John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus. He was the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, both of priestly descent (Luke 1:5-25, 56-58). He lived as a Nazarite in the desert (Luke 1:15; Matt 11:12-14,18). He began his ministry beyond Jordan in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1-3). He preached baptism of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah (Luke 3:4-14). He baptized Jesus (Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9,10; Luke 3:21; John 1:32). He bore witness to Jesus as Messiah (John 1:24-42). He was imprisoned and put to death by Herod Antipas (Matt 14:6-12; Mark 6:17-28). He was praised by Jesus (Matt 11:7-14; Luke 7:24-28). The Disciples were loyal to him long after his death (Acts 18:25).
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John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah, the priest, and Elizabeth (also of priestly descent and a relative of Mary the mother of Jesus). Born in the hill country of Judah, his birth having been foretold by an angel (Luke 1:11ff.), he spent his early years in the wilderness of Judea (Luke 1:80). His public ministry began in the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius (ca. A.D. 27) when he suddenly appeared out of the wilderness.
The Gospels look upon John as the fulfillment of the Elijah redivivus expectation, for both the announcing angel (Luke 1:17) and Jesus (Mark 9:11-13) expressly taught this. Furthermore, John's garb of a "garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist" (Matt. 3:4) was similar to the dress of Elijah (II Kings 1:8). Although John himself denied this identification (John 1:21-25), admitting only to being Isaiah's "voice in the wilderness" (John 1:23), it may be that he was disclaiming the popular hope for the literal resurrection of Elijah, accepting only the fulfillment of his spirit and power. Indeed this was the explicit promise of the angel.
John's message had a twofold emphasis: (1) the imminent appearance of the messianic kingdom, and (2) the urgent need for repentance to prepare for this event (Matt. 3:2). In true prophetic fashion his concept of the nature of the kingdom was not that of the popular mind, and thus was a proper preparation for Christ. The multitudes expected the "day of the Lord" to be happiness for all Israel, basing their hope on racial considerations. John proclaimed that the kingdom was to be a rule of righteousness, inherited only by those who exhibited righteousness by the way they lived. Thus his message of repentance was directed particularly to the Jew, for God was going to purge Israel as well as the world (Matt. 3:7-12). When Jesus appeared on the scene John's role as a forerunner was completed in his personal testimony to the fact of Jesus' messiahship (John 1:29).
The baptism of John complemented his preparatory task. In its basic sense it was a symbolic act for the cleansing away of sin, and was thus accompanied by repentance. So Matt. 3:6 says, "and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan while confessing fully (exomologoumenoi) their sins." But in its fullest sense it was an eschatological act preparing one for admission into the messianic kingdom. Thus when the Pharisees and Sadducees came for baptism, John said, "Who warned you to flee form the wrath to come?" (Matt. 3:7). Josephus's account of John's baptism (Antiquities xviii.5.2) is at variance with this, suggesting that its purpose was to provide a bodily purification to correspond with an already accomplished inward change. The historical background to John's baptism is probably Jewish proselyte baptism, with John emphasizing by this that both Jew and Gentile were ceremonially unclean as far as the true people of God were concerned. The baptism of Jesus by John (Matt. 3:13-15) is to be explained not as a sign that Jesus needed repentance, but rather that by this act he was identifying himself with mankind in the proper approach to God's kingdom.
It has long been felt that John was at one time connected with the Essenes, because of his ascetic habits and his location near the chief settlement of the sect. This has been given greater possibility by the recognized affinities between John and the Dead Sea Scroll (Qumran) sect, an Essenish group which dwelt on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. This connection is certainly possible, for both John and the Qumran sect resided in the wilderness of Judea, both were of a priestly character, both laid emphasis on baptism as a sign of inward clensing, both were ascetic, both thought in terms of imminent judgment, and both invoked Isa. 40:3 as the authority for their mission in life. But although John may have been influenced by the sect in the early stages of his life, his ministry was far greater. John's role was essentially prophetic; the sect's was esoteric. John issued a public call to repentance; the sect withdrew to the desert. John proclaimed an exhibition of repentance in the affairs of ordinary life; the sect required submission to the rigors of its ascetic life. John introduced the Messiah; the sect still waited for his manifestation.
John's denunciation of Herod Antipas for his marriage was the cause of his death by beheading (Matt. 14:1-12). Josephus tells us that this took place at the fortress of Machaerus near the Dead Sea. The Mandaeans were influenced by John, for he plays a large part in their writings. This connection may have come through John's disciples, who existed for at least twenty-five years after John's death (Acts 18:25; 19:3).
R B Laurin
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
C. H. Kraeling, John the Baptist; J. Thomas, Le mouvement baptiste en Palestine et Syrie; A. Plummer, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 30-31; M. Burrows, More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls; W. Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition; F. F. Bruce, NT History; E. Barnwell, "The Baptist in Early Christian Tradition," NTS 18:95ff.; C.H.H. Scobie, John the Baptist.
The "forerunner of our Lord." We have but fragmentary and imperfect accounts of him in the Gospels. He was of priestly descent. His father, Zacharias, was a priest of the course of Abia (1 Chr. 24:10), and his mother, Elisabeth, was of the daughters of Aaron (Luke 1:5). The mission of John was the subject of prophecy (Matt. 3:3; Isa. 40:3; Mal. 3:1). His birth, which took place six months before that of Jesus, was foretold by an angel. Zacharias, deprived of the power of speech as a token of God's truth and a reproof of his own incredulity with reference to the birth of his son, had the power of speech restored to him on the occasion of his circumcision (Luke 1:64). After this no more is recorded of him for thirty years than what is mentioned in Luke 1:80. John was a Nazarite from his birth (Luke 1:15; Num. 6:1-12).
