14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17For 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. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for 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. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Jesus had been drawing a crowd, and word of his miracles had gotten out, no matter how many times he told people not to tell – still they couldn’t help it; they told others how this man had changed their lives! And then, the disciples as well were drawing crowds around the countryside. And the commotion in the countryside and villages attracted attention. And Herod heard about it.
Now the family of Herod was a complicated one. Herod the Great was the ruler when Jesus was born, a paranoid man obsessed with power. He was Idumean, not Jewish, but he ruled all of the area of Palestine under Roman authority. He sought to increase his authority with the Jews by marrying a Hasmonean princess (the Hasmoneans had been the last true Jewish kings), Mariamne, daughter of the high priest Simon. He had sons by other wives as well, Doris, Malthace, and finally, Cleopatra. But he suspected a coup by the Hasmoneans and had Mariamne, her brother, mother, and her sons (his own sons) killed. His son Antipater had a daughter, Herodias, who married her uncle Herod Philip I, who was the only surviving son of Mariamne, having gotten out of Judea to avoid his murderous father. He lived in Rome. Everyone expected Philip 1 to become king on Herod’s death, but that did not happen. Instead the nation was divided among “Tetrarchs”: Herod Antipas, who is the Herod mentioned here, ruled Galilee; Archeleaus ruled Judea; and Herod Philip II (son of Cleopatra) ruled Iturea and Traconitis. Herodias, who had married her uncle Philip I, expecting him to be king, found herself in Rome and out of touch with the power structures. When Herod Antipas came for a visit, she left her husband and married another uncle, who did have power. Judaic law allowed a man to divorce his wife simply by putting her out of the house and saying, “I divorce you” in public. There was no such provision for a woman to divorce her husband. (It was this inequity, and the plight of women put out of their only home with nothing, that Jesus was addressing when he made pronouncements against divorce.) The family of Herod, however, did whatever they wanted, and Herodias divorced one uncle and married another in her search for power.
John the Baptist preached openly about the sinful ways of the Herod family, especially accusing Herod Antipas of adultery for having his brother’s wife. (No one seemed concerned that she was also his niece!) Herodias became angry – how dare this prophet go around claiming she was a sinner!! She prevailed upon Antipas to arrest John, which he did. He had refused, however, to have him killed. He found the things he said intriguing, although frightening, and he would listen to him now and then. He believed he was a man of God and was afraid to have him killed.
And then Herod gave a great banquet and all the nobles and leaders of the tetrarchy were there. Herodias’ daughter, Salome, came and danced for the group. Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about the dance – although, somehow one doubts it was a ballet! At the end, Herod Antipas was so pleased he offered his step-daughter anything up to half the kingdom. And before all the nobles and dignitaries gathered there he swore an oath to give her whatever she asked. The moral here is don’t make promises when you don’t know what you might be promising! Salome went out and asked her mother what to ask for, and Herodias pronounced the death sentence on John the Baptist. This was the opportunity she had been waiting for! And so, Salome went back into the banquet hall and asked for the head of John the Baptist. I can almost see Herod’s face turning pale, but he knew he could not get out of it – after all he had sworn in front of all these dignitaries. And so, he had John killed and his head brought to Salome on a platter, and she presented it to her mother, and John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
But when Herod heard of a great teacher going around Galilee and Judea preaching and baptizing, he was certain the man he had killed had come back to haunt him, and he was afraid.
Mark took a diversion from his story of Jesus to tell the story of what happened to John the Baptist. It would affect Jesus – he would grieve the loss, but expand his ministry. This diversion comes in the middle of the mission of the disciples – they return in the next passage.