Herodotus and Mark
While reading the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) yesterday (ah! the joys of retirement!) I came across a curious tale in Book IX of his Histories. It concerns King Xerxes (518-465 BCE) of Persia. He was married to Amestris, but he fell in love with the wife of his brother, Masistes, and in order to get closer to her, contrived to have his son Darius marry her daughter Artaynta. (Got that?) But, fickle soul that he was, Xerxes soon transferred his affections from mother to daughter. And for some strange reason, the young girl fell for him.
His wife Amestris had made a beautiful robe for Xerxes and he wore it one day while visiting his niece/lover, Artaynta. She happened to ‘please him greatly’ on this occasion (I wonder how?), and so he said that she could ask him for anything at all and he would give it to her. She wanted the robe, but Xerxes, scared of what his wife - who already suspected that he was up to something - might say, offered the girl ‘cities, heaps of gold, and an army (!)’ in its stead. But she was adamant. Only the robe would do. So Xerxes, bound by his promise, reluctantly gave it to her.
His wife found out. She assumed that the girl’s mother was behind it all, and determined to have her punished. ‘She waited till her husband gave a great royal banquet, a feast which takes place once a year, in celebration of the king’s birthday’ and asked him to give her the wife of his brother as a gift. Of course, he refused, but ‘wearied by her importunity, and constrained, moreover, by the law of the feast, which required that no one who asked a boon that day at the king’s board should be denied his request, he yielded, but with very ill will, and gave the woman into her power.’
Amestris had her mutilated: ‘her two breasts, her nose, ears, and lips were cut off and thrown to the dogs; her tongue was torn out by the roots, and thus disfigured she was sent back to her home. Her husband determined to have his revenge, but before he could ally himself with Xerxes’ enemies, the king had him and all his family slaughtered.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I see more than a hint here of the story of the death of John the Baptist as it is told in the Synoptic Gospels. Here’s my translation of Mark’s version:
Herod was in awe of John because he knew him to be an upright and holy man, and he kept him safe. He would listen to him gladly although he was puzzled by what he said.
Jesus’ reputation was growing, and a report of his activities reached King Herod who thought that these amazing things were happening because John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. Others thought that it was Elijah or a prophet like one of the prophets of old. When Herod heard of it he said, ‘John, the one I beheaded, has been raised from the dead.’ This self-same Herod had sent for John, seized him, bound him, and imprisoned him, on account of Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip, whom Herod himself had married. John had told Herod that it wasn’t lawful for him to take his brother’s wife, and so Herodias held a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him, but she wasn’t able to.
Herodias’ opportunity came when Herod threw a party on his birthday for his court, his high ranking military men, and the leading citizens of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests so much that the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for anything you want and I’ll give it to you!’ He gave a solemn promise, ‘Even if you ask for half my kingdom I’ll give it to you!’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ Her mother replied, ‘The head of John the Baptist!’
|The Death of John the Baptist, by Caravaggio|
She rushed straight back to the king and said, ‘I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter!’ The king was very sad, but because of his oaths and his guests there was no way he could refuse her. He dispatched an executioner with orders to bring John’s head immediately. He went off and beheaded him in the prison and brought the head on a platter and gave it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it they came and took John’s body and placed it in a tomb. (Mark 6:14-29)
Did you notice the similarities?
- King infatuated with his brother’s wife/married to his brother’s wife.
- Brother’s wife’s daughter 'pleases the king greatly'.
- King’s birthday celebration.
- King’s outrageous promises, oaths and offers.
- Scheming, jealous, vindictive queen.
- King’s reluctance to comply with the requests made to him.
- Brutal, tragic end.
There's also another if you count the fact that one is about Herod and the other is by Herodotus.
What’s going on here? Some years ago, Dennis R. McDonald showed how parts of Mark’s text were influenced by Homer’s epics, and now it seems that Herodotus features too. My own book (The Gospel and the Zodiac, available for £6.99 from Amazon) demonstrates that Mark’s Gospel is structured on the signs of the zodiac.
How long are people going to continue to maintain that the Gospels are history?