He spent his early years in the mountainous tract of Judah lying between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea (Matt. 3:1-12). At length he came forth into public life, and great multitudes from "every quarter" were attracted to him. The sum of his preaching was the necessity of repentance. He denounced the Sadducees and Pharisees as a "generation of vipers," and warned them of the folly of trusting to external privileges (Luke 3:8). "As a preacher, John was eminently practical and discriminating. Self-love and covetousness were the prevalent sins of the people at large. On them, therefore, he enjoined charity and consideration for others. The publicans he cautioned against extortion, the soldiers against crime and plunder." His doctrine and manner of life roused the entire south of Palestine, and the people from all parts flocked to the place where he was, on the banks of the Jordan. There he baptized thousands unto repentance.
The fame of John reached the ears of Jesus in Nazareth (Matt. 3:5), and he came from Galilee to Jordan to be baptized of John, on the special ground that it became him to "fulfil all righteousness" (3: 15). John's special office ceased with the baptism of Jesus, who must now "increase as the King come to his kingdom. He continued, however, for a while to bear testimony to the Messiahship of Jesus. He pointed him out to his disciples, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God." His public ministry was suddenly (after about six months probably) brought to a close by his being cast into prison by Herod, whom he had reproved for the sin of having taken to himself the wife of his brother Philip (Luke 3:19). He was shut up in the castle of Machaerus (q.v.), a fortress on the southern extremity of Peraea, 9 miles east of the Dead Sea, and here he was beheaded. His disciples, having consigned the headless body to the grave, went and told Jesus all that had occurred (Matt. 14:3-12). John's death occurred apparently just before the third Passover of our Lord's ministry. Our Lord himself testified regarding him that he was a "burning and a shining light" (John 5:35).
(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)
John's Baptism was not Christian baptism, nor was that which was practised by the disciples previous to our Lord's crucifixion. Till then the New Testament economy did not exist. John's baptism bound its subjects to repentance, and not to the faith of Christ. It was not administered in the name of the Trinity, and those whom John baptized were rebaptized by Paul (Acts 18:24; 19:7).
(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)
Christ had to be formally inaugurated into the public discharge of his offices. For this purpose he came to John, who was the representative of the law and the prophets, that by him he might be introduced into his offices, and thus be publicly recognized as the Messiah of whose coming the prophecies and types had for many ages borne witness. John refused at first to confer his baptism on Christ, for he understood not what he had to do with the "baptism of repentance." But Christ said, "'Suffer it to be so now,' NOW as suited to my state of humiliation, my state as a substitute in the room of sinners." His reception of baptism was not necessary on his own account.
It was a voluntary act, the same as his act of becoming incarnate. Yet if the work he had engaged to accomplish was to be completed, then it became him to take on him the likeness of a sinner, and to fulfil all righteousness (Matt. 3:15). The official duty of Christ and the sinless person of Christ are to be distinguished. It was in his official capacity that he submitted to baptism. In coming to John our Lord virtually said, "Though sinless, and without any personal taint, yet in my public or official capacity as the Sent of God, I stand in the room of many, and bring with me the sin of the world, for which I am the propitiation." Christ was not made under the law on his own account. It was as surety of his people, a position which he spontaneously assumed. The administration of the rite of baptism was also a symbol of the baptism of suffering before him in this official capacity (Luke 12:50). In thus presenting himself he in effect dedicated or consecrated himself to the work of fulfilling all righteousness.
(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)
Commemorated June 24
Behold I send my messenger before your face, Who will prepare Your way before You. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight".
St John's is the only saint's birthday celebrated throughout the church calendar year. St. John is remembered on three other days as well, but they all deal with the discovery of his Holy relics.
His father, Zacharias, a Hebrew priest, was struck dumb by the Archangel Gabriel at the altar when he would not believe the archangel's news that his wife Elizabeth (a very old woman) would conceive a son. He got his voice back when writing, on the day of the child's circumcision, that his name would be John. When Herod sent soldiers to kill the infants in Jerusalem in search of Jesus, St. John also was at risk. Elizabeth hid the baby, and in anger Herod had Zacharias killed near the temple. Elizabeth hid in a cave with the baby and died when he was forty days old. St. John remained in the wilderness where he was raised by angels. The presence of St. John and his disciples was not felt until about one year before the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. He preached repentance in the wilderness and not the cities, and the crowds came to him. He is known as the Baptist and Forerunner of Christ, because of his role in preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Dismissal Hymn (Fourth
Prophet and Forerunner of the coming of Christ, although we cannot praise you worthily, we honour you in love at your nativity, for by it you ended your father's silence and your mother's barrenness, proclaiming to the world the incarnation of the Son of God!
Kontakion (Third Tone)
Today the formerly barren woman gives birth to Christ's Forerunner, who is the fulfillment of every prophecy; for in the Jordan, when he laid his hand on the One foretold by the prophets, he was revealed as Prophet, Herald, and Forerunner of God the Word.
