Beheading of John the Baptist: Christians recall Salome’s deadly request

Painting of man with sword raise over head, another man bent over with halo around his head

An Eastern Orthodox Christian depiction of the Beheading of John the Baptist. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, AUGUST 29: A vengeful mother, a drunken king and a foolish promise formed the fatal trio that led to one of history’s most infamous events, commemorated today: the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

Though no sources reveal the martyrdom’s specific date, it is estimated between 28 CE and 32 CE. Observed today by both Eastern and Western Christians, this solemn remembrance is almost as old as the feast for John’s birth—which is, markedly, one of the oldest feasts of the Church. (Read more at American Catholic or from the Orthodox Church in America.) Eastern Orthodox Christians keep a strict, solemn fast today, and in some countries, devotees refuse to eat from a flat plate, to use a knife or to consume any type of food that is round—all, of course, objects symbolic of the tools used in the beheading.

A SEDUCTIVE DANCE
AND A HEAD ON A PLATTER

Gospels and other ancient sources begin today’s story with Herod, a sub-king of Judea under the Roman Empire. When Herod divorced his wife and unlawfully took his brother’s wife, Herodias, it was John the Baptist alone who had the courage to rebuke Herod for his actions. Herod threw John in prison. During a raucous birthday party for Herod, Herodias’ daughter, Salome, danced seductively before the king and his guests. Drunken and entranced by the dance, Herod promised Salome anything she wanted. (Wikipedia has details.)

After a quick consultation with her mother, Salome requested John the Baptist’s head on a plate. Though fearful of wrath, Herod kept his promise, and had John the Baptist executed. What became of John’s head is unclear because, today, many sacred sites claim to hold a portion of John the Baptist.

Following the beheading, traditional stories hold that both Herod and Salome suffered terrible fates. Salome fell through an icy river and died: her body was trapped below the water, while her head was above the ice, in a stance eerily similar to the beheading she had been responsible for. Or, at least, so the stories go.

IN THE NEWS:
SPEAKING OUT AGAINST CHRISTIAN PERSECUTIONS

As John the Baptist spoke out against the unlawful ways of King Herod, so Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, is asking: “Why is the world silent while Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East and Africa?” (The Christian Post and The Christian Century delve further into this issue.)

In a stirring piece recently published in the New York Times, Lauder poses a question for justice, asking everyone from the United Nations to celebrities why no one is taking a stand. Though Jews and Christians don’t share everything, they do share a Bible and core beliefs, points out Lauder—and the Jews, who “understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent”—are speaking out, that “This campaign of death must be stopped.”

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