Recently in our studies, Jesus was rejected in His hometown, and John had Jesus deliver convoluted truth while condemning some Pharisees. The event in the following study happens after the hometown rejection, according to Matthew that is.
Beheading a Legend
Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-29 similarly record the story: King Herod had put John the Baptist in jail because John the Baptist had kept telling Herod that he should not have married Herodias, Herod's brother's wife. On Herod's birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod. She was such a good dancer that Herod promised to give her whatever she wanted. Her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod, begrudgingly bound by his promise, had John the Baptist beheaded. Now, Herod thinks that a local miracle worker (Jesus) is John the Baptist who has come back from the dead.
It is a good story, for sure, but it is not very believable. Why? Well, let us take a look at some of the details.
The first, and possibly weakest, objection is the simple question of who witnessed this event? Obviously, none of Jesus' disciples were there, and it is unlikely that John the Baptist's followers were invited to Herod's birthday party either. Yet if such a spectacle did really happen, I am sure that the rumors would have spread quickly, so this episode could have been relayed by word of mouth. That can work, but Mark 6:22-25 records both public dialog between the king and the daughter and private dialog between the daughter and her mother. To have such detail suggests embellishment at best, or downright fiction at worst.
Next, consider why John the Baptist was in jail. Matthew 14:3-4 and Mark 6:17-18 both say that he was arrested because he had been telling Herod (repeatedly and in person) that his marriage to Herodias was sinful. This is certainly possible, but very unlikely. Herod was a king living in a palace. John the Baptist was supposedly a prophet preaching in the desert in order to fulfill prophesy (Matthew 3:1-3, Mark 1:2-4, Luke 3:1-6, John 1:23). Why would Herod travel out to the desert to see John the Baptist, repeatedly, when John the Baptist kept accusing Herod of having a sinful marriage? Flavius Josephus records a more believable version of history, recording that Herod had John the Baptist killed because the people flocked to John the Baptist like a leader, and Herod was concerned that he might start a rebellion.
Next, consider the wild promise Herod made to this dancing girl. Matthew 14:6-7 suggests that, because of her dancing, Herod promised to give her anything she asked for. This might seem like hyperbole, and that Herod had not intention of giving her anything she wanted. But with the qualifier of “up to half of my kingdom” in Mark 6:22-23, it does seem that Herod had full intention of granting this girl nearly any desire. Just for that one dance. One dance. Not a promise to become his love slave, his concubine, his next wife, etc. Not even a promise for her to “keep him company” later that evening. It was just one dance, and the dance was already done. For Herod to give such a rich and boundless offering for the sake of some temporary and already complete entertainment seems highly unlikely.
Perhaps it is for these reasons that Luke edited out these questionable details from his version of the story. In Luke 9:7-9, you find a much more abbreviated tale where Herod had heard of the activities of Jesus and wondered who this was, because he had beheaded John the Baptist and some other people thought it was perhaps the resurrected John the Baptist. Very limited hearsay testimony. No strange imprisonment. No dancing girl. No silly oath.
Yet Luke does not escape all of the oddity seen in Matthew and Mark. Matthew 14:1-2, Mark 6:14-16, and Luke 9:7-9 show that Herod puzzled about who Jesus may be. Matthew and Mark explicitly, and Luke implicitly, show that Herod was thinking that this may be John the Baptist resurrected. That would be plausible if Herod was just some guy on the street, but Herod, as king, would have access to people who report the news to him (which is kind of important as a king). People with eyewitness accounts would be sharing what Jesus was doing, what His back story was, and what he looked like (as in He looks different from John the Baptist and is noticeably missing the scars of a beheading).
Finally, we will close out with yet another significant oddity. This is one point where the storyline of the Synoptic Gospels merge again. After this note about the beheading, all three continue on to the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 men.
Before these three Gospels come together, Mark and Luke had already synchronized with the sending of the Twelve Apostles on their first mission. So for Mark and Luke, the events which Herod hears about is (presumably) in relation to the work of Jesus and the Apostles on this mission. And right after this tale of beheading, the Apostles return to report to Jesus what they had accomplished on their mission (Mark 6:30, Luke 9:10).
Matthew, on the other hand, records Jesus' hometown rejection immediately prior to this, which makes Herod's inquisitiveness regarding Jesus seem misplaced. Yet it becomes even more anachronistic as Matthew's story continues. Matthew 14:12 records that right after John the Baptist was beheaded, John the Baptist's disciples told Jesus what had happened. Matthew 14:13 states:
When Jesus heard what had happened [regarding John the Baptist's beheading], He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed Him on foot from the towns. NIV
This feeds right into the feeding of the 5000 men, as they were the crowds who were supposedly following Jesus.
Did you catch the time loop? Herod thinks some teacher/miracle worker is possibly John the Baptist resurrected, implying that some time and events had passed since the beheading. Yet as the beheading story, and the rest of Matthew, continues, it reads as though the beheading had just happened, to which Jesus reacts by looking for a little alone time. Quite a tangled web.