Essene saint and preacher; flourished between 20 and 30 C.E.; fore-runner of Jesus of Nazareth and originator of the Christian movement. Of his life and character Josephus ("Ant." xviii. 5, § 2) says:
"He was a good man [comp. ib. 1, § 5], who admonished the Jews to practise abstinence [ἀρετὴν = "Pharisaic virtue" = "perishut"; comp. "B. J." ii. 8, § 2], lead a life of righteousness toward one another and of piety [εὐσέβειαν = "religious devotion"] toward God, and then join him in the rite of bathing [baptism]; for, said he, thus would baptism be acceptable to Him [God] if they would use it not simply for the putting away of certain sins [comp. II. Sam. xi. 4] or in the case of proselytes [see Soṭah 12b; comp. Gen. R. i.], but for the sanctification of the body after the soul had beforehand been thoroughly purified by righteousness. The people flocked in crowds to him, being stirred by his addresses. King Herod Antipas, fearing lest the great influence John had over the people might be used by him to raise a rebellion, sent him to the fortress of Macherus as a prisoner, and had him put to death.
"The people in their indignation over this atrocious act beheld in the destruction which came soon afterward upon the army of Herod a divine punishment."
Legend of Birth.
John the Baptist was made the subject of a legendary narrative embodied in Luke i. 5-25, 57-80, and iii. 1-20, according to which he was the son of Zacharias, a priest of the section of Abia, and of Elisabeth, also of priestly descent, and was born in their old age. The angel Gabriel announced John's birth to Zacharias while that priest stood at the altar offering incense, and told him that this child would be a Nazarite for life ("nezir 'olam"; Nazir i. 2); filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb, he would be called upon to convert the children of Israel to God, and with the power of Elijah would turn the hearts of the fathers to the children while preparing the people for the Lord (Mal. iii. 24 [A. V. iv. 6]). Zacharias, hesitating to believe the message, was struck dumb, and his mouth was opened again only after the birth of the child, when at the circumcision a name was to be given him; then he answered simultaneously with his wife that he should be called "John," as the angel had foretold. Zacharias, filled with the Holy Spirit, blessed God for the redemption of the people of Israel from the hand of their enemies (the Romans) through the house of David (a Messianic view altogether at variance with the New Testament conception), and prophesied that the child John should be called "Prophet of the Highest," one that would show how salvation should be obtained by remission of sins (through baptism; comp. Midr. Teh. to Ps. cxix. 76), so that through him a light from on high would be brought to "those that sit in darkness."
John remained hidden in the desert until, in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, the word of God came to him, and he stepped forth, saying in the words of Isa. xl. 2-5: "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. iii. 2), and preaching to the people to undergo baptism in repentance for the remission of their sins, and instead of relying on the merit of their father Abraham like hypocrites ("many-colored vipers"; see Hypocrisy), to prepare for the coming day of judgment and its fiery wrath by fruits of righteousness, sharing their coats and their meat with those that had none. To the publicans also he preached the same, telling them to exact no moretaxes than those prescribed; to the soldiers he declared that they should avoid violence and calumny (as informers) and be content with their wages. (The sermon of John the Baptist given here is obviously original with him, and the similar one of Jesus, Matt. xii. 33-34, xxiii. 33, is based thereon.) When asked whether he was the Messiah, he answered that with his baptism of repentance he would only prepare the people for the time when the Messiah would come as judge to baptize them with fire, to winnow them and burn the chaff with fire unquenchable (the fire of Gehenna; comp. Sibyllines, iii. 286; Enoch, xlv. 3, lv. 4, lxi. 8)-a conception of the Messiah which is widely different from the one which saw the Messiah in Jesus.
Among the many that came to the Jordan to undergo the rite of baptism in response to the call of John, was Jesus of Nazareth, and the influence wrought through him created a new epoch in those circles among which Christianity arose, so that henceforth the whole life-work of John the Baptist was given a new meaning-as if in his Messianic expectations he had Jesus in view as the true Messiah (see Matt. iii. 14; John i. 26-36).
John the Baptist was regarded by the multitude as a great prophet (Matt. xiv. 5; Mark xi. 32). His powerful appeal (see Matt. xi. 12) and his whole appearance reminded the people forcibly of Elijah the prophet; "he wore raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey" (Matt. iii. 4; comp. xi. 7-8). He stationed himself near some water-fountain to baptize the people, at Bethabara (John i. 28) or Ænon (John iii. 23). While he "preached good tidings unto the people" (Luke iii. 18), that is, announced to them that the redemption was at hand, he made his disciples prepare for it by fasting (Matt. ix. 14, xi. 18, and parallel passages). The prayer he taught his disciples was probably similar to the so-called Lord's Prayer (Luke xi. 1). John, however, provoked the wrath of King Herod because in his addresses he reproached the king for having married Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evil things he had done. Herod therefore sent for him and put him in prison. It was while in prison that John heard of the work of preaching or healing done by Jesus (Matt. xi. 2-19; Luke vii. 18-35). Herod was afraid of the multitude and would not put John to death; but Herodias, says the legend (Matt. xiv. 6; Mark vi. 19 et seq.), had plotted revenge, and when on Herod's birthday a feast was given at which Herodias' daughter ingratiated herself into his favor by her dancing, she, at the instigation of her mother, asked that the head of John the Baptist be given her on a charger, and the cruel petition was granted. John's disciples came and buried his body.
