John the Baptist

views updated May 14 2018


JOHN THE BAPTIST , the forerunner (prodromus) of Christ. There are two main sources of data regarding the life of John: the Gospels, the earliest of which were in circulation during the latter part of the first century, and Josephus' Jewish Antiquities, written following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. In addition there are apocryphal texts, such as the Protevangelium of James, from the mid-second century. If one accepts the infancy narrative in Luke 1:5–80 as based on factual biographical information, then John was born to parents (Zacharias and Elizabeth) from a priestly background. The ot allusions underline John the Baptist's role as ushering in the nt and his birth to the elderly Zechariah and his barren wife Elizabeth (a parallel to Abraham and Sarah) served to indicate the divine origin of his conception. His relation to Jesus is emphasized even before they were born: when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, her baby leaped in her womb (Luke 1:41). Even John's name (meaning "God shows grace") was given to him by the angel Gabriel. John's mother and Mary, mother of Jesus, are assumed to be cousins, but the Greek word in Luke 1:36 is not very specific and indicates only that they were kinswomen. The house of Zacharias was situated in a "city of Judah" in the hilly country, presumably at *Bet Cherem west of Jerusalem, identified at En Kerem. The apocryphal Protevangelium of James has Elizabeth fleeing with her baby from Herod's soldiers and hiding in a cave in the hilly country. Luke 1:80 suggests that the child John grew up in "wilderness places" before he came of age. It is unlikely that the child John would have been able to survive for very long in the inhospitable Judean Desert all by himself. Hence, there is nothing to support an oft-quoted theory that John was brought up by the *Essenes. Indeed, the Greek word eremos means a desolate or lonely region, i.e., a place that could be frequented by an occasional shepherd. Hence, there is no need to seek a childhood for John in a barren desert. John may have been brought up as a shepherd boy and as such would by necessity have spent spells of time by himself away from his parent's home (or from the house of the extended family if his parents had died). John wore an outer garment (an adderet) made of camel's skin and a leather girdle (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6), echoing the appearance of the Prophet Elijah (ii Kings 1:8). There is no evidence that John was a Nazarite (cf. Num 6:1–4) or that he led an ascetic life. The reference to John not eating bread or wine probably indicates that John preferred to eat foods that had not been processed by human hands and would not therefore be susceptible to impurity. For this same reason John was said to have eaten locusts and honey (Matt. 3:4), both of which were regarded by his fellow Jews as pure items of food.

In terms of chronology, it would appear that John was born before the death of *Herod the Great (i.e., in 4 b.c.e. at the latest) and that he was called on his mission to the Jordan River in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1–2), which would have been in 28 or 26 c.e. if one counts from the time of Tiberius' co-regency. It would appear therefore that we know nothing whatsoever about the events in John's life between the ages of 12, the time of his "shewing unto Israel" (Luke 1:80), and until he was about 30 and began his baptisms at the Jordan River. John evidently was attracted to the Jordan River because of its associations with the Prophet Elijah and his message was "repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2).

John baptized his followers to signify the drowning of their old life and their emergence from the water into a new life. Significantly, John is mentioned particularly as baptizing in the Jordan River, through which the 12 tribes of Israel passed into the promised land. John, like *Jesus later, immediately ran into conflict with the *Pharisees and *Sadducees for whom he had sharp words (Matt. 3:7–12). The Gospel of John relates that they asked him who he was; when John answered that he was neither the Christ nor the prophet Elijah, they queried his baptizing activities. John replied that he was baptizing in water only ("unto repentance," Matt. 3:11), but that he was to be followed by one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (that is, eternal punishment, cf. Matt. 3:11–12; John 1:19–28). According to the Gospels when John saw Jesus, he proclaimed him "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" and testified that he saw the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven and abiding in him (at Jesus' baptism) going so far as to declare that "this is the Son of God" (John 1:29–34).

Jesus himself appraised his forerunner in Matthew 11:7–15: John was much more than a prophet, surpassing his predecessors in greatness and comparable to Elijah. Nevertheless, John's generation did not accept him, alleging instead that he was demon-possessed (Matt. 11:17–18), as was later said of Jesus himself. John was beheaded at Machaerus by the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who imprisoned him in revenge for John's condemnation of his incestuous marriage to his brother's wife, Herodias (Luke 3:19–20). Herodias' daughter danced for Herod, who rewarded her by offering her whatever she wished. On the advice of her mother, she requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod, who enjoyed listening to John (Mark 6:20), was grieved at being required to execute him; but having given his oath before witnesses, he commanded that it be done (Matt. 14:1–13; Mark 6:14–29). Luke 9:7–9 relates that when Herod later heard that Jesus was being identified with the resurrected John, he became curious about the subject of the rumor.

Recent archaeological work is shedding new light on John's early baptism activities in the "wilderness places" (Luke 1:80) and prior to his mission at the Jordan River. A cave was uncovered in 2000 at Suba/Tzova close to his traditional hometown at En Kerem (see *Bet Cherem) that was used in the early first century c.e. for ritual immersions in water, remarkably resembling John's baptism procedures at the Jordan River as described in the Gospels. The cave at Suba brought to light cultic installations and a foot-anointing stone. The cave was used later in the Byzantine period as a memorial cave and drawings of John the Baptist and symbols of his relic head and arms were found inscribed on the walls.

