John the Baptist (Hebrew: יוחנן המטביל, Yoḥanan ha-mmaṭbil, Arabic: يوحنا المعمدان Yūhannā al-maʿmadān, Aramaic: ܝܘܚܢܢ Yoḥanan) (c. 6 BC – c. AD 36) was an itinerant preacher and a major religious figure mentioned in the Canonical gospels. He is described in the Gospel of Luke as a relative of Jesus, who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River. Some scholars maintain that he was influenced by the Essenes, who were semi-ascetic, expected an apocalypse, and practiced rituals corresponding strongly with baptism, although there is no direct evidence to substantiate this.
Most biblical scholars agree that John baptized Jesus at “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” by wading into the water with Jesus from the eastern bank. John the Baptist is also mentioned by Jewish historian Josephus, in Aramaic Matthew, in Pseudo-Clementine, and in the Qur’an. Accounts of John in the New Testament appear compatible with the account in Josephus. There are no other historical accounts of John the Baptist from around the period of his lifetime.
John anticipated a messianic figure who would be greater than himself, and, in the New Testament, Jesus is the one whose coming John foretold. Christians commonly refer to John as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus, since John announces Jesus’ coming. John is also identified with the prophet Elijah. Some of Jesus’ early followers had previously been followers of John.
All four canonical Gospels record John the Baptist’s ministry, as does the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews. They depict him as proclaiming Christ’s arrival. In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), Jesus is baptized by John.
Birth and infancy
The Gospel of Luke includes an account of John’s infancy, introducing him as the son of Zechariah, an old man, and his wife Elizabeth, who was barren. According to this account, the birth of John was foretold by the angel Gabriel to Zachariah, while Zachariah was performing his functions as a priest in the temple of Jerusalem. Since Zachariah is described as a priest of the course of Abijah and his wife, Elizabeth, as one of the daughters of Aaron, this would make John a descendant of Aaron on both his father’s and mother’s side.
The Gospel of Luke states that Jesus was conceived when Elizabeth was about six months pregnant, and when her cousin Mary came to tell her about her news,Elizabeth’s unborn child “jumped for joy” in her womb. Zachariah had lost his speech at the behest and prophecy of the angel Gabriel, and it was restored on the occasion of Zachariah naming John.
The many similarities between the accounts of the birth of John and that of Samuel in the Old Testament have led scholars to suggest that the Gospel of Luke story of the birth of John and of the annunciation and birth of Jesus are modeled on that of Samuel.
All four canonical gospels relate John’s preaching and baptism in the River Jordan. Most notably he is the one who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and baptizes him. The baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and (most clearly) Luke relate that Jesus came from Galilee to John in Judea and was baptized by him, whereupon the Spirit descended upon Jesus and a voice from Heaven told him he was God’s Son. The Gospel of John does not record John’s baptizing Jesus, but John introduces Jesus to his disciples as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29-36).
Considered by Christians to be without sin, Jesus nevertheless received John’s baptism, which was for the repentance of sins (Mark 1:4). This is addressed in the Gospel of Matthew‘s account, which portrays John’s refusal to baptize Jesus, saying, “I need to be baptized by you.” Jesus persuades John to baptize him nonetheless (Matthew 3:13–15).
The Gospel of John reports that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing and that a debate broke out between some of the disciples of John and another Jew about purification. In this debate John argued that Jesus “must become greater,” while he (John) “must become less”. The Gospel of John then points out that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing more people than John (John 4:2). Later, the Gospel relates that Jesus regarded John as “a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (John 5:35). The Book of Acts portrays the disciples of John as eventually merging into the followers of Jesus (Acts 18:24-19:6), a development not reported by the Gospels except for the early case of Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother (John 1:35-42).
However, some scholars such as Harold W. Attridge contend that John’s status as a “self-conscious and deliberate forerunner of Jesus” is likely to be an invention by early Christians, arguing that “for the early church it would have been something of an embarrassment to say that Jesus, who was in their minds superior to John the Baptist, had been baptized by him.”
In the Gospel accounts of John’s death, Herod has John imprisoned for denouncing his marriage, and John is later executed by beheading. John condemned Herod for marrying Herodias, the former wife of his brother Philip, in violation of Old Testament Law. Later Herodias’ daughter Salome dances before Herod, who offers her a favour in return. Herodias tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist, which is delivered to her on a plate (Mark 6:14-29). The first century Jewish historian Josephus gives a slightly different account in his Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus writes that Herod had John arrested because John had so many followers that Herod feared they might begin a rebellion. Herod later had him executed (Ant. 18.116-118). It is possible that both accounts are true. Josephus writes about John’s death in a section detailing some of Herod’s political dealings. Herod regarded John as a threat, he spoke against Herod and had many followers, so Herod wanted to get rid of him. The Gospels recall the teaching of John, that he called for Israel to purify herself through baptism (Matthew 3:1-12). So the Gospels’ description of John’s death focuses on the final reason Herod had for arresting John, which was religious. So it may have been that Herod wanted John arrested because he was a political threat, and John’s condemnations of Herod’s marriage was “the final straw”. See James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered pp377–379.
John the Baptist and Old Testament prophecy
Christians believe that John the Baptist had a specific role ordained by God as forerunner or precursor of Jesus, who was the foretold Messiah. The New Testament Gospels speak of this role. In Luke 1:17 the role of John is referred to as being “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” In Luke 1:76 as “…thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways” and in Luke 1:77 as being “To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins.”
