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Saturday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time. The reading is from Gospel of Matthew 14:1-12.

The Death of John the Baptist – Matthew 14:1-12

At that time Herod the tetrarchb heard of the reputation of Jesus and said to his servants,

“This man is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why mighty powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John, bound [him], and put him in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, for John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”

Although he wanted to kill him, he feared the people, for they regarded him as a prophet.

But at a birthday celebration for Herod, the daughter of Herodias performed a dance before the guests and delighted Herod so much that he swore to give her whatever she might ask for.

Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”

The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests who were present, he ordered that it be given, and he had John beheaded in the prison.

His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who took it to her mother.

His disciples came and took away the corpse and buried him; and they went and told Jesus.

Herod the tetrarch

Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who is known for his expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem that is sometimes referred to as Herod’s Temple. When the latter died, his territory was divided among three of his surviving sons, Archelaus who received half of it, Herod Antipas who became ruler of Galilee and Perea, and Philip who became ruler of northern Transjordan. Since Antipas received a quarter of his father’s domain, he is accurately designated tetrarch or “ruler of a fourth [part].”

The murder of the Baptist by Herod Antipas prefigures the death of Jesus. Here is the Marcan source.

The Death of John the Baptist – Mark 6:14-29

Salome Oil on Canvas by Leon Herbo, 1889

King Herod heard about it [The Mission of the Jesus’ Twelve Apostles], for his [Jesus’] fame had become widespread, and people were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead; that is why mighty powers are at work in him.”

Others were saying, “He is Elijah”; still others, “He is a prophet like any of the prophets.”

But when Herod learned of it, he said, “It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.”

Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.

John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.

Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.

She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday, gave a banquet for his courtiers, his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee.

Herodias’s own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.

The king said to the girl, “Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”

He even swore [many things] to her, “I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom.”

She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”

She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”

The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request, “I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”

The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.

So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head. He went off and beheaded him in the prison.

He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl. The girl in turn gave it to her mother.

When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

In Mark Herod reveres John as a holy man and the desire to kill him is attributed to Herodias

  • Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6:19, 20)

whereas in Matthew that desire is Herod’s from the beginning

  • Although he wanted to kill him, he feared the people, for they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 14:5).

Also, the union of Herod Antipas and Herodias was prohibited by Judaic law.

  • You shall not have intercourse with your brother’s wife; that would be a disgrace to your brother. (Leviticus 18:16)
  • If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is severe defilement and he has disgraced his brother; they shall be childless. (Leviticus 20:21)

Herod imprisoned and then executed John because he feared that the Baptist’s influence over the people might enable him to lead a rebellion.

Herodias

Herodias was not the wife of Herod’s half-brother Philip as written by both Mark and Matthew

  • Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. (Mark 6:17)
  • Now Herod had arrested John, bound [him], and put him in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, (Matthew 14:3)

but she was the wife of another half-brother, Herod Boethus.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus describes in his Jewish antiquities the destruction of the army of the Jewish leader Herod Antipas. Many people thought that this was a divine punishment, because Antipas had ordered the execution of a just man, John the Baptist. Here is the story as told be Josephus.

Herod Antipas and Aretas (the king of Arabia Petres) had a quarrel. Antipas had married Phasaelis, the daughter of Aretas, and had lived with her a great while.

Once at Rome, Antipas lodged with Herod Boethus, his half-brother, the son of Herod the Great and Mariamne II, the daughter of Simon Boethus the High Priest. Since he was the grandson of the high priest Simon Boethus he was known as Herod Boethus.

There in Rome, Antipas fell in love with Herodias, the wife of Herod Boethus.

Herodias was was the daughter of Aristobulus IV (half-brother of Herod Antipas and Herod Boethus) and the Hasmonean princess Mariamne I and half-sister of Agrippa the Great.

Antipas asked Herodias to come and live with him and she agreed on condition that he should divorce Phasaelis, Aretas’ daughter.

So Antipas agreed to her terms and returned home. But his wife Phasaelis came to know of the promise he had made to Herodias. So, without informing him of her intentions, she asked him to send her to Macherus, which was subject to her father. Antipas gladly allowed her to go unaware that his wife had perceived his deceit.

Phasaelis met her father, and told him of Herod’s intentions. This added fuel to the flame of enmity between Aretas and Herod, who had earlier quarrelled about their borders.

So both Antipas and Areta raised armies and joined battle. Herod’s army was completely destroyed.

  • Now some of the 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; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. (Josephus – Antiquities 18, 5, 2)

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