The Martyrdom of John the Baptist
Herod Antipas smiled and nodded with approval. His step-daughter Salome* swayed and twirled in front of him and his birthday-party guests, her graceful figure filling them with longing. Her performance done, Herod and the guests applauded. Inflamed by his senses and the mood of the moment, Herod cried, "Ask me what you want--up to half my kingdom--and it is yours!" And he swore a great oath to confirm his promise.
As a Tetrarch (ruler of one-quarter of a Roman province) Herod was more than able to provide a handsome gift even by first century standards. Would Salome ask for a jeweled necklace? A dowry? A house? Herod and the guests waited to hear her request. The girl herself hesitated. Uncertain what to ask for, she whispered with her mother.
Down in the dungeons of Herod's fortress (named Machaerus), a man's fate was about to be decided. John the Baptizer was under lock and key in one of those gloomy holds. The cause was this: he had rebuked Herod for stealing another man's wife--Herodias. This woman had been married to Herod's quiet half-brother, Phillip. Herodias was furious and convinced Herod to arrest John. Herod was only too willing; he was suspicious of the large crowds John attracted.
However, once Herod got John in his lockup, he talked with him and found he liked the guy. He didn't understand what John was saying about holiness and salvation, but it seemed to be something he should hear. Instead of executing John, he gave him visitation privileges. The execution would be a bad idea, anyway: John had a lot of followers; why make them mad and risk rebellion?
Salome approached Herod. Evidently, she had made up her mind. The guests and the king turned to hear what she would ask.
"Give me now the head of John the Baptizer on a platter!" said the girl.
Even that reckless, hardened lot must have drawn sharp breaths at the gruesome request. How quickly the indulgent mood melted. Did Herod's face change? Here was an awkward demand! Used to thinking of people as objects, used to beheading men at a whim, it never occurred to him to say, "An incorruptible prophet like John the Baptizer is worth more than my whole kingdom."
Looking around at his guests, he saw only one thing. If he was to save face, he must fulfill his promise. He ordered the execution. According to a long-standing tradition, John was beheaded on this day, August 29, probably around the year A.D. 28.
What happened to John's head, we do not know. His disciples came and buried the body. Remains alleged to be his were later taken to Alexandria, Egypt, and placed in a specially built church.
When John's cousin Jesus heard the news, it hit him as hard as it would any of us. He tried to get away by himself for a time. John, who had preached Christ's coming and prepared for his messianic ministry was needlessly dead in the prime of his life.
We have no sure knowledge of Salome's fate. Herod and Herodias stuck together, performing desperate and diabolical deeds until they died.
Bible Text of John the Baptist's Death
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet. On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 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 his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. ~ Matthew 14:1-12
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. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled ; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. 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.” 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 6:19-29
* The name Salome is not biblical but is given by tradition.
- Photo by form PxHere
- Bible. New Testament. Various versions.
- Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints. Various versions.
- "John the Baptist, St." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Souvay, Charles L. "St. John the Baptist." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
Last updated 2020