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’s Commentary on Matthew 14:1-12

Posted by Dim Bulb on July 2, 2017


In this chapter, we have an account of Herod’s opinion of our Lord, on hearing of His miracles. He takes Him for the Baptist returned from the dead. The circumstances of the cruel death of the Baptist and the causes that led to it are here recorded (1–11). Our Redeemer retires from Herod’s quarters, and crosses to the Bethsaida side of the lake. There multitudes had arrived before Him, and He miraculously multiplies bread in their favour (12–22). He obliges His disciples to enter a boat and cross before Him over the water, on which occasion, the sea being tossed by the waves, and the disciples in a state of fright, He calms their apprehension, called on Peter to come to Him on the waters, and saves him from drowning. The vessel at once reaches the shore they were going to, which caused the disciples and the rest to fall down and adore Him (22–33). Having again crossed the water and being come to Genesar, He performs many miraculous cures there (34–36).

Mat 14:1  At that time Herod the Tetrarch heard the fame of Jesus.

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.

The Tetrarch.” This 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.

Heard of the fame of Jesus.” The fame of our Redeemer’s wonderful works, reached Herod only at this late hour, either, probably, on account of his absence, occasioned by the war with Aretas, the father of his former wife, divorced to make room for Herodias (Josephus Antiq. xviii. c. 7), and by his having set out for Rome before John’s death, before he espoused the infamous Herodias, whom he met at his brother Philip’s house, on his way to Rome (Josephus, ibidem); or, more probably still, on account of the negligence and indifference of immoral, wicked princes, like him, in regard to all matters appertaining to religion, and owing also to the distractions arising from a multiplicity of business occupations.

Josephus states (Antiq. xviii. 5), that the Jews were firmly persuaded, that Herod’s army was cut to pieces by Aretas, king of the Arabians, as a Divine judgment, in punishment of his having put the Baptist to death.

Mat 14:2  And he said to his servants: This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works shew forth themselves in him.

And he said to his servants,” that is, his domestics and familiar attendants.

This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead.” Herod may have said this, because, he knew that many were, before this time, risen from the dead; such as, the son of the widow of Sarephta (3 Kings 17); the man coming in contact with the bones of Eliseus (4 Kings 13); and the son of the widow of Sunamis (4 Kings 4); or, it may be, that he was imbued partly with the errors of the Greeks, like many others of the Jews, who, confounding the teachings of the SS. Scriptures, regarding the resurrection of the flesh with the errors of Pythagoras, held, that the souls of the good were permitted to enter into other bodies and exist in them. This error, Josephus (Lib. 2, de Bello Jud.), attributes to the Pharisees; and hence, believing John to be raised from the dead, owing to his former virtues, and thinking him now more powerful, he adds, “And, therefore, mighty works show forth themselves,” &c. These words may mean, taking “show forth.” (Vulgate, operantur), passively, that mighty works (δυναμεις)—miraculous wonders were performed by Him, as our English version has it, “show forth themselves.” The Greek for “mighty works” (δυναμεις), signifies miraculous wonders, or, rather, the power or faculty of performing such wonders. The Greek word for “show forth themselves.” (ενεργουσι), signifies, to display active energy.

And he said.” In some readings it is, “and they said,” as if it were the opinion of others, and not the words of Herod himself that were expressed (see Mauduit, in hunc locum). There seems to be some difference between the account given here by the Evangelists. St. Luke (9:7, &c.), says, that on hearing of our Lord’s miracles, Herod “was in doubt, because it was said by some that John was risen from the dead; but by other some, that Elias had appeared; and by others, that one of the old Prophets had arisen,” and that Herod said, “John I have beheaded; but who is this?.” &c. (Luke 9:7, 8, 9.) Here it is stated by St. Matthew, that Herod unhesitatingly said, it was John the Baptist come back from the dead. To reconcile both accounts, some interpreters read the words of St. Matthew interrogatively, “Is this John the Baptist?” “Is he risen from the dead?” Others say, the words are spoken ironically and jeeringly by Herod; others hold that, in public, Herod expressed his doubts, fearing a popular commotion, but in private, speaking to his familiar associates, he gives expression to his real sentiments, regarding the resuscitation of the Baptist. Most likely, both accounts are true, and taken together, they express the real state of the ease. Herod, probably, hesitatingly asserted, as did the others, that it was John the Baptist come back to life. (Luke 9) In other words, on hearing of our Lord’s miracles, and the opinion of others, that it was John come back from the dead, he first hesitated and doubted; and afterwards believing the matter, asserted it, as here.

He asserted the matter in a hesitating manner. The hesitation is expressed by St. Luke; the assertion, without any reference to the hesitation that accompanied it, is expressed here.

Mat 14:3  For Herod had apprehended John and bound him, and put him into prison, because of Herodias, his brother’s wife.

We are informed by Josephus (Lib. Antiq. xviii. c. 5), that Herod confined John in the fortified castle of Macherus, near the Lake Asphaltites, or Dead Sea, on the borders of Arabia Petrea. That John was delivered over to Herod by the Pharisees, or at least, that they co-operated with Herod in this matter, and, probably, stimulated by envy, strongly urged him to confine John, on grounds of public safety, is, with much probability, inferred from the words of our Lord (Matt. 17:12). Josephus (Lib. Antiq. xviii. c. 5), says, Herod confined John in this strong castle out of jealousy and fear of his influence with the people. This might be one of Herod’s reasons for doing so.

Because of Herodias, his brother’s wife.” The Greek has, “the wife of Philip, his brother.” as also has the Vulgate (Mark 6:17). 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.

Mat 14:4  For John said to him: It is not lawful for thee to have her.

John having no fear of the countenance of the mighty, with Apostolic firmness and freedom of speech, neither deterred by threats, nor allured by blandishments, regardless of the consequences which he probably foresaw would cost him his head, upbraided the royal adulterer with the criminal state he was in. We are informed by St. Luke (3:19), that the Baptist also reproached Herod with other crimes.

Mat 14:5  And having a mind to put him to death, he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet.

However much Herod might have respected the virtue and sanctity of the Baptist (Mark 6:20); still, prompted by passion and stimulated by the wicked Herodias, he was anxious to do away with him. He feared, however, to have recourse to any extreme or unnecessarily harsh measures, lest the people, who regarded John as a prophet, might resent it.

Mat 14:6  But on Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced before them: and pleased Herod.

On Herod’s birth-day,” which is called (Mark 6:21) a convenient day” for carrying out the designs of Herodias, regarding the Baptist—“a convenient day” for banishing the fears and scruples of Herod, touching the sentence of a violent death against the Baptist, when he made a supper for the chief men of Galilee.

The daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.” 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.

Mat 14:7  Whereupon he promised with an oath, to give her whatsoever she would ask of him.

Heated with wine and blinded by passion, Herod “promised to give her whatsoever she would ask.” St. Mark adds (6:23), “though it were half his kingdom.” This rash and foolish promise he confirmed with the solemn sanction of an oath.

Mat 14:8  But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here 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. “Give me here on a dish, the head of John,” &c. 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.

Mat 14:9  And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given.

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 for 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 (Mark 6:21).

Mat 14:10  And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.

And he sent” (an executioner—Mark 6:27), “and beheaded John in the prison.” Josephus says, this prison 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.

Mat 14:11  And his head was brought in a dish: and it was given to the damsel, and she brought 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.

Mat 14:12  And his disciples came and took the body, and buried it, and came and told Jesus. 

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.


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