The influence and power of John continued after his death, and his fame was not obscured by that of Jesus, who was taken by Herod to be John risen from the dead (Matt. xiv. 1-2 and parallel passages). His teaching of righteousness (Matt. xxi. 32) and his baptism (Luke vii. 29) created a movement which by no means ended with the appearance of Jesus. There were many who, like Apollos of Alexandria in Ephesus, preached only the baptism of John, and their little band gradually merged into Christianity (Acts xviii. 25, xix. 1-7). Some of the disciples of John placed their master above Jesus. John had thirty apostles, of whom Simon Magus claimed to be the chief (Clementine, Recognitions, i. 60, ii. 8; ib. Homilies, ii. 23). No doubt along the Jordan the work begun by John the Baptist was continued by his disciples, and later the Mandæans, called also "Sabians" (from "ẓaba'" = "to baptize") and "Christians according to John," retained many traditions about him (see Brandt, "Die Mandäische Religion," pp. 137, 218, 228; "Mandäer," in Herzog-Hauck, "Real-Encyc.").
Jewish Encyclopedia, published between 1901-1906.
Herzog-Hauck, Real-Encyc. s.v. Johannes der Täufer (where the whole literature is given); Soltau, in Vierteljahrschrift für Bibelkunde, 1903, pp. 37 et seq.K.
The principal sources of information concerning the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist are the canonical Gospels. Of these St. Luke is the most complete, giving as he does the wonderful circumstances accompanying the birth of the Precursor and items on his ministry and death. St. Matthew's Gospel stands in close relation with that of St. Luke, as far as John's public ministry is concerned, but contains nothing in reference to his early life. From St. Mark, whose account of the Precursor's life is very meagre, no new detail can be gathered. Finally, the fourth Gospel has this special feature, that it gives the testimony of St. John after the Saviour's baptism. Besides the indications supplied by these writings, passing allusions occur in such passages as Acts 13:24; 19:1-6; but these are few and bear on the subject only indirectly. To the above should be added that Josephus relates in his Jewish Antiquities (XVIII, v, 2), but it should be remembered that he is woefully erratic in his dates, mistaken in proper names, and seems to arrange facts according to his own political views; however, his judgment of John, also what he tells us regarding the Precursor's popularity, together with a few details of minor importance, are worthy of the historian's attention. The same cannot be said of the apocryphal gospels, because the scant information they give of the Precursor is either copied from the canonical Gospels (and to these they can add no authority), or else is a mass of idle vagaries.
Zachary, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest of the course of Abia, the eighth of the twenty-four courses into which the priests were divided (1 Chronicles 24:7-19); Elizabeth, the Precursor's mother, "was of the daughters of Aaron", according to St. Luke (1:5); the same Evangelist, a few verses farther on (1:36), calls her the "cousin" (syggenis) of Mary. These two statements appear to be conflicting, for how, it will be asked, could a cousin of the Blessed Virgin be "of the daughters of Aaron"? The problem might be solved by adopting the reading given in an old Persian version, where we find "mother's sister" (metradelphe) instead of "cousin".
A somewhat analogous explanation, probably borrowed from some apocryphal writing, and perhaps correct, is given by St. Hippolytus (in Nicephor., II, iii). According to him, Mathan had three daughters: Mary, Soba, and Ann. Mary, the oldest, married a man of Bethlehem and was the mother of Salome; Soba married at Bethlehem also, but a "son of Levi", by whom she had Elizabeth; Ann wedded a Galilean (Joachim) and bore Mary, the Mother of God. Thus Salome, Elizabeth, and the Blessed Virgin were first cousins, and Elizabeth, "of the daughters of Aaron" on her father's side, was, on her mother's side, the cousin of Mary. Zachary's home is designated only in a vague manner by St. Luke: it was "a city of Juda", "in the hill-country" (I, 39). Reland, advocating the unwarranted assumption that Juda might be a misspelling of the name, proposed to read in its stead Jutta (Joshua 15:55; 21:16; D.V.; Jota, Jeta), a priestly town south of Hebron. But priests did not always live in priestly towns (Mathathias's home was at Modin; Simon Machabeus's at Gaza). A tradition, which can be traced back to the time before the Crusades, points to the little town of Ain-Karim, five miles south-west of Jerusalem.
The birth of the Precursor was announced in a most striking manner. Zachary and Elizabeth, as we learn from St. Luke, "were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame; and they had no son, for that Elizabeth was barren" (i, 6-7). Long they had prayed that their union might be blessed with offspring; but, now that "they were both advanced in years", the reproach of barrenness bore heavily upon them. "And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord. And all the multitude of the people was praying without, at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him, was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and they wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John: and thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. For he shall be great before the Lord; and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people" (i, 8-17). As Zachary was slow in believing this startling prediction, the angel, making himself known to him, announced that, in punishment of his incredulity, he should be stricken with dumbness until the promise was fulfilled. "And it came to pass, after the days of his office were accomplished, he departed to his own house. And after those days, Elizabeth his wife conceived, and hid herself five months" (i, 23-24).
