Why is Mark 6:14-29 in Mark's gospel?

Thu, 09/07/2009 - 11:27 -- James Oakley

Why is Mark 6:14-29 in Mark's gospel?

It's a good question. Mark devotes significantly more space to the death of John the Baptist than the other gospel writers, yet it is a story that involves neither Jesus nor his disciples. Mark's gospel is usually characterised by brevity; he rarely uses 10 words if 5 will do; Matthew and Luke (when they record the same events as those found in Mark) almost always contain a longer and fuller account. Yet the death of John the Baptist seems an exception - for some reason, he thinks it so important that he devotes about one fortieth of his gospel to the story. Why?

To make things more confusing, the chronology and the focus of the story is ambiguous. The story of John the Baptist is set in the account of Herod deliberating who Jesus is. Is this a story about who Jesus is? If so, why does the account of John's death itself take up so much space and involve so much detail? Or is this a story about John the Baptist? If so, why is Mark concerned with Herod's questions? And why does Mark record a "flash-back" like this. Jesus only begun his ministry after John's arrest; at some point after that, but before 6:16, John is executed. Herod hears of Jesus' ministry and thinks back to John's death. Why?

This post will attempt to look at the details of Mark 6:14-29, as it is found within its context in Mark's gospel, and to answer that question. (It's a longer than average post for this blog).

The question is being asked throughout Mark 1:1-8:29, “Who is this man?”. This questions reaches its climax as Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is and Peter answers that he is the Christ. This is a turning point in Mark’s gospel; after this, the question is more why Jesus came and what it means to follow him. At this climax, the report is given that people say Jesus is some kind of prophetic figure – either John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets.

In Mark 6, Herod has heard of Jesus’ miracles and teaching, and it is his turn to ask who Jesus is. However, before recording Herod deliberating on this question, Mark chooses to record the theories people were generally holding. He records the same three theories that come out in Mark 8: John, Elijah or another prophet.

Mark did not need to record this detail as background to Herod’s reflections; he could simply have recorded Herod’s theory that John had come back to life. We will get the three widely-circulating theories in chapter 8, so it is superfluous for Mark to record those same three theories here as well. At least, it would be superfluous, unless Mark recorded this detail so as to encourage the reader to link the two stories. Indeed, one rhetorical technique Mark uses a great deal is to link apparently disconnected stories to encourage the reader to think about the connections.

So Mark intends the reader to see Mark 6:14-16 and Mark 8:28-30 as belonging together. Both record one man giving his view of Jesus in the light of the same three generally prevailing theories. Mark 6:14-16 indicates that we are getting close to the climax of Mark 8:29. Mark 6:16 records the wrong conclusion to reach, whereas Mark 8:29 records the correct conclusion. Mark 6:14-16 is thus a foil against which to see Mark 8:28-30. The reader is being invited to respond this way (8:29), not that way (6:16). Indeed, it could be argued that Mark 6:30-8:27 charts the story of how Jesus brought his disciples to the point whereby they drew the right conclusions about Jesus. These intervening verses are the movement from Herod to Peter.

So what is Herod’s answer to the same question Peter dealt with so well? He says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Herod’s answer is to remember the story recorded in 6:17-29. Herod, in effect, says that he thinks Jesus sounds just like John. For Herod, that is ominous because John was beheaded by Herod even though he knew he was innocent, so John’s return could indicate a reckoning for Herod. But it also means that Jesus sounds to Herod like the man who challenged Herod’s way of life, regarding whom Herod attempted to sit on the fence, and whom Herod ended up silencing against his better judgement.

Herod, unlike Peter in 8:29, makes the wrong response to Jesus. That wrong response is to regard Jesus as another John. So the wrong response to Jesus is the response that Herod made to John. The story of John’s beheading expounds the wrong way to respond to Jesus. The wrong way to respond is to find his teaching intriguing, to find that it is enjoyable to listen to him, but for fear of what others may think, or for fear of losing power and influence, to conclude that it would be costly to give up everything for him as Lord and Christ.

Mark 6 also picks up on another theme in Mark’s gospel that has been developing. We saw in chapters 2 and 3 that Jesus was rejected by the religious authorities and his family. This is picked up in 6:1-6 where Jesus is rejected in his home town, and in 6:7-13 where it is clear that those who speak for Jesus will also be rejected.

The theme of Jesus, and those who speak for him, being rejected reaches a climax in 6:14-29. John’s role was to be a spokesman who pointed people to Jesus. 6:14-29 brings this theme of rejection in two dimensions. First, it becomes clear that rejection can be so severe that it leads to martyrdom. The price that Jesus and his followers have to pay could be death itself. Second, it becomes clear that one source of this rejection could be the civic authorities. Inevitably, they will become aware of what is being done in Jesus’ name, and will find this a challenge to their authority.

It is at this point that we note the parallels that Mark draws between the death of John and the death of Jesus that will be recorded in chapter 15. Jesus pays the ultimate price of death, and this death comes from the civil government. John suffers the same fate, and by doing so demonstrates that those who point others to Jesus are not exempt from being treated in the same way as Jesus.

To conclude, Mark 6:14-29 picks up on two big themes within Mark. First, the theme of the identity of Jesus is nearing its climax; the reader is invited to identify with Herod in the story, and to respond to Jesus in a better way than he did. Second, the theme of the opposition faced by Jesus and his followers reaches a local climax; the reader is invited to identify with John in the story, and to see the extent and source of the opposition that may be coming.

Those two themes relate to one another. Herod’s wrong response to John ultimately traced back to his fear of opposition. So the reader today is asked to realise that following Jesus could be as costly as John discovered it to be. Herod realised that, and made the wrong choice; the reader of Mark is asked to realise this, but to follow Jesus however costly it proves to be. The reason why this is a wise choice, and not a form of suicide, will not be developed until 8:34-38.

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matthew's picture
Submitted by matthew on

Good stuff, James. I have a couple of other suggestions.

First, one of the key OT backgrounds to the feeding of the 5000, the very next story in Mk 6, is Ezekiel 34, where God warns the shepherds of Israel that he will come and judge them, and will himself shepherd his people, through his servant David. The sin of Israel's shepherds is described as devouring the sheep. So, in Mk 6 you have Herod the false shepherd (king), serving up John the Baptist on a platter at his feast. In contrast, you have Jesus, Yahweh's true shepherd having compassion on the sheep without a shepherd and feeding them. More than that, one of the things Mark is doing in chaps 6-8 is showing how the twelve are really not much different from Herod/the pharisees, and need a miracle to open their blind eyes - hence the exhortation, which they don't understand to beware the leaven of the pharisees and herodians (8:15). And what do they do? When they see the crowds that Jesus is about to feed, they try to send them away: just like Ezekiel's evil shepherds, they scatter the sheep; they're mini-Herods.

A second thing that I think Mark is doing in these chapters is re-telling the Exodus. Jesus calls 12 to him and sends them out with clothing instructions reminiscent of the passover - belt, staff, sandals; he repeatedly gives bread in the wilderness; he shows himself a Moses, a true interpreter of the commandments of God (7:6ff); the pharisees argue (~grumble) and test Jesus and the disciples have hard hearts (cf. Ps 95 - 'test', 'hard hearts' in the wilderness, and 'this generation'). And, near the start of all of this, right after Jesus has sent out the 12, Herod is Pharaoh the tyrant.

James Oakley's picture
Submitted by James Oakley on

Both those suggestions make a lot of sense to me as well. I'll keep thinking - one of the challenges I find is how to see all these different perspectives on the same passage as perspectives on the same thing.

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