Personally, we’ve never been unpopular with anyone, but the Vicar tells us that it’s perfectly possible to annoy or upset people by saying the wrong thing. Sometimes you can even upset people by saying the right thing, which seems quite illogical to us.
Today, the Church keeps the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist. This is, of course, not the jolliest of Feasts, and the Orthodox in fact keep it by observing a strict fast, foregoing the use of plates and refusing to eat anything round (it’s not looking good for Mary’s consumption of Minstrels today, then).
John the Baptist was put to death by Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch, son of Herod the Great.
Herod the Great was the one who tried to have Jesus killed as a baby. After his death, his kingdom was split up between his sons into four parts (“Tetrarch” means the ruler of a quarter), and Herod Antipas got Galilee, where both John and Jesus grew up and carried out much of their ministry. Herod Antipas liked to present himself as a Jewish leader, but in reality he was simply a puppet of the Roman Empire, and his public displays of piety convinced nobody when compared with the infamous excesses of his court.
The Gospels (Mark’s account is the fullest) tell us that John fell foul of Herod because he preached against Herod having divorced his first wife and then marrying Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. In fact, Philip probably wasn’t Herodias’s first husband, as he was also her son-in-law; but as the new Testament scholar Chris Tuckett comments in the Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: University Press, 2001, 898): “the relationships of the Herod family were so incestuous and tortuous that anyone could be forgiven for being somewhat confused!” [Incidentally, the Vicar once studied the Pauline Epistles under the tutelage of Professor Tuckett, and found herself somewhat confused on many occasions, but not very often forgiven, since the confusion generally stemmed from too much drinking and not enough reading.]
Herodias had actually been the wife of a different half-brother (confusingly also called Herod), and was the daughter of yet another one (Aristobulus). So, basically, Herod married a woman who was both his sister-in-law and his niece. Any way you look at it, it was a fairly messed-up situation, and nobody was very impressed with Herod for having done it, least of all his first wife’s father, the Arabian King Aretas IV of Nabatea, who started to rattle his sabres about the whole thing.
So, if John did preach against the marriage (and we have no reason to suppose that he didn’t), he would have been in good company and found many folks in Galilee who agreed with him, whether on moral grounds or purely political and practical ones.
Josephus, the Jewish historian who took on Roman citizenship and tried to explain the history and religion of Judea to Romans and Greeks, does link Herod’s marriage with John’s execution; but not so directly as the Gospel accounts. Josephus describes John as a good man, who exhorted the Jews to greater righteousness both towards God and one another, and offered them baptism with water as a symbolic purification, after purification of their souls had already been achieved by right behaviour. But if that’s all, why on earth would Herod want him dead? Here is Josephus’s answer from his work Jewish Antiquities:
Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I mentioned before, and was there put to death.
But the Gospels are right on the most important point. Whist Josephus, trying to make Judaism more palatable for the Emperor, describes John as a peaceful preacher who fell victim to Herod’s daft insecurities, the Biblical accounts make it clear that John really was both a critic of, and a threat to, the reign of Herod – and, by implication, the Roman occupiers too.
In the Gospels, John’s preaching is apocalyptic – it is about the imminent coming of the avenging God who will purify the world (Matthew 3:7-10). He calls people to baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and he does so by a river on the edge of the wilderness. Now, where else have we heard of the Hebrew people crossing both water and wilderness?
What John is doing is re-enacting the Exodus, taking penitents from the desert, through the Jordan, into the Promised Land, to possess it in holiness once again.
(John Dominic Crossan & Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus, London: SPCK, 2001, 117-8)
So John’s message was both spiritual and political – he was preaching piety towards God and justice towards neighbour as a preparation for God’s great work of liberation, when the Jewish people would once again escape from enslavement to an oppressive regime and inhabit their own land.
It was enough to get Herod – and Rome – very scared indeed.
It was enough to make John the Baptist lose his head.