A Dangerous Parting
The Beheading of John the Baptist in Early Christian Memory
Imprint: Baylor University Press
228 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: November 2021
Execution by beheading is a highly symbolic act. The grisly image of the severed head evokes a particular social and cultural location, functioning as a channel of figurative discourse specific to a place and time—dissuading nonideal behavior as well as expressing and reinforcing group boundary demarcations and ideological assumptions. In short, a bodiless head serves as a discursive vehicle of communication: though silenced, it speaks.
Employing social memory theory and insights from a thorough analysis of ancient ideology concerning beheading, A Dangerous Parting explores the communicative impact of the tradition of John the Baptist's decapitation in the first three centuries of the Common Era. Nathan Shedd argues that the early memory of the Immerser's death is characterized by a dangerous synchroneity. On the one hand, John's beheading, associated as it was with Jesus' crucifixion, served as the locus of destabilizing and redistributing the degradation of a victim who undergoes bodily violence; both John and Jesus were mutually vindicated as victims of somatic violence. On the other hand, as John's head was remembered in the second and third century, localized expressions of the "Parting of the Ways" were inscribed onto that parted head with dangerous anti-Jewish implications. Justin Martyr and Origen represent an attempt to align John's beheading and Jesus' crucifixion along a cultural schematic that asserted the destitution of non-Christ-following Jews and, simultaneously, alleged Christians' ethical, ideological, and spiritual supremacy.
A Dangerous Parting uncovers interpretive possibilities of John's beheading, especially regarding the deep-rooted patterns of thinking that have animated indifference to acts of physical violence against Jews throughout history. With this work, Shedd not only pushes John the Baptist research forward to consider the impact of this figure in early expressions of Jewish and Christian distinction, but also urges scholars and students alike to contemplate the ethics of reading ancient texts.
Introduction: A History of Violence
1 Violence Exposed: Social Memory Theory and the Negotiation of Trauma
2 Cultures of Violence: Beheading in the Ancient World
3 Contesting Violence: John’s Beheading and Degradation in the Gospel of Mark
4 The Violence of Memory: Christian Identity via Anti-Jewish Polemic
Conclusion: Reading Beyond Violence
In A Dangerous Parting, Nathan L. Shedd tracks the journey of John the Baptist’s decapitated head first through the space of its story world and then through its reception over time. By considering the head to be a vehicle for meaning that is activated in different contexts, this sharply focused book exemplifies the responsible use of social memory theory. But even more: Shedd’s analysis shows persuasively how the story of John’s beheading was a cultural resource that early Christian thinkers deployed in their debates about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.~Sarah E. Rollens, R.A. Webb Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Rhodes College
Severed heads are surprisingly loquacious. Decapitation—an unnatural event freighted with cultural intention—is a communicative act that violently inscribes its own words into the mouths of its victims. In A Dangerous Parting, Nathan Shedd listens as the disembodied head of John the Baptist speaks across the first three Christian centuries. One might think a head on a platter could be made to say whatever a person wanted, but Shedd illumines processes by which established commemorative patterns restrict and constrain the ability to reconfigure the past. The result is a fascinating extended interview with one of early Christianity’s most important talking heads.~Rafael Rodríguez, Professor of New Testament, Johnson University
This ambitious study considers memories of John the Baptist’s violent beheading, as found both in the New Testament and in other early Christian literature. It uses social memory theory to reflect how John’s death would have been understood among other beheadings in the Roman world. It reflects on changes of interpretations in the light of different cultural circumstances and debates, particularly with Judaism. As such, it makes a solid contribution to understanding the reception of John in the early centuries.~Joan Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism, King’s College London