There are several passages within the Old Testament which are interpreted by Christians as being prophetic of John the Baptist in this role. These include a passage in the Book of Malachi 3:1 that refers to a prophet who would prepare the way of the Lord:
“Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. — Malachi 3:1
and also at the end of the next chapter in Malachi 4:5-6 where it says,
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”
The Jews of Jesus’ day expected Elijah to come before the Messiah; indeed, some modern Jews continue to await Elijah’s coming as well, as in the Cup of Elijah the Prophet in the Passover Seder. This is why the disciples ask Jesus in Matthew 17:10, ‘Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?.’ The disciples are then told by Jesus that Elijah came in the person of John the Baptist,
“Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist”. — Matthew 17:11-13
“Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” – John 1:19-21
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.
As with other passages in Josephus relating to Christian themes concern remains over whether the passage was part of Josephus’s original text or instead a later addition – it can be dated back no further than the early 3rd century when it is quoted by Origen in Contra Celsum. According to this passage, the execution of John was blamed for a defeat Herod suffered c. AD 36. Divergences between the passage’s presentation and the Biblical accounts of John include baptism for those whose souls have already been “purified beforehand by righteousness” is for purification of the body, not general repentance of sin (Mark 1:4). Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan differentiates between Josephus’s account of John and Jesus like this: “John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise.” To get baptized, Crossan writes, you went only to John; to stop the movement one only needed to stop John (therefore his movement ended with his death). Jesus invited all to come and see how he and his companions had already accepted the Government of God, entered it and were living it. Such a communal praxis was not just for himself, but could survive without him, unlike John’s movement.
Early Jewish Christian sects
Among the early Judaistic Christian groups the Ebionites held that John, along with Jesus and James the Just – all of whom they revered – were vegetarians. Epiphanius of Salamis records that this group had amended their Gospel of Matthew, known today as the Gospel of the Ebionites, to change where John eats “locusts” to read “honey cakes” or “manna“.
Eastern Orthodox Church
The Eastern Orthodox faithful believe that John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, thus serving as a bridge between that period of revelation and the New Covenant. They also teach that, following his death, John descended into Hades and there once more preached that Jesus the Messiah was coming, so he was the Forerunner of Christ in death as he had been in life. According to Sacred Tradition, John the Baptist appears at the time of death to those who have not heard the Gospel of Christ, and preaches the Good News to them, that all may have the opportunity to be saved. Orthodox churches will often have an icon of St. John the Baptist in a place of honor on the iconostasis, and he is frequently mentioned during the Divine Services. Every Tuesday throughout the year is dedicated to his memory.
- September 23 — Conception ofSt.John the Forerunner
- January 7 — The Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner. This is his main feast day, immediately after Theophany on January 6 (January 7 also commemorates the transfer of the relic of the right hand of John the Baptist from Antioch to Constantinople in 956)
- February 24 — First and Second Finding of the Head ofSt. Johnthe Forerunner
- May 25 — Third Finding of the Head ofSt. Johnthe Forerunner
- June 24 — Nativity of St. John the Forerunner
- August 29 — The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner
In addition to the above, September 5 is the commemoration of Zechariah and Elisabeth, St. John’s parents. The Russian Orthodox Church observes October 12 as the Transfer of the Right Hand of the Forerunner from Malta to Gatchina (1799).
The burial-place of John the Baptist was at Sebaste in Samaria, and mention is made of his relics being honored there around the middle of the 4th century. The historians Rufinus and Theodoretus record that the shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate around 362, the bones being partly burned. A portion of the rescued relics were carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria, where on May 27, 395, they were laid in the basilica that was newly dedicated to the Forerunner on the former site of the temple of Serapis. The tomb at Sebaste continued, nevertheless, to be visited by pious pilgrims, and St. Jerome bears witness to miracles being worked there.
What became of the head of John the Baptist is difficult to determine. Nicephorus and Symeon Metaphrastes say that Herodias had it buried in the fortress of Machaerus (in accordance with Josephus). Other writers say that it was interred in Herod’s palace at Jerusalem; there it was found during the reign of Constantine I, and thence secretly taken to Emesa, in Phoenicia, where it was concealed, the place remaining unknown for years, until it was manifested by revelation in 453.
The saint’s right hand, with which he baptised Jesus, is claimed to be in: the Serbian Orthodox Cetinje monastery in Montenegro; Topkapi Palace in Istanbul; and also in the Romanian skete of the Forerunner on Mount Athos. A crypt and relics said to be John’s and mentioned in 11th and 16th century manuscripts, were discovered in 1969 during restoration of the Church of St. Macarius at the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in Scetes, Egypt.
The beheading of St. John the Baptist is a standard theme in Christian art, in which John’s head is often depicted on a platter, which represents the request of Herod’s stepdaughter, Salome. He is also depicted as an ascetic wearing camel hair, with a staff and scroll inscribed Ecce Agnus Dei, or bearing a book or dish with a lamb on it. In Orthodox icons, he often has angel’s wings, since Mark 1:2 describes him as a messenger.
The Baptism of Christ was one of the earliest scenes from the Life of Christ to be frequently depicted in Early Christian art, and John’s tall thin, even gaunt, and bearded figure is already established by the 5th century. Only he and Jesus are consistently shown with long hair from Early Christian times, when the apostles generally have trim classical cuts; in fact John is more consistently depicted in this way than Jesus. In Byzantine art the composition of the Deesis came to be included in every Eastern Orthodox church, as remains the case to this day. Here John and the Theotokos (Mary) flank a Christ Pantocrator and intercede for humanity.
Orthodox Newsletter of St Theodore, Lanham
By His Eminence Metropolitan PANTELEIMON of Antinoes
St. John the Baptist