Friday, December 30, 2011

By Invitation Only

After walking on water to meet up with His disciples on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus arrives in Capernaum. Shortly thereafter, some Jews (who had eaten at the feeding of the five thousand) caught up with Jesus there; sparking a conversation where Jesus gets a little tangled up in His own metaphorical language. This study continues on with that same conversation, but with a special focus on exclusivity.

By Invitation Only
Often times, Christians will point to the freewill as an excuse for the way things are; such as why there is evil in the world (a consequence of humans choosing to works acts of evil on their own free will) or why God is justified in the eternal damnation of certain humans (because they have chosen to reject God's Salvation by their own free will). It is such a convenient argument that Christians completely ignore the Scripture which states the contrary. For there is one will which will always trump human will, and that is God's will.

Previously, we saw Jesus having a conversation with some Jews, where He explained that He was the "bread of life" sent by God to give eternal life, and people would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood to live (John 6:25-59). During that conversation, another theme emerged: exclusivity.

John 6:37-38 states that Jesus will accept anyone who is sent by God, the Father, which naturally implies that there are those not send by the Father, and therefore not destined for Salvation. The truth of exclusivity is more clearly claimed in John 6:44-45 where Jesus says:
"No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: 'They will all be taught by God.' Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from Him comes to Me." NIV
So you must be drawn by God to the "bread of life," Jesus, to be Saved. There is a little ambiguity which seems to imply that God may speak to some people who do not listen to Him, but that apparent loophole will be closed soon enough. After all, who can resist the will of God?

With God selecting and drawing specific people to Jesus, it appears that any follower of Jesus is Saved, but that is not the case. After Jesus tells the Jews about how they must consume Him for Salvation, some of His own disciples are offended by His teaching (John 6:60). Jesus replies to the disciples in such a way that "many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him" (John 6:66).

(Note: Be careful when reading the Gospels, because "disciples" only means "students," not necessarily the Twelve Disciples/Apostles which are often thought of when the term "disciples" is used.)

What did Jesus say which turned many disciples away? Jesus reply in John 6:61-65 is, in a word, confrontational. In John 6:61-62, He starts by mocking their whining and attacking their lack of faith in His authority. Jesus begins His next thought with the "Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing," and states that the words which He had spoken were Spirit and life (John 6:63). Jesus knows, however, that some of them do not believe Him (John 6:64), which is why we find these parting words in John 6:65:
[Jesus] went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless the Father has enabled him." NIV
Take just a moment to reflect on what this teaching means. You can choose to follow Jesus, out of your own free will. Yet you will not be able to believe in Jesus in a manner which leads to Salvation unless God also chooses to let you believe. The flesh, your choice, counts for nothing.

This teaching is a natural consequence of the teaching that God, the Father, is the one who chooses people for Salvation, because if God is the one leading people to Jesus, how could anyone subsequently leave Christianity, making God's actions result in failure? The solution to that conundrum is to establish the theological concept that some people will choose to become Christian, but are not really Saved, because God did not choose them. This is predetermined fate, not an outcome of freewill. God chooses who will be saved and who will perish, not us. This same sentiment is echoed in Romans 9:16-21:
It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden.

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist His will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? NIV
Funny how you do not hear much about this teaching in modern pulpits. It is psychologically much easier to blame a person for rejecting God, than to blame God for rejecting that person.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Crumby Teaching

After Jesus fed five thousand men with a little food, He had a rendezvous with His disciples, where He walked on the Sea of Galilee to meet up with them. Then John veers off from the other three Gospels, back into the doctrine-rich speeches and dialogs with Jesus found so often in John.

Crumby Teaching
When you start to delve into the world of metaphors for illustrative purposes, depending on the complexity of the message, it can take near-genius-level brilliance to do so in a way which is not self-contradicting, or subject to other adverse implications. Surely an omniscient God could navigate these expansive waters with precision. That is why we find the Gospel of John running into some difficulties.

John 6:25-59 imparts to us a dialog in which Jesus refers to Himself as the bread of life. However, this does not appear to be a dialog in the sense of an actual recorded conversation, but rather a dialogue in the sense of the literary style used by Greek philosophers to advance their arguments, like we find in Plato's The Republic.

The episode begins with the people who Jesus had fed (during the miracle where Jesus had fed five thousand people with a little bread and a couple fish) catching up to Him in Capernaum. Jesus tells them that they are looking for Him because they had eaten for free, not because He had worked miracles. He then tells them to work for food which will yield eternal life, which is given by the God-endorsed "Son of Man" (John 6:25-27). (Of course, Jesus meant Himself by the "Son of Man," making it a rather odd conversation by having Jesus speak of Himself in the third person, but it is not uncommon with what we see elsewhere in the Gospels.)

