Long before I started my academic study of the Bible I was an English major and am currently an English teacher. My love for literature and narrative is part of what drove me to seminary for graduate work. Once I realized that the Bible, which I had loved and studied all of my life, consisted largely of narratives and poetry—in short, literature—and that it can (and should) be examined using many of the same techniques employed by literary critics, I was hooked.
My education in both biblical studies and literature have cultivated in me an eye that tends to immediately notice the literary beauty of a passage–the techniques and devices utilized by the author(s) to craft their message. It’s important that anyone reading the Bible develop some ability to identify such things, as God’s word does not exist in a vacuum; its form is often extremely important to its message and function.
This seems especially true to me in the case of the Markan account of John the Baptist’s beheading (Mark 6:14-29). Reading this passage in the context of Mark’s story and alongside the Synoptic parallels (Matt 14:1-12; Luke 9:7-9; cf. John 3:24) raises a number of interesting questions. The primary one for me is: Why do Mark and the others feel it necessary to even include this story in the Gospels? Literarily the passage reads as more of a diversion from the main story of Jesus’ life and ministry, coming as it does right between Jesus’ commissioning of the twelve disciples (Mark 6:6b-13) and the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mark 6:30-44), than as an important plot point that needs to be included. The second major question is why the author chooses to tell the story of John’s beheading as, essentially, a flashback, rather than in the narrative past tense? This is fairly unusual in the biblical text, which tends to be quite straightforward, even terse at times in its storytelling, especially in Mark. So this literary detail jumped out at me immediately.
I believe there are answers to both these questions that actually do help us understand something important about the message of the Gospel of Mark. So let’s briefly break down this passage to get to it. I’m going to begin with the second question first because I believe answering it is necessary to arrive at an answer to the first. So, why is this story told in flashback?
When I was rereading this passage I found myself thinking of how it would be filmed if it was a movie or television show, because it contains several elements that lend themselves to this analogy. First, as I mentioned, the story of John the Baptist here interrupts the main narrative. In the passage just previous (6:6a-13) Jesus has sent his disciples out “two by two” (v. 7). Then he gives them some seemingly odd instructions about how to conduct themselves as they go from town to town preaching his message (vv. 8-11). This is followed by a brief statement indicating the disciples did as he instructed, and apparently made Jesus somewhat well-known. We learn this because the next passage (vv. 14-29) begins by telling us that Herod had heard of Jesus, and rumors were being spread that he was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Herod, like so many others, was puzzled by Jesus’ character and actions, and had no other category or model to use when assessing him; they all assumed he must be a resurrected John the Baptist,because he was the closest thing to this miracle-working preacher they had ever known.
This is where you can almost envision the flashback of a tv or movie. The narrator seems to suddenly realize that he has referenced John’s death, but hasn’t told the audience yet how John came to BE dead. After all, the last time we saw him in Mark, John was very much alive, well, and baptizing Jesus (1:9-13). (So cue the sepia-toned memory!) However, even the flashback doesn’t tell the story directly. Note that the details of John’s beheading are actually framed once again by indicating they had ALREADY happened: “For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested…” (v. 17); “For John had been saying” (v. 18). This telescoping one step further backwards in time makes John’s beheading story feel like a flashback WITHIN a flashback.
The switch from the narrative past which has been used for most of the Gospel, to the past perfect is not insignificant. It is a grammatical structure that moves John’s story one step further away from the main narrative about Jesus’s ministry, which has been the primary storyline up to this point. Matthew also uses mostly past perfect to tell the story, but Luke does not. Interestingly, Luke only has Herod mention that he had beheaded John (9:9), giving no detail at all, and not telling the story of how it happened. The Gospel of John contains even less, only mentioning the Baptist’s death in a passing parenthetical remark and leaving the method of death out completely (John 3:24).
So, this brings us to the first question from above: Why do Mark and Matthew feel the need to include the details of John’s death at all when Luke and John do not? As with most things, there is probably more than one reason.
