The Gendered Construction of Blame in the Gospel of Mark’s Account of John the Baptist’s death.

Aysha Winstanley Musa

(English Literature and Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield)

John the Baptist Beheaded (Mark 6:14-29)

1King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

15 Others said, “He is Elijah.”

And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”

16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled, yet he liked to listen to him.

21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.

The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

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

“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.

25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

 

This article argues that in Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s death, gender is constructed in a manner that presents the men in the narrative positively, opposed to the women who are presented negatively. Mark 6:14-29’s constructions of gender frame Herod and the Baptist as helpless victims of the women in the narrative, Herodias and her daughter, commonly named Salome.[1] In this narrative, the women are constructed as wielding power over the men. In light of such gendered constructions, this article also argues that the account of the death of John the Baptist, in the Gospel of Mark, is constructed rather than historically accurate.

Since Herod is the highest-ranking man in this narrative, in reality the power is in his hands.[2] Yet, here, the women are portrayed as powerful and it is they who have the power and the control and it is they who are presented as getting what they want. Their power appears to lie in their femininity, as it is because of a dance,[3] which “pleased Herod and his dinner guests,” that the Baptist’s death is requested and granted (Mk. 6:22-25). While the women are presented as powerful, such power is framed negatively as dangerous.[4]

The constructions of gender in this passage attribute blame for the death of the Baptist to the women, regardless that everyone in the passage can be viewed as carrying some of the blame. Herod could be held accountable as he sent the order to have John beheaded. Herodias could be blamed for suggesting the death of the Baptist, or similarly, Salome could be blamed for taking Herodias’ request to Herod. This article argues that even the guests at the banquet could be blamed for not speaking up as the life of an innocent man lay in the balance. Although all characters in the narrative carry blame, to some degree, and Herod takes responsibility for the death of the Baptist, “John, whom I [Herod] beheaded” (Mk. 6:16), the narrative frames the women as the ones who hold the blame. Similarly, commentators have readily blamed Salome and/or Herodias for the death of John.[5]

 

An interesting aspect of the construction of gender in this passage is the method of naming and referring to the characters. Herod is called King on a number of occasions even though he is not a king; he is the tetrarch[6] of Galilee.[7] Naming him as King elevates him to a position higher than his true rank. The same cannot be said for the women. Whereas Herod is elevated to King, his wife, Herodias, is not elevated alongside him as Queen, nor is her daughter named as a princess. Rather, the daughter, who this article understands as Salome, is not named in the account. She and her mother, the only women in the account, are predominantly referred to through the use of gendered terms such as “wife” and “mother,” when referring to Herodias, and “girl” and “daughter,” when referring to Salome. The result is that while Herod is elevated the women’s status are lessened.

Mark’s account states that Herod “protected” the Baptist from Herodias (Mk. 6:20), indicating that it was not Herod’s wish to see the Baptist dead. Herod is thus presented positively. He is a protector and presented as an ally of John’s, whereas Herodias is narrated as having “a grudge” against the Baptist and being in direct opposition to him.

Despite Herod’s protection, it is at his birthday banquet that Herod himself sends an executioner to kill John. Despite Herod’s major role in the Baptist’s death, Herod is framed as a protector and reluctant murderer; he is absolved by the narrator. Differently, while Herod, who sent his executioner, is absolved, Herodias is blamed by the narrator. She is framed as a devious woman waiting for “the opportune time” to kill the Baptist (Mk. 6:21), since he opposed her marriage to Herod.[8]

The Baptist’s death comes about as the reward for Salome’s dance which “pleased Herod and his dinner guests” (Mk. 6:22). No reason is given for why Salome danced at Herod’s banquet. Morna D. Hooker notes that, “In a society where it was considered improper for women to mix freely in male company, it may seem surprising that Salome should have performed in this manner.”[9] Commentators are widely in agreement that it is unusual, at best, for Salome, who is possibly Herod’s daughter, to dance for the banquet guests.

Since the narrative does not say who initiated Salome’s dance, it is possible Herod requested that Salome dance in return for a reward. If it was Herod’s request, it is likely to have been omitted from the narrative in order to prevent portraying Herod negatively. Since Maurice Casey argues that the role Salome filled, as dancer, is a role usually fulfilled by prostitutes or courtesans, Herod’s request would be omitted to avoid him appearing lecherous and perverse.[10] However, since there is no indication of who initiated Salome’s performance, the narrator tars Salome herself, and her mother, who benefits from the dance, with the negative connotations that result from a woman dancing in front of a room full of men, for their pleasure.

