On the Herodians in the Gospel of Mark

Reading each of the gospels as a single story can be helpful in drawing out information. For instance, Mark 3:6 says that the Pharisees plotted along with the Herodians to destroy Jesus. The Herodians are introduced here as a new player, another antagonist against Christ. But they only show up again in Mark 12:3, the discourse about paying taxes to Caesar (the only other time they are mentioned in scripture at all is Matthew’s parallel to this account).

Herod and his allies do not have a prominent role in Mark, unlike in Luke where Jesus stands in trial before Herod. It would be easy to treat the alliance between the Pharisees and the Herodians as a minor detail, or only about the desperate pragmatism of the Pharisees. Yet the Herodians occupy an important place in Mark. There is a lingering, backgrounded threat to Jesus. While Mark does not include the conclusion of Jesus standing before Herod, the reference to the Herodians and the pressure they exert serve the purpose of driving the narrative forward in anxious anticipation.

What will they do against Jesus? How and when will this happen? Will Jesus’ mission be disrupted?

The messianic secret of Mark can be explained by this. Jesus three times instructs people to tell no one what he has done or who he is (Mark 7:36, 8:30, and 9:9). The full display of who Jesus is was to come after the resurrection. His mission before the crucifixion was to preach a gospel of repentance and the coming of the kingdom of God to Israel. That was public and well known, and served to demonstrate to Israel how far they were from true faith and their need for what Christ would do on the cross. But if it become known that Jesus was, or was claiming to be, or was believed to be, the Christ Herod would view him as a political threat that needed to be destroyed. The Christ is the messiah, the anointed one who is the heir of (king) David. Herod would interpret Jesus claiming to be the Christ as a claim for his throne, and would act to eliminate his rival.¬†Which is exactly what happened in Matthew after Jesus’ birth.

Jesus charged people not to spread the word that he was the Christ, because if that got out, Herod would act before Jesus completed his mission. This reaction from Jesus is similar to what we see in John’s gospel: in 2:4 Jesus identifies a future hour that is his, referring to his appointed moments on the cross and in resurrection. Then in 6:15, Jesus withdraws (escapes!) crowd that will try to coronate him. His time had not yet come, and he acted to head off a premature attempt to initiate the accomplishing of redemption. This is what is happening in Mark: Herod has executed John the Baptist (Mark 6), and so thereafter Jesus keeps his messianic identity secret. Otherwise Herod would strike against Jesus before his appointed time of death and resurrection.

This is the purpose the Herodians serve in Mark. They are the subtle menace alerting the reader to the dangers Jesus is facing, and a reminder for why he kept his identity guarded. They are narrative markers to help force the account towards the intense, and inevitable, climax of Jesus’ death and resurrection.