[This is John, &c.] Was not Herod of the Sadducean faith? For that which is said by Matthew, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees," chapter 16:6, is rendered by Mark, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod," chapter 8:15; that is, 'of their doctrine.'
If, therefore, Herod embraced the doctrine of the Sadducees, his words, "This is John the Baptist, he is risen from the dead," seem to be extorted from his conscience, pricked with the sting of horror and guilt, as though the image and ghost of the Baptist, but newly butchered by him, were before his eyes: so that his mind is under horror; and forgetting his Sadduceism, groaning and trembling, he acknowledgeth the resurrection of the dead, whether he will or no.
Or let it be supposed, that with the Pharisees he owned the resurrection of the dead; yet certainly it was unusual for them that confessed it to dream of the resurrection of one that was but newly dead: they expected there should be a resurrection of the dead hereafter: but this, which Herod speaks, believes, and suspects, is a great way distant from that doctrine, and seems, indeed, to have proceeded from a conscience touched from above.
4. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. [Herod has taken his brother's wife.]
[It is not lawful for thee to have her.] "There are thirty-six cuttings off in the law": that is, sinners who deserve cutting off. And among the rest, he that lies with his brother's wife. Philip was now alive, and lived to the twentieth year of Tiberius.
6. But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.
[And when Herod's birthday was kept.] The Jewish schools esteem the keeping of birthdays a part of idolatrous worship: perhaps they would pronounce more favourably and flatteringly of thine, O tetrarch, because thine.
These are the times of idolaters: the Kalends; the Saturnalia;...the birthday of the kingdom; and the day of a man's birth...
[The daughter of Herodias danced.] Not so much out of lightness, as according to the custom of the nation, namely, to express joy and to celebrate the day. The Jews were wont in their public and more than ordinary rejoicings, and also in some of their holy festivals, to express their cheerfulness by leaping and dancing. Omitting the examples which occur in the holy Bible, it is reported by the Fathers of the Traditions, that the chief part of the mirth in the feast of Tabernacles consisted in such kind of dancing: the chief men, the aged, and the most religious, dancing in the Court of the Women; and by how much the more vehemently they did it, so much the more commendable it was. The gesture, therefore, or motion of the girl that danced took not so much with Herod, as her mind and affection: namely, because hereby she shewed honour towards his birthday, and love and respect towards him, and joy for his life and health: from whom, indeed, Herod had little deserved such things, since he had deprived her father Philip of his wife, and defiled her mother with unlawful wedlock and continual incest.
7. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.
[He promised her with an oath, &c.] This kind of oath is called by the Talmudists a rash oath: concerning which see Maimonides, and the Talmudic tract under that title. If the form of the oath were "by his head," which was very usual, the request of the maid very fitly, though very unjustly, answered to the promise of the king; as if she should say, 'You swore by your head that you would give me whatsoever I shall ask; give me, then, the head of John Baptist.'
10. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.
[He beheaded John.] Josephus relates that John was imprisoned by Herod in Machaerus: Through the suspicion of Herod he was sent prisoner to Machaerus. Now Machaerus was the utmost bounds of Perea: and Perea was within Herod's jurisdiction. But now if John lay prisoner there, when the decree went out against his life, the executioner must have gone a long journey, and which could scarcely be performed in two days from Tiberias, where the tyrant's court was, to execute that bloody command. So that that horrid dish, the head of the venerable prophet, could not be presented to the maid but some days after the celebration of his birthday.
The time of his beheading we find out by those words of the evangelist John, "but now the Passover was nigh," by reasoning after this manner: It may be concluded, without all controversy, that the disciples, as soon as they heard of the death of their master, and buried him, betook themselves to Christ, relating his slaughter, and giving him caution by that example to take care of his own safety. He hearing of it passeth over into the desert of Bethsaida, and there he miraculously feeds five thousand men, when the Passover was now at hand, as John relates, mentioning that story with the rest of the evangelists. Therefore we suppose the beheading of the Baptist was a little before the Passover, when he had now been in durance half a year, as he had freely preached by the space of half a year before his imprisonment.
