’s also possible that Herod Antipas is exploiting his stepdaughter’s sexuality to please a roomful of men, and then Herodias exploits her further to compel her husband to execute John. No matter what is at work between the lines, it’s an ugly scene, but the desire of some interpreters to make it as salacious as possible might say more about their own fantasies than it does about the story Mark tells.1

Even though Antipas fears John, enjoys conversing with him, and is grieved at the prospect of having him beheaded, he is hardly an outwitted dupe in this episode. His idiotic pledge to reward his stepdaughter with up to half of his kingdom reveals him as arrogant and reckless. He uses his power in terrible ways. His unwillingness to risk embarrassment “out of regard for his oaths and for the guests” (Mark 6:26) makes him literally shameless. Nothing matters more to him than nursing his own vanity; he will suppress whatever fear of God remains within him, squelch any spiritual curiosity he might experience, and snuff out the life of a prophet—all to protect his own interests.

Don’t miss the final detail about John’s disciples retrieving his corpse and giving it an honorable burial. Consider the courage required to approach Herod Antipas’s people and request the body, thereby declaring allegiance to John and the movement he led. It’s not the same thing by any stretch, but I’m reminded of the thousands who bravely showed up in March 2024 to pay their respects outside the church and cemetery in Moscow where Alexei Navalny was mourned and laid to rest.2

If there’s a hint of good news surrounding John’s death, it resides in his followers who refuse to be intimidated. John foresaw a different world about to emerge. His disciples advance that vision through their simple yet difficult act of faithfulness. As I wrote in last week’s commentary, concerning Mark 6:1–13, “Opposition to the reign of God takes a toll and has lasting consequences, but it never has the last word.”

You might face parishioners’ questions about why you preached on this passage: “Were you trying to make a political point?” They ought to take it up with the Gospel of Mark instead. You might anticipate and rephrase the question: What is this story, an account of events in which Jesus is not even present, doing here at this juncture in Mark’s Gospel?3 The episode presages Jesus’ execution (see also 3:6; 8:31), but there’s more to it than that.

Appearing after several accounts of Jesus’ stunning power over spiritual oppression, illness, and death (5:1–43) and anticipating passages that illuminate the weight of suffering and want that confronts Jesus (6:30–44, 53–56), this scene emphasizes—for anyone who needs convincing—the cycles of misery and cruelty that ensnare the world. Human society inflicts as much harm as demons and death. Leaders’ actions have widespread consequences.

We don’t always have the power to rein in the destructive potential of self-obsessed rulers, toxic values, and an unwillingness to listen to truth. But Herod Antipas and his household remind us that innocent people will suffer when we don’t use the power available to us. What do faithful resistance and courageous hope look like in your context?


  1. Along those lines, I recommend this study: Janice Capel Anderson, “Feminist Criticism: The Dancing Daughter,” in Mark and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, 2nd ed., ed. Janice Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 111–43.
  2. See https://www.npr.org/2024/03/01/1235121398/kremlin-russia-navalny-funeral.
  3. It’s worth noting that at least one other ancient author, the historian Josephus, writes about Herod Antipas’s execution of John (Antiquities 18.5.2). In that account, the tetrarch acts out of his fear that John’s popularity will create political instability.