These people reply, asking Jesus what work does God require. He replies that they must believe in the one God has sent (John 6:28-29). Again, Jesus replies in the awkward third-person perspective. Yet, this is good news! All you need to do is believe Jesus and eat His magic food to be Saved!

Can you guess what they would ask Jesus next? Would it be the logical "so, are you the one God has sent?" Or how about "can you tell us who this 'Son of Man' is that we may believe in Him?" Or maybe even "can you give us this food for eternal life?" Well, it is none of the above, but somewhat close to the first question. In John 6:30-31, we find:
So they asked Him, "What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: 'He gave them bread from Heaven to eat.'" NIV
It appears that they have have managed to conclude that Jesus is talking about Himself, so they ask Jesus to perform a miracle to prove Himself, yet supposedly they are the ones who had already experienced a miracle from Jesus first hand, being part of the feeding of the five thousand. That does not make sense, unless, for some unknown reason, nobody mentioned to them that five thousand men (including themselves) had been fed with only five loaves of bread and two fish.

However, it is equally unlikely that they mention the manna given to the Israelites by God during their Exodus (Exodus 16). Implicitly, this is a suggestion of a sign that Jesus could do to prove Himself. However, manna was not a sign, but rather a test given by God to see if the Israelites would obey Him (Exodus 16:4).

So we have a doubly unlikely response, at least if this is real dialog, but because it is a philosophical dialogue instead, their reply provides a convenient segue for Jesus to touch on the Old Testament teachings. Jesus tells them that Moses did not give them the bread from Heaven, but God gives the true bread in the form of the He who comes from Heaven to give life (John 6:32-33). Jesus is essentially saying that the Law of Moses will not grant eternal life, in highly figurative language.

They forget about needing a sign, and simply ask Jesus to give them "this bread" from now on (John 6:34). Far from being lost in the metaphor, they seem to have picked up on the fact that "this bread" of life is some sort of new teaching or law from God.

Jesus replies that He is the bread of life from Heaven, and that those who seek Him will never be hungry or thirsty. However, He knows that they do not believe Him (despite following Him around and asking for the bread of life). Jesus comes to do the will of God; that is to grant eternal life on the "last day" to whoever God sends to Jesus to believe Jesus (John 6:35-40). So Jesus is essentially telling them that because they do not believe Him, they will not receive the bread of life, just not in a very clear way.

Instead of being indignant about their exclusion, they grumble about Jesus; asking He could have come from Heaven when they knew His earthly family (John 6:41-42). They got hung up on this saying now, despite the fact that Jesus had just effectively stated the same fact in the previous reply in John 6:33. So we go from them apparently understanding Jesus to not understanding Him, but that is not as interesting as another slip in the reply...

This group of people are now called "the Jews" (John 6:41). So we have a supposedly Jewish eyewitness recording an event which happened within a Jewish population in a Jewish town, and yet feeling the need to specify that "they" were Jews. That would be like an U.S.A. native news anchor speaking of an event in Washington D.C. and specifying something that "the Americans" said. It is a tell of another authorship, who is likely not Jewish.

Moving on, Jesus tells them to stop their whining, and reiterates that He will only Save whoever God sends to Him (which was not what they were grumbling about). Jesus goes on to say that those who listen to God will come to Jesus, that only He has seen God, and that He will Save all who believe Him (John 6:43-47).

It is important to take a moment to highlight that Jesus is telling "the Jews" this information despite knowing that they do not believe Him, which, as He knows, means that they are not led by God to Jesus and therefore not destined to be Saved. So Jesus is essentially giving them all of this information to spite them, rubbing their noses in the fact that they will not partake of the bread of eternal life.

Jesus continues in His reply with information more fitting of the Jews' previous question regarding miracles and manna. He tells them that their forefathers ate manna, but they died. However, Jesus is the bread from Heaven, of which if anyone eats His flesh, they will live eternally (John 6:48-51).

Obviously, even the Saved will die physically. So by Jesus contrasting those who ate manna as being dead versus those who eat His flesh having eternal life, the implicit message their dead forefathers do not have eternal life, meaning that nobody who lived before Jesus' time can be Saved. Yet we find the manna-eating Moses surviving contemporaneously in eternal life in the Gospels (Matthew 17:3, Mark 9:4, Luke 9:30).

