The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvilly on the Martyrdom of St John the Baptist (Matt 14:1-12; Mark 6:17-29)

Posted by Dim Bulb on August 24, 2013

Text in red are my additions. This post was compiled from the Bishop’s commentary on the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

Mar 6:17  For Herod himself had sent and apprehended John, and bound him prison for the sake of Herodias the wife of Philip his brother, because he had married her.

St Matthew (Mt 14:1) introduces the account with the words at that time. What precise period is here referred to, is a subject of dispute. It happened after the beheading of the Baptist. It is inferred from the Gospel of St. John (6:4), that the Baptist was beheaded some time near the Pasch. For, the departure of our Redeemer on hearing of John’s death (v. 13 of this chapter), is identified with that recorded (John 6:1), when He performed the miracle of the multiplication of the bread.

Which Pasch it is that “was near at hand” (John 6:4) is uncertain. It most likely was the fourth Pasch, after our Lord’s baptism. Before this Pasch, John was beheaded. This occurred after the mission of the Apostles, recorded (10), as is clear from Mark (6:14), Luke (9:7), both of whom immediately subjoin John’s decollation to the narrative of the mission of the Apostles; and both say, that it was after the Apostles returned from their mission, our Lord was informed of the Baptist’s death; and then it was, the departure of our Redeemer recorded in verse 13 of this chapter took place. St. Matthew states in this chapter (v. 13), that it was after our Redeemer heard of John’s death while traversing Galilee, teaching and performing miracles, He retired and departed across the water.

“Herod.” Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who put the Holy Innocents to death. In Matthew 14:1 he is identified as the Tetrarch; his term designates the governor of the fourth part of a province or kingdom. Among the Romans, who divided the conquered kingdoms into Tetrarchites, the term, “Tetrarch,” was applied to all those who exercised supreme power, and enjoyed dignity next to that of king. This Herod Antipas, was Tetrarch of Galilee. He obtained the fourth part of his father’s kingdom. Archelaus, obtained one-half, with the title of Ethnarch, and Philip governed the remaining fourth with the title of Tetrarch. This was in accordance with the will of Herod the Great, which was confirmed by the Romans. This Antipas is styled “king,” verse 9 (Mark 6:14), on account of the similarity between the supreme power he exercised, and that wielded by a king.

“The wife of Philip, his brother.” Matthew has “Because of Herodias, his brother’s wife.” There is some difference of opinion as to who this Herodias was. The common opinion seems to be, that she was daughter of Aristobulus, son of Herod the Great, by Mariamne, the last of the Asmonean kingly race. She was sister to Herod Agrippa, and, consequently, she was niece to this very Herod Antipas, who was brother to her father, Aristobulus, both brothers having different mothers. She was married to Herod Philip, brother to this Herod Antipas. Whether this was Philip, the Tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis (Luke 3:1), or a different Philip, also son of Herod the Great, of whom there is no mention made in Herod’s will and distribution of his dominions, and who must have, therefore, lived in a private station, is disputed. If the narrative of Josephus (Lib. Antiq. xviii. c. 5), be credited, it could not be Philip the Tetrarch (Luke 3:1). For, he states that Herodias’s daughter, by Philip—before she married Herod Antipas—named Salome, “was married to Philip, the son of Herod, and Tetrarch of Trachonitis.” The Philip, then, whom Herodias married first must be quite a different person. Others, rejecting this testimony of Josephus, who, they say, was deceived in this, assert, that the Philip referred to (Luke 3:1), as Tetrarch, &c., was the first husband of Herodias. Herod Antipas, on his way to Rome (as we are informed by Josephus, ibidem), in the sixteenth year of Tiberius, lodged in the house of his brother Philip, for whose wife Herodias, he conceived a wicked passion; and obtained her consent to leave her husband, and live with him on his return from Rome, on condition of his sending away his wife, who was daughter of Aretas, king of Arabia. This latter, on being informed of Herod’s designs and resolution to espouse Herodias, fled to her father for protection, who, in defence of his daughter’s honour and rights, waged war on Herod, and cut his army to pieces. (Josephus, Lib. Antiq. xviii., &c.) The Baptist sternly rebuked Herod for his incestuous and adulterous connexion with Herodias, her former husband and his own wife being still alive. Even if we suppose Philip, her former husband to be dead, as some assert, though Josephus positively states the contrary; still, Antipas, though not a Jew, any more than his father, Herod the Great, was, however, like him, a Jewish proselyte, bound by the law of Moses, which forbade marriage with a deceased brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16; 20:21), save in the case of the deceased brother dying without issue (Deut. 25:5). In the present instance there was issue, viz., the wicked daughter spoken of in this chapter. The marriage was, therefore, unlawful. Hence, the zeal of the Baptist in reproaching Herod with this scandalous adulterous connexion—scandalous, especially, in one occupying his elevated station.

