Matthew Chapter 14:1-12

This chapter begins with the story of the death of John the Baptist. As with other of Mark’s long stories, Matthew abbreviates to some extent. Granted, at first glance, this may seem to contradict my contention that stories get longer, not shorter, as legends grow. But recall John’s earlier appearance: it was much longer than what we found in Mark. There is where the legend grew. This part of the story was likely well-enough known that the full details did not need to be repeated. That may seem contradictory, but it’s the legend of Jesus that was growing. In the Baptist’s earlier appearance, he became much more closely attached to the message of Jesus; for the evangelists, that is the part that matters. This story was complete when it came to Mark; it did not involve Jesus. As such, there was no reason to extend it as happened with the earlier part of John’s story.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that Josephus tells a story that agrees in general outline. He says that John was executed for proclaiming that Herod’s marriage to Herodias, the widow of the tetrarch’s brother, was illegitimate, just as Matthew (and Mark before him) reports here. Josephus also agrees that John was respected, if not revered, as a holy man by the people at large; however, Josephus does not tell us about Salome dancing. This makes one wonder where this part of the story came from, and who first told it. Is there any factual basis? The Salome element makes this feel a lot like a morality play, so my initial reaction is towards skepticism; but that’s my default reaction. I always disbelieve first, and then see if the weight of the evidence is sufficient to persuade otherwise.

1 Ἐν ἐκείνῳ τῷ καιρῷ ἤκουσεν Ἡρῴδης ὁ τετραάρχης τὴν ἀκοὴν Ἰησοῦ,

2 καὶ εἶπεν τοῖς παισὶν αὐτοῦ, Οὗτός ἐστιν Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστής: αὐτὸς ἠγέρθη ἀπὸ τῶν νεκρῶν, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο αἱ δυνάμεις ἐνεργοῦσιν ἐν αὐτῷ.

In that season, Herod the Tetrarch heard the hearing (repute) of Jesus. (2) And he said to all his servants, “He is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead, and because of this the miracles operate in him”.

I believe we’ve discussed the term “tetrarch”. It means “four rulers”, or conversely, “ruler of a fourth” (as in kingdom). After the death of Herod the Great just before the turn to the Common Era, there were disturbances in Judea as different candidates sought to succeed Herod. As a consequence, the Emperor Augustus eliminated the title of “King”. He divided Herod’s kingdom into four parts, the ruler of each called a tetrarch. This Herod was given the portion that included Galilee.

One thing that seems odd is that Herod is saying this to all his servants. The word used is literally “child”. We came across this in the story of the Centurion; in that case, “servant” seemed to make sense. It likely does here, too. What is interesting is that Herod is talking to his servants, or his attendants. Maybe “advisers” is the best word. It may be that this word is used in distinction with “slave”, perhaps to indicate members of the household as opposed to slaves who labour in a more physical capacity. I don’t know that this is the nuance intended, but here the sense would be “members of the household”. That is, those with whom he interacted most often.

Claiming that Jesus was the resurrected John was, obviously, a way of connecting the two. If later followers were embarrassed by Jesus’ apparent subservience to John, this part of the story could easily have been omitted. But, rather than being embarrassed, my contention is that the followers of Jesus were responsible for coming up with this line. It not only connected the two, but it put Jesus into the superior position as the one who superseded the other. And it mentions that Jesus performed wonders, something that John was never credited with doing.

It’s worth noting that Josephus told a longer story about John than he did about Jesus. On the face of it, this would indicate that Josephus considered John to be more important than Jesus. This is significant because Josephus wrote towards the end of the end of the First Century, probably after Matthew, which means that John was still a significant figure two generations after his death. This provides good reason, it would seem, for Jesus followers to want to associate Jesus with John. And here, I think, is the best place we can see that desire. First, Jesus = John, then by implication, Jesus > John, which would be an attractive feature for John’s followers. That the nascent Christians would want to attract John’s followers is not unusual–especially if we remember that this story first appeared in Mark, when the number of Jews joining the Jesus movement would still be significant. That the story was retained by Matthew, and even Luke, and then told by Josephus demonstrates that the cult of the Baptist had certainly not disappeared, and perhaps had not even waned all that much. That there was a second revolt of the Jews in 132 may show us why John’s cult proved resilient.    

