Problem: Herod did or didn't want to kill John
Verses: Mark 6:19-26, Matthew 14:5-9; Status: Minor

Mark, who wrote first, records that it was Herod's wife Herodias who wanted John the Baptist killed. This is Mark 6:19-20:

And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. (ESV)

By contrast, this is Matthew 14:5:

And though he [Herod] wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. (ESV)

So Mark indicates that the malice came from Herod's wife. In Matthew, it is Herod himself who wants to kill John. (For the avoidance of doubt, this is a different Herod from the one who massacred the infants: he died earlier.)

I think it's obvious Matthew has simply altered the story he found in Mark's gospel, which he used as a source. However, it's just about possible to say that Herod really did want to kill John (as Matthew says), but that he still enjoyed speaking with him (as Mark says). When Mark tells us that Herod feared John's holiness, this could mean that he feared what the people's reaction to his death would be (as Matthew says).

A digression on Markan priority

We know that the synoptic gospels are related, but how do we know that Mark wrote his first? There are many reasons, but this story itself contains strong evidence. Towards the end of the story, Herod allows his step-daughter one wish, and Herodias gets her to wish for the head of John on a platter. Here are Mark 6:26 and Matthew 14:9 respectively:

And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. (ESV)
And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. (ESV)

Both essentially the same. This is fascinating, because Matthew has kept a sentence from Mark that is incompatible with a change he made. In Mark it makes sense that Herod would be grieved about killing John whose holiness he feared and whose company he enjoyed, whereas in Matthew it really doesn't. The best explanation for this inconsistency in Matthew is that he simply copied the later verse from Mark, without noticing that it contradicted the change he had made earlier.

Having said that, I suppose you could say that in Matthew's version Herod is "sorry" that he will have to anger the people by killing John.

Still... another point is that here Matthew calls Herod "king" even though earlier (Matthew 14:1) he had given him the correct title of "tetrarch". This is further evidence that, by the end of the story, Matthew had just started to copy Mark wholesale - otherwise he would have continued to use the correct title.

There is a lot more evidence for Markan priority than just this story, of course. If you have time, I urge you to read Mark Goodacre's article below.

Updated: 2009-01-10

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