The Beheading of John the Baptist

Joseph Francis Alward

This is another in a continuing series of analyses of claims in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, by Dennis R. MacDonald, that the earliest gospel writer, Mark, got the material for his stories about Jesus from Homer, who wrote his stories 800 years before Mark wrote his.

To create a fable teaching Jesus' fearlessness, Mark may have adapted a Homeric tale about the murder of a king by his faithless wife to tell the story of the murder of Saint John the Baptist by King Herod.

Beheading of John the Baptist
Breviary of Martin of Aragon:
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

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   Josephus' Account of the Murder of John the Baptist
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus was born in about 37 AD in Jerusalem, right about the time Jesus is alleged to have died, and died in about 101 AD.  Among his writings are the seven-book, Jewish War, which are his memoranda made between 66 AD and 73 AD during the Jewish war of independence, and the Jewish Antiquities, which was the entire history of Jews from the Creation to the revolt in 66 AD. 

The following is Josephus's account of Herod taking up with his brother's wife, and the apparently unrelated order by Herod of the political assassination of John the Baptist:

[When Herod was in] Rome...he fell in love with [his brother's] wife, agreement was made for her to change her habitation....

Herod...feared...the great influence John had over the people...Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion...thought it best [to put] him to death, to prevent any mischief he might


cause and not bring himself into difficulties Accordingly [John] was sent a Macherus, the castle ....and was there put to death. (Antiquities 18:118)

The reader will see below that Mark, the earliest gospel writer, reports that Herodias ordered that John be beheaded, and that Herodias's daughter carried John's head to her mother on a platter.  How could Josephus have overlooked these sensational details?


    Mark's Account of the Murder of John the Baptist
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples.... Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village...They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them….

King 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."....But when Herod heard this, he said, "John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!" 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's] wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man...Finally the opportune time came.

                      Mark Writing his Gospel
On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 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." And he promised her with an oath, "Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom."

She went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?" "The head of John the Baptist," she answered. 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."

Herodias' Daughter Dances for Herod         

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

Mark 6:1-29


     Mark's Account Differs from Josephus's
There's quite a difference between the accounts of John's death as reported by Josephus, the greatest Jewish historian of the first century, and Mark, a person whose identity is unknown even today.   
How come Josephus thought that Herod had John killed because he was a political threat, but Mark "knew" otherwise--that John was murdered because Herod's wife was angry with John for opposing the affair? 

Why didn't Josephus report that it was Herod's wife who ordered the murder of John, if that's really what happened?  

And why didn't Josephus report that John's head was sent to Herod on a platter carried by his mistress's daughter?  The matter of the head on the platter is extraordinary enough, but having a girl carrying it to her mother is exceptional. One would have thought that these events would have been reported by Josephus--if they really occurred.  The distinctive nature of this comparison to Homer's tale is made all the more striking when one observes that in no other place in the New Testament is a "daughter" named in an event in which violence occurs.

Josephus's voluminous work is filled with far more mundane descriptions, so one cannot argue that he thought these events were unworthy of being reported.  Sensational events such as the ones described by Mark are unlikely to have escaped the notice of the average person on the street, let alone a historian of Josephus's thoroughness, so he would have reported them if they had occurred.  Since He didn't report them, we conclude they didn't occur.

Below, I will present an abbreviated version of Homer's tale of Clytemnestra plotting with her lover to kill her husband, King Agamemnon.  In that story, Homer has Clytemnestra's lover slaying the king with a sword. Then, I will show evidence that indicates that the original tale evolved into the traditional one in which Clytemnestra uses an axe to lop off her husband's head.


    Homer's Story of the Murder of King Agamemnon
While Agamemnon was] fighting hard at Troy…. Aegisthus …cajoled Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra with incessant flattery….. she went willingly enough to the house of Aegisthus.  [When Agamemnon returned, Aegisthus] invited him to the feast, but he meant foul play. He got him there, all unsuspicious of the doom that was awaiting him, and killed him when the banquet was over as though he were butchering an ox in the shambles….

