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Mark 6:14-29

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[1] 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).[2] 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 Her