John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Herod Antipas was a son of Herod the Great, who had been king of Judea and the surrounding regions during the time of Jesus' birth. After Herod the Great's death, his kingdom broke up into smaller territories over which his sons ruled. Herod Antipas received Galilee, and it was He who ordered John's arrest. It was the plotting of Herod's wife Herodias, however, that led John' execution.
While the gospel of John makes only a passing reference to the imprisonment of John the Baptist (John 3:24), the other Gospels all tell us that Herod had John imprisoned on account of John having rebuked him over his sin, particularly over Herod's taking his brother's wife. Luke's account is the briefest, simply stating:
"But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him about Herodias, his brother’s wife, and about all the evil things Herod had done, added this to everything else—he locked John up in prison"(Luke 3:19-20).
Matthew's account (Matt. 14:1-12) and Mark's (Mark 6:17-29) give us considerably more detail, explaining that Herod's wife Herodias wanted John put to death, but could not do so on her own (Mark 6:19). Herod personally desired to execute him as well (Matt. 14:5), but ultimately protected him. He was afraid to harm John, knowing that John was a righteous man (Mark 14:20) and also fearing what the crowd would do because they regarded John as a prophet (Matt. 14:5).
Beyond the petty, personal offense of Herod and his wife at the rebuke of their sins, Herod's fear of the crowd may also have been a part what motivated him to arrest John in the first place. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus also records the arrest of John the Baptist.1 Josephus explains that Herod was gravely concerned at the growing crowds gathering to hear John. They seemed willing to do anything John said. He feared that John could start a sudden rebellion with a mere command to the crowd. Josephus claims that this fear was why he had John arrested.
If we trust Josephus' account, it would seem that the same fear of the crowds that prevented Herod from immediately executing John are also a part of why he arrested John in the first place. A free John may lead a rebellion, but a murdered John might incite one. Herod was in a bind. This paranoia may also be what made John's willingness to rebuke his sin openly such a big deal. Beyond personal offense, Herod may have feared John's rebukes were the early signs of sedition or at least would lead there eventually since he had no intention of repenting of the things for which John rebuked him.
At any rate, Herod's fear and curiosity drove him to visit John regularly in prison to hear him (Mark 6:20). Herod's wife, however, awaited a strategic opportunity, which came on Herod's birthday (Mark 6:21). Herodias' daughter came in and danced for Herod and his officials at a banquet, which pleased him so greatly that he promised with an oath to grant her whatever she requested of him (Mark 6:21-22). At Herodias' prompting, her daughter asked for John's head on a platter (Matt. 14:8). Herod did not want to comply but, fearing the oath and the witnesses present, he consented to have John executed (Mark 6:26).
- 1. Josephus, "Antiquities of the Jews," book 18, chapter 5.2