Death of John (Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9)

Submitted by admin on Tue, 2008-02-12 12:25.

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During the time the apostles carried out their commission, Jesus continued teaching and preaching in various towns. (Matthew 11:1) The biblical record does not disclose just when, in relation to the commissioning of the twelve disciples, Herod Antipas the tetrarch first heard about Jesus’ miracles. (Regarding the designation “tetrarch,” see the Notes section.)

This ruler had earlier arrested John the Baptist for repeatedly censuring him regarding his marriage to Herodias and about other wrongs. (Luke 3:19, 20) To marry Herod Antipas, she had divorced her husband (Herod Philip), and he also divorced his first wife (the daughter of Aretas, an Arabian king whose dominion included Damascus) to marry her. This union was an incestuous relationship according to Jewish law, to which he was subject as a nominal Jew (whose Edomite ancestors John Hyrcanus I forced to be circumcised in the second century BCE). His fear of incurring the hostility of his subjects, who considered John to be a prophet, contributed to restraining Herod Antipas from executing him. Moreover, he knew John to be upright and holy, and this also made him apprehensive about imposing the death sentence. Herod Antipas even found a measure of delight in hearing what John said about other matters, and so he found himself in a quandary as to what he should do. (Matthew 14:3-5; Mark 6:17-20)

Herodias, however, harbored great resentment and wanted John killed. She was determined that her remaining married to Herod Antipas would never be in jeopardy. (See the Notes section for other evidence about the closeness of the attachment of Herodias to Herod Antipas.) Her opportunity to achieve her objective came when Herod Antipas celebrated the anniversary of his birth. For the occasion, he arranged a banquet to which he invited his prominent men, chiliarchs (commanders of 1,000 soldiers), and influential men of Galilee. Probably while he and his invitees were under the influence of wine, Herodias urged her daughter Salome (probably her only child by Philip) to perform a sensuous dance in their presence. Herodias must have known how her husband was likely to respond to her daughter’s dancing. (Mark 6:19, 21, 22)

Herod Antipas and his guests were delighted with the spectacle. Completely captivated by her performance, he made an oath-bound promise to give her anything she might request, “up to half of [his] kingdom.” (Matthew 14:6, 7; Mark 6:22, 23) Upon consulting with her mother, Salome asked that she immediately be given the head of John the Baptist on a platter. It would seem that Herodias wanted to be sure not to risk the possibility that her husband would change his mind and so had her daughter request immediate action. (Matthew 14:8; Mark 6:24, 25)

Although it greatly troubled him, Herod Antipas, on account of his oaths and in order not to lose face before his guests, gave the order for John to be beheaded. Upon being presented with his head, Salome took it to her mother. (Matthew 14:9-11; Mark 6:26-28)

When news about this development reached the disciples of John, they arranged to get the body and placed it in a tomb. Thereafter they informed Jesus about what had happened. (Matthew 14:12; Mark 6:29)

It seems that his having ordered the execution of John left Herod Antipas with a troubled conscience. Reports about Jesus’ miracles caused him superstitiously to reason that John had been raised from the dead and had come into possession of extraordinary powers. (Matthew 14:1, 2; Mark 6:16) Also among the people, certain ones expressed themselves to the effect that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead and, therefore, was performing miracles. Others, though, concluded that Jesus was Elijah or a prophet like one of the prophets of old. All this talk added to Herod’s perplexity. (Mark 6:14, 15; Luke 9:7-9; see the Notes section for additional comments.)


The term “tetrarch” denotes a ruler over a fourth part of a province. This designation applied to rulers of lesser rank than kings. Among the general populace, though, Herod Antipas may have been spoken of as a king, and this may explain why the terms “king” and “kingdom” are linked to him in the Scriptures. His tetrarchy embraced Galilee and Perea, a region on the east side of the Jordan River.

A later development reveals just how strongly attached Herodias was to Herod Antipas. At the time Emperor Caligula (Gaius Caesar) exiled Herod Antipas on the suspicion of treachery (based on letters from Agrippa I, the brother of Herodias), she could have enjoyed better circumstances without him. According to Josephus, she turned down Caligula’s offer to spare her, saying, “The kindness which I have for my husband hinders me from partaking of the favor of your gift, for it is not right that I, who have been made a partner in his prosperity, should forsake him in his misfortunes.” (Antiquities, XVIII, vii, 1, 2 [Whiston’s translation with minor edits])

If he had known about Jesus’ activity and miracles prior to his having John executed, Herod Antipas could not have drawn his erroneous conclusion. The existence of ignorance about the overlapping of the activity of Jesus and John in the very land where they carried out their respective ministries indicates that one should not expect to find specifics about Jesus’ work and miracles in the writings of first-century Roman historians. Not until there were believers in principal cities throughout the Roman empire would information about Jesus have become more widely known.

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus commented on Herod’s political concerns as the reason for John’s imprisonment and execution. With crowds coming to John, Herod Antipas “feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion.” “Out of Herod’s suspicious temper,” John was sent as a prisoner “to Macherus” (Machaerus in Perea, situated east of the Dead Sea) and “was there put to death.” (Antiquities, XVIII, v, 2)

There is no reason to doubt that political considerations were involved. The messianic expectations aroused through the preaching of John the Baptist would have been troubling to Herod Antipas, just as his father Herod the Great regarded news about Jesus’ birth as a threat to the continuance of rule in his line and thereafter responded with violent action in an attempt to eliminate this threat. What appears to have finally prompted Herod to have John arrested and imprisoned was his being repeatedly reproved by him for his unlawful marriage to Herodias.

When commenting on the view of some Jews about the defeat of Herod’s army by the army of Aretas, whose daughter Herod Antipas had divorced to marry Herodias, Josephus wrote, “Now, some of he Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.” (Antiquities, XVIII, v, 2)