St John the Baptist

Saint John the Baptist (d. c 30) was a Jewish preacher and ascetic. He drew large crowds, practiced baptism in the River Jordan, and prophesied God’s coming judgment. He baptized Jesus, and was killed by Herod Antipas. The historian Josephus (c 37 to c 100) wrote that Herod had John killed for fear of a rebellion that John might raise. Jesus’ own ministry followed John’s, and some of Jesus’ early followers had been followers of John. John, like Jesus, preached at a time of political, social, and religious conflict (see Cultural and historical background of Jesus), and he prophesied that fire was coming to destroy the wicked. Christians, Muslims, Baha’i, and Mandaeans regard John as an eschatological prophet. In the Christian gospels, written within a generation or two of John’s death, John announces Jesus’ coming. He is also identified with Elijah and as related to Jesus (Luke 1:36). Early Church tradition describes John as being endowed with prenatal grace, so the day celebrating his birth has historically been more solemn than that marking his death. He is commonly referred to as John the Forerunner or Precursor by Christians who consider him the forerunner of Jesus Christ. Christians have traditionally honored John as a saint. The Quran, the Book of Mormon, and Baha’i writings affirm John’s role as a prophet.

Bornc. 1st Century BC[1]
Herodian TetrarchyRoman Empire
Diedc. AD 30[2][3][4][5][6]
MachaerusHerodian TetrarchyRoman Empire
Venerated inChristianity (all denominations which venerate saints), IslamDruze faith,[7] Baháʼí faithMandaeism
Major shrineChurch of Saint John the Baptist in JerusalemUmayyad Mosque in DamascusNabi Yahya Mosque in Sebastia
Feast24 June (Nativity)29 August (Beheading)7 January (SynaxisByzantine)30 Paoni (NativityCoptic)2 Thout (Beheading—Coptic)1 Hitia (BirthdayMandaean)
AttributesRed martyr, camel-skin robe, cross, lamb, scroll with words “Ecce Agnus Dei-“, platter with own head, pouring water from hands or scallop shell

John followed the example of previous Hebrew prophets, living austerely, challenging sinful rulers, calling for repentance, and promising God’s justice. His practice of baptism might relate to the practice among Jews of his time to immerse converts. The early Christian church used baptism, combined with imposition of hands, as a rite conferring membership in the church. Baptism is a nearly universal practice among Christians today. Herod’s step-daughter, Salome, is said to have asked him for John’s head on a platter. John’s beheading has been a favorite theme in Christian art.[1] In the West, he is depicted with a staff and a scroll saying Ecce Agnus Dei (Latin, “Behold the Lamb of God”). In Orthodox icons, he has angel wings In the New Testament The excavated remains of the baptism site in Bethany Beyond the Jordan, in modern-day Jordan. All four Gospels record John the Baptist’s ministry. They depict him as proclaiming Christ’s arrival. In the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), Jesus is baptized. In Matthew and John, the Baptist recognizes Jesus as the one he had foretold.

Birth and infancy

The Gospel of Luke includes an account of John’s infancy, introducing him as the son of St. Zachariah and St. Elizabeth, who previously “had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years”. His birth, name, and office were foretold by the angel Gabriel to Zachariah, while Zachariah was performing his functions as a priest in the temple of Jerusalem. According to Luke, Zachariah was a priest of the course of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was of the daughters of Aaron[10]; consequently John automatically held the priesthood of Aaron. Luke states that John was born about six months before Jesus. Zachariah had lost his speech at the behest and prophecy of the angel Gabriel,[11] and it was restored on the occasion of Zachariah naming John.[12] On the basis of Luke’s account, the Catholic calendar placed the feast of John the Baptist on June 24, six months before Christmas.[13] According to luke, Jesus and John the Baptist were related, their mothers being cousins Luke 1:36; there is no mention of this in the other Gospels, and the scholar Raymond E. Brown has described the relationship as ‘of dubious historicity Geza Vermes has called it ‘artificial and undoubtedly Luke’s creation.


