What is God doing during the beheading of John the Baptist?

The gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 6 in Year B is Mark 6.14–29—and it feels distinctly odd by any measure. If you are a good Anglican, and ensure you read not only from the NT and the Psalms but also from the Old Testament every week, it will have been less of a surprise. By contrast, if you are into popular culture and have become a fan of the TV series Game of Thrones, or perhaps play the latest generation of video games, then it will not seem strange at all. But what is the passage doing here, as part of the ‘good news’ that Mark offers us of Jesus, and why does he give so much time to it in his shortest of gospels—much more time than he gives to his description of the resurrection, even despite the efforts of later editors of the end of the gospel?

You might well have heard a well-structured, engaging exposition of the human actors here, as I did a few years ago in the church we were visiting. It is not so much Game of Thrones as a game of consequences, which each stage of the drama unfolding tragically but with some inevitability into the next. What happens if you are born into a family whose patriarch is a ruthless but insecure tyrant (Herod the Great) who forged a regime from nothing and was a monumental builder, but achieved this by having his own wife and two sons executed? What happens when you live with bitter rivalry, having inherited both your father’s ambitious and his insecurity, which leads you into war and ultimate defeat? What happens when your sexual interests lead you to fall in love with your own relation (Herodias was Herod the Great’s grand-daughter by Mariamne)? What happens when you are at the same time disturbed and fascinated by a prophetic voice of criticism and cannot resolve this conflict in yourself? What happens when you blurt out impulsive promises which make you vulnerable to the scheming of others close to you? None of this ended well for Herod Antipas, who finally lost his power and his throne—but it ended worse for those around, including John the Baptist, who lost his head.

We are left with a poignant moral tale, full of dynamism and pathos, told in a such a way as to inspire many a Hollywood film script. The moment of hubris comes as Herod declares, repeatedly and with growing emphasis, his delight in his daughter:

The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” (Mark 6.22–23)

And this is almost immediately followed by his nemesis, his downfall, made the more stinging by his daughter asking not just for the head of John the Baptist, as her mother had directed her, but asking for it ‘right now’ and ‘on a platter’. The dishes on which Herod had served his guests the choicest foods as a demonstration of his lavish generosity and wealth would now serve up to him his folly and his pride in front of those very same guests—in the most gruesome way possible.

No wonder, then, that Caravaggio, the impulsive and conflicted genius of Renaissance art, chose to indulge his obsession with gruesome beheadings by painting this scene (now hanging in the St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta, where we saw it on holiday). His picture is startling in all sorts of ways, and not just because of his characteristic use of tenebrism by which the light and dark elements of the painting are in such striking contrast, with the human figures often illuminated from the side so that their features stand out in sharp relief. Caravaggio has chosen to depict the very moment of execution, with the jailer holding the knife behind his back having drawn it across John’s throat, and the blood is pouring from his neck as the jailor grasps his hair.

Perhaps we are unsettled by the contrasting reactions of the other figures—the horror of the old woman contrasting with the bored disinterest of the male figure next to her, the other prisoners straining to see the gore from their cell window on the right, and the girl with the platter eager just to get the job done. We might be disturbed by the off-centre composition of the picture, which breaks the rules of painting organisation even as the whole incident breaks the rules of moral respectability.

But the most shocking element of the painting is one we might not have noticed unless we look close up: that Caravaggio uses the blood flowing from John the Baptist’s neck to form his own signature. He might not see himself as a wicked tyrant like Herod, but does he in his moral dilemmas at least see himself as also playing a deadly game of consequences, just as those by-standers and minor characters do?

Where does that leave us as we read the passage? Are we being offered a stern warning of the consequences of unchecked impulses? Not many of us will have the chance to be tyrants, but the same impulses of insecurity, pride, shame and failure are present in us all. Or are we being offered a sober warning, in the example of John the Baptist, of the cost of integrity and faithfulness? Where does that all leave us, and does it offer us any ‘good news’?

