The Baptizer Beheaded at Esther’s Banquet

The Gospel of Mark includes a digression on the execution of John the Baptist, who was imprisoned by Herod Antipas for his incautious remarks about the king’s illicit marriage to his brother’s wife (Mk 6:16-18). Herod was reluctant to kill the prophet, however, both because of his popularity and because he was genuinely moved by his holiness and insight (6:19-20). At his birthday party, though, Herod was trapped — seduced by his step-daughter, Salome, Herod foolishly offers her anything she would care for, up to half his kingdom (ἕως ἡμίσους τῆς βασιλείας μου), at which point her mother instructs her to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter (6:21-24). Chagrined, but bound by his word (given before a large crowd), Herod carries out her wish (6:25-27).

As Mark narrates it, this story parodies an episode in the book of Esther. Ahasuerus (aka Artaxerxes) brings his new queen, Esther, to a banquet. (She’s a Jew, despite the fact that all Jews within the Persian Empire have been sentenced to death through the machinations of Haman, the king’s advisor). Ahasuerus suddenly finds himself offering Esther anything she’d like, up to half his kingdom (ἕως τοῦ ἡμίσους τῆς βασιλείας μου, 7:1-2 [LXX]), and she immediately begs relief for her kinsmen, and especially her father, who is soon to be executed (7:3-5).

Mark, it seems to me, uses these allusions to (and, in the central case, a brief quotation from) Esther to paint Herod as worse even than the pagan overlords: where Ahasuerus was moved by love to clemency toward the Jews, Herod is trapped by lust into killing the Baptizer. Interestingly, this is the only allusion to Esther in the NT, so far as I’m aware.

This entry was posted in Bible, Esther, Herod Antipas, Intertextuality, John the Baptist, Mark, Matthew, OT in the NT, Synoptic Problem and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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