Now during the sixth month, the Annunciation had taken place, and, as Mary had heard from the angel the fact of her cousin's conceiving, she went "with haste" to congratulate her. "And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant" -- filled, like the mother, with the Holy Ghost -- "leaped for joy in her womb", as if to acknowledge the presence of his Lord. Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should "be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb". Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin. When "Elizabeth's full time of being delivered was come. . .she brought forth a son" (i, 57); and "on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father's name Zachary. And his mother answering, said: Not so, but he shall be called John. And they said to her: There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made sign to his father, how he would have him called. And demanding a writing table, he wrote, saying: John is his name. And they all wondered" (i, 59-63). They were not aware that no better name could be applied (John, Hebrew; Jehohanan, i.e. "Jahweh hath mercy") to him who, as his father prophesied, was to "go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto remission of their sins: through the bowels of the mercy of our God" (i, 76- 78). Moreover, all these events, to wit, a child born to an aged couple, Zachary's sudden dumbness, his equally sudden recovery of speech, his astounding utterance, might justly strike with wonderment the assembled neighbours; these could hardly help asking: "What an one, think ye, shall this child be?" (i, 66).
As to the date of the birth of John the Baptist, nothing can be said with certainty. The Gospel suggests that the Precursor was born about six months before Christ; but the year of Christ's nativity has not so far been ascertained. Nor is there anything certain about the season of Christ's birth, for it is well known that the assignment of the feast of Christmas to the twenty-fifth of December is not grounded on historical evidence, but is possibly suggested by merely astronomical considerations, also, perhaps, inferred from astronomico-theological reasonings. Besides, no calculations can be based upon the time of the year when the course of Abia was serving in the Temple, since each one of the twenty-four courses of priests had two turns a year. Of John's early life St. Luke tell us only that "the child grew, and was strengthened in spirit; and was in the deserts, until the day of his manifestation to Israel" (i, 80). Should we ask just when the Precursor went into the wilderness, an old tradition echoed by Paul Warnefried (Paul the Deacon), in the hymn, "Ut queant laxis", composed in honour of the saint, gives an answer hardly more definite than the statement of the Gospel: "Antra deserti teneris sub annis. . .petiit . . ." Other writers, however, thought they knew better. For instance, St. Peter of Alexandria believed St. John was taken into the desert to escape the wrath of Herod, who, if we may believe report, was impelled by fear of losing his kingdom to seek the life of the Precursor, just as he was, later on, to seek that of the new-born Saviour. It was added also that Herod on this account had Zachary put to death between the temple and the altar, because he had prophesied the coming of the Messias (Baron., "Annal. Apparat.", n. 53). These are worthless legends long since branded by St. Jerome as "apocryphorum somnia".
Passing, then, with St. Luke, over a period of some thirty years, we reach what may be considered the beginning of the public ministry of St. John (see BIBLICAL CHRONOLOGY). Up to this he had led in the desert the life of an anchorite; now he comes forth to deliver his message to the world. "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. . .the word of the Lord was made unto John, the son of Zachary, in the desert. And he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching" (Luke 3:1-3), clothed not in the soft garments of a courtier (Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:24), but in those "of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his loins"; and "his meat" -- he looked as if he came neither eating nor drinking (Matthew 11:18; Luke 7:33) -- "was locusts and wild honey" (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6); his whole countenance, far from suggesting the idea of a reed shaken by the wind (Matthew 11:7; Luke 7:24), manifested undaunted constancy. A few incredulous scoffers feigned to be scandalized: "He hath a devil" (Matthew 11:18). Nevertheless, "Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about Jordan" (Matthew 3:5), drawn by his strong and winning personality, went out to him; the austerity of his life added immensely to the weight of his words; for the simple folk, he was truly a prophet (Matthew 11:9; cf. Luke 1:76, 77). "Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2), such was the burden of his teaching. Men of all conditions flocked round him.
Pharisees and Sadducees were there; the latter attracted perhaps by curiosity and scepticism, the former expecting possibly a word of praise for their multitudinous customs and practices, and all, probably, more anxious to see which of the rival sects the new prophet would commend than to seek instruction. But John laid bare their hypocrisy. Drawing his similes from the surrounding scenery, and even, after the Oriental fashion, making use of a play on words (abanimbanium), he lashed their pride with this well-deserved rebuke: "Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance. And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire" (Matthew 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9). It was clear something had to be done. The men of good will among the listeners asked: "What shall we do?" (Probably some were wealthy and, according to the custom of people in such circumstances, were clad in two tunics.-Josephus, "Antiq.", XVIII, v, 7). "And he answering, said to them: He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner" (Luke 3:11). Some were publicans; on them he enjoined not to exact more than the rate of taxes fixed by law (Luke 3:13). To the soldiers (probably Jewish police officers) he recommended not to do violence to any man, nor falsely to denounce anyone, and to be content with their pay (Luke 3:14). In other words, he cautioned them against trusting in their national privileges, he did not countenance the tenets of any sect, nor did he advocate the forsaking of one's ordinary state of life, but faithfulness and honesty in the fulfillment of one's duties, and the humble confession of one's sins.
