Most of this material comes from pages 41-56 of Roger David Aus, Water Into Wine and the Beheading of John the Baptist. I have also consulted Kunigunde's thread in Jewish Texts and History: viewtopic.php?f=6&t=1390.
I am going to suggest that some very late Jewish midrashic materials actually preserve traditions that Mark (or his sources) knew and used in the story of Herod beheading John the Baptist. This late midrash includes the following:
Whereas the Mishnah dates to late century II or early century III, I believe most or even all of these midrashic texts date to the medieval period!
My argument will be simple. First, I will point out the parallels that Mark 6.14-29 evinces with respect to the book of Esther (whether in Hebrew or in Greek); there ought to be little or no controversy surrounding the proposition that Mark could have known about and used such material. Second, I will point out the parallels that Mark 6.14-29 evinces with respect to Esther traditions that are found in much later texts. Finally, I will suggest that the internal evidence points to a direction of dependence which flows from Jewish tradition to Mark, and not vice versa.
Parallels with Jewish Scriptures
1. Herod as king.
Herod Antipas was a tetrarch, not a king, yet in this story Mark five times calls him a king (βασιλεύς, Mark 6.14, 22, 25, 26, 27). Mark elsewhere is fairly sparing in his use of this term, using it once in a generic sense in 13.9 and then again six more times as part of the phrase "king of the Jews" or "king of Israel", applied to Jesus (Mark 15.2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32). This title for Antipas may derive from the book of Esther, which in the Old Greek (LXX) version uses it of Artaxerxes/Ahasuerus dozens and dozens of times. Since Herod is playing the role, as it were, of Artaxerxes/Ahasuerus in this Marcan story, it is fitting that he should bear the same title.
2. The guests.
In Mark 6.21 the banquet is said to be "for his lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee." In Esther 1.3 the banquet is said to be "for all his princes and attendants, the army officers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of his provinces."
3. Salome as damsel.
In Mark 6.22, 28 Salome is called a κοράσιον (a damsel, a young girl). The only other female called by this label in the gospel of Mark is the official's daughter in 5.41-42, who is said to be twelve years old. Salome is, then, about the same age as the girls being brought in for the king in Esther 2.2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 12. She is, in fact, about the same age as Esther herself. (Mark nowhere calls her Salome, incidentally; that datum comes from other records.)
4. Salome as pleasing.
In Mark 6.22 Salome is said to have pleased (ἀρέσκω) the king. In Esther 2.4 the girls being brought in for the king are intended to please (ἀρέσκω) him, and in Esther 2.9 Esther herself is said to have pleased (ἀρέσκω) the "keeper of women" (surely one of the most misogynistic titles imaginable).
5. An oath for the asking.
In Mark 6.23 Herod swears (ὄμνυμι) to give Salome whatever she asks (αἰτέω) for. In Esther 7.2 the girl is granted one request (αἴτημα). In the Greek alpha text of Esther 5.6 the girl is encouraged to ask (αἰτέω), and it will be hers. In the Greek alpha text of Esther 7.5 the king swears (ὄμνυμι) and "with an oath" takes it upon himself "to do for [Esther] whatever she wished."
6. Half the kingdom.
In Mark 6.23 the promise is for up to half the kingdom (ἕως ἡμίσους τῆς βασιλείας). In Esther 5.3, too, the promise is for up to half the kingdom (ἕως τοῦ ἡμίσους τῆς βασιλείας). This is the most striking of the parallels to the Jewish scriptures.
It seems clear to me that Mark 6.14-29 is drawing upon the book of Esther for some of its inspiration. The phrase "up to half my kingdom" is especially suggestive in this regard.
Parallels with Jewish Midrash
But Mark 6.14-29 also has extensive parallels in various Jewish traditions about Esther. What are we to make of those?
In Mark 6.20 it is said that the king, whenever he heard John the Baptist speak, was much perplexed (πολλὰ ἠπόρει) and heard him pleasurably. Translations sometimes try to sneak in an element of contrast here ("but he heard him pleasurably," or "and yet he heard him pleasurably") which is not in the original Greek. This is the only time the verb appears in the gospel of Mark, and it is not entirely clear in context why Herod is perplexed; one finds oneself venturing psychological explanations (Herod was baffled by John, and yet liked him anyway, with a strange fascination, et cetera). The scribes must not have understood it very well, either, since there is a variant reading: πολλὰ ἐποίει (he did it much/often). Now, in Esther 1.10 the king commands seven eunuchs to bring Vashti in to the banquet, on display, and the name of the first eunuch is Mehuman (מְהוּמָן). As Aus explains, "Judaic commentators could not resist a play on this word. They also maintained that the 'king' who spoke in 1:10 was not Ahasuerus, but God (the 'King of Kings'). Midrash Abba Gorion on this verse, for example, states: '"He (the King) spoke to Mehuman." This is the angel appointed over confusion (מְהוּמָה).' Leqash Tob on this verse also reads מְהוּמָה. Aggadat Esther on 1:10 is fuller: 'Mehuman': This is the angel appointed over confusion (מְהוּמָה) and over wrath (חֵמָה)." This pun on the name Mehuman from the story of Esther, imparting perplexity or confusion to Ahasuerus, would explain why Herod is also perplexed or confused in the story of John's beheading.
2. A birthday banquet.
In Mark 6.21 the occasion for the feast (δεῖπνον) is Herod's birthday (γενέσια). The Greek term for birthday appears only here and in the parallel in Matthew 14.6 in the entire Greek Bible. The Greek version of Esther itself calls the banquet a δοχή, but in the alpha text the dinner that Esther offers in 5.5 is called both a δοχή and a δεῖπνον. The occasion for Ahasuerus'/Artaxerxes' celebration is not given in the book of Esther. However, later Jewish commentators fill in this detail, some of them opting for the wedding feast for the king and Vashti, others for the king's birthday. Aus lists Midrash Abba Gorion, Panim Achérim B, Leqach Tob, Aggadat Esther, and Yalqut Shim'oni as opting for his birthday.
3. Lewd dancing.
In Mark 6.22 the daughter of Herodias dances for the guests. The book of Esther has nothing about dancing, but Aus writes, "Midrash Abba Gorion on Est 1:6, for example, states: 'And there was pure purple under the feet of the attendants, and they danced (מְרַ קְדִּין) before those reclining.'" He notes a similar detail about dancing in Panim Achérim 2 before going on to discuss Jewish views of Persian and Median attitudes toward feasting and dancing; he sums up: "This Persian/Median usage is reflected in Pirq. R. El. 49, which relates regarding Est 1:8, 10-12, and 19 the following: 'Rabbi Jose said: It was the universal custom of the kings of Media when they were eating and drinking to cause their women to come before them stark naked, playing and dancing..., in order to see the beauty of their figures. When the wine entered the heart of Ahasuerus, he wished to act in this manner with Vashti the queen. She was the daughter of a king, and was not willing to do this. He decreed concerning her, and she was slain.'"
4. The executioner/bodyguard.
The word for executioner/bodyguard in Mark 6.27 is σπεκουλάτωρ, a Latin loan word: speculator. Aus observes that this Greek word is found nowhere else in the New Testament, the LXX, Philo, or Josephus. It is quite rare. Interestingly, however, it also entered rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic as a loanword. Aus writes, "In Panim Achérim 2 on Est 6:1 Mordecai sees Haman coming, 'and the סְפִקְלָטוֹר with him.' Here the bodyguard of the king is called by the same term as in Mark 6:27. ... The second targum on Est 5:2 relates that 'when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she found favor and grace in his sight. But the royal executioners (אִסְפַּקְלְטוֹרֵי) who stood there were ready to kill, to kill Esther.'" Again, the same Latin loan word is used of these men.
5. Head on a platter.
In Mark 6.25 the daughter of Herodias asks for, and in 6.28 receives, John's head on a platter (πίναξ). The word πίναξ appears only here, in the Matthean parallels in Matthew 14.8, 11, and in the unrelated Luke 11.39 in the entire Greek Bible. Aus writes of the Judaic parallels, "The most important rabbinic passages for the Marcan narrative are Est. Rab. 4/9 on Est 1:19, and 4/11 on Est 1:21. The first relates the offer of Memucan before the king in regard to Est 1:19, 'If it pleases the king, let there go forth a royal order': 'He said to him (the king), "My lord the king, say but a word and I will bring in her head on a platter."' .... The second passage in Esther Rabbah comments on Est 1:21, 'This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed': 'He gave the order. And he brought in her head on a platter.'" As Aus points out a bit later, "the term translated 'platter' in the Vashti account above is the Greek loan word in Hebrew, דִּיסְקוֹס: diskos. .... It should be noted that the Old Latin translates the term for 'platter' in Mark 6:25 and 28, pinax, with the same word: discus." This is the most striking of the parallels to the Jewish midrashic texts.
6. Grief over innocence.
In Mark 6.26 the king is grieved (περίλυπος) at having to slay John, and we already know from 6.20 that Herod Antipas regards John as righteous and holy. In Esther 1.12 the king grieves (λυπέω) that Vashti will not come when summoned. But the midrashic material is even closer, with Esther Rabbah 5.2 stating: "After he had killed her he began to feel remorse, because he realized that she had acted properly." The Second Targum on Esther 2.1 says that "she herself did not deserve the punishment of death."
It ought to be apparent that the parallels with Jewish midrash are every bit as significant as those with the scriptural book of Esther. For example, Vashti's head on a platter is just as distinctive a detail as the promise of up to half the kingdom to Esther.
Direction of Dependence
I believe there are only three basic options here:
- The parallels are illusory and coincidental. Note that, if they are illusory when they apply to the midrashic materials that postdate Mark, then they are probably also illusory when they apply to the scriptural materials that predate Mark, since they are very much of the same kind and strength.
- Jewish tradition got these parallels from Christian texts, ultimately from Mark and/or Matthew.
- Christian texts like Mark and Matthew got these parallels from Jewish tradition.
My own inclination is to view option 2 as a parody of how Jewish exegetes might react to Christian texts. But this leaves only option 3: the parallels were extant in Jewish lore in century I, but are preserved only in texts that date to the Middle Ages. The intervening steps in the transmission, whether written or oral, are lost to history.
What do you think?