The Death of John the Baptist in the Bible

John the Baptist, shown in a painting by Cornelis van Haarlem, was executed by Herod Antipas.
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John the Baptist remains a puzzling, inspiring and controversial figure. A forerunner to and relative of Jesus Christ, John was a popular preacher and center of a circle of followers in the Jordan River valley; significantly, he baptized Jesus. He holds a special place among Christian saints, being the only one besides the Virgin Mary whose birthday is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church. John’s story ends with a salacious tragedy, however, an episode celebrated in art and literature. The Bible’s account of the death of John the Baptist is much more concise.

1 Context

The ruler of Galilee during most of Jesus’ life was Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas was a “tetrarch,” a client king ruling by permission of the Roman Empire. The Biblical Archaeology Society calls him “fairly passive but successful” as a ruler. The synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, mention Herod, but none names his stepdaughter Salome, referring to her simply as the daughter of Herodias, Herod’s wife.

2 Matthew

The Book of Matthew, chapter 14, verses 1-12, recounts John’s death. According to Matthew, Herod imprisoned John because he criticized Herod's marriage to Herodias, who had been his brother’s wife. Herod fears to execute John, however, because the public believes he is a prophet. When Herod’s stepdaughter dances for his guests, she so pleases the king that he promises her any reward she wants, and her mother urges her to demand “the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” Bound by his promise, Herod complies, and the girl delivers John’s head to her mother; Jesus’ disciples bury the body.

3 Mark

The Book of Mark gives a similar but more detailed account, in chapter 6, verses 14-29. Herod has imprisoned John for the same insults about his marriage to Herodias, but Mark elaborates on the queen’s reaction, saying she “had a grudge against” John. Here, Herod refuses to execute his wife’s enemy because he recognizes John as “a righteous and holy man,” adding that he enjoys listening to John’s preaching, although he finds it perplexing. The rest of the episode matches Matthew’s account, with additional detail, such as about the disciples' entombment of the body.

4 Luke

The Book of Luke, chapter 9, gives the briefest account of John’s death in the Bible, in verses 7-9. Neither Herodias nor her daughter appears at all. Hearing that John has returned in the person of Jesus, a rumor that appears early in Matthew’s and Mark’s version as well, Herod wonders about this enigmatic preacher, Jesus, knowing that “John I beheaded.” Luke does not provide any motivation for Herod’s execution of John.

Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.