Mar 6:18  For John said to Herod: It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.

“It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.” (Lev. 18:16). Although this Herodias was niece of Philip, her husband, as well as of Herod Antipas, with whom she lived in adultery, this relationship was not an impediment to her marriage with Philip, nor is it anywhere reckoned among marriage impediments in the Jewish law. Hence, she is called by John the Baptist, “thy brother’s wife.”

Mar 6:19  Now Herodias laid snares for him: and was desirous to put him to death and could not.

“Laid snares for him. ” Some see in Herodias a connection with Jezebel (1 Kings 18:4, 13; 19:1-10). Some also see an allusion to the part played by Zeresh in the plot against Mordecai (Esther 5:9-14).

Mar 6:20  For Herod feared John, knowing him to be a just and holy man: and kept him, and when he heard him, did many things: and he heard him willingly.

“Feared,” is interpreted by many to mean, revered, stood in reverential awe of him, on being apprised of his virtues. Although, in the first instance, he may have been animated with feelings quite different, when he cast him into prison.

“And kept him,” guarded him against the violence and snares of Herodias. The Greek word συνετηρει can refer to guarding or conserving something, but it can also refer to a careful mental consideration. Most modern translations prefer the former meaning, the latter is rather tautological in light of the remainder of the verse.

“And did many things,” conformably to the counsels given by John.

Mar 6:21  And when a convenient day was come, Herod made a supper for his birthday, for the princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee.

“A convenient day,” i.e., a festal day, convenient for Herodias’ wicked designs against the Baptist—a convenient day to work on the feelings of Herod. The Greek word translated as “convenient day” is ευκαιρου, it refers to an opportune time. The word is used in reference to Judas’ plot against Jesus in Mark 14:11.

“Herod made a supper…for the princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee.” This may be intended to recall the banquet Ahasuerus gave in chapter 1 of Esther (see Father Eugene LaVerdiere’s THE BEGINNING OF THE GOSPEL, Volume 1, pages 166-168 for more connections with Esther).

Mar 6:22  And when the daughter of the same Herodias had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod, and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee.

The circumstance of permitting dancing during the feast, shows the voluptuousness practised in the court of Herod; for, even amongst the most abandoned of the Roman Emperors, such was not allowed.

Mar 6:23  And he swore to her: Whatsoever thou shalt ask I will give thee, though it be the half of my kingdom.

Heated with wine and blinded by passion, Herod “promised to give her whatsoever she would ask” (Mt 14:7). St. Mark adds, “though it were half his kingdom.” This rash and foolish promise he confirmed with the solemn sanction of an oath.

Mar 6:24  Who when she was gone out, said to her mother, What shall I ask? But her mother said: The head of John the Baptist.
Mar 6:25  And when she was come in immediately with haste to the king, she asked, saying: I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish, the head of John the Baptist.

Instructed by her mother, whom she went to consult after receiving the promise (Mark 6:24), she asked to get on the spot, without any delay, the head of John the Baptist, lest, if time for reflection were given him, he might repent of the promise. “I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish, the head of John the Baptist”. She wished for this, to be the more certain of his death; for, her mother dreaded lest, through the influence of the Baptist, Herod would send her away in disgrace.