To confirm the good dispositions of his listeners, John baptized them in the Jordan, "saying that baptism was good, not so much to free one from certain sins [cf. St. Thomas, "Summ. Theol.", III, A. xxxviii, a. 2 and 3] as to purify the body, the soul being already cleansed from its defilements by justice" (Josephus, "Antiq.", XVIII, vii). This feature of his ministry, more than anything else, attracted public attention to such an extent that he was surnamed "the Baptist" (i.e. Baptizer) even during his lifetime (by Christ, Matthew 11:11; by his own disciples, Luke 7:20; by Herod, Matthew 14:2; by Herodias, Matthew 14:3). Still his right to baptize was questioned by some (John 1:25); the Pharisees and the lawyers refused to comply with this ceremony, on the plea that baptism, as a preparation for the kingdom of God, was connected only with the Messias (Ezekiel 36:25; Zechariah 13:1, etc.), Elias, and the prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:15. John's reply was that he was Divinely "sent to baptize with water" (John 1:33); to this, later on, our Saviour bore testimony, when, in answer to the Pharisees trying to ensnare him, he implicitly declared that John's baptism was from heaven (Mark 11:30). Whilst baptizing, John, lest the people might think "that perhaps he might be the Christ" (Luke 3:15), did not fail to insist that his was only a forerunner's mission: "I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand and he will purge his floor; and will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:16, 17). Whatever John may have meant by this baptism "with fire", he, at all events, in this declaration clearly defined his relation to the One to come. Here it will not be amiss to touch on the scene of the Precursor's ministry. The locality should be sought in that part of the Jordan valley (Luke 3:3) which is called the desert (Mark 1:4). Two places are mentioned in the Fourth Gospel in this connection: Bethania (John 1:28) and Ennon (A.V. Ænon, John 3:23). As to Bethania, the reading Bethabara, first given by Origen, should be discarded; but the Alexandrine scholar perhaps was less wrong in suggesting the other reading, Bethara, possibly a Greek form of Betharan; at any rate, the site in question must be looked for "beyond the Jordan" (John 1:28). The second place, Ennon, "near Salim" (John 3:23), the extreme northern point marked in the Madaba mosaic map, is described in Eusebius's "Onomasticon" as being eight miles south of Scythopolis (Beisan), and should be sought probably at Ed-Deir or El-Ftur, a short distance from the Jordan (Lagrange, in "Revue Biblique", IV, 1895, pp. 502-05). Moreover, a long-standing tradition, traced back to A.D. 333, associates the activity of the Precursor, particularly the Baptism of the Lord, with the neighbourhood of Deir Mar-Yuhanna (Qasr el-Yehud).
The Precursor had been preaching and baptizing for some time (just how long is not known), when Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan, to be baptized by him. Why, it might be asked, should He "who did no sin" (1 Peter 2:22) seek John's "baptism of penance for the remission of sins" (Luke 3:3)? The Fathers of the Church answer very appropriately that this was the occasion preordained by the Father when Jesus should be manifested to the world as the Son of God; then again, by submitting to it, Jesus sanctioned the baptism of John. "But John stayed him, saying: I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?" (Matthew 3:14). These words, implying, as they do, that John knew Jesus, are in seeming conflict with a later declaration of John recorded in the Fourth Gospel: "I knew him not" (John 1:33). Most interpreters take it that the Precursor had some intimation of Jesus being the Messias: they assign this as the reason why John at first refused to baptize him; but the heavenly manifestation had, a few moments later, changed this intimation into perfect knowledge. "And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfil all justice. Then he suffered him. And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him. . .And, behold, a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:15-17).
After this baptism, while Jesus was preaching through the towns of Galilee, going into Judea only occasionally for the feast days, John continued his ministry in the valley of the Jordan. It was at this time that "the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and Levites to him, to ask him: Who are thou? And he confessed, and did not deny: and he confessed: I am not the Christ. And they asked him: What then? Art thou Elias? And he said: I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered: No. They said, therefore, unto him: Who are thou, that we may give an answer to them that sent us? What sayest thou of thyself? He said: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias" (John 1:19-23). John denied he was Elias, whom the Jews were looking for (Matthew 17:10; Mark 9:10). Nor did Jesus admit it, though His words to His disciples at first sight seem to point that way; "Elias indeed shall come, and restore all things. But I say to you, that Elias is already come" (Matthew 17:11; Mark 9:11-12). St. Matthew notes "the disciples understood, that he had spoken to them of John the Baptist" (Matthew 17:13). This was equal to saying, "Elias is not to come in the flesh." But, in speaking of John before the multitude, Jesus made it plain that he called John Elias figuratively: "If you will receive it, he is Elias that is to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear" (Matthew 11:14, 15). This had been anticipated by the angel when, announcing John's birth to Zachary, he foretold that the child would go before the Lord "in the spirit and power of Elias" (Luke 1:17). "The next day, John saw Jesus coming to him and he saith: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said: After me there cometh a man, who is preferred before me: because he was before me. . .that he may be made manifest in Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.. ..And I knew him not; but he who sent me to baptize with water, said to me: He upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining upon him, he it is that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and I gave testimony, that this is the Son of God" (John 1:20-34).
Among the many listeners flocking to St. John, some, more deeply touched by his doctrine, stayed with him, thus forming, as around other famous doctors of the law, a group of disciples. These he exhorted to fast (Mark 2:18), these he taught special forms of prayer (Luke 5:33; 11:1). Their number, according to the pseudo-Clementine literature, reached thirty (Hom. ii, 23). Among them was Andrew of Bethsaida of Galilee (John 1:44). One day, as Jesus was standing in the distance, John, pointed Him out, repeated his previous declaration: "Behold the Lamb of God". Then Andrew, with another disciple of John, hearing this, followed Jesus (John 1:36-38). The account of the calling of Andrew and Simon differs materially from that found in St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke; yet it should be noticed that St. Luke, in particular, so narrates the meeting of the two brothers with the Saviour, as to let us infer they already knew Him. Now, on the other hand, since the Fourth Evangelist does not say that Andrew and his companions forthwith left their business to devote themselves exclusively to the Gospel or its preparation, there is clearly no absolute discordance between the narration of the first three Gospels and that of St. John.
