When Did John Lose His Head?

Beheading John the Baptist
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Today is the Memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist. The Gospel (Mark 6:17-29) details the circumstances under which John was arrested and, eventually, executed. Catholics today might think about the relevance of this feast. John died a long time ago. It’s nice to remember he was a martyr, but what does it have to say to me today?

A lot.

When John began his ministry of baptism as a call to repentance to “prepare the way” for the Messiah, he summoned his listeners to moral reform. He told people to share life’s necessities, like food and cloaks. He told soldiers not to bully people. He told tax collectors not to cheat.

But he didn’t limit his exhortations to the positive. He called the Pharisees who came to check up on him a “brood of vipers.” And he “spoke truth to power” by telling Herod Antipas, his civil ruler as tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, to stop sleeping with his brother’s wife.

That got him into jail.  

Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great of infanticide infamy, had divorced his wife to marry the divorcee wife of his brother.  

And that is where this memorial speaks to us today.

The civil authority—Antipas—had no problem with taking his brother’s wife as his own. The Bible—the Law, Torah—did. Leviticus 20:21 made clear that taking one’s brother’s wife was “impurity,” sinful, and prohibited. John merely reminded a nominal ruler of Jews what Jews were expected to do.

If Antipas were alive today, he might not have “had John arrested and bound in prison,” as the Gospel puts it. He might eventually have branded his preaching as “hate speech” and, if he followed the practices of some “liberal democracies,” would likely have prosecuted the Baptist for promoting hate. 

No doubt Antipas and his sycophants would have launched a campaign to convince Jews that they had it wrong, that “love is love” and “love wins,” even for the incestuous. And no doubt some false prophets might have instead suggested a more extended “dialogue” with Herod to “accompany” him to “understand” the “aspirations” of Leviticus 20 while “accompanying” him to synagogue on Saturday—if he went.

In light of today’s “standards,” we might ask ourselves: Did John the Baptist actually lose his head before the executioner showed up in his cell with a nice, shiny platter?

These questions are worth asking in light of the contemporary implosion—in civil society, among some groups that call themselves “Christian,” and even in parts of the Church itself—of the received Judaeo-Christian consensus on marriage and sex. No one but the willfully blind can deny that the norms advanced in the public square about marriage and sex are incongruent with what Judaism and Christianity traditionally taught (and Catholicism still officially does) on these matters.  

There’s a common thread that runs from Antipas to today’s “dissenters” on matters of marital reality and sexual morality: the idea that an individual is the arbiter of these matters; that what the individual wants “wins”; that “love is love” if the individual says it is.

Against that radical individualism stands the long witness of Judaism and Christianity that the reality of marriage and the morality of sexual activity are objective norms which “norm” the individual. Norms measure the reality and the activity; it is not the individual, or even the community, that defines the reality and the morality.

That notion is increasingly at odds with the official view of the public square. In some ways, it is arguably the flashpoint separating the received tradition from the contemporary ethic.

Some nominal Catholics want it both ways: acquiescing in, if not promoting, the contemporary ethic while having some sentimental moments about old John the Baptist.  

Let’s be consistent: either the reality of marriage and sexual morality lies in an objective norm or in the individual. If you opt for the former, you have to call into question much of the contemporary ethic.

But if you opt for the latter, then you have to say John the Baptist was a fool who lost his head before being decapitated. Either Antipas was engaged in sinful incest or in “love.” There’s no middle ground. And one cannot evade the question by asking, “Who am I to judge?”

What’s at stake today is more than two thousand years of received Christian tradition that says the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth was right in taking the civil tetrarch of Perea and Galilee to task for copulating with his brother’s wife. Either John was right in rejecting their divorces and subsequent cohabitation or John—and the Christian tradition that lionized him—was wrong for two millennia by being “hateful” toward Mr. and Mrs. Antipas. The unspoken corollary is that Christianity is at its core at least warped, if not hateful. And there’s no pardon in contemporary cancel culture—even for a Baptizer—who opposed “love” in the name of evidently mistaken religious norms.

It seems apparent on which side the Christian needs to come down.  

[Image: The Beheading of St John the Baptist (Caravaggio)]

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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