The construction of gender in Mark’s account of the Baptist’s death further incriminates the women in this narrative through its presentation of Salome’s request. Although the request for John’s death is Herodias’s, as Salome “said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she [Herodias] answered” (Mk. 6:24) and Herodias has been constructed as calculated due to her pursuing the Baptist’s death (Mk. 6:19) and waiting for the right time (Mk. 6:21), Salome, too, is incriminated. Salome seems to have little to gain, other than pleasing her mother. Herodias, through the Baptist’s death, not only achieves vengeance but also puts a stop to John’s vocal opposition to her marriage.

Despite the Baptist’s death being Herodias’s desire, which comes about due to her suggestion to Salome, the narrator frames the request as Salome’s. Salome is said to have “hurried in to the king with the request” (Mk. 6:25). Her eagerness is clear although unexplained. In addition, Salome does not simply pass on her mother’s request for “The head of John the Baptist,” but rather embellishes the request and worsens it through her additions. She asks for the Baptist’s head “on a platter,” “right now” (Mk. 6:25). Again, her eagerness is evident. Through the edits made to Herodias’s original request, the request becomes Salome’s too. Salome who could easily be framed as Herodias’s pawn, is framed as a partner in Herodias’s crime through voicing her own thoughts in the narrative.[11] Salome’s request for the head of the Baptist is not a passive request. Whereas she could ask for “the head of John the Baptist,” as a general request for his death, she instead demands that the head be given to her directly, “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Mk. 6:25).

Moreover, through having Salome make the request, Herodias remains behind the scenes, which makes her appear manipulative, devious and sly since she sends her daughter to do her dirty work.[12] Herodias’s underhanded nature is presented through the narrator’s insight that for Herodias “finally the opportune time came.” This indicates that Herodias’s request for the Baptist’s death is premeditated. It is possible that at the time this account was written, the public viewed Herodias as immoral and potentially dangerous. Such a view is suggested by the ancient historian, Josephus, who writes that Herodias was manipulative and ambitious.[13] While Josephus attributes the Baptist’s death to Herod, he blames Herodias for the eventual downfall of Herod.[14]

The construction of Salome and her request coupled with Herodias’s behind the scenes manipulations and premeditated murder removes all innocence from the women. They are framed as manipulative murderers, working in unison, in opposition to the helpless men, Herod and John.[15]

There is a clear distinction in the Markan account between the men’s and women’s roles. Even though it is Herod who is elevated to ‘king’ he appears to be helpless against the will of the women and must do what they wish for fear of disgracing his oath. Often oaths and vows were made in God’s name which is why Deuteronomy 23:23 makes a point of the importance of not going back on an oath, “Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the Lord your God with your own mouth.” Once again, Herod is presented positively since he stands by his oath despite not wanting to fulfil it. He is presented as a man who has fallen victim to the wickedness and manipulation of women.

Not only are Herod and John constructed as being helpless to the manipulation of women, they are also helpless to the women’s sexual charms. In the ancient world, women were often framed as sexual beings that lead men astray.[16] This is evident in ancient texts such as Sirach and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which say, “When you see a good-looking woman, look the other way… men have been led astray by a woman’s beauty… Don’t sit down to eat with another man’s wife or join her for a drink. You may give in to the temptation of her charms and be destroyed by your passion” (Sir. 9:8-9), women, due to their irresistible sexual allure, can even lead brave men and heroes astray.[17] Framing women as having this power over men results in a lack of responsibility on men’s part, for their actions. Men’s accountability is removed through framing them as helpless to women. Therefore, men are stripped of the consequences of their actions, resulting in their blamelessness and the demonisation of women.[18]

Herod’s oath is worth further attention as he is potentially unable to fulfil the oath he makes since it is not within his power. He is not a king, but a tetrarch.[19] He is under Roman rule and therefore cannot give away any land, certainly not half of it. Further, Herod’s oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom” stands out, as it draws attention to the numerous similarities between Mark’s account of the Baptist’s death and the Book of Esther. Herod’s oath is word-for-word the same as the oath in Esther 5:3. Other similarities include framing women as using their womanly charms to manipulate men, as Esther beautifies herself to gain the attention of the King and save her people (Est. 2:9). The banquet and the beheading of an innocent person are also similar features of both narratives. As the Baptist’s head is presented on a plate, so too is Vashti’s head (Est. R. 4:9, 11-12).[20]

The similarities between the Esther story and the Baptist’s beheading, coupled with the fact that Herod does not have the power to fulfil his oath, indicates that Mark’s account is not historically true, but a constructed narrative.[21]