Here is another bit of speculation. What if Aslan was right, but about the wrong figure? What if it was John who was the Zealot? This has, to the best of my knowledge, never been suggested. One major reason is that John is genarally considered to have been associated the Essenes. This group, of course, was the sect that left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls. They had withdrawn into the desert, just as later Christians would do throughout Europe, following the Rule of St Benedict. In truth, however, this association of John with the Essenes is based on the description in the gospels that John lived an ascetic life in the desert. That is, there is just as much evidence to say that John was an Essene as there is to say he was a zealot: none. This, however, refers to direct evidence. Josephus does say that one reason Herod killed John was the former’s fear that the Dunker would foment rebellion. 

This statement does a number of things, but they are probably best left to the discussion of the reason given for Jesus’ execution. Call this a teaser.

1 In illo tempore audivit He rodes tetrarcha famam Iesu

2 et ait pueris suis: “Hic est Ioannes Baptista; ipse surrexit a mortuis, et ideo virtutes operantur in eo”.

3 Ὁ γὰρ Ἡρῴδης κρατήσας τὸν Ἰωάννην ἔδησεν [αὐτὸν] καὶ ἐν φυλακῇ ἀπέθετο διὰ Ἡρῳδιάδα τὴν γυναῖκα Φιλίππου τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ:

4 ἔλεγεν γὰρ ὁ Ἰωάννης αὐτῷ, Οὐκ ἔξεστίν σοι ἔχειν αὐτήν.

For Herod overpowering John bound him and put him away under guard because Herodias the wife of Philipp his (Herod’s) brother. (4) For John said to him (Herod) “It is not worthy for you to have her”. 

Josephus also attests this. However, Josephus wrote ten years after Matthew, and a full generation after Mark. At least, we can say that Josephus corroborates what Mark/Matthew have said, that this was the commonly-understood explanation for John’s arrest. I seriously doubt that Josephus would have gotten the account from one of the gospels. Yes, it’s possible, but unlikely.

3 Herodes enim tenuit Ioannem et alligavit eum et posuit in carcere propter Herodiadem uxorem Philippi fratris sui.

4 Dicebat enim illi Ioannes: “ Non licet tibi habere eam ”.

5 καὶ θέλων αὐτὸν ἀποκτεῖναι ἐφοβήθη τὸν ὄχλον, ὅτι ὡς προφήτην αὐτὸν εἶχον.

And wishing to kill him he feared the crowd, that as a prophet they held him. 

This literally says they “held” him. So the idiom is not peculiar to English.

We are told Herod feared the crowd, so he did not kill John. But then, he does kill John. This is where Josephus claims that a defeat suffered by Herod in battle was his just desserts for having killed John, whom they held to be a holy man. In the final analysis, however, Herod did kill John, so we have to ask whether this assessment of Herod’s motive is valid, or accurate. The execution, according to Josephus, occurred in the fortress of Macherus, well away from the pressing crowd. So this imputed fear was hardly an insuperable obstacle preventing the execution. I mention this because fear also supposedly the reason the religious authorities did not act openly against Jesus; they, too, we are told, feared the crowd. But both men were executed, regardless.

In the case of Jesus, the motivation and explanation is a bit more subtle. In Jesus’ death, Mark (and those who followed his reasoning, which is all the other evangelists) had to simultaneously put the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jewish authorities and come up with a reason why they didn’t carry out the deed directly. For this, fear of the crowd served as an excuse, to the point that it’s also said of John. And yet, this fear is not mentioned by Josephus (nor is the dance of Salome), who says that John was bundled off to Macherus and killed. To be fair, Herod could be said to have killed John from fear of the crowd–fear that John would use the crowd to revolt; but that is not the implication here. Here we are told Herod feared the crowd if he were to let John live; he did not fear to kill John.  So John’s death was a pre-emptive strike, as it were. 

The final point of interest is calling John a prophet. I’ve been reading some stuff of James Tabor: his blog and I’ve started The Jesus Dynasty. Per Dr/Prof Tabor, being called a “prophet” is the highest compliment that could paid to an individual among Jews. (In Greece, the supreme epithet was “Lawgiver”.) So the reverence of John was great; or so we are told. This hearkens back to the end of the last chapter, in which Jesus is said to have said that “a prophet is not without honour, except in his home land”. The use of “prophet” then puts that comment squarely into the context of “mainstream” Judaism of the time. That is, Jesus is a Jewish prophet, but not the Christian–or, really, pagan–Christ. So this reinforces, I believe, my contention that the story about the home town is early, one that came down to Mark, and one that either pre-dated, or more likely ran parallel to the  Christ tradition. As such, it’s a good indication that the association of Jesus with Nazareth had not happened yet since the name of the town is not mentioned in the story where it would have been most appropriate.

5 Et volens illum occidere, timuit populum, quia sicut prophetam eum habebant.

6 γενεσίοις δὲ γενομένοις τοῦ Ἡρῴδου ὠρχήσατο ἡθυγάτηρ τῆς Ἡρῳδιάδος ἐν τῷ μέσῳ καὶ ἤρεσεν τῷ Ἡρῴδῃ,

7 ὅθεν μεθ’ ὅρκου ὡμολόγησεν αὐτῇ δοῦναι ὃ ἐὰν αἰτήσηται.

Having become the (day of) the becoming of Herod (his birthday, IOW), danced the daughter of Herodias in the (their) midst and it was pleasing to Herod. (7) When with oaths he promised to give to her what she wanted.

As mentioned above, there is none of this in Josephus. Thus, we must ask why. Either Josephus did not know the story, or he chose to leave it out. Recall that the tale of the death of the Baptist is related as the reason for Herod’s military defeat. We all know where the story is going; Herod wasn’t “pleased”; he was aroused. As such, this reflects really badly on Herod, and it’s pretty salacious as well. Josephus is not exactly a partisan of Herod, so he has no reason to suppress this part of the story to preserve Herod’s reputation. Plus, the salacious aspect would have been, I think, and inducement to Josephus to include it.

So if he likely would have included it had he known about it, chances are he didn’t know about it. This, in turn, implies two things: 1) that Josephus was not familiar with NT writings. This shouldn’t surprise us. These writings were probably not known outside the circle of Christians. And 2) that this story was restricted to the NT. That is, it was not in common circulation, where Josephus would have come across it in his “research”, whatever this consisted of. From there, it’s a pretty short step to conclude–or at least infer–that this aspect of the story was restricted to the NT because the authors of the NT invented this part of the story. It may have been Mark who did so, but this is one of the set-pieces–the Gerasene demonaic is another–that feel like Mark received and transmitted them as a whole. Just because it “feels” like this does not prove that this is true. Conversely, even if Mark did receive as a unit, this does not demonstrate that the story is true, either. The passion story probably came to Mark more or less as we get it, but that doesn’t mean it’s true, in the sense of historically accurate.

So this part–the dancing–was concocted. Why? To discredit Herod. Who had motive to do this? Lots of people, but the Baptist’s disciples would be the prime candidate. Thus, was this entire story created by followers of John? With the salacious details added to make Herod seem like a weak man? This is entirely possible, and has the ring of plausibility as well. What implications does this theory carry? One is that the followers of Jesus were communicant with the followers of John, if only indirectly. Another is that the followers of John & Jesus were creating their own particular historical traditions. Of course, we don’t know–can’t know, given present evidence–the actual factuals; it could be that the story presented here is how it all went down. But I doubt it, for reasons I’ll get to shortly.

6 Die autem natalis Herodis saltavit filia Herodiadis in medio et placuit Herodi,

7 unde cum iuramento pollicitus est ei dare, quodcumque postulasset.

8 ἡ δὲ προβιβασθεῖσα ὑπὸ τῆς μητρὸς αὐτῆς, Δός μοι, φησίν, ὧδε ἐπὶ πίνακι τὴν κεφαλὴν Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ.

9 καὶ λυπηθεὶς ὁ βασιλεὺς διὰ τοὺς ὅρκους καὶ τοὺς συνανακειμένους ἐκέλευσεν δοθῆναι,

She (the daughter) having been led on by her mother, “Give me”, she said, “upon a platter the head of John the Baptist. (9) And being vexed the king on account of the oaths and those reclining at meal ordered it (the head) to be given.  