Icon of John the Baptist by Theophan the Greek, c. 1400.All four canonical gospels relate John’s ministry, his preaching and baptism in the River Jordan. Most notably, according to the Bible, he is the one who recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and on Jesus’ request, baptised him. The baptism marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and (less clearly) Luke relate that Jesus came from Galilee to John and was baptized by him, whereupon the Spirit descended upon him and a voice from Heaven told him he was God’s Son. Their lives (e.g, births) are believed to have been similar, although in Christianity, John is thought of as last prophet and Jesus as the Messiah. The problem that Jesus, considered by Christians to be without sin, received John’s baptism, which was for the forgiveness of sins, is addressed in the Gospel of Matthew’s account, which has John refusing to baptize Jesus, saying, “I need to be baptized by you,” until Jesus convinces him to baptize him nonetheless (Matthew 3:13-15). The Gospel of John does not describe John baptizing Jesus but has John introducing Jesus to his disciples as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29-34). 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 with John explaining that Jesus “must become greater” while he, John, “must become less” (John 3:22-36). Gospel of John then points out that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing more people than John (John 4:2). Later, the Gospel relates Jesus regarding 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 notreported by the Gospels except forthe early case of Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother(John 1:35-42). On various occasions the Gospels relate John denying any claim to be the Messiah and clearly acknowledging his inferiority to Jesus. However, 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.”

Imprisonment and beheading

The Beheading of St John, 1608, Valletta Co-Cathedral, MaltaAccording to the canonical Gospels, John the Baptist’s public ministry was brought to a close when he was imprisoned on orders of Herod Antipas, probably about seven months after he had baptized Jesus.[citation needed] The synoptic Gospels state that Herod reacted to John’s condemnation of Herod’s marriage to Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip (Luke 3:19; Matthew 14:3-5}. Josephus locates John’s imprisonment in the fortress of Machaerus on the southern extremity of Peraea, nine miles (14 km) east of the Dead Sea (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVIII:5:1–2). Matthew relates that the imprisoned John sent messengers to Jesus to ask him whether he was the Messiah. Jesus indirectly answered in the affirmative and described John in terms of a return of the prophet Elijah (Matthew 11:2-15). Regarding John’s death, Josephus states that Herod had John killed to preempt a possible uprising. Matthew links John’s death as well with Herodias, as he related that her daughter Salome so much delighted Antipas with a dance that he vowed to grant her any wish to which, after being prompted by her mother (Herodias), she demanded the head of John the Baptist. (Matthew 14:6-8) The Gospels date John’s death before the crucifixion of Jesus. Josephus places John’s death no later than 36 CE. Some scholars[attribution needed] believe that Herod Antipas did not marry his brother’s wife until his brother Philip died in 34 CE, placing these events afterthe date in the Gospel account. Neither Josephus nor the Gospels state where John was buried, though the Gospels state that John’s disciples took his body and placed it in a tomb and then told Jesus all that had occurred (Matthew 14:3-12). In the time of Julian the Apostate, however, his tomb was shown at Samaria, where the inhabitants opened it and burned part of his bones. The rest of the alleged remains were saved by some Christians, who carried them to an abbot of Jerusalem named Philip.


A head said to be John’s, enshrined in Rome St John’s Shrine inside the Umayyad Mosque, DamascusAccording to ancient tradition, 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 fourth 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 27 May 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[23] 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 Coptic Christian Orthodox Church also claim to hold the relics of St. John the Baptist. These are to be found in a monastery in Lower Egypt between Cairo and Alexandria. It is possible, with permission from the monks, to see the original tomb where the remains were found. Tomb of St. John the Baptist at a Coptic monastery in Lower Egypt. The bones of St. John the Baptist were said to have been found here. Overthe centuries, there have been many discrepancies in the various legends and claimed relics throughout the Christian world. Several different locations claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among the various claimants are: The Knights Templar. In medieval times it was rumored that they had possession of the saint’s severed head, and multiple records from theirInquisition in the early 1300s make reference to some form of head being worshiped by the Knights. San Silvestro in Capite in Rome Amiens Cathedral, France, brought home by Wallon de Sarton from the Fourth Crusade in Constantinople. Turkish Antioch The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus Istanbul claims to possess the saint’s arm and a piece of his skull in the Topkapi Palace, as does the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in Scetes, Egypt,[26] while John’s right hand, with which he baptised Jesus, is said to be in the possession of the Serbian Orthodox Cetinje monastery in Montenegro, and also at the Romanian skete of the Forerunner on Mount Athos