The Jews grumble again (John 6:52).

Jesus reiterates that they need to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life (John 6:53-56). Jesus lives because of God, and people who feed on Jesus will also live, forever, as opposed to those who ate the manna (John 6:57-59). So the message is concluded with text that clearly indicates that the eating of Jesus is not a literal task, despite tying in the literal example of the Israelites eating manna. No transubstantiated communion wafers are required for Salvation.

John's message of Jesus' message here is that you need to seek out Jesus with the same level desire and necessity that you do your daily nourishment, if not greater, because then you will be rewarded with eternal life. Presumably, because John wanted to make Jesus appear other-worldly, or somewhat cloaked in divine mystery and possessing a higher knowledge, he instead chooses to butcher a message which could have written so simply that anyone could have understood it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Walking on Fluid Myth

John the Baptist was beheaded, and/or Jesus gave some circular logic to the Pharisees, leading into the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand men with just a little bread and two fish, which unites all four Gospel accounts. But only for an instant. Matthew, Mark, and John continue on together, while Luke skips the following tale entirely.

Walking on Fluid Myth
Give a man enough rope, and he will hang himself. That common proverb I take to mean that if you let a guilty man continue to speak and act, he will incriminate himself. The same could be said of the Scriptures, and the guilt is that they have been constructed from fiction as opposed to the facts which they claim to have. Often times, this can become obvious with just the smallest amount of scrutiny, such as we see in the anecdote of Jesus walking on the water. Of course, it is also possible that this truth was not meant to be factual, so we will conclude with a slightly different perspective to make it real again.

The anecdote of Jesus walking on the water is found in Matthew 14:22-36, Mark 6:45-56, and John 6:16-24. They are all a little different, as you might expect from three different witnesses, but the differences are a little too divergent to be the tales of actual witnesses. Let us take a look, one by one, starting with Mark.

Mark 6:45-47 states that "immediately" after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus sent His disciples on a boat on the Sea of Galilee to head towards Bethsaida in the evening. Meanwhile, He dismissed the crowd and prayed on a mountain top. Next, in Mark 6:48-50:
He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night He went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw Him walking on the lake, they thought He was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw Him and were terrified... NIV
So Jesus was walking on the water; quite a miracle! Consider that walking on anything requires some serious physics; namely "normal" force and friction.

Gravity keeps you on the surface where you are walking, but that surface also must hold you up, pushing you in a force equal and opposite to your weight. This force is known as the normal force in engineer-speak, which is impossible for water to do in a liquid state when it is free to be displaced, at least when we are speaking of a supporting a human foot at walking speed.

Friction is what prevents your feet from sliding out from underneath you when you walk and allows you to propel yourself forward. If you have ever tried to walk on ice, you know what happens when you have little friction. How much friction do you think the water of a lake has at its surface? Not much. Water does have considerable fluid friction which allows you to swim, but it is very difficult to swim just by skimming your hands across the surface.

I know, I know, it is a miracle, so physics do not apply. Yet they are still important to consider. Why? Because walking on water requires a complete abatement of physics. It is not that Jesus was magically lighter, or the surface of the water became solid for Him, it is that He was locomotive in an impossible manner for humans. So Jesus may as well have been flying out to them, flapping His arms like a bird, as opposed to walking.

Flying would have been a more logical transport method too, given that the verses tell us that strong winds were blowing which made the surface of the lake very rough (John 6:18). Assuming that Jesus did walk on the water, it must have been like trying to walk on a giant water bed which had an internal wave machine. It would have been a miracle just to stand upright in that tumult, let alone walk in a coherent fashion.

Physics aside, Mark has Jesus about ready to walk right by the disciples as they struggled in the boat! It appears that He would have done so too, if it was not for the fact that seeing Jesus scared the disciples enough to yell in fear.

Mark 6:50 continues on with Jesus calming down His disciples, leading to the next pair of interesting verses in Mark 6:51-52:
Then He climbed into the boat with [the disciples], and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. NIV
The "about the loaves" is a reference to the feeding of the five thousand. According to Mark, the disciples did not understand that the feeding was a miracle from God; that Jesus wielded the power of God and that they should have faith that God would provide for them. Why? Because their hearts were hardened. That is, the hearts of the disciples, the guys who had given up life to follow Jesus! Mark is the only Gospel to suggest that the hearts of the disciples were hard, doing so here and Mark 8:17.

