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The death of John the Baptist

Gospel reading: Mt 14:1-12

Herod the tetrarch heard of the reputation of Jesus and said to his servants, “This man is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why mighty powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, for John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Although he wanted to kill him, he feared the people, for they regarded him as a prophet. But at a birthday celebration for Herod, the daughter of Herodias performed a dance before the guests and delighted Herod so much that he swore to give her whatever she might ask for. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests who were present, he ordered that it be given, and he had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. His disciples came and took away the corpse and buried him; and they went and told Jesus.

REFLECTIONS: He had John beheaded

Besides the Gospels there exists an account of John the Baptist’s death. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus relates in his Antiquities of the Jews that Herod killed John, stating that he did so, “lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his [John’s] power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise), [so Herod] thought it best [to put] him to death.” Josephus further states that many of the Jews believed that the military disaster befalling Herod at the hands of Aretas, his father-in-law, was God’s punishment for his unrighteous behavior.

Matthew narrates that Herod puts John in prison (in the fortress of Machaerus, according to Josephus) for confronting him with his adulterous union with Herodias. Matthew agrees with Josephus that John had a great influence over the people. Herod – the “fox” (cf Lk 13:32) – is clever enough not to antagonize the people in public. But the deed is done when, at his birthday party, when quite inebriated, he swears to give the daughter of Herodias whatever she may ask for. When the girl demands the head of the Baptist, though distressed for his unguarded oaths, he orders that John be beheaded. And Josephus believes that this act will bring down God’s punishment for Herod.

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