|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at
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After weeks where nearly Jesus or the disciples heal nearly every one of diseases, we now have a servant of God suffering an execution because he is a servant of God. Following Jesus does not always mean health and happiness. There can be times of suffering and there will be death for believers.
The pericope can be divided into two sections: (1) Opinions regarding Jesus (vv. 14-16) and (2) The death of John the Baptist (vv. 17-29). These are printed as separate paragraphs in the NRSV.
Literally v. 14 begins "King Herod heard." We aren't told what Herod heard. Presumably it has something to do with the disciples' mission (6:6b-13), which occurs in our narration immediately before Herod's hearing. We can also surmise that their mission included "making Jesus' name known" (v. 14b).
However, the "power" (dynamis, v. 14d, see also 5:30; 6:2, 5) that they know has come from Jesus leads to misinterpretation. I believe that it is one of Mark's themes: miracles do not lead to a proper understanding of Jesus.
The people think that Jesus is:
(1) John the Baptist raised from the dead
(2) Elijah (fulfilling Malachi 4:5-6)
(3) One of the prophets (perhaps fulfilling the promise of a prophet like Moses in Dt 18:15-20)
These same three responses are given by the disciples when Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" (Mark 8:27-28)
In the paragraphs before this (last week's text), the people of Nazareth think that Jesus is a carpenter, the son of Mary, a brother to his siblings.
While it probably would be too much to include in a sermon, when I have taught Mark, I have presented the following range of ancient understandings about Christ -- many heretical views and the orthodox understanding. These came from my seminary notes.
EBIONITES: Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary. He was the Messiah, but he was not divine.
DYNAMIC MONARCHIANISM or ADOPTIONISM: Jesus was a unique man who was divinely energized by the Holy Spirit (at baptism) and called to be the Son of God.
ARIANISM: "There was when he was not" = Jesus was not co-eternal with the Father. He was an intermediary between the Creator and the creation. (Today's Jehovah's Witnesses have adopted an Arianistic Christology.)
ORIGENISM or SUBORDINATIONISM: Christ is a divine being somewhat below the highest divine principle. He derives his existence from the highest divine level.
NESTORIANISM: Jesus is split into two distinct persons: one human and one divine. Mary was not theotokos ("God-bearer"). The divine logos ("Word") was not involved with human suffering and death. Christ could only be truly human if his humanity was not fused and overcome by the divine nature.
CHACEDONIAN DEFINITION or ORTHODOXY (the "right" belief): Jesus the Christ is one. He has two natures preserved in one prosopon ("person") and in one hypostasis ("substance"). Both natures are unimpaired, "perfect" consubstantial with God and man. Christ was both pre-existent and born from the Virgin. Christ is eternal and dies on the cross.
MONOPHYSITISM: There is one person, one substance and one nature. The manhood of Christ becomes unimportant. He was God.
MODALISTIC MONARCHIANISM: God was revealed at one time under the mode of Father, at another time under the mode of Son, and at another time under the mode of the Holy Spirit.
DOCETISM: This view begins with the Greek idea that matter is essentially evil. Jesus was not a real "flesh and blood" human. He just "seemed" to be human. He was a god appearing in human form.
A purpose in making such a Christological presentation is to indicate that not everything that carries the name Christ or Christian may be orthodox. There are many different opinions about Jesus. Many of them -- even though sounding quite biblical -- are wrong.
For a more preachable Christological presentation, Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox talks about the natures of Christ in a chapter called "Superman". He begins the chapter by stating: "Jesus of Nazareth is true God and perfect man in an inseparable but unconfused union in one Person -- whatever all that means" [p. 85, italics in original].
He further explains (and where the title of the chapter comes from):
... Christ's perfect humanity, accordingly, is mere humanity: It's human, wholly human and nothing but human. (Jesus is God too, of course. But the first rule there is that, while you may never separate his two natures into two separate persons, you must not make a scrambled egg of him, either. He is not a blend of deity and manhood: His natures are inseparable but distinct. There is no manhood in his deity. And there is not one shred of God in his humanity, any more than there is in yours or mine loose talk to the contrary notwithstanding. The union of the two natures is precisely a union, not an amalgamation.)
All this is necessary because almost nobody resists the temptation to jazz up the humanity of Christ. The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way." If that isn't popular christology, I'll eat my hat. Jesus gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than-human insides bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It's got it all including, just so you shouldn't miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane.
You think that's funny? Don't laugh. The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don't want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: He claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It's not that we weren't looking for the Messiah; it's just that he wasn't what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying. [pp. 90-91]
The humanness of following Jesus hits us square in the head with the next story.