It is hard to imagine that the disciples would have hard hearts keeping them from understanding Jesus' power and incarnation, given that, according to Mark, Jesus had previously exorcized a demon (who yelled that Jesus was Jesus was God's Holy One), healed many people including Simon's/Peter's mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-34), healed a leper, healed a paralytic man, healed a man with a shriveled hand (Mark 3:1-6), calmed a storm, sent demons into swine, and raised a girl from the dead. Beyond that, Jesus also had given the disciples power to drive out demons and heal people when they went out on their first mission!

The storm is immediately calmed when Jesus is in the boat. Mark 6:53-56 closes out the story with the boat landing, and people coming from all around to be healed by Jesus. Those who even only touched Jesus' cloak were healed as well.

In Matthew's version, Matthew does not mention Jesus being about ready to walk past His disciples, but other than that, the story is basically the same up to when Jesus approaches the boat (Matthew 14:22-27). Then it changes completely.

In Matthew 14:28-31, Simon/Peter calls out to Jesus, who then tells Peter to walk out to Him. Simon/Peter does start walking out, but then has doubts, sinks into the water, and yells for Jesus to save him. Jesus grabs Simon/Peter's arm and scolds him for doubting.

OK, so, it is important to remember that Simon/Peter was a fisherman who knew how to swim (Matthew 4:18, Mark 1:16, Luke 5:5, John 21:7). A fisherman afraid of drowning is about as likely as an eagle being afraid of heights. This little snippet seems to be utter fiction. The question is why?

The answer may come from Matthew 14:32-33. In bold contrast to the hardened hearts found in Mark's disciples, Matthew's disciples worship Jesus as the Son of God after He got back in the boat and the winds calmed down. It could be that Matthew had a copy of the story which was similar to Mark's, but he did not like the idea of the disciples having hard hearts. So instead, Matthew paints the scene as a budding of the faith of the disciples in Jesus.

Matthew 14:34-36 then concludes exactly like Mark 6:53-56.

John's version of the miracle is abbreviated, lacking details about the time bracket when Jesus came to His disciples, the hard hearts, Simon's/Peter's wet walk, and the generic healing miracles at the end of the tale, which is replaced by focus on the crowd which was left behind (John 6:22-24). This odd focus on the crowd left behind is a mark of fiction, because the eyewitnesses of the Gospel accounts were with Jesus. These differences will also come to mind a little later in this study.

John does add one more miracle, in that as soon as Jesus gets in the boat, it immediate appears on the shore where they were heading (John 6:21). (I need to get a Jesus installed into my car!)

It is interesting to note that Luke not only edited this anecdote completely out of his Gospel, but also went so far as to stage the feeding of the five thousand in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10) to avoid needing a boat trip. Perhaps Luke found this story a little too far fetched as well, or perhaps Jesus flaunting His power by working non-beneficial miracles was too far out of His character for Luke to accept.

A Different Perspective
There are some scholars throughout history which have claimed that the stories of the Gospels were never meant to be taken as literal history. Instead, they were supposed to be read as allegories. If so, we would expect for the stories to have some gaps in logic and incongruities within a literal context (which there are sometimes) and the appearance of symbolism (which there is sometimes). If so, the truth which they were meant to convey was transcendent of any specific, real event.

Consider that according to Matthew 14:25 and Mark 6:48, Jesus went out to His disciples during the fourth watch. In Roman security, there were four, three-hour watches for the night. So the fourth watch is the watch just before daybreak, just before sunrise, just before the epiphany of realization brought about through the light.

Jesus, after meditating in prayer alone (Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:46), came down to the disciples in a fully enlightened state, able to walk on water; water being a symbol of the fluidly transient spiritual world, as opposed to the solidity of the material world. In fact, Matthew 14:26 and Mark 6:49 even go as far as claiming the disciples thought Jesus was a true spirit, in the form of a ghost.

In Mark's version, the disciples are simply amazed, because, as the fourth watch time reference implies, they were on the cusp of enlightened, but not quite there yet. I suspect Matthew's scene with Simon/Peter was an insertion into the story by a later author who may not have been in tune with the allegory. However it could be that Matthew more specifically makes the case that the enlightenment regarded absolute faith in God, and that Simon/Peter was just shy of achieving it due to doubts creeping in.

The disciples had struggled to make any headway against the winds on the lake (Matthew 14:24, Mark 6:48), but when Jesus gets into the boat, the winds immediately calm down (Matthew 14:32, Mark 6:51). So the disciples, still very much as material men, struggled greatly to make progress on this spiritual journey by themselves. However, with Jesus, with the guidance of someone who had already attained this enlightenment, the journey became much easier.