We can now see that there is a basic problem with this kind of approach to the passage. All these readings are focussed on the human characters—they are taking an anthropocentric view—when the question I have asked in the title of this piece suggests something else. All these observations about what the human agents are doing are interesting, insightful, perhaps even entertaining in a strange way—but surely Mark is more concerned about what God is doing—and inviting us to take a theocentric view. This is the most important thing to do in our reading and especially in our preaching. The real question we need to ask is: What is God doing in this story?

To help us in this theological shift, we need to make two observations—one about the text itself in its canonical shape, and the other about the historical context of the gospel.

If you have only read the passage in isolation, either by its projection on a screen, or by reading it on your phone, instead of having an actual print Bible open, then you will have missed the most important thing Mark tells us about this passage—what comes before and what comes after it. (This shows how important it is that we all have printed Bibles and read from them in church.) We should be alert to this, as we have seen it before.

Mark carefully interweaves (in chapter 5) the story of a named and important man, Jairus, whose 12-year-old daughter is at death’s door, with the story of an unnamed and almost unnoticed woman, a figure fading into the crowd, who for 12 years has suffered from bleeding which has moved her to the margins of society. And we will see Mark’s technique again, in chapter 8, where he has to remind the disciples again of his provision in a feeding miracle done again just as he must touch the eyes of a blind man again before he can see more than people ‘as trees walking’.

So what do we learn when we look at the outer layers of Mark’s narrative sandwich? Immediately before the Herod/John the Baptist narrative, we read a slightly abbreviated version (compared with Luke 9.1–6) of Jesus’ commissioning the Twelve to go, in pairs, and take the good news to the villages.

Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over evild spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (Mark 6.7–13)

And immediately following the Herod narrative, we read of the return of the Twelve.

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (Mark 6.30–31)

So how does Mark answer the question: ‘What was God doing?’ In this: God was continuing to be at work, by his Spirit, through his people called by Jesus to proclaim and enact the kingdom of God, so that others might be drawn to know him.

Decapitation is a dreadful thing, and has a powerful propaganda effect—as was apparent in the kidnapping and filmed beheading of the 20 Christian Copts by ISIL in 2015. But decapitation (in a literal or figurative sense) of organisations and even whole countries is also terrifying. The Western powers’ strategy in combating terror organisations is primarily one of ‘decapitation’, of targeting and removing (by seizure or more commonly killing) the leaders of such movements. In the Second World War, three million Jews in Poland were executed in the German death camps—but a further two million non-Jewish Poles were also killed in an attempt at national decapitation. The occupying Germans arrested and executed anyone on positions of leadership—in government, business and education—with the aim of eliminating any resistance to the occupation and turning Poland into a ‘slave nation’ that would not have the initiative to resist.

The most poignant verse in the whole narrative in Mark 6 isn’t to do with Herod at all, but comes at the end of the story:

On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6.29)

Here is a body without a head, and here were disciples without a rabbi, and followers without a leader. It was not just John, but his whole movement which had been decapitated, and you can feel the poignancy in the brevity and simplicity of this verse.

And Mark is most likely writing his gospel to followers of Jesus in just such a situation. The Christians in Rome have already witnessed the expulsion of all Jews under Claudius, and this would have included important Jewish leaders in the fledgling Christian communities (as we see in Acts 18.2). They were soon to face a greater challenge—the blaming by Nero of the fire in Rome on Christians, and the torture and death of many of them, including leaders like Peter and (most likely) Paul.

What should they do and think? Amidst this calamity for such a small movement still in its early days, what was God doing? The answer, Mark tells us through this narrative, is that God was still at work, bringing healing, deliverance, and spreading the good news of the kingdom.

The friends and family of the Copts beheaded by ISIL discovered this for themselves. It is reported that their mothers thanked ISIL for releasing the video of their execution, because it meant they could hear their sons’ last words: ‘Jesus is Lord’. And one who was present with them was also convicted by the manner of their death:

After the beheadings, the Coptic Orthodox church released their names, but there were only 20 names. In the video, the leader’s victim was of black African descent, in contrast to the others, who were ethnic Copts. It was later learned that this 21st martyr was named Matthew Ayariga and that he was from Ghana. (A few sources say he was from Chad, but most say he was from Ghana.)