James Crossley notes that at this time Christians were seen as subversive and insubordinate, possibly because of their belief in the coming of the Kingdom of God, as this would surely spell the end of Roman rule. One way the Roman Empire dealt with potential uprisings was to remove their leaders. Such fear of an uprising ultimately led to the crucifixion of Jesus as he was seen as a threat and could have possibly begun a rebellion. Therefore, it is not a great leap to argue that John the Baptist was killed by Herod, a Roman puppet ruler, for the same reason; to prevent a Christian uprising.[22]

It has been suggested that the early Christians did not want to be seen as having lost two of their greatest leaders, Jesus and John, to the Roman powers because of the political threat they posed. Therefore, the death of John the Baptist was re-written in a manner where the Baptist was killed because of his disagreement with the union of Herod and his brother’s wife, Herodias. This account removes the revolutionary threat posed by the early Christians, preventing them from being targeted as political revolutionaries and potential rebels.

This theory could also explain why Herod is not held accountable for the Baptist’s death in Mark’s account. If the Baptist’s death was seen to be at the hands of Herod, assumptions would be made that he was killed because of the political and revolutionary threat he posed.[23] Crossley believes the account of Mark is a retelling of history.[24] Therefore, by blaming Herodias and Salome, the Baptist’s death was reframed as Herodias’s vendetta and as a result, John’s death loses its potential political charge. Therefore, the early Christians increased their chance of survival by undermining claims that they were subversive and were therefore seen as less of a revolutionary threat.

Further evidence that Mark’s account is created rather than historical are the differences between Mark’s account and the other three Gospels. Elsewhere, Herod opposes the Baptist (Lk.3:18-20). Josephus corroborates that Herod disliked the Baptist, saying that Herod was ruthless towards John.[25] Also, Josephus writes that Herod had the Baptist killed as he was a political threat. This perspective is also recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. For Matthew, Herod had the Baptist killed, not because Herodias was bitter towards him disagreeing with her and Herod’s marriage, but because the Baptist had many followers and Herod feared an uprising (Mt. 14:5).[26]

Although there is a lot more that can be said about Mark 6:17-29, this article concludes by noting that it is the parts of Mark 6:17-29 that do not make sense which reveal why the men are constructed as morally superior, but easily manipulated by women. Also, due to the vast number of similarities between Mark’s account and the story of Esther, it seems unlikely that the account in Mark 6 is an accurate historical narrative. Rather, it is a constructed retelling, one that uses gendered constructions to mask the true motivation behind John’s death. Whereas Josephus’s account focusses on the political motives that brought about the Baptist’s death, Mark’s account emphases personal motives and downplays politics.[27]

Bibliography

Anonymous, ‘Midrash Esther Rabbah,’ on Sefaria [https://www.sefaria.org/Esther_Rabbah?lang=bi], Last Accessed: 23.04.18.

 

Anonymous, ‘Tetrarch,’ on Dictionary.com [http://www.dictionary.com/browse/tetrarch], Last Accessed: 23.04.18.

 

Casey, Maurice, “Jesus’ Conflicts with His Opponents” in Jesus of Nazareth; An independent historian’s account of his life and teaching (London: T&T Clark International, 2010), pp. 313- 353.

 

Chilton, Bruce, “Did Antipas Build the Sepphoris Theatre?” in Jesus and Archaeology (Ed. James H. Charlesworth; Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), pp. 111-120.

 

Crossley, James, “Criteria, Historicity and the Earliest Palestinian Tradition” in Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 35-64.

 

Elkins, Kathleen Gallagher, and Parker, Julie Faith, “Children in Biblical Narrative and Childist Interpretation” in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative (Ed. Danna Nolan Fewell; Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 422-434.

 

Gillman, Florence Morgan, “The Sound and the Fury, Part I: Her Rage” in Herodias: At Home in that Fox’s Den (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2003), pp. 51-65.

 

Hooker, Morna D., Gospel According to St. Mark (London: Continuum, 1991).

 

Karner, Christian, Writing History, Constructing Religion (Eds. James G. Crossley and Christian Karner; Oxon: Routledge,2018).

 

McGrail, Peter, “Eroticism, Death and Redemption: The Operatic Construct of the Biblical Femme Fatale” in Retellings- The Bible in Literature, Music, Art and Film (Boston: Leiden, 2007), pp. 55-78.

 

Miller, Susan, “Herodias and Her Daughter” in Women in Mark’s Gospel (London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 73-90.

 

Stocker, Margarita, ‘Her Virtue was Vice; Christian Allegory and the Selling of Sex’ in Judith Sexual Warrior; Women and Power in Western Culture (London: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 24-46.