13. When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities.
[He departed thence by ship into a desert place, &c.] That is, from Capernaum into the desert of Bethsaida, which is rendered by John, He went over the sea Which is to be understood properly, namely, from Galilee into Perea. The chorographical maps have placed Bethsaida in Galilee, on the same coast on which Capernaum is also: so also commentators feign to themselves a bay of the sea only coming between these two cities, which was our opinion once also with them: but at last we learned of Josephus, that Bethsaida was in the upper Gaulanitis, (which we observe elsewhere,) on the east coast of the sea of Gennesaret in Perea.
[They followed him on foot.] From hence interpreters argue that Capernaum and Bethsaida lay not on different shores of the sea, but on the same: for how else, say they, could the multitude follow him afoot? Very well, say I, passing Jordan near Tiberias, whose situation I have elsewhere shewn to be at the efflux of Jordan out of the sea of Galilee. They followed him afoot from the cities, saith our evangelist: now there were cities of some note very near Capernaum, Tarichea on one side, Tiberias on the other. Let it be granted that the multitude travelled out of these cities after Christ; the way by which they went afoot was at the bridge of Jordan in Chammath: that place was distant a mile or something less from Tiberias, and from Capernaum three miles or thereabouts. Passing Jordan, they went along by the coast of Magdala; and, after that, through the country of Hippo: now Magdala was distant one mile from Jordan, Hippo two; and after Hippo was Bethsaida, at the east shore of the sea; and after Bethsaida was a bay of the sea, thrusting out itself somewhat into the land; and from thence was the desert of Bethsaida. When, therefore, they returned back from thence, he commands his disciples to get into a ship, and to go to Bethsaida, while he sent the multitude away, whence he would afterward follow them on foot, and would sail with them thence to Capernaum.
17. And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes.
[Two fishes.] What kind of fish they were we do not determine. That they were brought hither by a boy to be sold, together with the five loaves, we may gather from John, chapter 6:9. The Talmudists discourse very much of salt fish. I render the word salt fish, upon the credit of the Aruch: he citing this tradition out of Beracoth, "Do they set before him first something salt, and with it a morsel? He blesseth over the salt meat, and omits [the blessing] over the morsel, because the morsel is, as it were, an appendix to it. The salt meat, saith he, is to be understood of fish, as the tradition teacheth, that he that vows abstinence from salt things is restrained from nothing but from salt fish." Whether these were salt fish, it were a ridiculous matter to attempt to determine; but if they were, the manner of blessing which Christ used is worthy to be compared with that which the tradition now alleged commands.
20. And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.
[And they did all eat, and were filled.] So eating, or a repast after food, is defined by the Talmudists; namely, "When they eat their fill. Rabh saith, All eating, where salt is not, is not eating." The Aruch citing these words, for salt, reads something seasoned, and adds, "It is no eating, because they are not filled."
22. And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.
[And immediately he compelled his disciples, &c.] The reason of this compulsion is given by St. John, namely, because the people seeing the miracle were ambitious to make him a king: perhaps that the disciples might not conspire to do the same, who as yet dreamed too much of the temporal and earthly kingdom of the Messias.
23. And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.
[When the evening was come.] So verse 15, but in another sense: for that denotes the lateness of the day; this, the lateness of the night. So evening, in the Talmudists, signifies not only the declining part of the day, but the night also: "from what time do they recite the phylacteries in the evening? From the time when the priests go in to eat their Truma, even to the end of the first watch, as R. Eliezer saith; but, as the wise men say, unto midnight; yea, as Rabban Gamaliel saith, even to the rising of the pillar of the morning." Where the Gloss is, in the evening, that is, in the night.
25. And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.
[In the fourth watch of the night.] That is, after cock crowing: the Jews acknowledge only three watches of the night, for this with them was the third; The watch is the third part of the night. Thus the Gloss upon the place now cited. See also the Hebrew commentators upon Judges 7:19. Not that they divided not the night into four parts, but that they esteemed the fourth part, or the watch, not so much for the night as for the morning. So Mark 13:35, that space after cockcrowing is called the morning. See also Exodus 14:24. There were, therefore, in truth, four watches of the night, but only three of deep night. When, therefore, it is said that Gideon set upon the Midianites in the "middle watch of the night," Judges 7:19, it is to be understood of that watch which was indeed the second of the whole night, but the middle watch of the deep night: namely, from the ending of the first watch to midnight.