Conviction costs: Sinister Salome and the brutal beheading of St John the Baptist

Today, across several church traditions, is the feast day of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. John's bloody demise remains a timeless icon of martyrdom, capricious violence and twisted family drama.

This sombre ecclesial occasion remembers a tragic and jarring tale that appears early in Mark's Gospel (6: 21-29). Jesus is, unusually, entirely absent from the story – it instead centres on the prophet who prepared the way for the Messiah, John the Baptist.

Wikimedia Commons'Salome', by Bernardino Luini, which displays the tragic tale of the beheading of John the Baptist. What should we make of this sad story?

King Herod Antipas had married Herodias, formerly his own brother's wife. The ever-outspoken John had condemned this union, bringing down on him the anger of Herodias. But Herod actually feared John and enjoyed listening to him, so protected John from harm.

However, everything changes when we meet Herod's daughter, not specifically named but traditionally, and infamously, known as Salome.

Mark writes: '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."'

The girl asked her mother what she should request, and received the reply: 'The head of John the Baptist.' The king, Mark writes, was 'greatly distressed', but felt he had to keep his promise and the deed was done. John the Baptist was murdered, his head produced on a platter – when Herod didn't even want him dead.

Salome has often been imagined as an alluring exotic dancer, using sexual manipulation to exert her mother's bloodlust. However, biblical scholar Walter Moberly suggests that, based on the text, Salome may have actually been the young daughter of the recent union of Antipas and Herodias, making her only two or three years old. In that case, the story is even more tragic: an innocent toddler unwittingly but enthusiastically granting the execution of John the Baptist.

Today remembers John's martyrdom across Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and even Islamic traditions, though his death seems to have more to do with petty family politics than being persecuted for faith. Indeed, a 'feast day' recollecting one man's head on a platter might sound a little twisted. Nonetheless, John's life remains an example of the brutal cost of conviction.

And though Jesus is not in the story, Moberly writes in Wrestling with the Word: Preaching tricky texts (SPCK, £12.99): 'The death of John anticipates and foreshadows the death of Jesus. Jesus' ministry, like John's, not only brings joy and hope and new life; it also engenders opposition, suspicion, hatred, and finally murderous violence.'

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