The Execution of John the Baptist: History, Myth or Midrash?

By: John Shelby Spong

Salome was a dancer, she danced before the king.

She wiggled and she wobbled and she shook most everything.

The king said, “Salome, there’ll be no scandal here!”

Salome said, “To heck with that” and kicked the chandelier!

That bit of doggerel is from a song sung at church camp in my youth.  It claimed to be made up of Bible stories that one had “never heard before.” Among its many verses were a few that had a salacious quality about them. They were, of course the most popular ones of all. This verse was one of those. In this column I originally skipped this story, but later felt it too good to miss, so I double back today to focus on the narrative of the execution of John the Baptist.

The story of John’s beheading at the order of King Herod is a familiar one, even outside religious circles. It has attracted to itself a number of mythological additions. For example, in no place in the Bible is the dancing daughter of the Queen named Salome. The only mention of someone named Salome in the New Testament is found in Mark (15:40 and 16:1), where she is one of the women that Mark identifies as present at both the crucifixion and among those who brought spices to the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning. She disappears from the biblical narrative after Mark, when both Matthew and Luke, who have Mark before them when they write, edit her out of their gospels. So the name of the young woman, who danced before the king and his courtiers at a great banquet, is “Salome” only in the developing tradition, never in the Bible itself. That might come as a surprise to the great German composer, Richard Strauss, who named the opera he wrote on this biblical episode, “Salome.” That opera was considered scandalous when it was first produced in Dresden, Germany in 1905. So for the sake of accuracy we drop the name of the dancer before we can begin to determine the meaning of this biblical story.

Second, in the Bible the dance she performed was never called “The Dance of the Seven Veils.” That expansion of the text was developed much later just to heighten the sensual quality of the story and to increase the number of XXX’s in the sex and violence rating system of antiquity, designed primarily to build the audience for the reading of this biblical story. So in the Bible there is no “Salome” and there are no “seven veils.”

The third thing we need to point out is that it was a much used and familiar technique of ancient mythology to portray a king, so pleased by the service of one of his subjects, that he offers to reward the favored one by satisfying any request or desire of the favored one’s heart. Mark even used the classical mythological formula: “up to half of my kingdom.” No king ever did that except in the fantasies of story tellers.

If we are to understand this biblical story, then let us look closely at what Matthew does say in this episode. This is Matthew’s story: Herod had imprisoned John because when he married Herodias, his brother, Philip’s former wife, John had publicly condemned the marriage.  By doing so, John had enraged the new queen and she was quite overt in her hatred of him. The king had even wanted to execute John, but John’s popularity among the people made that a dangerous political tactic.  Matthew also suggests that King Herod had a strange fascination with the Baptist, a kind of love/hate relationship.  When Herod’s birthday arrived a great banquet was held to celebrate it and all his courtiers were invited.  The entertainment planned for after the banquet was for the daughter of Herodias, and thus the niece and stepdaughter of King Herod, to dance for the guests. She did so in an apparently very pleasing manner. King Herod, moved by her performance, offered to grant her any request. She conferred with her mother to determine what she should ask. This was Herodias’ moment, so she told her daughter to ask for “the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was distressed by this request, Matthew tells us, but he could not go back on his publicly-given word, so he ordered the execution to be carried out. The banquet apparently ended when John’s bleeding, detached head was paraded around the banquet table. Perhaps this sight killed any remaining appetites!

Is any part of this story true? Is there even a nugget of history here? The answer to both of these questions is indubitably no! No part of this described event ever happened. If that is true, then we ask why was this story created and what does it mean? The answer is clear, but the fact is that only Jewish people, familiar with the scriptures of the Hebrew people, would have understood its meaning. They alone would, based on their knowledge of the Jewish sacred story, know that it was not history. Quite simply, this story was an attempt by the followers of Jesus to cement the identification of John the Baptist with Elijah and thus to demonstrate to the Jewish audience, for which this gospel was originally written, that Jesus was indeed the expected messiah. To understand this connection, however, one must be deeply familiar with the biblical story of Elijah. To examine that story we now go back to the 18th chapter of I Kings.

In that narrative we find being described a religious standoff between Elijah, the prophet of Yahweh and the priests of the cult of Baal, championed by Queen Jezebel. This foreign-born queen has tried to turn the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel into being the worshipers of the fertility God Baal, whom she served. Elijah alone stood in her path. A contest was set on Mount Carmel to determine which God the people of Israel would serve. The deity that sent fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice, in answer to the prayers of either the priests of Baal or Elijah, would be declared the true God. It was like a dual in which only one deity would survive.

The priests of Baal, all 400 strong, went first. Laying their sacrificial animal on their newly constructed altar, they began entreating Baal to send the consuming fire. Alas, however, nothing happened. Remember it was the followers of Yahweh who wrote this story.

Elijah, who must have been a hair shirt type of a personality, taunted these Baal worshipers from the sidelines. “Pray louder,” he urged. “Maybe Baal is away on a journey or perhaps he is just asleep!” The priests of Baal prayed, shouted, danced and even cut themselves with swords and lances in this ritual, but nothing worked. No fire fell from heaven. Finally, after several hours of failed entreaty, it was Elijah’s turn.

Dramatic show-off that he was, Elijah prepared his sacrificial animal, laid its carved pieces on his altar and then proceeded to dig a trench around that altar. Next, he ordered four cisterns of water to be poured over the sacrifice. He repeated this action three times until the sacrifice was drenched and the trench around the altar overflowed with water. (One wag suggested that he did not use water, but liquefied natural gas. That would explain some aspects of this story!) Only then did Elijah entreat God to send fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. Immediately, this story proclaimed, the fire fell from the sky and the sacrifice was burned. The smell of the roasting bull rose into the air, reaching, presumably, the nostrils of God. The fire was so intense, said this story, that it even consumed the water in the trench around the altar. The people fell back in awe. “Yahweh is God,” they shouted. Elijah, empowered by this success, then drew his sword and began to behead the 400 priests of Baal, not stopping until the last head of the last priest rolled on the ground. Jezebel’s religious initiative was clearly thwarted. Baal was revealed to be powerless, even impotent.

When this event was reported to Queen Jezebel, she was livid, and the story says, she immediately swore an oath and took this vow: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life (Elijah) as the life of one of them (the priests of Baal) by this time tomorrow” (I Ki.19:2). On hearing of this vow, Elijah went into hiding and so it was never carried out. In time, Jezebel became a widow, but she continued to exercise authority after King Ahab’s death as the Queen Mother until a revolution, led by a man named Jehu, occurred. When Jehu rode victoriously into his new capital he ordered the Queen mother, Jezebel, to be thrown from a window in the royal palace to the street and killed. Elijah, however, was said to have escaped death altogether, when, at the end of his life, instead of dying he was simply transported directly into God’s presence by means of a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses. The question then remained: “What happened to Jezebel’s unfulfilled vow and her solemn oath?” The answer offered by the followers of Jesus was that it was destined to remain unfulfilled until the “new Elijah” appeared to herald the arrival of the expected messiah. After all, they declared, had Malachi not written: “Behold, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5)?

How did the followers of Jesus proclaim that Elijah had come in the person of John the Baptist, so that they could solidify the claim that Jesus was the expected messiah? In their newly written gospels they clothed John in the garments of Elijah, camel’s hair and a leather girdle. They placed John the Baptist into Elijah’s wilderness. They gave him the wilderness diet, locusts and wild honey. Now in their final John story they told of John the Baptist’s execution, in which the death vowed for Elijah by Queen Jezebel, was in fact carried out on the “New Elijah” at the order of another foreign queen, this time named Herodias. Thus, John the Baptist had to be beheaded, just as the priests of Baal had been. That is what this story is all about.

Do you not see how important it is for the understanding of the gospels, for us to learn to read them with Jewish eyes? The gospels are not history; it is a mistake for us to assume that they are. They are Jewish interpretive paintings. Biblical literalism arises out of Gentile ignorance of the Jewish Scriptures. Biblical fundamentalism is, in the last analysis, nothing but a Gentile heresy.