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The Beheading of John the Baptist

August 29, 2018


Men create their own hell and help one another descend into it. Perdition is an equitable exchange because it results from reciprocal evil desires and evil behavior. The only victims are children on whom scandal is imposed. (René Girard)

I remember with great fondness childhood visits to the Art Institute of Chicago with my father. Those visits instilled in me a sense of the importance of the arts and an abiding appreciation for the beautiful as a route of access to God. But, those visits also taught me something else about the macabre sensibilities of Catholic art. Some of the paintings that made the greatest impression were hardly pretty pictures. One was Bernat Martorelli’s “St. George and the Dragon” (of note were the skeletal remains of the dragon’s victims splayed out at the bottom of the painting) and six paintings by Giovanni di Paolo that detailed significant events in the life of St. John the Baptist.  

If I remember correctly, the startling finale to these panels was the execution of the saint, which had poor St. John’s body positioned as leaning out of a window and captured as if in the moment right after his head had been lopped off. Crimson blood runs down the bottom of the windowsill. The saint’s decapitated head seemed to have been caught like a tossed basketball by a cooperative servant. Vivid. Better than anything I had come across in a horror movie. The passage of time has taught me that what is most memorable about the story of the death of John the Baptist is simply not the gruesome detail from di Paolo’s painting that had captured my childish imagination. The tale of John’s terrifying demise is expressed succinctly in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark; both are chilling and perceptive accounts of human cruelty and cultural dysftunction. I have written about John the Baptist before noting that the identification with John’s family as being from the priestly clans of Israel in the Gospel of Luke seems to be a necessary, rather than incidental, detail. His lineage positions John’s conflict with the priestly establishment and the Herodian dynasty and possibly identifies that the basis for John’s complaint against the ruling powers of Israel concerns the magnificent temple that Herod constructed in Jerusalem—that temple was built by a messianic pretender. Herod and his dynasty were frauds, usurpers to a throne that belonged to the successors of King David. 

The collusion of the priestly class in his deception was an affront to God. I think that this is why John the priest set aside his priestly vestments and identity and retreated to the wilderness. There, in the deserts of Judea, he became John the prophet who called Israel away from the Jerusalem temple in order to prepare the people for the coming of the God of Israel. God would set right what the Herodian dynasty and the temple priests had done so wrong.

All this also gives us a sense of what John might have experienced when the God of Israel presented himself, and he saw standing before him in the Jordan River not only the true Messiah but also a new kind of temple—constructed in the flesh, blood and bones of the Incarnate Lord. The story of John the Baptist in the Gospels also re-capitulates the Elijah narrative from the Book of Kings. That story, one of the most vivid and violent in the Bible, positions one of the greatest prophets and wonderworkers of the Old Testament against a recalcitrant Israelite king, Ahab, and his wicked queen, Jezebel. Elijah’s exit from that story is no less dramatic than John’s but far less violent. The violence that the ruling powers of Israel had hoped to visit upon Elijah comes crashing down on their heads. Much can be learned about what the Gospel wants us to understand about John’s identity and mission from the story of Elijah as it is presented in the Old Testament Book of Kings. The actual description of John the Baptist’s death as it is presented in the Gospels has been radically reconstructed by popular culture and has become a tale of political intrigue and sexual sublimation that is provoked by a religious zealot and a sexy dancing girl. This all seems to me to be a case of reading into the text a meaning that we would prefer, rather than dealing with the text as it is. There is intrigue and sublimation in the story, but it is not the kind that we might think it to be.

René Girard makes much of our propensity to misread the story of John the Baptist’s death in his excellent book, The Scapegoat. He also proposes a stunning interpretation that has the power to radically reorient one’s understanding—and not just about the circumstances that surrounded the saint’s demise. Girard’s master idea is a theory about human desire and the crystallization of these desires into rivalry and violence. The resulting discord can only be alleviated by the expulsion or death of a victim.

One of Girard’s most arresting insights in regard to the Gospel account of the Baptist’s death is that the allegedly femme fatale who is provoked by her mother to make the gruesome request for John’s head, a request that leads to his execution, is hardly the seductive siren of popular imagination. Girard notes that the Greek of the New Testament text identifies her not a “kore” (young woman) but a “korasion,” or little girl. We are dealing with a child who is being manipulated. This child is learning early in life what we should desire and where our desires should take us. Not only does this detail make Herod’s delight at the girl’s dancing all the more disturbing, but it also illuminates just how insidious the corruption of Herod and his successors really was. John was driven to denounce the wickedness of the royal family not just on the basis of a technicality involving the Mosaic law, but because the dynasty was corrupt to the core. The truncated relationship of Herod and Herodias is just the tip of the iceberg. It is what remains concealed beneath the surface that is really shocking. The actions of the king and queen in regard to the child should cause our skin to crawl.  

Girard’s clarification of the age of the girl also teaches us about the nature of sin and how innocence is not by necessity protection from sin’s influence and impact. In this respect, we have in the story of the death of John the Baptist a kind of worst-case scenario in which the innocence of a child is used to advance the evil desires of adults—all leading to a fatal result. That this outcome was made possible not only through the machinations of men and women, but through the manipulation of a child makes it all the more memorable and terrifying—more so than even the gruesome painting of John the Baptist’s execution by Giovanni di Paolo.