The portrayal of the Herodian court intrigue gives an even sharper edge to the episode; the dinner party (6:21-28) becomes the occasion for the murderous whims of the ruling class of Galilee to be revealed. The guest list of his birthday banquet (6:21) reflects, in the words of Sherwin-White, “the court and establishment of a petty Jewish prince under strong Roman influence:”
- his court nobles (tois megistasin)
- his army officers (tois chiliarchois)
- leading Galileans (tois protois tes Galilaias).
Mark accurately describes the inner circle of power as an incestuous relationship involving governmental, military, and commercial interests.
And yet among all these powerful men it is a dancing girl who determines the fate of the Baptist! At the center of the story is Herod’s “oath” to Herodias’s daughter, stated twice for comic emphasis (6:22f). This fiction is no more an attempt to excuse Herod from culpability in the death of John than is the fiction of Barabbas or the crowd’s demand an attempt to excuse Pilate for the death of Jesus. The dilemma created by the oath is a parody on the shameless methods of decision-making among the elite, a world in which human life is bartered to save royal face: Herod trades the “head” (symbolizing his honor) of the prophet to rescue the integrity of his own drunken oath (6:24-28).
Mark’s account of the death of John is scarcely apolitical! A more sarcastic social caricature could not have been spun by the bitterest Galilean peasant! Yet it stands well within the biblical tradition that pits arrogant kings against truth-telling prophets. The tale is a kind of hybrid between the story of Nathan and David and that of Esther and Ahasuerus. And above all, it paves the way for Mark’s supreme political parody, the trial and execution of the Human One by the collaborative Jewish and Roman powers.