Firstly, I think Matthew and Mark include the story to make a stark distinction between the end of John’s ministry and the beginning of Jesus’s. They both had introduced John quite lavishly earlier in the story as the forerunner of Jesus, who in essence passes on his ministry and mission to this one who is greater than him. (Or perhaps it’s better to refer to John giving back Jesus’ ministry, which he had simply been tending up to this point). So, narratively it makes sense to close the circle for the audience on this B-plot.
Also, although Jesus has been teaching and performing miracles for several chapters already in Mark, the passage just prior to this one shows Jesus establishing a more formal, official ministry by sending out his disciples. So narratively it’s an ideal time to bring John’s story to an end.
At this point, the purpose of John’s character–announcing the coming new kingdom and introducing the Christ–is complete. His work here is done. Just as one of the major stages in the hero’s journey often involves the death of his mentor, allowing him to continue the journey and realize his greatest triumph on his own–see Obi Wan, Dumbledore, Gandalf (sorta)–so John, although not exactly a “mentor,” must leave the story in order to allow Jesus to shine alone. The account in the Fourth Gospel makes this especially clear. The author of John emphasizes the Baptist’s role as a forerunner of Jesus and his ministry (see below), and then gets him off the stage as soon as possible (in chapter 3!) to let Jesus take center stage. He apparently doesn’t feel the need for an explanation of how this happened, probably assuming his audience knew the details. He was more concerned about crafting his theological narrative than leaving a detailed historical record of what precisely happened to the Baptist.
Secondly, and maybe more importantly, I believe all the Gospels, but Mark and Matthew especially, take special pains to embed the story of John the Baptist within Jesus’ own narrative, making John’s sub-plot truly subservient to Jesus’s main plot, thus the use of the past-perfect tense. This is a grammatical reflection of John’s secondary status, which is emphasized often in the gospel story, even by John himself. John states a number of times that he is only a placeholder, a precursor, to the real deal, the “one who is to come” (Mk 1:7-8; Mt 3:11, 13; Lk 3:16). While the Johannine narrative emphasizes this more strongly than the Synoptics (Jn 1:7-8, 15; 30-31; 3:27-30), it is still the clear understanding in all the versions.
How clever of the author to find a narratively structural way to reflect and emphasize the important theological point of John’s purpose and identity in comparison to Jesus! This is a great example of form reflecting function. But why is this point so important theologically? I think perhaps it was partly a practical one in the original context of Jesus’s day. Jesus was far from the only preaching miracle worker to travel around ancient Judea and Galilee casting out demons, healing the sick, teaching and gaining followers. And even non-religious figures were sometimes believed to have special healing abilities (emperors and kings especially). But the Gospels present Jesus’s healing and teaching ministry as something unique, even in a world full of such figures. John the Baptist himself admits that his ministry is only a poor shadow of the ministry of the one who will come after him. The anticipated one will be something special: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk 1:8).
So subordinating John and his ministry to that of Jesus was important practically as well as theologically. The audience of the gospels needed to understand that Jesus was not just another character like John, who would work side by side him, or worse a rival who might try to poach John’s disciples (cf. John 3:22-26). No, the Gospel writers needed to make clear that Jesus is both practically and theologically unique, because he is from God in a way that no one else is or has ever been, including the former prophets who John has imitated and symbolically represents. This very important theological point is clearly expressed not only in the words of the text, but in the very form of the text itself.
 A note of clarification. The “Herod” referred to here is Herod Antipas, the ruler (“tetrarch”) of Galilee from the death of his father Herod the Great in 4 BCE until 39 CE. Herod the Great is the more well-known Herod from the biblical narratives of Jesus’ birth and ruled as king of Judea starting around 37 or 36 BCE.
 All Biblical quotations are from the New International Version of the Holy Bible (2011).
 Notably Luke is the only Gospel that tells the story of John’s miraculous birth, sandwiched into the narrative of Jesus’ nativity (1:5-25; 57-66), and yet doesn’t feel the need to detail his death.