 

Vearncombe, Erin K., “Adorning the Protagonist: The Use of Dress in the Book of Judith” in Dressing Judeans and Christians in Antiquity (Eds. Kristie Upson-Saia, Carley Daniel-Hughes and Alicia J. Batten; Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2014), pp. 117-137.

 

Viviano, Pauline A., “Genesis” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary (Eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris; Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992), pp. 35-79 (60).

 

Williams, James G., “Judith” in Woman Recounted: Narrative Thinking and the God of Israel (ed. David M. Gunn; Sheffield: The Almond Press, 1982), pp. 76-79.

[1] Florence Morgan Gillman, “The Sound and the Fury, Part I: Her Rage” in Herodias: At Home in that Fox’s Den (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2003), pp. 51-65 and Susan Miller, “Herodias and Her Daughter” in Women in Mark’s Gospel (London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 73-90 (76).

[2] Susan Miller, “Herodias and Her Daughter” in Women in Mark’s Gospel (London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 73-90 (76).

[3] It is worth noting that there is no suggestion in the text that this is an erotic dance, regardless of many commentators framing it as such (M. D. Hooker, p. 161)

[4] Peter McGrail, “Eroticism, Death and Redemption: The Operatic Construct of the Biblical Femme Fatale” in Retellings- The Bible in Literature, Music, Art and Film (Boston: Leiden, 2007), pp. 55-78 (61).

[5] Kathleen Gallagher Elkins and Julie Faith Parker, “Children in Biblical Narrative and Childist Interpretation” in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative (Ed. Danna Nolan Fewell; Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 422-434 (428).

[6] Tetrarch is a term for a ruler under the Roman Empire. Tetrarchs are governors of a country or province on behalf of the Roman Emperor and the Roman Empire. [http://www.dictionary.com/browse/tetrarch] Last Accessed: 23.04.18.

[7] Miller, “Herodias,” p. 76.

[8] Elkins and Parker, “Children,” p. 428.

[9] Morna D. Hooker, Gospel According to St. Mark (London: Continuum, 1991), p. 161.

[10] Maurice Casey, “Jesus’ Conflicts with His Opponents” in Jesus of Nazareth; An independent historian’s account of his life and teaching (London: T&T Clark International, 2010), pp. 313- 353 (340).

[11] Elkins and Parker, “Children,” p. 429.

[12] Elkins and Parker, “Children,” p. 428.

[13] Miller, “Herodias,” p. 73.

[14] Bruce Chilton, “Did Antipas Build the Sepphoris Theatre?” in Jesus and Archaeology (Ed. James H. Charlesworth; Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), pp. 111-120 (109).

[15] Miller, “Herodias,” p. 73.

[16] Margarita Stocker, ‘Her Virtue was Vice; Christian Allegory and the Selling of Sex’ in Judith Sexual Warrior; Women and Power in Western Culture (London: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 24-46 (34).

[17] Christian Karner, Writing History, Constructing Religion (Eds. James G. Crossley and Christian Karner; Oxon: Routledge, 2018) and James G. Williams, ‘Judith’ in Woman Recounted: Narrative Thinking and the God of Israel (ed. David M. Gunn; Sheffield: The Almond Press, 1982), pp. 76-79 (78).

[18] Erin K. Vearncombe, “Adorning the Protagonist: The Use of Dress in the Book of Judith” in Dressing Judeans and Christians in Antiquity (Eds. Kristie Upson-Saia, Carley Daniel-Hughes and Alicia J. Batten; Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2014), pp. 117-137 (118).

[19] Miller, “Herodias,” p. 76.

[20] Esther Rabbah is the Midrash, an ancient commentary attached to the biblical text, to the Book of Esther [https://
www.sefaria.org/Esther_Rabbah?lang=bi], Last Accessed: 23.04.18.

[21]  Miller, “Herodias,” p. 76.

[22] Hooker, Gospel, p. 161.

[23] It is not uncommon for stories and events to be retold in a different light. Some good examples include the two versions of creation in Genesis1-2 and Genesis 10-11 as well as three very similar stories of Abraham in Genesis 12, 20 and 26. Often there is an ideological purpose behind the re-telling of a story as we have seen with this account. (Pauline A. Viviano, “Genesis,” p. 60)

[24] James Crossley, “Criteria, Historicity and the Earliest Palestinian Tradition” in Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 35-64 (43).

[25] Karner, Writing, p. 148.

[26] Miller, “Herodias,” p. 74.

[27] Miller, “Herodias,” p. 74.

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