John's Imprisonment

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: The Gospels


When Jesus heard John was in prison, why did he not go help him? I had a wonderful healing of a kind of guilt that had been with me for years from reading this passage (Mark 1:14). But I have always wondered if Jesus was knowingly trusting John's fate to God, or what.


It's never easy to know the mind of someone thousands of years after the fact, but there are a few enlightening points that can be made about this.

The first is that John was being held in a fortress palace of Machaerus, known as "The Black Fortress." It was located about 33 miles SW of ancient Philadelphia. It overlooked the Dead Sea from the east, about 9 miles inland. Scholars know a few things about this place. It was originally built by a Hamonean king about 90 BCE. It was completely destroyed by Pompey's general in 57 BCE. However, Herod the Great restored it in 30 BCE. His intention was to use it as a military base to protect his territories east of the Jordan. Needless to say, Herod Antipas inherited it upon his father's death. Herod Antipas ruled from 4B CE to 39 CE.

The fortress was built on a natural hilltop, standing roughly 1100 feet above Dead Sea level. It was surrounded on three sides by deep ravines. It could be reached from the Dead Sea or from the region of Madaba on the east. On top of this hill, Herod the Great built a wall that was 100 meters long and 60 meters wide. Each corner tower stood 90 feet tall. The palace was in the center and was by all accounts "breathtaking and beautiful." Water was collected through a system of cisterns.

Up until the first Jewish revolt in 66 CE, a Roman garrison was stationed there. But they were recalled after that initial revolt. The fortress would last until 72 CE. This would have been two years after the destruction of Jerusalem. By that time, many Jewish rebels/zealots had fled to the fortress. The Romans instituted a siege against it and followed by building an embankment and ramp. The Jewish rebels surrendered before an official attack was initiated. According to some legends, they did this because the Romans had captured one of their youth and were about to crucify him. The deal was that they would be allowed to leave without harm (though other accounts say many were killed anyway). Afterwards, the fortress was completely demolished.

The site has been excavated. They have found ruins of the Herodian palace with parts of the mosaic floor still intact. There were several rooms, a large courtyard and a huge bath. Several of the tower foundations also exist. Pottery found in the area is consistent with the two occupations of 90-67BCE and 30-72 CE.

According to biblical tradition, Herod ordered the arrest of John the Baptist following his outspoken criticism of Herod's marriage to his brother's wife, Herodias. While it meant that John was out of circulation, it appears that his followers were able to visit him and keep him informed about Jesus' activities. Those followers also brought messages to Jesus. Scholars think he might have been in prison for about ten months.

When Herod marched against his former father-in-law (whose daughter he divorced in order to marry Herodias), he stopped at Machaerus with his "lords and high captains" to celebrate his birthday. Herodias' daughter, Salome, danced for them and Herod promised to give her whatever she wanted. Under her mother's tutelage, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Not wanting to seem weak in front of his men, Herod had it done. This all took place, according to Josephus (a first century historian), at the fortress palace at Machaerus.

Somehow John's disciples were given access to his body and were able to give him a proper burial. It is said that the whole nation mourned his death.

From the above, it would seem highly unlikely that someone could "break into" the fortress and take out a prisoner. But biblical tradition is replete with prison doors opening and people walking out unharmed. So it begs the question as to why that didn't happen here. Accounts might differ, but Mark's gospel makes it clear that John's work was finished before Jesus' started.

A bigger issue, however, might lie with the nature of Jesus' mission. He worked in Galilee, the place most removed from the politics of Jerusalem and Roman interference. He worked in the small towns, under the radar, if you will. Never did he actively look toward confronting the reigning authorities – Roman or Jewish. We never hear of him meeting with heads of state or negotiating on the people's behalf. His was a ministry confined to the grass roots level. He ministered almost exclusively to those on the lowest rungs of society. He repeatedly claimed that he had been sent by the Father, and he, no doubt, trusted completely in God's plan. Beyond that, any conjectures about his thoughts on John would be purely speculative.

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