A question that can be asked of Mark is "Why here?" The death of John the Baptist has occurred in the past, so the narrator could place it anywhere in this story about Jesus. We were told quite briefly that John was arrested in Mark 1:14a. Nothing was said there about the charges against him.
What message is Mark giving us by placing John's death here?
One thing to note is that this text is bracketed by the missionary journey of the twelve. They are sent out (apostello, 6:7) just before our text and the apostles return immediately following it (6:30). Jesus warned them that some may not welcome them nor hear them. The good news does not overwhelm everyone -- in fact, it can offend some.
Related to this connection is the fact that twice Herod sends out (apostello) people: to arrest John (v. 17) and to behead John (v. 27)
A contrast could be made between these two "sending out" events. Jesus sends his followers out to bring health and wholeness to the life of others. Herod sends his employees out to destroy the life of another.
Juel (Mark, Augsburg Commentary) writes:
The return to John at a time when Jesus seems to be enjoying success and popularity introduces a sobering note into the story again. It serves as a reminder of what happens to preachers who threaten established authorities. The confusion between Jesus and John insinuates that a similar fate awaits Jesus. [p. 95]
One difference to be noted in the "similar fates" of John and Jesus is that John's disciples are present to take away his body and lay it in a tomb (v. 29). At Jesus' death, there are no disciples present and a stranger takes his body and lays it in a tomb (15:46).
Williamson (Mark, Interpretation) concludes his comments on this section with:
One way to read the passage, then, is in terms of success versus significance. Success, as the world measures it, seen in the court of Herod. There we find the chief of state and his advisers, the military commanders, the leading people of the country; they are the ones who can afford leisure and pleasure; they can get what they want when they want it. John the Baptist, alone in his cell, doomed and helpless to save his life, appears in shocking contrast to the glitter of the successful people of his time. Our minds are perpetually and perversely fascinated by the wealth, power, and intrigue of Herod's court; yet the significance of the text lies in the death of that starkly simple prophet in Herod's prison. The Gospel here invites us to look closely at success ... and then choose significance as we follow Jesus on his way. [p. 124]
The context also suggests this contrast: Herod can throw a large party for important people. The twelve are sent out with no bread, no bag, and no money. Herod has everything. The disciples have nothing.
Perhaps this contrast could be presented as an illustration of Jesus' words: "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it" (8:35).
Somewhere in my memory, I recall reading an article that discussed whether or not the dance was a seductive one. However, I can't remember where or when I might have read that -- besides it probably isn't a very preachable topic anyway.
However, there is nothing that I can find exegetically that would suggest that it was a seductive dance. The Greek word for dance used here is orcheomai. Generally this word indicates a joyful dance that is in contrast to mourning (Mt 11:17; Lu 7:32; see also Ec 3:4). It is the word used of David dancing before the Lord at the return of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam 6:16, 21; 1 Chr 15:29). It was Herod's birthday. It was time to dance for joy.
The word for "pleased" is aresko, which may imply sexual pleasure in 1 Cor 7:33-34; but the fact that the same word is used in 1 Cor 7:32 of "pleasing the Lord" would seem to rule out the sexual aspect as the only or even a primary understanding of the word.
The word for "girl" -- korasion -- is used in the NT only of Herod's daughter (Mk 6:22, 28; Mt 14:11) and of the 12-year old girl raised by Jesus (Mk 5:41, 42; Mt 9:24, 25). We might surmise by this that the dancing girl was about 12 years of age.
While my exegetical comments above point away from a seductive dance, there are some connections with Esther (in the LXX) that might lead to a different conclusion.
King Ahasuerus throws a lavish banquet (Esther 1:1-9). He seeks a virgin. Esther is brought to him and the girl (korasion) pleased (aresko) him so that received the best place in the harem (Esther 2:9). The king promises to give her half of his kingdom (Esther 5:3).
Besides the connection with Esther noted above, the following narratives (suggested by Perkins in the Mark, New Interpreter's Bible) contain some elements that are similar to our text.
The prophet Elijah clashed with a king Ahab over his marriage to Jezebel (1 Kings 21).
A rash vow by Jephthah leads him to do what he doesn't want to do: killing his innocent daughter (Judges 11:29-40).
Judith arouses the sexual passions of general Holofernes, she gets him drunk, and then cuts off his head (Judith 12:13-13:16).
