What does “Herodians” mean in the Gospel of Mark?

Executive summary

“Herodians” appear in the text of Mk 3:6 and 12:13. I believe that they were added by an editor. During the performance of the Gospel of Mark, there were no Herodians onstage. Herodians do not speak or contribute anything distinctive to the action. The name is a distinction without a difference. Because Mark’s purpose in writing the narrative text was to preserve the performance (in which the purported Herodians did nothing), I believe their name did not come from his hand. Mark was not writing a history of Judean sects. I believe that “Herodians” was added by an editor to Mk 3:6 and 12:13.

Now for pure speculation: the editor’s motive. I speculate that the editor was responding to the query of someone who had read Josephus’s description of three Judean sects (Jewish War 2.8.2). This reader of Josephus wanted to know “what did the Essenes and the Sadducees think of Jesus/the Jesus figure?” The editor now altered Mark’s text to answer that question. The editor disguised Judean Essenes as “Herodians.” I infer that the editor wanted to continue to use the positively charged name “Essenes” for an earlier group of Essenes.

This scenario also explains why the term “Sadducees” appears suddenly in the text of the Gospel of Mark (Mk 12:18). During the performance, the audience had only seen “chief priests,” and had never heard the spoken word “Sadducees.” The editor, I propose, simply changed a reference to “chief priests” in Mark’s text to the equivalent term, “Sadducees.” Now the query was answered.

The Herodians in the Gospel of Mark

“Herodians” are mentioned in the Gospel of Mark at 3:6 and 12:13. Both times, the Herodians appear as adjuncts to Pharisees. The Herodians do not speak and there is no reason to think they are identified to the audience in the dialogue of the play. Why not? They do not do anything distinctive in those scenes, or later.

A principle of playwriting is “don’t burden the audience’s memory with unnecessary information.” Because the Herodians don’t do anything in the play, there’s no reason for Mark to have made them visually distinct from the Pharisees. Or for their name to be spoken. So for this reason—they are superfluous to the play—I think that they were added by an editor to Mk 3:6 and 12:13.

Note: Scholarly proposals for the meaning of “Herodians” can be found here, under the discussion for v. 6.

Herodians and Essenes

Why did the editor change Mark’s polished text? There has to be a good reason in the world of the editor.

In 1967, Constantin Daniel proposed that “Herodians” was a term for Essenes. (See a review by Willi Braun, “Were the New Testament Herodians Essenes? A Critique of an Hypothesis.” Revue De Qumrân 14, no. 1 (53) (1989): 75-88. I think that Daniel’s proposal is right, at least for the references in the Gospel of Mark. (I don’t know if Essenes were actually known as “Herodians” on the ground in Judea.) According to Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 15.10.5), Herod the Great had favored the Essenes. It is reasonable to assume that the editor and readers of the Gospel of Mark were familiar with Josephus’s works and would have needed little help to link “Herodians” in the Gospel of Mark to the Essenes of Josephus.

Why would the editor have added “Herodians” to Mark’s polished text? The simplest explanation is that the editor was responding to the query of a reader who had read Josephus’s description of the three Judean sects (Jewish War 2.8.2) and wanted to know “what did the Essenes and the Sadducees think of Jesus/the Jesus figure?” The editor realized that Mark’s text didn’t mention those two sects by name. So the editor altered Mark’s text. The editor disguised Essenes as “Herodians.” He placed them in association with Pharisees on the question of healing on the sabbath, and on the question of paying taxes. They even conspire with the Pharisees.

I infer that the editor wanted to continue to use the positive term “Essenes” in his own world and not contaminate it with association with Pharisees. I have said elsewhere that I think that the Roman congregation had Essene intellectual heritage.

More editing: the term Sadducees

The editor changed “chief priests” to “Sadducees” in Mk 12:18. During the performance, the audience had only seen “chief priests.” The chief priests were important in the play only because they were members of the Jerusalem Council and opposed to Jesus. Their doctrines and their sect name–Sadducees–were irrelevant to their role in the play. The editor’s addition of “Sadducees” to Mark’s text must have solved a problem in the editor’s world. I propose that problem was the question by a reader of Josephus.

The leaven of Herod: Exegesis by Judean Essenes

Now to the term the “leaven of Herod”. What does it mean? In the Gospel of Mark, on the return boat trip from Dalmanutha, Jesus says, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the leaven of Herod” (Mk 8:15). Leaven (yeast) means exegesis. It is consistent for Jesus to warn his disciples about the exegesis of the Pharisees (produced by their house intellectuals, the scribes/rabbis). That warning is probably from Mark’s hand, and was spoken in the performance.

I think that the term “leaven of Herod” was added by the same editor who added “Herodians” to the narrative text. The term implies that the “Herodians” were exegetes. The extension of the concept of Herodians to exegetes strengthens the case that the editor intended “Herodians” to represent Essenes, who were exegetes.

Herodians in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew

How do Luke and Matthew treat the Herodians? In Mk 3:6, the Herodians appear as allies of the Pharisees on the question of healing on the sabbath. In the Gospel of Luke (Lk 6:11) the Pharisees have allies, but they are the (historically corrct) “teachers of the Law.” The parallel verse in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 12:14) does not mention Herodians. So both Luke and Matthew omit the Herodians.

The second mention of Herodians is in Mk 12:13, where they are allies of the Pharisees on the question of paying taxes to Caesar. Luke (Lk 20:20) has “spies” sent by the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. Matthew has retained the Herodians (Mt 22:16). Luke again omits “Herodians” and Matthew, mysteriously, has them.

The editor of Mark was not writing a history of contemporary Judean sects

The terms “Herodians” and “Sadducees” used by the editor of the Gospel of Mark must have had some historical plausibility. But the editor was not writing the history of Judean sects in the first century CE. The mentions of Herodians and Sadducees in the Gospel of Mark could be an editor’s improvised response to a curious reader of Josephus in Rome, at least six decades after the events of the story. We should not, for example, infer that Sadducees regularly engaged in debate with visitors to the Temple. Or that Essenes made political common cause with Pharisees on any issue other than opposition to Mark’s concept of Jesus. Or that Essenes in Judea and Galilee were known as “Herodians.” These proposals remain possible, but the Gospel of Mark is not a historical primary source for them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *