John the Baptist preaches to Herod about his unlawful 'marriage' to Herodias

Steven Avery

Isaac Steele{"tn":"R"}

John the Baptist and arguments for divorce and remarriage.

Did John the Baptist refute every divorce and remarriage argument in history?

Mark 6:17-20
For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife: for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.

I’ll do my best not to get too deep into these arguments as my purpose isn’t to point out all the intricacies of each, but to address the simple application of this passage to them.

1. Legal divorce argument:
Herodias was legally divorced from Philip. If a legal divorce dissolved a marriage, then it why wasn’t her remarriage lawful?

2. Adultery argument:
This argument has many facets. One is that adultery gives the right to divorce. Another is that the first act of marital relations in a remarriage is a “singular act” of adultery but from then on adultery dissolved the previous marriage and God now recognizes the new marriage as holy. However, Herod and Herodias were living together as husband and wife and had been for some time. If adultery dissolved the marriage and/or provided a scriptural basis for divorce and subsequent remarriage, why wasn’t it lawful for Herod to be married to her. And why does John still refer to her as his brother’s wife?

3. Abandonment argument:
Herodias clearly had abandoned Philip and had even taken their daughter with her. If abandonment is grounds for divorce and remarriage, then Philip and Herodias were free to remarry. Yet John still says Herod’s marriage was not lawful and refers to her as his brother’s wife.

4. God doesn’t recognize/join unbelievers in marriage argument:
By their fruit ye shall know them. Neither Herod, nor Herodias (much less Philip) showed any fruit of righteousness. Herod enjoyed listening to John but his actions clearly show that he was unrepentant. For Herod’s re-marriage to be unlawful, God clearly must have recognized Philip and Herodias’ original marriage. The status of their soul’s salvation was irrelevant. Even in this divorced and remarried state, John still recognized Herodias and Philip’s first marriage because she was still called Philip’s wife. The remarriage was irrelevant.

5. The cross of Christ wipes the slate clean and gives a fresh start argument:
This argument also has many facets. At its most basic application, all marriages/divorces prior to salvation are void/forgiven and no longer binding. The divorced new Christian is told that he/she is now free to find a Christian to marry or that their current marriage is now sanctified. I’ve even heard this combined with 1Co 7:24 to say you not only can, but should, stay in the marital state you were in at salvation. There many problems that arise from this argument, but does John’s statement apply here? John came preaching repentance. When the Pharisees came to him, he wouldn’t baptize them until they had shown fruit of repentance. He didn’t tell them to simply repent and God would sanctify their sinful state and they could continue with the status quo and be ok. While in prison, John and Herod apparently talked often. When Jesus came to be baptized, John introduced him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Being the forerunner of Jesus, and filled with the Holy Spirit, John knew what Jesus’ redemptive work would accomplish. If Jesus’ work on the cross would invalidate unbeliever’s prior marriages and sanctify current or future unions, he could easily have informed Herod of this hope. Instead we read that he stayed locked up making Herodias more and more angry with his stubborn refusal to budge on the permanence of marriage.

6. Incest argument:
This argument, if true, would theoretically invalidate every point thus far. Simply stated, John was not condemning Herod’s remarriage because of divorce or adultery but because of incest. It is difficult to say from history because the birth a female was not always as well documented as that of a male. But historians believe that Herodias was also Herod’s half niece. She may have been the granddaughter of his father, Herod the Great, by a different wife. Any accusation of this being incest and the reason for the condemnation doesn’t hold water. She was also the half niece of his brother Philip but John still said she was Philip’s wife.

The next part of this accusation is that Leviticus 18:16 forbade having relations with your brother’s wife. However, this clearly only condemned such an act while the brother was still legally married to her. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 commanded marriage to a brother’s wife in the event he died without children. And if he refused, the brother’s widow could publicly spit in his face. If divorce or adultery dissolved a marriage in the same way that death does, there would have been nothing unlawful about Herod’s marriage to Herodias.

Bottom line, John the Baptist remained firm on his stance against divorce and remarriage to the point of losing his head. You can bet that Herod threw every argument he could think of at him without any affect. Herod’s father had access to the Sanhedrin to research the location of Jesus’ birth and I have little doubt that this Herod also consulted the religious leaders at his disposal to find any argument from God’s Word to sway John the Baptist. John, filled with the Holy Spirit from birth, remained firm. What about us? If this is truly as serious as John the Baptist teaches from this example, it is doubly a life and death situation. Jesus said in Luke 16:18 that remarriage after divorce is adultery. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says that no adulterer will enter the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist lost his life over because he condemned remarriage after divorce despite every argument that could be thrown at him. The Bible warns that dying in a state of adultery will keep us from eternal life. Truly and life a death issue.

