There are two kinds of “funny”, yes? There is “funny ha-ha”: the stuff that leads to punch lines and smiles and Emmy-winning sitcoms; and there is “funny strange”: the stuff that leads to furrowed brows, shaking heads, and lines like, “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Both kinds of funny involve over-the-top reality and/or presentation of reality, and both kinds are found in the Bible.
Through the Comic Lens, yesterday’s lectionary gospel reading, Mark 6:14-29 provides a profound example of the latter. It is “funny strange” in several remarkable ways.
For one, the subject matter is nothing short of macabre. John the Baptist has been publicly criticizing King Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying his brother’s wife, which has landed him in jail. Speaking truth to power in such ways can certainly lead one into such places. What’s totally weird is that Herod's new wife, to make sure John never speaks again, not only makes sure John is executed but does so by convincing her daughter Salome to dance before the King so he'll promise the girl anything, including bringing John’s head to her on a platter. Nice gift for receipt by what was probably a 12-year old.
Then there is the highly detailed, drawn-out nature of Mark’s version of the story. As you may know, Mark is known as the gospel of terse, pithy narration and the word “immediately” cutting off a scene in order to suddenly propel things elsewhere. Pretty much every episode included in Mark as well as other gospels is much shorter in Mark.
However, that’s not the case here. Matthew’s account (14:1-12) is detailed but not as detailed as Mark’s; Luke’s is but two verses (9:7-9) and deals mostly with Herod’s perplexity about John's similarity to Jesus.
And then there’s the focus of what Mark dwells upon ad infinitum: Herod’s innocence in the matter. While Matthew says Herod wanted John dead but doesn’t for fear of the crowd (14:5), Mark says “Herod feared John, knowing he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him” (6:20). What a guy! It’s that awful shrew of a wife who was wholly to blame!!
Also, in Mark, the crowd that comes to the fateful royal birthday party where Salome dances is more elaborately spelled out: in attendance were “courtiers and officers and leaders of Galilee” (6:21) And Salome’s dancing pleased not only Herod but, in Mark’s account, “his guests” (6:22). Thus, Herod needed to insist not once, but twice that he would do anything the girl asked, since it was keeping his word to his esteemed constituency that was most important. It’s what a king simply MUST do!
Very very strange! Where else in the gospels is Herod treated so nobly? Where do we find it in the writings of Josephus -- the “outside historian” who we can count on to give an objective account of gospel goings-on?
“Nowhere” is the answer. Although not mentioned much, Herod, throughout literature, is otherwise depicted as weak, cowardly or cruel.
So what are we to make of Mark 6:14-29, this most funny-strange story??
Something that jumps out to me is the surprising similarity of Mark 6:14-29 with the oddly soft treatment of Pontius Pilate permeating all of the gospels. While “outside historians" uniformly note how vindictive, inflexible, and inhumanely murderous Pilate generally was, you’d never know it reading the Bible. Like Mark’s Herod, Pilate is totally the victim in the execution that he must order - in Pilate’s case, that of Jesus.
Many New Testament scholars will note that in Pilate’s case, there was intentional whitewashing going on because gospel writers and gospel communities managing to thrive after Jesus’ crucifixion did not want to make waves with Rome. If they were to continue to survive they needed to escape Roman persecution. So, it behooved them to shape the account of Jesus’ death as primarily the fault of Jewish Temple authorities. By the time the gospels were being solidified and written down the Temple had fallen and Israelite faith tradition was in tatters. Jews became a much safer villain.
Likewise, I wonder if Mark (or some later Markan disciple who dressed up the Baptist beheading story to comprises the version we now have) wanted to divert the blame for John’s death to someone not directly associated with Roman rulership. To focus on how it was an evil schemer of marginal political lineage AND a woman to boot sure gives your story a much more palatable source of blame, especially when the real culprit continues to threateningly breathe down your neck.
At its core, no matter who much it is dressed up or down, the story of John the Baptist’s demise is a cautionary (as well as inspiring) story about what one risks when speaking truth to power. It parallels the story of what happened to Jesus. As we all probably know, it is super scary to call out corruption in our government; those in worldly power will most certainly do everything they can to make a whistleblower's life especially miserable for threatening their perverted legitimacy.
I believe one of the main original purposes of the gospels was to inspire the couple of generations of Christians following Jesus' crucifixion to continue his important work of upending Rome nonviolently by establishing a Kingdom of love (which meant continuing to speak out and risk execution similar to their Lord’s). However, it’s really interesting that at the end of the day, there are nevertheless several significant places in the story where the it seems the writers ultimately cave, suggesting that you sometimes may not need to speak truth that loudly, and instead pass the buck onto a much easier, lesser target.
I’m not sure that’s something Jesus would have approved, and it’s especially ironic that there’s a double passing of the buck in Mark — the gospel that, more than any other, set out to shame those who reneged their faith when brought before the authorities.
On the one hand, seeing this makes me sad. On the other hand, it makes me bitterly, as well as gently, smile; for, as the Bard said (and Jesus would probably concur), “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”