You may have noticed a lack of references to John's account here. There are some critics who have suggested that the Gospel of John was written partially with the purpose of fighting the growing Gnostic movement, which had held to concepts that the message of Jesus was about enlightenment, and special knowledge had been attained by the disciples once they had attained a certain level of spiritual consciousness. Curiously, and in support of that theory, we find most of the spiritual enlightenment symbolism vacant from John; Jesus does not pray on the mountain, there is no reference to the fourth watch (and actually it appears as though it would be more like the young side of the middle of the night), there is no mention of Jesus being thought to be a ghost, and, finally, Jesus does not make the journey easier, He makes the journey over as soon as He gets in the boat. The spiritual message is effectively neutered.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Fishy Bread

Jesus was rejected in His hometown. Then He got more bad news, John the Baptist was beheaded. At least that is according to Matthew. Mark and Luke record that Jesus sent out the Twelve Apostles on their first mission and then relay the story of John the Baptist losing his head. John records Jesus snubbing some Pharisees with circular logic prior to this study, where all four Gospels then unite to tell the following fish tale.

Fishy Bread
How does a miracle happen? God makes it happen, of course. By that very nature, or super-nature, there certain details which we would not be expected to know about the execution of a miracle, yet other details would be obvious. For example, how did God part the sea during the Exodus? A strong wind blew throughout the night before, driving the sea back (Exodus 14:21). These mechanical details flesh out a miracle into something believable, but without them, miracles can seem a little suspect. Take the miraculous feeding of the 5000 men, for example.

Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-45, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15 all record the miracle in essentially the same way. Jesus has compassion on a bunch of people who have come to listen to His teaching and to be healed. He asks His disciples what food they have to share with the crowd, and they answer that they have five loves of bread and two fish. (John's version has the bread and fish being supplied by a little boy; apparently he was the only one smart enough to pack food for a trip.)

So, how did Jesus feed 5000 people with a little bread and even less fish? Matthew 14:19-20 records it essentially the same as Mark 6:41-43 and Luke 9:16-17:
And He directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to Heaven, He gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. NIV
The question still remains; how did Jesus feed 5000 people with a little bread and even less fish? Sure, it was a miracle, but what happened exactly? Did the loaves and fishes multiply right when Jesus gave thanks? Did the little broken bits of bread grow before their eyes? Did it rain manna from Heaven? Did the disciples realize that there was magically more food they were distributing than there should have been?

We have three supposedly-different accounts of a miracle without one of them describing what actually happened. Is that strange to anyone else?

John's account makes a miracle possible. In John 6:11, we find:
Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. NIV
As you can see with John's version, it seems as though Jesus is the one distributing all of the food Himself. That fixes the problems of the disciples knowing exactly when the miracle happened and seeing the bread multiply.

However, John's version has its own issues. After the feeding, John reports that the people took to heart the miracle so much that they thought Jesus was the Prophet prophesied by Moses, and they wanted to make Him their king (John 6:14-15). Yet just a scant eleven verses later, Jesus claims that those very same people are only following Him for the free food (John 6:26)!

So miracle of the feeding of the 5000 has an odd lack of details in the Synoptic Gospels, while John appears to contradict himself, but the story is not over yet. Who could forget the later miraculous feeding of the 4000?

Matthew 15:29-39 and Mark 8:1-10 both record an additional miraculous feeding, this time of 4000 people. Yet again, both accounts leave out the details of how exactly the miracle happened (Matthew 15:36, Mark 8:6-7).

It is so very strange that all of the record of these two miracles lack what should have been the most memorable detail, namely the miracle part! I cannot help but wonder if there is an alternative explanation, a less miraculous origin; or if the miracle changed in the telling. Here is a theory:

Each of these accounts record how many basketfuls of food were collected after everybody ate (Matthew 14:20, Mark 6:43, Luke 9:17, John 6:13, Matthew 15:37, Mark 8:8). Jesus and His disciples were not working, but instead were traveling the country. They needed food. They needed to survive based on offerings from others. Perhaps the original miracle was the large quantity of food all of the people left behind for the disciples; in a sense it was God providing for them. Yet that was just not awesome enough, so very soon afterward the story got jazzed up Jesus multiplying the food, but poor literary vision prevented the author/editor from inserting the appropriate miraculous details.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Beheading a Legend

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
It is difficult to come up with a good, believable story. If you focus too much on the plot, the plausibility of the story can suffer as unreasoned details strike against the credibility of the tale. Take the beheading of John the Baptist, for example.

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.