Did Herod Want to Kill John the Baptist?

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For Herod had laid hold of John and bound him, and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. Because John had said to him, "It is not lawful for you to have her." And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. (Matthew 14:3–5, NKJV)
For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife." Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly. (Mark 6:17–20, NKJV)

At first blush it appears that Matthew 14:3–5 and Mark 6:20 are contradictory. Matthew states that Herod (this is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great) wanted to kill John, but, like the Pharisees (Matthew 21:25–26), he feared that the popular support of John would cause civil unrest and might be hazardous to his continued reign should he execute John.

But Mark records that Herod Antipas feared John, respected him as a prophet to some degree, and protected him from his wife, Herodias. So are these irreconcilable differences? Can you hate, fear, and respect someone all at the same time? Could these be progressions of feelings by Herod Antipas over the course of time? Or did he simply change his mind by being around John the Baptist and hearing him speak? We know that Scripture does not contain any true contradictions, for God, who inspired the human authors of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16) cannot lie (Titus 1:2). Indeed when we look closely at what the Bible says about Herod and his dealings with John, we see that there is no contradiction here.

Of course it might help to examine a little of the historical backdrop presented in the Gospels. Matthew and Mark both record that Herod had John put in prison for the sake of his wife, Herodias (and almost certainly at her instigation). Herod Antipas had divorced his first wife, Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas of Nabataea because he had visited the palace of his half-brother Philip and became infatuated with Philips’ wife Herodias. She also desired Antipas, and divorced Philip to marry him.

Angry with John, Herod threw him in prison, and his wife clamored for John to be executed.

John roundly condemned this act, and apparently recited and condemned an entire list of evils which Herod had done in front of Herod’s court, as Luke 3:19 points out. It seems as if it was early in Herod’s encounters with John that Herod hated him and wanted to put him to death, as Matthew 14 records. For a despotic ruler, usually surrounded by flattering courtiers, to suddenly be called out on his actions—and even worse, to have his wife and the legitimacy of his marriage challenged—must have infuriated Herod. Angry with John, Herod threw him in prison, and his wife clamored for John to be executed. But Herod knew that the people loved John, and killing him would cause a riot; so Herod Antipas likely reasoned that even if the people didn’t succeed in deposing (or killing) him, the Romans might for allowing rebellion to fester in response to his own personal actions. Herod was an Idumean ruler, allowed by Rome to serve as a buffer between the Jews and their Gentile (Roman) emperor. But like his father, he was shrewd and sought to balance his despotism over his tetrarchy, with a diplomatic desire to avoid being noticed by Rome. In fact, being noticed by Rome brought about his downfall, when Caligula had him removed from office and exiled to Gaul in 39 AD.

Now at this point in Scripture, John was incarcerated and out of sight and mind of the Jewish populace. Some of the crowds that came to hear John were now going out to hear Jesus, who started his public ministry just after John was put in prison (Mark 1:14). Perhaps now Herodias intensified her pleas to have John executed (Mark 6:19), but Herod, still fearing the people, resisted and protected John. But something else was happening too. It is apparent from the Mark 6 text that Herod conversed with John, either going down to visit him in his cell (away from his wife) or having him brought up in secret to his chambers. Otherwise, the text of Mark 6:20 makes no sense. It specifically states that Herod knew that John “was a just and holy man and he . . . heard [John] gladly.”

Sometime after he had John arrested and imprisoned, Herod’s attitude turned from hate and hostility, to one of (perhaps grudging) respect and even eagerness to hear John speak (Mark 6:20). Notice that even while imprisoned, John’s disciples were allowed to visit him and carry messages to others (Matthew 11:2–4; Luke 7:18–23). Mark records that Herod was sorry (Mark 6:26) when he was more or less tricked into executing John. Perhaps in the space of a few seconds Herod rationalized that going back on public promises might prove as hazardous to his continued rule as having John executed. Plus Herod also realized that John’s influence over the people had declined while he was imprisoned and had been eclipsed by this new healer and teacher out of Galilee, making John more expendable. Although Herod regretted having to kill John at this point, his pride and perhaps fear of losing his office quickly swayed him into ordering the execution.

It is apparent that Herod had a superstitious fear of John, even after having him killed. He started to hear reports of the public ministry of Jesus and was perplexed about the reports, at first dismissing rumors that Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected (Luke 9:7–9). However, later he became convinced that this was true and was under the (quite mistaken) impression that Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated (Matthew 14:2; Mark 6:14, 16).

Scripture portrays a gradual pattern of Herod’s relationship with John the Baptist.

Scripture portrays a gradual pattern of Herod’s relationship with John the Baptist. It started out as one of hate and anger, and then gradually changed over time. Even after John’s death, Herod’s attitude shifted from confidence of John’s death to one of almost paranoia that John had risen from the dead. While some may think such a love/hate and fear/respect relationship unlikely for a man of Herod’s rank, keep in mind that Scripture records King Ahab having similar relationships with the prophets Elijah and Micaiah (1 Kings 18, 21, 22) as did Zedekiah with the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 32:2–3, 37:16–21, 38:14–20).

In fact, rather than Matthew 14:3–5 and Mark 6:17–20 being contradictory, they show the progression of Herod’s complex relationship with John. Herod started out hating John for public denouncements, but the more he listened to John, the more evident it became that he was a prophet and a great man. Even Jesus had stated this (Luke 7:28) while addressing the multitudes who had heard John speak and had been baptized by him. But Herod had heard John speak many times and had private meetings with him. Even though John probably continued to condemn Herod’s marriage and preach repentance, something about the man captivated Herod and turned hatred into respect and admiration. This fits exactly the portrayal of John given by Jesus in Luke 7:24–29. John had a great effect on the people he spoke to, causing them to recognize the justice of God (Luke 7:29), and as Jesus also stated, John was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah (Matthew 11:9–10).

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