EXCERPT Three early martyrdoms are recorded in the New Testament: John the Baptist in ca. AD 31, Stephen in ca. AD 35 and James the apostle in ca. AD 44. There would be countless others that would follow in their train. In this article I would like to briefly consider the history and archaeology associated with the first Christian martyr, John the Baptist.
John, a relative of Jesus (Lk 1:36), prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus (Mt 3:1–3) and proclaimed Him the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah and Savior who would take away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29–31). The tetrarch, or governor, of Galilee and Perea in Transjordan at the time was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.1 For political reasons Herod Antipas married Phasaelis, daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas IV.2 While He was visiting his half-brother Herod Philip I.3 Herodias, Herod-Philip’s wife, became interested in Herod Antipas and subsequently divorced Herod Philip. Herod Antipas then divorced Phasaelis in order to marry Herodias. John condemned this union, as it was considered unlawful (Mt 14:4; Mk 6:18; Lv 20:21). At Herodias’ urging, Herod Antipas had John bound and placed in prison. Although the place of imprisonment is not given in the New Testament, Josephus states that it was in the Herodian palace Machaerus in Perea (Antiquities 18.5.2).
Mark documented the tragic details of John’s death (6:19–28):
Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl and she gave it to her mother….
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