Did Herod want John the Baptist dead?

Posted on Feb.04, 2009. Filed in Matthew, Mark. Average rating: 4.2 / 10 (Rate It).

Both Matthew and Mark tell the story of the death of John the Baptist. Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. John condemned the marriage, and so Herod had him imprisoned. Then Herodias’s daughter so pleased Herod when she danced at a feast that Herod promised her anything she wanted. She asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and John was duly beheaded.

All of this is in both accounts. The two accounts disagree, however, concerning why it was that Herod hadn’t already had John killed.

According to Matthew, Herod wanted John the Baptist dead, and the only reason that he refrained from killing him was fear of the crowd:

For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. [Matthew 14:3-5 (NRSV)]

Mark, on the other hand, says that although Herod had had John arrested, it was his wife Herodias that wanted him killed. Herod himself knew that John was righteous and holy, and liked to listen to him. Far from wanting John the Baptist dead, Herod protected him:

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. [Mark 6:17-20 (NRSV)]

So did Herod want John the Baptist dead but refrain from killing him from fear of the crowd, or did he know that John was righteous and holy and so protect him from Herodias?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    Mark 6:17’s description of Herod arresting John “on account of Herodias” is a little unclear, and how we read it matters.

    If it means that Herod arrested John at the instigation of Herodias, then the passage as a whole does consistently present Herod as John’s protector. It would then be difficult to harmonise Mark with Matthew, where Herod wants John dead, because there would be no evidence in Mark of Herod being hostile to John (but plenty of evidence to the contrary).

    If it means that Herod arrested John because of Herodias, i.e. that Herodias was the reason for but not the instigator of the arrest, then the arrest can be read as evidence of Herod being hostile to John. The idea that in both accounts Herod wants John dead but doesn’t kill him for political reasons would then look more plausible.

  2. 2

    At verse 6:26, Mark continues to create the impression that Herod doesn’t want to kill John, by saying the he was “deeply grieved”.

    This makes more sense if he likes John – though admittedly Matthew hasn’t seen it that way, since he more or less copies the verse into his own account.

    I suppose you can say Herod was “grieved” that he had to upset the people…

  3. 3
    Virginia Boy

    Ok. There doesn’t have to be a problem here. The Matthew account does not necessarily say that ‘Wishing him (JB) to kill, he feared the crowd…etc.’ The greek verb ‘feared’, which is in the aorist passive indicative third person singular, could mean either ‘he feared’ or ‘she feared’. I vote for ‘she feared’ where the implied referent is Herodias, not Herod.

    There is nothing in the Matthew context to suggest Herod should be the referent. In fact, there is evidence in the context to support the fact that Herod did not wish to kill JB. Mark backs this up on several points.

    Note, fyi, that Herod feared JB, himself, ‘knowing him a man just and holy’, but it was Herodias, the blood lusting wife who feared the crowd. Herod didn’t fear the crowd because he was not planning on killing JB to begin with. It seems he liked the guy on a certain level.

    Hope you enjoyed my opinion.

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