The Precursor, after the lapse of several months, again appears on the scene, and he is still preaching and baptizing on the banks of the Jordan (John 3:23). Jesus, in the meantime, had gathered about Himself a following of disciples, and He came "into the land of Judea: and there He abode with them, and baptized" (John 3:22), -- "though Jesus himself did not baptize, but his disciples" (John 4:2). -- "There arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews [the best Greek texts have "a Jew"] concerning purification" (John 3:25), that is to say, as is suggested by the context, concerning the relative value of both baptisms. The disciples of John came to him: "Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou gavest testimony, behold he baptizeth, and all men come to him" (John 3:26-27). They undoubtedly meant that Jesus should give way to John who had recommended Him, and that, by baptizing, He was encroaching upon the rights of John. "John answered and said: A man cannot receive anything, unless it be given him from heaven. You yourselves do bear me witness, that I said, I am not Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom's voice. This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He that cometh from above, is above all. He that is of the earth, of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaketh. He that cometh from heaven, is above all. And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth. . ." (John 3:27-36).
The above narration recalls the fact before mentioned (John 1:28), that part of the Baptist's ministry was exercised in Perea: Ennon, another scene of his labours, was within the borders of Galilee; both Perea and Galilee made up the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. This prince, a son worthy of his father Herod the Great, had married, likely for political reasons, the daughter of Aretas, king of the Nabathaeans. But on a visit to Rome, he fell in love with his niece Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip (son of the younger Mariamne), and induced her to come on to Galilee. When and where the Precursor met Herod, we are not told, but from the synoptic Gospels we learn that John dared to rebuke the tetrarch for his evil deeds, especially his public adultery. Herod, swayed by Herodias, did not allow the unwelcome reprover to go unpunished: he "sent and apprehended John and bound him in prison". Josephus tell us quite another story, containing perhaps also an element of truth. "As great crowds clustered around John, Herod became afraid lest the Baptist should abuse his moral authority over them to incite them to rebellion, as they would do anything at his bidding; therefore he thought it wiser, so as to prevent possible happenings, to take away the dangerous preacher. . .and he imprisoned him in the fortress of Machaerus" (Antiq., XVIII, v, 2). Whatever may have been the chief motive of the tetrarch's policy, it is certain that Herodias nourished a bitter hatred against John: "She laid snares for him: and was desirous to put him to death" (Mark 6:19). Although Herod first shared her desire, yet "he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet" (Matthew 14:5). After some time this resentment on Herod's part seems to have abated, for, according to Mark 6:19-20, he heard John willingly and did many things at his suggestion.
John, in his fetters, was attended by some of his disciples, who kept him in touch with the events of the day. He thus learned of the wonders wrought by Jesus. At this point it cannot be supposed that John's faith wavered in the least. Some of his disciples, however, would not be convinced by his words that Jesus was the Messias. Accordingly, he sent them to Jesus, bidding them say: "John the Baptist hath sent us to thee, saying: Art thou he that art to come; or look we for another? (And in that same hour, he cured many of their [the people's] diseases, and hurts, and evil spirits; and to many that were blind he gave sight.) And answering, he said to them: Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, to the poor the gospel is preached: and blessed is he whosoever shall not be scandalized in me" (Luke 7:20-23; Matthew 11:3-6). How this interview affected John's disciples, we do not know; but we do know the encomium it occasioned of John from the lips of Jesus: "And when the messengers of John were departed, he began to speak to the multitudes concerning John. What went ye out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind?" All knew full well why John was in prison, and that in his captivity he was more than ever the undaunted champion of truth and virtue. - "But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are in costly apparel, and live delicately, are in the houses of kings. But what went you out to see? A prophet? Yea, I say to you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written: Behold, I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. For I say to you: Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist" (Luke 7:24-28). And continuing, Jesus pointed out the inconsistency of the world in its opinions both of himself and his precursor: "John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and you say: He hath a devil. The Son of man is coming eating and drinking: and you say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a drinker of wine, a friend of publicans and sinners. And wisdom is justified by all her children" (Luke 7:33-35). St. John languished probably for some time in the fortress of Machaerus; but the ire of Herodias, unlike that of Herod, never abated: she watched her chance. It came at the birthday feast which Herod, after Roman fashion, gave to the "princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee. And when the daughter of the same Herodias [Josephus gives her name: Salome] had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee. . .Who when she was gone out, said to her mother, what shall I ask? But she said: The head of John the Baptist. And when she was come in immediately with haste to the king, she asked, saying: I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish, the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad. Yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her: but sending an executioner, he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish: and gave it to the damsel, and the damsel gave it to her mother" (Mark 6:21-28). Thus was done to death the greatest "amongst them that are born of women", the prize awarded to a dancing girl, the toll exacted for an oath rashly taken and criminally kept (St. Augustine). At such an unjustifiable execution even the Jews were shocked, and they attributed to Divine vengeance the defeat Herod sustained afterwards at the hands of Aretas, his rightful father-in-law (Josephus, loc. cit.). John's disciples, hearing of his death, "came, and took his body, and laid it in a tomb" (Mark 6:29), "and came and told Jesus" (Matthew 14:12).
