Meier on the Death of John the Baptist

For my write-up today on volume 2 of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, I will talk about Meier’s discussion of Mark 6:17-29, which concerns the death of John the Baptist.  In Mark 6:17-29, John is put in jail for denouncing the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodias, who was the wife of Herod Antipas’ brother Philip.  At Herod’s birthday party, Herodias’ daughter dances before Herod, who then offers to give her whatever she asks.  After consulting with her mother, Herodias’ daughter requests the head of John the Baptist.  And so John the Baptist is beheaded.

In Antiquities 18, Chapter 5, however, Josephus says something different.  Josephus states that Herod Antipas had John the Baptist arrested because Herod Antipas recognized John’s popularity and feared that John would launch a revolt against him. Josephus mentions this in the context of his discussion of a dispute between Herod Antipas and the Nabatean King Aretas IV.  Josephus states that Herod Antipas divorced his first wife, the daughter of Aretas IV, in order to marry Herodias, and that a territorial dispute then broke out between Herod Antipas and Aretas IV.  When Aretas destroyed Herod Antipas’ army, Josephus relates, there were devout Jews who maintained that God was punishing Herod Antipas for killing John the Baptist.

While Mark says that John the Baptist was arrested for criticizing Herod Antipas’ marriage of Herodias, Josephus states that Herod Antipas had John arrested out of fear that John would start an insurrection.  Meier discusses scholars who have attempted to harmonize Mark with Josephus.  According to these scholars, Herod Antipas probably interpreted John’s criticism of his marriage to Herodias as a challenge to his political authority.  Herod Antipas’ borders were being threatened by Aretas on account of Herod Antipas’ decision to marry Herodias.  Moreover, there were Jews in Herod Antipas’ realm who most likely “were offended by a ‘liberated’ Hellenistically educated Herodian princess taking the initiative in divorcing her first husband to marry his half-brother” (page 174).  In short, John the Baptist’s moral concern had political ramifications, especially in a time when Herod Antipas’ marriage to Herodias was resulting in “the possibility of war on the border and unrest at home” (page 174).  For Herod Antipas, according to some scholars, John the Baptist’s criticism of Herod Antipas’ marriage to Herodias had the potential of causing an insurrection, meaning that Mark and Josephus are both right.

Meier does not buy into these scholars’ argument, however.  He says that, had Josephus known about John’s moral objection to Herod Antipas, he would have mentioned that rather than doing what he did: portray John as a potential political insurrectionist.  Josephus, after all, would not want to highlight to the Romans the revolutionary tendencies of a person he praised, John, if he had an alternative explanation for John’s arrest.  Meier also contends that Mark is historically-inaccurate on certain details.  We can see in Josephus’ Antiquities 18 that Herodias was not married to Herod Antipas’ brother Philip but rather to a half-brother of Herod Antipas named Herod.  The daughter of this Herod (Herod Antipas’ half-brother) and Herodias, Salome, was the one who married Philip. 

Meier does not agree with Christian commentators who speak of “Herod Philip” in an attempt to “save Mark from a glaring historical error” (page 172), and he tends to accept Josephus’ account over that of Mark, for Josephus demonstrates more detailed knowledge about Herod’s family, and Meier thinks it more likely that Mark got some of the names mixed-up than that Josephus goofed.  Moreover, Meier accepts Josephus’ claim that John was imprisoned at “the fortress Machaerus to the east of the Dead Sea” (Meier’s words on page 172) as opposed to Mark’s implication that John was imprisoned in Galilee, for Josephus was “well-informed about Machaerus” (page 173).

Meier maintains the story in Mark is folkloric because it echoes traditions from the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Ahab and Jezebel, the story of Esther, the martyrdom of the prophet).  Meier states on page 175: “Receiving a folkloric legend already remodeled as a pious account of a martyr’s unjust execution, Mark used the story for his own purposes.”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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