Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Head of St. John the Baptist

In honor of the Feast of St. John the Baptist (June 24th), I thought it would be fun to tackle a question that bothered me for sometime: If the head of John the Baptist was presented to Herodias by Salome after the infamous dancing incident at King Herod's birthday party, how did the Christian community ever get possession of John's head?

There are various places that claim to possess the head of St. John the Baptist. In the west, the two most notable locations are Amiens Cathedral and the Church of San Silverstro de Capite in Rome. The skull on display in Amien is clearly traceable to the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1204); the origin of the claim of the church in Rome is less certain. There are also several other churches that claim to have the Baptist's head, whole or in part, and some places that claim other related relics (Aachen Cathedral claims the cloth that his decapitated head was wrapped in, for example).

There is no way to verify any of these claims. But one question that I have wondered about is how the Church came into possession of his head at all. Let's look at the narrative of John's execution from the Gospel of Matthew:

"...on Herod's birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced before them: and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath, to give her whatsoever she would ask of him. But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a dish: and it was given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body, and buried it, and came and told Jesus" (Matt 14:6-12, Douay-Rheims).

It states very plainly that John's disciples came and took the body. This presents no problem, for presumably the body was cast out after John's execution and his disciples were easily able to retrieve it. But how would they have retrieved his head? Scripture says plainly that the head of John was given to Herodias by Salome. Beyond this, Scripture says nothing. Yet within a few generations, we see the Head of John the Baptist being venerated at Sebaste in Samaria. So how did the Church get his head back?

I can think of four explanations:

1. Herodias gave the head back to John's disciples

I can't see that this as a tenable theory. Herodias must have known that possession of the head by John's followers would create a focal point for veneration of John's memory, and serve to instigate further disillusionment with the Herodian Dynasty. I cannot see any situation in which she would have willingly returned the head to John's followers?

2. Herodias buried the head and later Christians found it

This is a traditional theory that has some merit to it. Nicephorus and Symeon Metaphrastes, two obscure Greek historians writing centuries after the fact (14th century and 10th century) state that the head was buried by Herodias in the fortress of Machaerus and later found miraculously by the local Christians. Another tradition has it being discovered in the Herodian palace in Jerusalem during the time of Constantine, then transfered to Emesa where it was later discovered by revelation in a dream. These theories are plausible, but they all depend upon invoking a direct revelation from God which, while certainly not improbable (e.g. the discovery of the relics of Gervasius and Protasius by St. Ambrose through a dream), it depends upon the validity of some very, very late testimonies.

3. Someone in Herod's household took the head and gave it to John's disciples

This is the explanation I prefer. While it is unlikely that Herodias returned the head to John's followers, I do not think she personally would have kept the head in close proximity to her either. I guess we could posit a situation where the vengeful woman kept the skull on her bedside table to perpetually gloat over her victory over John, but I think it more probable that after the head was presented to her by Salome, she probably either discarded it or had it casually tossed away. Pagans and those of the Greco-Roman culture (like Herodias) had a very superstitious fear of dead bodies and I don't think she would have wanted to hang on to the severed head. Therefore, I think that after seeing the head brought to her by Salome, she probably gave it to a servant or slave and instructed them to dispose of it discreetly - get it out of the household, but not let it fall into the hands of the followers of John or Jesus.

This theory makes more sense when we realize that Herodias and King Herod had some believers in his household. The Scriptures tell us that the wife of Herod's chief steward, Chuza, was a follower of Jesus:

"And it came to pass afterwards, that he travelled through the cities and towns, preaching and evangelizing the kingdom of God; and the twelve with him: And certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities; Mary who is called Magdalen, out of whom seven devils were gone forth. And Joanna the wife of Chusa, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others who ministered unto him of their substance" (Luke 8:1-3)

This Joanna was a very devoted follower of Christ; in fact, she was one of the first witnessed to the Resurrection:

"When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles" (Luke 24:9-10).

As Herod's chief steward, it is probable that Chuza was given the head by Herodias with instructions to discreetly dispose of it. Chuza probably then entrusted the head to Joanna, a disciple of Jesus, who in turn brought it into the Christian community. To me this explanation makes sense, is plausible and is supported by what the Scriptures tell us.

4. The head has never been found and all the claimants are fakes

This is certainly possible, though I don't believe the head of the man who even in his own day was known as the forerunner of the Messiah and the one whom Jesus acclaimed as the greatest of those born among women (Luke 7:28) would be simply lost to history.

St. John the Baptist, pray for us!


Alan and Angie said...

Please can you tell me who the artist is who painted The Head Of John The Baptist in the above Unam Sanctam.
Many thanks
Alan Billson

Boniface said...


It was painted by an unknown Spanish painter of the Renaissance or early Baroque. I found it on the Wikipedia page for John the Baptist.