Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The Banquet of Death (Herod's Party in Mark 6:14-29)

A wee snippet from my PhD research as the subject came up on Twitter.

Pic: Salome with the Head of John the Baptist-Caravaggio, from Wikimedia commons

The first feeding account is preceded by an episode unique to Mark’s gospel. ‘Only here is there an extended story in which Jesus does not appear and not directly concerned with him.’[1] In his portrayal of Herod, Mark sets up a contrast between the two ‘kings,’ Herod and Jesus.[2] Two points concern this study in particular. First, Herod’s discussion of Jesus’ identity closely parallels Jesus and Peter’s later discussion.[3] This can be seen in the following comparison of the two discourses with corresponding words and phrasing marked in bold.

Mark 6:14 -16, Καὶ ἤκουσεν ὁ βασιλεὺς Ἡρῴδης, φανερὸν γὰρ ἐγένετο τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἔλεγον ὅτι Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτίζων ἐγήγερται ἐκ νεκρῶν καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἐνεργοῦσιν αἱ δυνάμεις ἐν αὐτῷ.ἄλλοι δὲ ἔλεγον ὅτι Ἠλίας ἐστίν· ἄλλοι δὲ ἔλεγον ὅτι προφήτης ὡς εἷς τῶν προφητῶν. ἀκούσας δὲ ὁ Ἡρῴδης ἔλεγεν· ὃν ἐγὼ ἀπεκεφάλισα Ἰωάννην, οὗτος ἠγέρθη.

Mark 8:28-29, οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ λέγοντες [ὅτι] Ἰωάννην τὸν βαπτιστήν, καὶ ἄλλοι Ἠλίαν, ἄλλοι δὲ ὅτι εἷς τῶν προφητῶν. καὶ αὐτὸς ἐπηρώτα αὐτούς· ὑμεῖς δὲ τίνα με λέγετε εἶναι; ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Πέτρος λέγει αὐτῷ· σὺ εἶ ὁ χριστός.

The striking similarity between the two conversations presents them as an inclusio,[4] whereby Herod’s false conclusion prepares the reader for Peter’s later insight. It is within this inclusio, concerning Jesus’ identity, that we find both the feeding miracles.

Second, Herod’s conversation is followed by a description of a meal where Herod gives a banquet for his ‘courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee’ (6:21).[5] In the typical form of a Greco-Roman banquet the meal, δεῖπνον (6:21), would usually be followed by a drinking party, συμπόσιον, during which entertainment such as music and dancing could also occur (Plut. Quaest. conv. 612E-F).[6] During the entertainment following Herod’s banquet, Herodias’ daughter dances for the guests and John the Baptist’s fate is sealed. His head is presented on a platter like a macabre part of the feast (6:22-28). In 6:21 Herodias finds an opportune time (εὔκαιρος) to dispose of John, while in contrast the disciples have no opportunity to eat (οὐδὲ φαγεῖν εὐκαίρουν, 6:31).[7] When Jesus makes the crowd recline (ἀνακλίνω) and organises them into ‘banquets’ (συμπόσιον) in 6:39 this evokes a banquet and so links back to Herod’s birthday dinner.[8] Indeed, Herod’s δεῖπνον (6:21), main meal, finds a complement in Jesus’ συμπόσιον, drinking party. However, it should be noted both δεῖπνον and συμπόσιον could metonymically denote the whole banquet.[9]  Thus Herod’s banquet of death both provides a contrast to and sets the scene for Jesus’ feeding miracle.[10] This juxtaposition creates a narrative analogy between the adjacent Gospel pericopae, ‘through which one part of the text provides oblique commentary on another.’[11]

Reinforcing this connection is a possible allusion to 1 Kings 18:4. As Pesch argues, there is a strong parallel between the story of John, Herod and Herodias and the story of Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel.[12] Just as John opposes Herod because of Herodias, so did Elijah oppose Ahab because of Jezebel (1 Kgs 21). Just as Herodias seeks the life of John, so did Jezebel seek the life of Elijah (1 Kings 19:2). Drewermann finds both Jezebel and Herodias are linked by the motif of ‘der verhängnisvollen Allmacht einer Frau über die Königsgewalt ihres Gatten.’[13] John, of course, has already been identified with Elijah (Mark 1:6) and will be again (9:13).

The ‘groups of hundreds and fifties’ of Mark 6:40 are generally thought to evoke Moses’ arrangement of the people of Israel in Exod 18:21, 25; Deut 1:15. However, 1 Kgs 18:4, καὶ ἔλαβεν Αβδιου ἑκατὸν ἄνδρας προφήτας καὶ ἔκρυψεν αὐτοὺς κατὰ πεντήκοντα , presents a closer, albeit less prominent scriptural correspondence to ‘hundreds and fifties’ (Mark 6:40). Obadiah, Ahab’s steward, rescues a hundred prophets in groups of fifty in 1 Kings 18:4 and then sustains them with bread and water. These prophets are specifically men, ἀνήρ (LXX 18:4), which corresponds to Mark 6:44. Importantly, the immediate narrative context for Obadiah's act is, ‘when Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord’ (1 Kgs 18:4,) which corresponds with Herodias having John killed (Mark 6:14-29).[14] Immediately following, Ahab divides up the land between himself and Obadiah so that they can find grazing for the animals (1 Kgs 18:5-6). Thus Obadiah is portrayed as a pastoral herder of horses and mules who finds a way (ὁδός) to save them. Shepherding (as in Psalm 23) and the Exodus are two significant Biblical themes recognised as present in Mark 6:30-45. Given the strong parallel in 6:14-29 to the Elijah story, the mention of hundreds and fifties in 6:40 could possibly be an allusion to Obadiah (and by extension Ahab). This would serve to reinforce the contrast between Jesus and Herod, already implied by the juxtaposition of the murder of John at Herod's banquet and Jesus' feeding miracle.


[1] Boring, Mark, 176.

[2] Boring, Mark, 177.

[3] Sanae Masuda, ‘The Good News of the Miracle of the Bread: The Tradition and Its Markan Redaction’, NTS 28 (1982): 213; Marcus, Mark 8-16, 611.

[4] Feneberg, Der Jude Jesus und die Heiden, 145.

[5] Birthday celebrations were a regular part of the Greco-Roman patronage system, see Kathryn Argetsinger, ‘Birthday Rituals: Friends and Patrons in Roman Poetry and Cult’, Classical Antiquity 11 (1992): 175–93.

[6] Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2003), 31, 34–36, 49.

[7] Collins, Mark, 318.

[8] Collins, Mark, 324.

[9] Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist, 49.

[10] Aus, Feeding the Five Thousand, 131–32; Collins, Mark, 324; Garland, Mark, 254; Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 217; Sick, ‘The Symposium of the 5,000’, 14. On the socio-economic significance of this contrast see Alicia J. Batten, ‘Fish Tales’, BTB 47 (2017): 11.

[11] Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 21.

[12] Pesch, Das Markusevangelium, 1.339; also Collins, Mark, 307; Thomas R. Hatina, ‘Embedded Scripture Texts and the Plurality of Meaning: The Announcement of the “Voice from Heaven” in Mark 1.11 as a Case Study’, in Biblical Interpretation in Early Christian Gospels, Volume 1: The Gospel of Mark, ed. Thomas R. Hatina, LNTS 304 (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 42.

[13] ‘The fateful omnipotence of a woman over the royal power of her husband.’ Drewermann, Das Markusevangelium, 407. This in no way absolves Herod of guilt for John’s murder, however. See Hatina, ‘Embedded Scripture Texts and the Plurality of Meaning’, 39–40.

[14] Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 331.

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