Here’s where this starts to smell a bit. Herod, that weak man, so inflamed with lust by the dancing of his wife’s daughter, makes a rash promise and then is caught by the wiles of this same wife. So not only is he weak in the restraint of his lust, he’s weak in being able to run his own show without the interference of his wife. So the end result is that this starts sounding like a morality play. In Josephus, Herod is the mover, the one who decides to bundle John off to the fort of Macherus–away from the beaten path, away from the crowd, and execute John. Here, Herod is make to look like a bumbling fool, a victim of his appetites. Which is the more accurate picture? It’s very difficult to say.

There is one point to make here. Recall that after his baptism, Jesus seemed to use the arrest of John as the spur to begin his public ministry. But the interesting thing is that Jesus left the area where John was baptizing and returned to Galilee. It has been intimated time and again that Jesus went to Galilee because Herod had arrested John. But Herod was tetrarch of Galilee. So if Jesus were afraid of Herod, why not go somewhere Herod’s power didn’t reach? Retiring to Galilee makes little sense on the face of it if he were afraid of Herod. And what does that tell us about this episode? Anything? 

Perhaps not directly, but put the two of them together, and we may have something. The result of Story 1 + Story 2 = an indication that historical consistency was not a major consideration for the evangelists. They told the story they had, without really worrying whether it all made historical sense. This, in turn, indicates that Mark and the other evangelists were indeed piecing together different pieces from different places. The gospels are, likely, a patchwork rather than a unified narrative. The evangelists put together what they encountered, whether it fit all that well or not. This, I believe, helps explain the lack of narrative unity in Mark, where a large–a very large–number of verses start abruptly with “and”, or perhaps “then”. Matthew here is somewhat better, but I’ve pointed to a number of what I believe feel like non-sequiturs, where bits are sort of strung together regardless of whether they fit.

And this, in turn, has a further implication. If we note, Matthew has more stories than Mark. Luke has an entire panoply stories over and above what Matthew has. Even if we concede Q, how do we explain all the stories that are in Luke, but not Matthew? And then there’s John, who has an entirely different repertoire of tales that do not appear in any of the other gospels. No, what is happening is that the tradition about Jesus is growing. New things are being made up. Mary Magdalene is a great example. We have heard nothing about her in Matthew. She only showed up at the very end of Mark, in a piece that may have been tacked on, even if by the evangelist. And yet, as time passes, we know more and more about her: Jesus had cast out seven devils from her, in some otherwise unknown exorcism. Then she becomes a prostitute (based, as far as I can tell, on no real textual evidence). The tradition is growing, it’s feeding on itself. This is why so much of the later tradition is wholly untrustworthy. We have Peter and Paul in Rome, based solely on the word of the author of Luke/Acts, the same author who did not scruple to create the blood-relationship between Jesus and the Baptist, which is another wholly new “fact” that we are given, one that has been swallowed whole by generations of “historians of the NT”. I started reading a book by James Tabor, and he essentially takes the whole narrative of the gospels as credible history. The point here is that, when looked at, the NT narratives are not internally consistent when compared against each other, or even within a single gospel. The NT is not history; we cannot compile the narrative “facts” from the different gospels and create a unified story. Rather, a closer examination of the structure shows how fragmented each gospel is. 

8 At illa, praemonita a matre sua: “ Da mihi, inquit, hic in disco caput Ioannis Baptistae ”.

9 Et contristatus rex propter iuramentum et eos, qui pariter recumbebant, iussit dari

10 καὶ πέμψας ἀπεκεφάλισεν [τὸν] Ἰωάννην ἐν τῇ φυλακῇ:

11 καὶ ἠνέχθη ἡ κεφαλὴ αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ πίνακι καὶ ἐδόθη τῷ κορασίῳ, καὶ ἤνεγκεν τῇ μητρὶ αὐτῆς.

12 καὶ προσελθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἦραν τὸ πτῶμα καὶ ἔθαψαν αὐτό[ν], καὶ ἐλθόντες ἀπήγγειλαν τῷ Ἰησοῦ.

