First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 7

William Loader

Pentecost 7: 15 July Mark 6:14-29

Jesus has been rejected in his own home town - at least ‘cut down to size’ (6:1-6). The disciples have been sent out (6:7-13). Now in 6:14-29 Mark tells us about John the Baptist - being ‘cut down to size’ would be an unfortunate metaphor! John is killed in the context of a feast. Mark is about to speak of two further feasts, one, celebrating the bread of life for Israel, the feeding of the 5000, the other, celebrating the bread of life for the Gentiles, the feeding of the 4000.

When he reports Jesus’ discussion of the significance of these two miraculous feedings in 8:14-20, Mark begins by reminding us of the ‘leaven’ of Herod (8:16). We are meant to see the link. Mark connects the three feasts under the rubric of ‘leaven’ or bread. Readers of Mark would doubtless have made the connection with the eucharist. The feedings of the 5000 and 4000 foreshadow that meal of life through death. Herod’s feast is the counterpoint. It is a black eucharist: John’s head is brought forward on a platter at the height of its ‘liturgy’.

The effect of the first banquet is to colour the other two. There is a solidarity between John the Baptist, Jesus and the disciples - powerful forces will want to exterminate them! The passage invites reflection on the terror of human vulnerability to corrupt regimes where decisions of enormous consequence can be influenced by fickle behaviour.

Mark achieves this dramatic statement by choosing to report Herod’s reaction to Jesus’ popularity. That enables him to tell the story of what had happened to John. Reflecting a remarkably loose notion of ‘resurrection’, Mark reports that some thought John was Jesus risen from the dead. Not a bad idea, if we were to extend it to the disciples who in some sense are Jesus risen from the dead. The other two options, Elijah and ‘the prophet’, will reappear in 8:28, finally to be given their due in the symbolism of the transfiguration in 9:1-13. Mark wants us to hold in mind the bigger picture. We must not lose sight of the struggle and what it is about.

The story of Herod’s party will doubtless have been retold many times before it reached Mark and in that process have taken on a life of its own. It now contains a few minor inaccuracies. John’s execution is mentioned in Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, but without this detail. He does however help us understand the historical setting. Here is a brief outline of the complex details.

Herod is Herod Antipas, son of king Herod the Great (37-4 BCE). The latter was the Herod who slaughtered the children in Matthew 2. Both Matthew and Luke know his correct title: ‘tetrarch’, not ‘king’ as in Mark. He was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4BCE to 39CE. Herod’s first wife was the daughter of Aretas, king of the Nabateans (Petra), the same one whose commander was trying to catch Paul according to 2 Corinthians 11:31-33. While staying with his half brother, also called Herod, on route to Rome, Herod Antipas had an affair with Herodias, wife of this half brother, and later married her, divorcing his first wife, the daughter of Aretas. Aretas became Herod Antipas’ enemy. When he defeated Antipas in battle, popular opinion saw that as divine vengeance for the divorce. Mark’s story calls that half brother, Philip. That Herod (‘Philip’) and Herodias already had a daughter, called Salome. Mark’s story appears to assume she is daughter of the new marriage to Herod Antipas. This is unlikely, because there would not have been enough years to produce a child of that age. In fact Salome was married to someone called Philip. Hence the confusion. Mark even seems to call her also Herodias, like her mother. The Herodias whom Herod Antipas married was in fact his niece, being the daughter of another of his half brothers, Aristobulus, son of Herod the Great and the daughter of Simon the high priest. She was a sister of Agrippa the Great.

Mark tells us the issue of the arrest was John’s criticism about the second marriage. The issue was neither the divorce nor the second marriage in itself; it was that it was a marriage to the wife of his half brother and so broke the biblical laws set out in Leviticus 18:16. Sadducees and some writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls would have objected on the grounds that she was his niece, but that, too, is not the issue according to Mark’s story which appears to share the broader Pharisaic interpretation of Leviticus 18 which did not extend the prohibition of marrying nephews to prohibition of marrying nieces. Josephus suggests that Herod’s concern was that John represented a source of unrest and subversion. This is probably correct, whether that included criticism of the new marriage or not. Josephus tells us that John was taken to the fortress of Machaerus in Perea, across the Jordan from Judea and also part of Antipas’ territory along with Galilee, and probably closer to where John exercised his ministry.

The party appears typical for the time. The women are in an adjoining room. This is a men’s party. That is why Salome must go there to consult her mother. Dancing girls were often prostitutes. The promise to give away half his kingdom is the stuff of legendary stories of this kind (see Esther 5:3,6; 7:2). It also serves to expose fickleness. It is a terrible story, not just for its gory ending, but also for the machinations of power and the structures of injustice it displays. It is a sad irony that preachers have sometimes focussed on women’s wiles as its ‘message’. It should rather be seen as a story of exploitation - of women, of citizens and slaves; and as a story about silencing the cry for justice. Notice that Herod feared and is fascinated by John. John is not the last prophet whom leaders have reduced to an item of intellectual fascination, nor the last preacher. Ideas are fun.

This bizarre story, lifted from the ‘popular press of the day’ or its Galilean equivalent, casts a shadow over what is to come. Fickle, exploitative political powers will perform another convenient execution, reflecting arbitrary individual choice and reflecting structures of injustice. Mark’s readers may have made the connection between themselves and Herod’s wondering: can it be that someone so callously executed comes to life again? Is the risen Jesus to be seen where such powers are confronted anew, whether within us as individuals or among us in our society? Or does the entertainment drown out the voices?

Epistle: Pentecost 7: 15 July  Ephesians 1:3-14