Mar 6:26  And the king was struck sad. Yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her:

“The king was struck sad.” Some are of opinion, with St. Jerome, that the king was really glad of the pretext this opportunity, as it were, afforded him, of carrying out his designs against the Baptist; and that the whole affair of the request on the part of Salome—the daughter of Herodias—was previously agreed on by common concert between Herod and his adulterous wife. Others, with St. Augustine, consider that Herod was really “sad.” For, besides that the Evangelist says so, in the plainest terms, it is most likely, that, although, Herod, in the beginning, when he cast the Baptist into prison, would have him slain, had he not dreaded a popular commotion (v. 5); still, in the course of his imprisonment, he began to reverence his sanctity, and willingly listened to him (Mark 6:20), and was, therefore, sorry for the rash promise he made. Moreover, all the circumstances under which he was called upon to put him to death, the time, the place, the odium, attached to so unnatural a proceeding, were calculated to cause him real sorrow.

“Yet because of his oath,” &c., that is, to avoid violating his oath, as if he did not add perjury to homicide in keeping so impious and rash a promise. The observance of an oath, having for object the perpetration of evil, is no less sinful and criminal than was its original utterance. It is an insult to God to invoke Him as witness to the perpetration of evil, as if this were pleasing to Him. St. Jerome asks, if it were the head of her mother she asked, would Herod have given it to her?

“And because of them that sat with him at table.” He did not wish to incur the reproach of fickleness or inconstancy, before the chief men of Galilee, whom he had assembled around him on the occasion.

Mar 6:27  But sending an executioner, he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish.
Mar 6:28  And he beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a dish: and gave to the damsel, and the damsel gave it her mother.

“But sending the executioner…he beheaded him in prison”. Josephus says, the prison where John was incarcerated was in the castle of Macherus, near the Sea Asphaltites, or Dead Sea, beyond the Jordan. This castle was in Herod’s dominions; for, he ruled Galilee and the district beyond the Jordan. (Josephus, Lib. 12, Antiq.) Hence, it is inferred by some, that this great banquet was given in the castle of Macherus itself; otherwise, the head of the Baptist could not be called for and given on the spot. Others deny Josephus’ account of the prison of the Baptist. They maintain, that he was imprisoned in Galilee, and that it was there Herod gave this entertainment to his nobles.

“and brought his head in a dish, and gave to the damsel, and the damsel gave it to her mother.” The mother, the wicked Herodias, was the instigator of the entire barbarous proceeding. St. Jerome (Lib. 3, contra Rufin, c. 11), tells us, that this monster made it her inhuman pastime to prick, with a bodkin, the tongue of the Saint. The same is recorded of Fulvia, in regard to Cicero. This same Herod, four years after he had treated the Redeemer of the world, as a mock king and a fool, in the crowded streets of Jerusalem, was banished, with his wicked wife, after they had been deprived of all their earthly possessions, their kingdom being added to that of Agrippa, by Caius to Lyons, in Gaul, where, we are informed by Josephus (Antiq. xviii. 7), they died in great misery, although it is said by others, and by the same Josephus, that his place of banishment by Caius was Spain, whither his wife followed him (Josephus, de Bel. Jud. ii. 9). Nicephorus (Lib. i., Histor. c. 20), and others state, that Salome, by a just judgment of God, met with a most miserable, but appropriate death. While crossing the ice in winter, it broke; and she was plunged in as far as the shoulders; then, the ice coming again together, severed her head from her body.

Mar 6:29  Which his disciples hearing came, and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

The disciples of the Baptist, who, it seems, had access to his prison (Matt. 11:2), came, and taking away his body, had it honourably interred. St. Jerome informs us that it was interred in Sebaste, formerly called Samaria. Joseph of Arimathea will do the same for Jesus after his crucifixion (Mk 15:42-46).

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One Response to “Father MacEvilly on the Martyrdom of St John the Baptist (Matt 14:1-12; Mark 6:17-29)”

  1. […] Bishop MacEvilly’s Commentary on Today’s Gospel (Mark 6:17-29). […]

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