Richard Jensen in Preaching Mark's Gospel uses Mary Ann Tolbert's (Sowing the Gospel) typology of the Parable of the Sower. For her and Jensen, Herod is an example of seed sown among the thorns. (Other examples in Mark are the ruler seeking eternal life (10:17-31) and Pilate (15:1-15).)
Herod feared John. He knew that he was a righteous and holy man. He protected him. He liked to listen to him. He heard the word gladly! The seed had been sown. He wasn't one who had rejected the message and the messages (as Jesus had said could happen to the disciples he was sending out).
After the request is made for the head of John the Baptist, Jensen adds these comments:
Herod was in a tough spot. He was deeply perplexed. But he sold out! He had made an oath. His guests had heard it. He must keep his word. And so it was that the cares of the world choked out the word he had heard. The seed that John had sown yielded nothing! [pp. 109-110]
Perkins (Mark, New Interpreter's Bible) makes a similar suggestion about Herod's actions: "Willingness to sacrifice others to maintain honor, prestige, and power remains one of the great temptations of persons in positions of authority" [p. 599].
Jensen suggests that Herod's story can be told as an example of a person in whom the cares of the world choke out the word. He asks, "What kinds of worldly cares choke out the word among people today?" He suggests: "Let your hearers imagine their way into these stories. Let them imagine themselves in the shoes of King Herod or the rich ruler or Pilate. Let them imagine themselves getting out of those shoes. Let them imagine themselves as transformed people" [pp. 111-112].
He concludes by saying: "The One who came to transform sinners into saints can also transform 'thorny ground' people into good soil for the gospel" [p. 112].
It strikes me that a contrast could be made between Herodias' and Herod's responses to the word of Law from John -- "what you are doing is not lawful" (v. 18). Herodias responds with hostility -- wanting to kill John (v. 19 -- seed on the path that does nothing?). Herod responds more positively, as I mentioned above. However, in neither case was the seed able to take root. In neither case did the law lead to repentance and the desire for forgiveness and new life through the gospel. Even though Herod appears slightly more favorable than Herodias, both fail in terms of being "good soil." "Gladly hearing" the word, and having one's life transformed by the word are not the same thing.
I used the following story in a sermon, but I don't know where I got it.
There were two brothers in Georgia during the 1950's. One decided that in opposition to the dominant culture of the day, he was going to support and participate in the formation of a multi-ethnic community. The other worked as an attorney for a prominent law firm. Both were Christians and attended church regularly. As the multi-ethnic community formed and social pressure forced them into court proceedings, the one brother asked his attorney brother to help them with the legal work. The brother refused, saying that he could lose his job. The pressure increased to help with a reminder that he was a Christian. The lawyer responded, "I will follow Jesus to his cross, but it is his cross. I have no need to be crucified." To this his brother replied, "Then you are an admirer of Jesus, but not his disciple."
There are a couple of similarities to this story in our text. One is the relationship between Herod and John the Baptist. He greatly admired this prophet from God, but not enough to become his disciple, not enough to risk his own honor and prestige to protect him.
Another similarity occurs in the first part of our text between some people, including Herod, and Jesus. These people had heard about Jesus. They knew of his great work. They heard about his powerful teaching. They admired him, but they came to the wrong conclusions about him. These people knew about Jesus, but they didn't know Jesus.
Our Christian faith is more than knowing about Jesus. It is more than admiring Jesus. It is more than just gladly hearing the Word. Herod had done all that, but the Word sown in his life did not bear fruit. The cares of this world choked it out. Christianity is not knowing about Jesus, it is about knowing God as revealed in Jesus. It is about having a relationship with God through Jesus. The Bible, the Word of God, can be simply historical stories about God and about Jesus; but they can also be stories that bring God into our lives. God is present in the Word. Christianity is about knowing and being known by God. It involves our whole lives -- not just our heads. We can't just be analytical botanists who tear apart flowers to study each individual part. We also have to learn to "smell the whole rose" -- to enjoy and take in the beauty of the whole, to let that beauty touch our lives. Biblically -- to hear God speaking to us through the Word.
(In defense of botanists and exegetes, there is also something wonderful to be gained by noting the great complexity God has created within the tiniest details of creation. When I just think of all the different types of cells within an eyeball, doing their own individual jobs so that we can see, I am amazed.)
Just our as Lutheran Confessions stress the proper understanding and preaching of the gospel, so we also need to have a proper understanding of Jesus, the Christ, and the risks of following him -- a theme that flows throughout the gospel of Mark. However, I don't think that I'd put a picture of John in prison or with his head on the chopping block on a recruitment poster for Christianity or church membership.
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