And sending (as in sending word), he beheaded John in the gaol. (11) And the head was carried upon a platter and given to the girl, and (she) gave it to her mother. (12) And coming, his (John’s) disciples took up the body and buried him, and coming the announced (this) to Jesus.

The most striking thing about these three verses is the last half of the last verse: “They announced (this) to Jesus”. It’s remarkable because it’s not in Mark. Overall, Matthew shortened the story, to the point of leaving out the name of Salome. (Whether this was actually her name, of course, is a different matter. This was a common family name of the women in the Herodian family; if this was the daughter of Herodias and her first husband–Herod’s brother–then it’s entirely plausible. This, of course, would make her Herod’s blood-niece.) And yet, as he has done in other places, Matthew has shortened the story, but added to it at the same time.

First, let’s ask what it means that Mark did not include this. In large part the implication–from the historian’s point of view–is that Mark did indeed receive this as a set-piece story, a complete whole. Mark simply inserted it where he deemed appropriate, without making any real attempt to integrate it. He did this because the Baptist was of interest to the followers of Jesus, but he wasn’t an integral part of the story as he would become in Luke, where he and Jesus were cousins. This reinforces what I said in the previous comment about the fragmentary nature of the gospel narratives: they were bits and pieces of tales that were strung together like beads.

This latter is certainly true in Mark, but it’s also true in Matthew, but in a different manner. Here, Matthew does attempt to integrate this story a little more effectively by adding this last line. Of course, this addition has other implications, which we’ll discuss in a moment. But it means that Matthew took some more concern to dress the component stones a little more neatly to make the fit tighter. He took a higher view of the idea of narrative: a continuous flow set out in something like a logical, or an organic order. So this addition of the last half of the last verse ties John more effectively into the overall story by letting us know John and Jesus were connected, rather than leaving John sort of hanging out there by himself, a sort of interlude between the sending and the return of the apostles as this story was in Mark. Even with this concern for narrative flow, however, the joins in Matthew are still there. He gathers like pieces together; this is the creation of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Matthew collects many of the attributed aphorisms and teachings of Jesus into a single place. This is the “masterful arrangement” that makes Q a logical necessity in the opinion of too many scholars. And we saw the same thing in the previous chapter, where Matthew aggregates basically all of the parables of the kingdom that he’s heard. That they are omitted by Luke is perhaps more a testament to Luke’s judgement than anything. Luke had his own theory of narrative, which we will look at when we get there. But back to Matthew, even this method of aggregation shows the welds. Story or aphorism follow each other, no matter how abrupt the transition. In those places–even in the Sermon on the Mount–we can feel that this is beadwork.

Superficially, the addition of the last half of Verse 12 does connect the two stories, putting the death of John into context in the overall narrative. But it does one other thing, and I do not believe this is accidental. It tells us that Jesus would want to know about John’s death, and that John’s disciples understand this about Jesus. That is, it shows that the two groups are still connected in some way, that there is communication and mutual interest between them. This is a splendid example of the legend growing. Bits are added, not forgotten. Salome’s name is not important, but this contact between the two groups is. Matthew chose to stress this. Remember, he had Mark; he would have known that Mark did not say this. Ergo, the addition was a deliberate choice on Matthew’s part. He chose to add this because he wanted to stress the connection between John and Jesus. Ten or more years after Matthew, Josephus would tell of John’s death, too, so the story was still popular, or at least carried some general interest. So this is why Matthew included it, but Matthew takes it a step further by insisting that the groups were still connected.

This has been my position throughout: that, far from being embarrassed by the “subservience” of Jesus to John, the evangelists were eager to promote the connection between the two. Matthew takes decided steps to re-arrange the hierarchy by clearly putting Jesus at the peak, but he does not want to downplay the relationship between them. Just the opposite: he wants to emphasize it.

10 misitque et decollavit Ioannem in carcere;

11 et allatum est caput eius in disco et datum est puellae, et tulit matri suae.

12 Et accedentes discipuli eius tulerunt corpus et sepelierunt illud et venientes nuntiaverunt Iesu.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on August 2, 2015, in Chapter 14, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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