[Odysseus meets ghost of Agamemnon, who tells what happened:] . 'How did you come by your death,' said I, 'King Agamemnon? ..."'Ulysses,' he answered, ...Aegisthus and my wicked wife were the death of me between them. He asked me to his house, feasted me, and then butchered me most miserably as though I were a fat beast in a slaughter house, while all around me my comrades were slain like sheep or pigs for the wedding breakfast, or picnic, or gorgeous banquet of some great nobleman. You must have seen numbers of men killed either in a general engagement, or in single combat, but you never saw anything so truly pitiable as the way in which we fell in that cloister, with the mixing-bowl and the loaded tables lying all about, and the ground reeking with our blood. I heard Priam's daughter Cassandra scream as Clytemnestra killed her close beside me....The Odyssey (Books 3, 4, and 11)


  Clytemnestra Evolves into Axe-Murderer of Her Husband
MacDonald notes that even though Homer doesn't say that Clytemnestra joined in the physical act of killing her husband, eventually the tale in the telling and retelling evolved into one in which Clytemnestra herself uses an axe to behead her husband.
Ancient artists made Clytemnestra's ax a standard feature of her iconography. Frequently one finds her about to strike Agamemnon on the head or neck as Aegisthus is about to pierce him with a sword. (p. 81) 

Lucius Seneca (4 BC - AD 65), the Roman philosopher and writer, for example, wrote of Clytemenestra "in mad rage" swinging the axe at her husband's neck, the result of which was "blood [streaming] o'er his headless trunk." (In Agamemnon.)

Clytemnestra Slaying Cassandra
(ca 430 BC)

Thus, as far as Mark and his contemporaries were concerned, Clytemnestra beheaded her husband with an axe, even though Homer didn't say so. It is upon this tradition that Mark may have built his Jesus parable.

    Remarkable Parallels Between Homer and Mark
Evidence that Mark borrowed the traditional mythological tale about Clytemnestra slaying her husband to create a fictional account of the murder of John the Baptist is summarized in the table below.  A few of the points of comparison MacDonald noted have been omitted because I thought they were weak, and a few have been added.  Before showing the parallels, I want to note a point of disagreement I have with MacDonald.


MacDonald notes that imitations of Homer were commonplace in Mark's time, and that emulation (aemulatio, rivalry) was the "most sophisticated form of ancient imitation." These emulations often made the object of imitation evident to the reader, but at the same time the author would have the imitation be better in some sense.  

MacDonald sees emulation  in this story where it probably wasn't intended, I think. He believes that Mark has John emulate King Agamemnon, who deserved part of what he got, but John was guiltless, and therefore, a better victim.  I believe this is too much of a stretch; I think the emulation occurs between Jesus and John, not between John and Agamemnon. The apparent message in Mark's Jesus parable is that just as John was believed to have miraculous powers and was killed because of it, then was believed to have risen from the grave, so it will be with Jesus:  he will be thought to have miraculous powers, will be killed because of them, and will rise from his grave.

Jesus is better than John because the warning signs pointing to his impending doom are painted far more vividly than they were for John; John might have run away if he'd known what was likely to happen to him--we'll never know, but Jesus, after hearing of John's murder by Herod, fearlessly stays the course, knowing he would soon be killed.


  Summary of the Parallels
Parallels Odyssean Tradition Mark's Imitation
King and his male relative are part of love triangle. King Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, has affair with his cousin. King  Herod has affair with Herodias, his brother's wife.
A man is a threat to the affair. The king is about to discover affair. John the Baptist opposes affair.
Man who is a threat is murdered. King is murdered. John is murdered.
Murder occurs during a feast. Murder occurs at the feast. Murder occurs during the feast.
Attendance by influential persons is mentioned. "banquet of some great nobleman" "banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee"
Victim is beheaded. King is beheaded. John is beheaded.
Mistress plays active role in beheading. Wife (Clytemnestra) does the beheading [tradition]. Wife (Herodias) orders the beheading.
Victim's head is in contact with tableware King's head lands among the mixing bowls. John's head is placed on a platter.
A "daughter" plays a role in the beheading. Daughter of a king1 is killed at beheading. Daughter of king's mistress carries John's head.
Author has a person specifically referred to as a "daughter" play active role in violence only once in entire text. This is the only time in The Odyssey that a "daughter" is directly involved in violence. This is the only time in the entire New Testament that a "daughter" is directly involved in violence.
Author uses murder to signal danger faced by hero. The hero, Odysseus, notes danger, travels in disguise. The hero, Jesus, notes danger, but ignores it; this shows the reader that he is more fearless than Odysseus, which is the principal message of Mark's parable.

 [1]  King Priam