Confronting a narcissistic ruler

Machaerus mountain--JNKcr

The Machaerus palace complex covered the entire flat top of this mountain in Jordan. In the distance is the Dead Sea, and on a clear day Jerusalem is visible at the upper right.

The moral character of a ruler can reach such low ebb that prophets arise to name and condemn the scoundrel’s behavior, even if the ruler strikes back. In totalitarian states, immoral rulers imprison or murder adversaries. In democracies, they discredit and counter-accuse.

John the Baptist saw and condemned the immorality of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and paid for it with his life. Having been educated in Rome, this Herod was a son of Herod the Great. He schmoozed Rome and named his new regional capital in Galilee “Tiberias” after the reigning emperor. Like his father, Herod Antipas wielded power to stroke his ego and eliminate foes. Jesus called him “that fox” (Luke 13:32), and Herod eventually helped preside at Jesus’ trial.

But even as he rubbed out opponents, Herod perversely wanted to meet them. When the Tetrarch finally encountered Jesus in a Jerusalem courtroom, Herod was “very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign” (Luke 23:8).

Called Tetrarch because he inherited one-fourth of his father’s kingdom, Herod controlled two separate regions: Galilee in the north, and Perea–an area east and north of the Dead Sea. When John the Baptist began to speak out against corruption, economic injustice, and spiritual leaders in cahoots with Rome, he took his ministry to desert regions of Perea and the Jordan River valley.

Always paranoid about the possibility of insurrection, the Herod family maintained scattered palace-fortresses as safe houses. One such was Machaerus, which crowned a dramatic peak in mountains east of the Dead Sea. Not far to the north, John was proclaiming, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance . . . Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees . . .”

When Herod seduced and married his brother’s wife, John publicly rebuked him (Mark 6:17-29). The marriage was both adulterous and incestuous because the woman was Herod’s niece. Herod’s new wife wanted John dead, but fearing public relations pushback, Herod simply threw him in prison.

Machaerus courtyard--JNKCR

Archeologists have reconstructed the central courtyard of the Herodian palace at Machaerus–perhaps the place where Salome danced.  Also reconstucted is one pillar that was part of the porch around the courtyard, and an adjacent small section of the original courtyard stones.

An opportunity for revenge came when the narcissistic ruler celebrated his own birthday with a party which, according to Josephus, was at Machaerus. He invited officers of his court and leaders from Galilee. Salome, daughter of Herod’s new wife, performed such a beguiling dance that Herod promised to give whatever she asked. Consulting with her mother, the girl said, “The head of John the Baptist!” With the pesky prophet apparently in a dungeon at Machaerus, Herod ordered immediate execution, and the head arrived on a platter.

Today it is an easy hike up Machaerus mountain, and the ruins are sobering: a courtyard that may be where Salome danced, an adjacent hall where Herod likely feasted, and various underground rooms that could have been dungeons.

The Romans eventually tired of Herod’s erratic and power-grabbing governance, and he did not come to a happy end. In AD 39, a few years after killing John and Jesus, he was stripped of power and sent into exile in France, where he died.

I admire the moral fiber of John, who stood up to corrupt and narcissistic power. I honor the courage of John’s disciples who came to collect his body. I support peaceful protesters, pastors, and prophets who confront corrupt and narcissistic power today in this country and around the world.

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ******************************************IMG_0410 (4)

Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and more. The Gospels will be in our hands, and prayer in our hearts. Interested? See

Where truth confronted power


Today called the kishle (Ottoman word for “prison”), this is a possible location of the praetorium where Jesus stood trial before Pilate.

Today multiple versions of “truth” compete for attention in politics and media, and we ask the same question Pontius Pilate famously put to Jesus: What is truth? (John 18:38). Truth already had been compromised on the night Jesus stood in Pilate’s judgement hall. At the house of High Priest Caiaphas, Peter had lied by declaring he never knew Jesus. Guards then escorted Jesus to Pilate’s praetorium (official headquarters and judgment hall) where Jesus would be sentenced to death. Seeing calamity close in on his master, and recognizing his own moral failure, Peter went out and wept bitterly.

Pilate was Roman governor of Palestine, suspicious of anyone who spoke of kingship apart from subservience to Rome. “My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus declared to Pilate. Our Lord was not pointing to an other-worldly or theoretical kingdom. The way of Jesus already was creating alternative communities and transforming lives. Jesus was telling Pilate that authority and power in his kingdom do not come from Rome.

Nor was Jesus going to use conventional political tactics or coercive power to advance his reign. “If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus said, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” In Galilee Jesus had taught his followers to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth! Not pie-in-the-sky politics, but a visible new society of people who live in radical obedience to a reconciling God.

What courage!

What courage Jesus shows in the face of a ruler who could order his immediate execution! Awed by such audacity, I descend with other pilgrims into what may be the room where the trial drama took place. Archeologists recently completed excavations of this part of the so-called Tower of David in Jerusalem. This large room perhaps was Pilate’s praetorium. Walls and roof are from the Ottoman era (AD 1300–1922), but foundations are from the time of Christ.


“Tower of David” is a misnomer. The structure has nothing to do with David, but is the palace of Herod where Pilate resided when in Jerusalem. The minaret is Ottoman, but it marks the place adjacent to the city wall where there are remains of first-century buildings.

Whether or not this is the actual place where Jesus was interrogated, mocked, and sentenced, here I consider the relationship between the powers of this world and the reign of God. Someday, by God’s grace, we will celebrate the fact that “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Rev. 11:15). But for now, political realities of our world often are a far cry from the kingdom of God. Truth too often is the first casualty, as leaders tell half-truths or outright lies to cover their failures or advance their agenda.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and the three are closely related. With trustworthy speech that needs no oath for validation, we follow the way of Jesus. In the light of the gospel, we learn the truth about God and ourselves. At a time when society pressures us to align with political parties and polarizing ideologies, we find the life abundant of unity with Christ and his body, the church.

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Come with my wife Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour accessible to non-athletes like myself. Dates are May 14-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum. Details are still pending but we likely also will hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route, and more. Interested? See