In Matthew’s account of the death of John the Baptist, I usually skip to the end of the story. Oscar Wilde and Norma Desmond can have Salomé. I’m more interested in Jesus’ response to learning of his relative’s murder: that he went off to mourn by himself, and that his grief soon turned to compassion for others (Matt 14:13-14). To my mind, it’s one of the most striking moments in the gospels’ accounts, a profound glimpse into the union between Jesus’ humanity and divinity.
But reading the story today, I realized that I’ve always read the story so quickly that I missed something important about how it starts:
At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”Matt 14:1-2
Only then does Matthew tell just how John died, as a flashback. But if the story of his beheading at the hands of Herod hints at Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of Pilate, what’s even more striking is the hint of an empty tomb ahead.
At least a couple of commentaries I read insist that Herod didn’t think that John had literally been “raised from the dead,” but instead worried that the prophet’s powers — and the political threat they posed — had been transferred to Jesus. But I wonder if there’s a more straightforward reading, one that points directly to the Resurrection itself.
After baptizing Jesus, John disappears from Matthew’s gospel until chapter 11, when we suddenly learn that he is in prison. John sends his followers to ask for confirmation that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus instructs them to tell John “what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:4-5).
Between then and the start of chapter 14, John is killed on Herod’s orders. But I can’t help but wonder if, in the intervening time, John continued his ministry from his prison cell. Did the same voice that cried out from the wilderness somehow reach the ears of Herod? It’s pure speculation, but I imagine the same prophet who baptized Roman tax collectors and Roman soldiers seeking a way to call Rome’s puppet to repentance.
So if Herod was entertaining the impossibility of resurrection, perhaps it was because John himself had said that the Messiah had come to do just that. And if someone as cynical as Herod can testify to the raising of the dead, why should we hesitate?