I’m sure I’m missing some of the arguments here and I look forward to hearing about them in the comments so I can add them to my list. I purposely didn’t include the arguments from abuse because those are arguments for separation, not for divorce and don’t apply here.


Staff member
We get an alternative, convoluted argument here:

The Markan "Divorce" Pericope: an Exegesis - Herod Herodias (2012)
Carolos C. Camerena'

the letter written by Herodias to Philip, the Tetrarch’s brother, was not acceptable to religious Jews (implied in the statement in 10:12).

John the Baptist’s confrontation with Antipas over his illegal marriage to Herodias (Mark 6:18) provides a critical insight into the Pharisaic question
on “divorce.”

It is implied in the Markan text that Herod Antipas did not go through the normal
Jewish practice of divorcing his Nabatean wife by giving in writing an attestation of a
formal separation. Hoehner entertains the notion that when Antipas’s Nabatean wife
heard of the tetrarch’s plans to divorce her in order to marry Herodias, she fled back to
her father without a legal separation.138 If this is so, the Jewish view—which was also the
view of the Baptizer and of Jesus and which eventually cost the Baptizer’s head—appears
to be in direct correlation with the concept that Antipas did not abide by Moses’
command to write his wife a letter of divorce while taking as wife a woman considered to
be still married to her husband, Antipas’s own brother.

On the one hand Antipas
becomes the “adulterer” here (Mark 10:11) for taking as wife a woman still considered to
be married in Jewish eyes,165 in view of Herodias’s unacceptable divorce to her husband,
Philip.166 On the other hand, Antipas causes Naphaelis, his Nabatean wife, to commit
adultery (Mark 10:12) should she remarry, for he does not appear to have given to her a
letter of divorce, as Hoehner suggests.167

In the “divorce-test” the Pharisees were hoping he would compromise himself
against the house of Herod. In the Markan contextual flow, it does not appear that Mark
10:2-12 contains any other instance where Antipas and Herodias are not the main
subjects. The Markan Jesus approaches the test question with the perspective that Herod-
Herodias original marriages are still intact when they come together as husband and wife.
In either case, the Baptist had become a destabilizing factor to Antipas’s Hellenistic way
of life. To John, and subsequently to Jesus, Herodias was still married. Herodias’s action
to write her husband, Philip, a letter of divorce in order to marry Antipas was contrary to
Moses and the Jewish traditions.186 When the Baptist pointed to the right observance of
Torah, he lost his head.The “test” question of the Pharisees (in counsel with the Herodians, Mark 3:6;
12:13) contemplates the same fate for Jesus as described in the Lukan account, “Herod
wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31). Word got around that John the Baptist was alive again
roaming Antipas’s district (Mark 6:16), and perhaps would show up at his doorstep again
to accuse him of having a married woman for a wife, in Jewish and John’s and Jesus’
eyes. Her actions were interpreted as having deserted her husband, Philip, in order to
marry Herod Antipas, her brother-in-law.187 The Antipas-Herodias affair broke away
from the basic understanding within a Jewish environment that “a woman properly
divorced was available for remarriage without fear of adultery on anyone’s part: this was
(and remains) the common Jewish view.”188 Without this contextual understanding of the
pericope it would seem very difficult to consider any other interpretation for the “trap”
and the “test” question against Jesus.

Jesus clarifies the question in private to his disciples that the Mosaic procedure
had not been followed by the house of Herod: “He said to them, ‘whoever
dismisses/sends away/expels (diToXuori) his wife and [she] marries another commits
adultery against her [rather, causes her to commit adultery];4 and if she dismisses/sends
away/expels/leaves (aTTOAuoaoa) her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”
(Mark 10:11-12),5 and rightly so, for she is not (Herodias) or has not been (Naphaelis)
properly divorced.

Considering that Jesus’ private comment to his disciples (Mark 10:10-12)
reflected a Gentile practice of the house of Herod in Palestine, in which not only the
Tetrarch expelled Areta’s daughter (Apcxa t\\v o Guyaicpa cKpaXclv),6 his Nabatean wife,
but mainly the Jewish scandal in which Herodias wrote a letter of divorce to her husband,
Philip/ in order to marry his brother, the Tetrarch (Mark 10:12).s The Markan statement,
“Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them,
‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she
divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’” (Mark 10:10-12),
makes perfect sense bringing the “test” question into full light concerning the contextual
meaning ofdnoAOoai.

The Markan "Divorce" Pericope: an Exegesis - Herod Herodias (2012)
Carolos C. Camerena