The lasting impression made by the Precursor upon those who had come within his influence cannot be better illustrated than by mentioned the awe which seize upon Herod when he heard of the wonders wrought by Jesus who, in his mind, was not other than John the Baptist come to life (Matthew 14:1, 2, etc.). The Precursor's influence did not die with him. It was far-reaching, too, as we learn from Acts 18:25; 19:3, where we find that proselytes at Ephesus had received from Apollo and others the baptism of John. Moreover, early Christian writers speak of a sect taking its name from John and holding only to his baptism. The date of John the Baptist's death, 29 August, assigned in the liturgical calendars can hardly be relied upon, because it is scarcely based upon trustworthy documents. His burial-place has been fixed by an old tradition at Sebaste (Samaria). But if there be any truth in Josephus's assertion, that John was put to death at Machaerus, it is hard to understand why he was buried so far from the Herodian fortress. Still, it is quite possible that, at a later date unknown to us, his sacred remains were carried to Sebaste. At any rate, about the middle of the fourth century, his tomb was there honoured, as we are informed on the testimony of Rufinus and Theodoretus. These authors add that the shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate (c. A.D. 362), the bones being partly burned. A portion of the rescued relics were carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria; and there, on 27 May, 395, these relics were laid in the gorgeous basilica just dedicated to the Precursor on the site of the once famous temple of Serapis. The tomb at Sebaste continued, nevertheless, to be visited by pious pilgrims, and St. Jerome bears witness to the miracles there wrought. Perhaps some of the relics had been brought back to Sebaste. Other portions at different times found their way to many sanctuaries of the Christian world, and long is the list of the churches claiming possession of some part of the precious treasure. What became of the head of the Precursor is difficult to determine. Nicephorus (I, ix) and Metaphrastes say Herodias had it buried in the fortress of Machaerus; others insist that it was interred in Herod's palace at Jerusalem; there it was found during the reign of Constantine, 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. In the many and discordant relations concerning this relic, unfortunately much uncertainty prevails; their discrepancies in almost every point render the problem so intricate as to baffle solution. This signal relic, in whole or in part, is claimed by several churches, among them Amiens, Nemours, St-Jean d'Angeli (France), S. Silvestro in Capite (Rome). This fact Tillemont traces to a mistaking of one St. John for another, an explanation which, in certain cases, appears to be founded on good grounds and accounts well for this otherwise puzzling multiplication of relics. The honour paid so early and in so many places to the relics of St. John the Baptist, the zeal with which many churches have maintained at all times their ill-founded claims to some of his relics, the numberless churches, abbeys, towns, and religious families placed under his patronage, the frequency of his name among Christian people, all attest the antiquity and widespread diffusion of the devotion to the Precursor. The commemoration of his Nativity is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honour a saint. But why is the feast proper, as it were, of St. John on the day of his nativity, whereas with other saints it is the day of their death? Because it was meant that the birth of him who, unlike the rest, was "filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb", should be signalized as a day of triumph. The celebration of the Decollation of John the Baptist, on 29 August, enjoys almost the same antiquity. We find also in the oldest martyrologies mention of a feast of the Conception of the Precursor on 24 September. But the most solemn celebration in honour of this saint was always that of his Nativity, preceded until recently by a fast. Many places adopted the custom introduced by St. Sabas of having a double Office on this day, as on the day of the Nativity of the Lord. The first Office, intended to signify the time of the Law and the Prophets which lasted up to St. John (Luke 16:16), began at sunset, and was chanted without Alleluia; the second, meant to celebrate the opening of the time of grace, and gladdened by the singing of Alleluia, was held during the night. The resemblance of the feast of St. John with that of Christmas was carried farther, for another feature of the 24th of June was the celebration of three masses: the first, in the dead of night, recalled his mission of Precursor; the second, at daybreak, commemorated the baptism he conferred; and the third, at the hour of Terce, honoured his sanctity. The whole liturgy of the day, repeatedly enriched by the additions of several popes, was in suggestiveness and beauty on a part with the liturgy of Christmas. So sacred was St. John's day deemed that two rival armies, meeting face to face on 23 June, by common accord put off the battle until the morrow of the feast (Battle of Fontenay, 841). "Joy, which is the characteristic of the day, radiated from the sacred precincts. The lovely summer nights, at St. John's tide, gave free scope to popular display of lively faith among various nationalities. Scarce had the last rays of the setting sun died away when, all the world over, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain-top, and in an instant, every town, and village, and hamlet was lighted up" (Guéranger). The custom of the "St. John's fires", whatever its origin, has, in certain regions, endured unto this day.
Publication information Written by Charles L. Souvay. Transcribed by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to the Rickreall, Oregon (USA) Christmas Pageant The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Besides the Gospels and the Commentaries thereon, JOSEPHUS and the many Lives of Christ, EUSEBIUS, Hist. Eccl., I, xi; Acta pour servir a l'histoire eccles., I (Brussels, 1732), 36-47; notes p. 210-222; HOTTINGER, Historia Orientalis (Zurich, 1660), 144-149; PACIANDI, De cultu J. Baptistae in Antiq. Christ., III (Rome, 1755); LEOPOLD, Johannes der Taufer (Lubeck, 1838); CHIARAMONTE, Vita di San Giovanni Battista (Turin, 1892); YESTIVEL, San Juan Bautista (Madrid, 1909).
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