According to some sources, he was not originally a Christian, but he saw the immense faith of the others, and when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Jesus, he reportedly said, “Their God is my God”, knowing that he would be martyred.

Can we imagine a time when the church in the UK might be ‘decapitated’, with our leaders removed and our institutional influence gone? That is the reality for many Christians around the world. If it does happen, we might find ourselves reading this passage again with renewed interest. And perhaps being like those who travelled everywhere, and in all the places they went proclaimed the good news of the kingdom to all they met, might not seem such a silly thing to do after all.

(A previous version published in 2018.)

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13 thoughts on “What is God doing during the beheading of John the Baptist?”

  1. Thanks Ian. Well worth the wait. Particularly liked the connection to the ISIL martyred Coptics (typo in ‘leader’?) and Matthew Ayariga. With the Amos reading I took it as encouragement for people of faith to speak out against the moral corruption of our political leaders and question why we collude in silence re our PM’s lovelife and law breaking.

  2. Well the Baptiser certainly wouldn’t be appointed as Bishop of … for a such a public ministry call to repentence at the court of Parliament.

  3. Can we imagine a time when the church in the UK might be ‘decapitated’, with our leaders removed and our institutional influence gone? We don’t have to imagine it; it’s already the case. As has been often lamented on these pages, at the top there are no God-fearing leaders, and the Church has almost no influence. The world influences the Church. This applies as much to the other denominations as it does to the Church of England. Christ is the head of the Church, and the entire body has decapitated itself. We have no eyes to see, no ears to hear, no mind to understand, no mouth. All that we can expect now is the coup de grace.

  4. Ian, if you might indulge me, I believe John intentionally alludes to this passage in Rev 20:2.

    In both of these two verses there are five Greek words in the proper order and then in the middle the name of “John” is replaced by “dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan.” This parallel is obscured I believe, by the Dragon’s long name. So you have the identification of John replaced by the identification of the dragon. Translated literally from the Greek, both these phrases read; “seized the ‘NAME’ and bound him.” Along with that you have the ideas of prison (Satan’s abyss is a prison as we see in Rev 20:7) and beheading. There is a reversal of fortune. Where once John was bound and cast into prison, now the dragon is bound and cast into prison. Where once John was beheaded, now the beheaded rise from the dead (the very thing Herod was afraid of in John’s case). Plus this story in Mark 6 follows fairly shortly after the story in Mark 5 where the demoniac could not be bound with a chain, but the Dragon can be bound with a chain, which provides another point of contact.

    I think this allusion is as strong or even stronger than many OT allusions that have been proposed throughout Revelation.

    1) Yes, “seizing” and “binding” are common, but in combination they are unique to these two passages, along with Matt 14:3, but Matt 14:3 is telling the same story as Mark 6:17.
    2) The verbal parallels do not just include “seizing” and “binding” but also “prison” and “beheading” and possibly “chains” along with the idea of coming back to life. A cluster of verbal parallels with the main two being unique.
    3) The six Greek words occurring in order except for the NAME, provide almost a short quotation. In fact, the phrase “and bound him” only occurs in these two verses in the NT, so adding “seizing the” with the name exchange only strengthens the connection, along with the following thematic connections in the points below.
    4) The idea of John being seized and bound is a thematic parallel with Satan being seized and bound. Overall, though it is a reversal of fortune, which is one of the themes of the millennium. The souls are on thrones instead of the dragon (Rev 13:2) or Herod, or the beast from the sea.
    5) The demoniac in Mark 5 cannot be bound with a chain, but Satan can be. Obviously, there is a certain amount of textual distant between these two accounts in Mark, but not in Revelation. And the demons do not want to be sent into the abyss (although we learn this in Luke not Mark), although that is where Satan is cast.
    6) In Mark, Herod says, “John whom I beheaded is raised.” Rev 20:4 reads, “the souls of the beheaded…lived again.” The verbal parallels are not identical but they are synonymous, while creating a thematic parallel. John is fond of using inverted parallelism when alluding to passages in the OT, NT, or throughout Revelation itself:

    A. Mark 6:16 – “John whom I beheaded is raised.”
    B. Mark 6:17 – “…seizing John and bound him in prison”
    B’. Rev 20:2 – “…seizing ‘Satan’ and bound him … (in abyss/prison)”
    A’. Rev 20:4 – “The souls of the beheaded…lived again.”

    God will eventually turn the tables. Herod will be off the throne and John the Baptist will be sitting on it.

    • Hi Craig,
      What do you mean by “Herod will be off the throne and John the Baptist will be sitting on it.”?
      Otherwise I’m intrigued.

      • Steve,

        In Mark, Herod is on the throne and John is beheaded. In Rev 20, John the beheaded is on the throne and Satan is cast down. I am using Herod figuratively here for every world leader, empowered by Satan, that martyrs the followers of Christ throughout the church age. If the martyrs are on thrones, then the world leaders are not. A reversal has taken place. The world leaders are cast down and the martyrs are raised up.

        Obviously, ones view of the millennium will affect how one sees this playing out in the reality of the physical and spiritual worlds.

        • Craig,
          Thanks. I see what you mean. John is the ‘head’ of all the OT prophets/martyrs. He/they rule with the Saints during the 1000 years ( I think we are in the χ years now that will be behedded and become truncated into 3 1/2 years). Thus making the metaphorical 1000 fit the 1260/42/ 3 1/2 symbolic format.
          I am interested in the allusions Revelation points to. Yesterday I read Ezekiel 8:9 – the 70 had censers with Jaazaniah standing amongst them. This looks a lot like an inverted allusion to Jesus standing amongst the 7 lampstands.
          John the Baptist, to me, looks like the Best Man at a wedding. If the NT timeline would support it I would fance John was the unnamed ‘master of the banquet’ in the wedding at Cana, but of course it could not be.

  5. Again, many thanks. The Caravaggio painting certainly demands a response from the viewer.
    Given the lectionary gives us just this portion of the chapter, should we end the reading on Sunday with “This is the gospel of Christ”? What we will have heard is hardly the gospel, the good news, but rather the reality of a brutal world. Christ is barely mentioned and is not an actor in this passage.
    I think it is important to remember just how many Christians today do live with the threat of persecution, whose buildings are being destroyed, with the threat and reality of imprisonment.
    When John sends disciples to Jesus in Luke 7 we have a dialogue around Isaiah 61 but the release of captives is noticeably not mentioned. Other signs of the coming Kingdom are mentioned but not the release of captives. And now in the midst of the miracles in these chapters and the signs of power there is still a brutal exercise of power against John.

    The parable of the sower and the seeds and the ground has already told us that persecution will come. John dies, as will Jesus, whose followers will also put his body in a tomb; the key disciples will flee and abandon Jesus and even disown him, when their “persecution” comes at the trial.
    I find the death of John, the brutal killing of John, and he was helpless to do anything, desperate in the literal sense that it drains hope; it is terrible, in that we should feel fear; lead us not into the time of trial – deliver us from evil. Sometimes we do need to look hard at the reality; resurrection is only real because death was and is real, including violent, cruel deaths and the apparent victory of evil.

  6. God is the one that really needs to be beheaded for destroying our world today and makes most of us good innocent people to suffer for no reason at all. And he just keeps letting all this evil happening today, and just doesn’t want to stop this at all. What is that all about anyway. God is Satan.

    • And what would you have God do? One option would be to take away your free will so that you could not do evil to another. Would you be happy for that?

      Another option would be for God to step into this world of suffering, to suffer himself, and to break the power of suffering. Then promise in the end to be the just judge of all who inflict suffering on others.

      Are you ready for that judgement?


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