Mark 6:17-29 The Beheading of John the Baptist


Mark 6:17-29


In a grisly reprise of court scenes from the Old Testament, Herod orders the execution of John the Baptist.


As pointed out in his first appearance at the beginning of the Gospel, Mark goes to great lengths to connect John the Baptist to the prophets of the Old Testament. Those connections continue through the end of John’s life at the hands of Herod.

To set the stage for John’s unrighteous execution, Mark borrows elements from the court scenes of the Old Testament. These are scenes, such as the writing on the wall (Daniel 5) and Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6) in which kings act shamefully. Mark uses this motif to lampoon Herod. First of all, he sarcastically calls Herod “king,” even though Herod was only a tetrarch, the ruler of a fourth of a kingdom. Mark ridicules Herod for being “greatly perplexed” by John, but listening to him anyway (6:20). In parallel with other court scenes, Herod backs himself into a corner by swearing a ridiculous oath to give the daughter of Herodias whatever she asks, including half his kingdom. When she asks for John the Baptist’s head, Herod is so concerned by what his party guests will think that he orders John’s execution even though he “feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man” (6:20).

Mark’s version of the court scene, however, contains a grisly twist. In the other court scenes, for example Daniel in the lions’ den or the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:8-30), God miraculously intervenes. No rescue comes for John the Baptist; as with other prophets such as Isaiah, he loses his life for preaching the word of God in the face of earthly tyranny.