New archaeological work on the banks of the lower Jordan River has revealed churches of the Byzantine period, as well as sparse remains from the Roman period, associated with the traditional baptism spot.


D. Flusser, Tevilat Yeshu ve-Kat Midbar Yehudah (1961); M. Dibelius, Die urchristliche Ueberlieferung von Johannes dem Taeufer (1911); E. Lohmeyer, Das Urchristentum, vol. 1: Johannes der Taeufer (1932); C.H. Kraeling, John the Baptist (1951); I. Steinmann, Saint Jean-Baptiste et la spiritualité du désert (1955); M. Goguel, Au seuil de l'Evangile: Jean Baptiste (19582). add. bibliography: J. Bergeaud, Saint Jean-Baptiste (1961); D. Baldi, Enchiridion Locorum Sanctorum: Documenta S. Evangelii Loca Respicientia (1982); D. Baldi, and B. Bagatti, Saint Jean-Baptiste: Dans Les Souvenirs de sa Patrie (1980); O. Cullman, Baptism in the New Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology (1950); W.R. Farmer, "John the Baptist," in: G.A. Buttrick, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (1962), 955–62; P.W. Hollenbach, "John the Baptist," in: D.N. Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3 (1992), 887–99; C.H. Kraeling, John the Baptist (1951); H. Leclercq, "Jean-Baptiste (Saint)," in: F. Cabrol, and H. Leclercq, Dictionnaire D'Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie, vol. 7 (1927), 2167–184; J. Murphy-O'Connor, "John the Baptist and Jesus: History and Hypotheses," in: New Testament Studies, 36 (1990), 359–74; H.C. Scobie, John the Baptist (1964); W.B. Tatum, John the Baptist and Jesus: A Report of the Jesus Seminar (1994); J.E. Taylor, John the Baptist Within Second Temple Judaism (1997); R.L. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-Historical Study (1991); W. Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition (1968, reprinted in 2000); S. Gibson, The Cave of John the Baptist (2004).

[Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]

John the Baptist

views updated May 21 2018


JOHN THE BAPTIST . Born of a poor priestly family in the hill country of Judea, John renounced the priesthood and entered upon an ascetic existence in the wilderness surrounding the Jordan River. There he inaugurated a baptism rite so unprecedented that he was named for it. His contemporary, Jesus, unhesitatingly ascribed the impetus for John's baptism to divine revelation (Mk. 11:30), and even though priestly lustrations in the Temple, the daily baths at Qumran, or even proselyte baptism (first attested in the second century ce) may provide certain parallels, they are wholly inadequate to account for John's demand that Jews submit to a once-only immersion in anticipation of an imminent divine judgment by fire. Rejecting all claims to salvation by virtue of Jewish blood or the "merits of Abraham," John demanded of each person works that would reflect a personal act of repentance. The examples preserved in Luke 3:1014 indicate that John stood squarely in the line of the prophets, siding with the poor ("He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise"). He demanded that toll collectors and soldiers desist from extorting unjust exactions from travelers and pilgrims. His dress was the homespun of the nomad, his diet the subsistence rations of the poorest of the poor (locusts and wild honey, Mk. 1:6). He even described the eschatological judge, whose near advent he proclaimed, in terms of a peasant or a man of the soil (chopping down trees, separating wheat from chaff).

Through baptism, John provided a means by which common people and other "sinners" (tax collectors and harlots, Mt. 21:32) could be regenerated apart from meticulous observance of the Jewish law. His influence on Jesus in this and other respects was profound. Jesus and his disciples were baptized by John. But whereas John demanded that people come out to him in the wilderness, Jesus went to the people in their towns and villages, rejecting an ascetic life (Mt. 11:1819), and began to regard the future kingdom as an already dawning reality (Mt. 11:26). Despite these differences, Jesus continued to speak of John in terms of highest respect (Mt. 11:79, 11a).

John's execution by Herod Antipas was provoked by John's criticism of Herod for divorcing the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas IV and entering upon an incestuous remarriage with Herodias, his half-brother's wife. John's attacks on Herod took place in Perea, a region controlled by Herod but bordered by Nabatean territory, an area inhabited by Arabs and infiltrated in winter by nomads. Herod's divorce provoked guerrilla warfare, and ultimately Aretas avenged his daughter's shame by a shattering defeat of Herod's armya defeat that Josephus directly ascribes to divine punishment for Herod's execution of John (Jewish Antiquities 18.116119). John's preaching must also have contributed substantially to popular disaffection from Herod.

Following the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some scholars suggested that John might at one time have been an Essene. It is true that he preached but eight miles from Qumran, that he shared with the Essenes an imminent eschatological hope, and that he lived out (perhaps deliberately) the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3 and sought to prepare the way in the wilderness. Both John and the Essenes warned of a coming purgative fire associated with the Holy Spirit and with washing; both issued a radical call to repentance; both employed immersion in water as a religious rite; both believed that only an elect would be saved, and called the rest vipers; both condemned the priesthood and other authorities; both renounced society and abstained from strong drink.

These similarities, however, can in large part be accounted for: Both John and the Essenes belonged to the larger phenomenon of Jewish wilderness sectarianism. Their differences, in any case, are more decisive than all their similarities. John was a solitary. He established no settled community, moved around in the Jordan wastes, was inclusive rather that separatist, public rather than reclusive, addressing the whole nation rather than withdrawing into an isolated life. His baptism was granted once and for all, not daily, and for a forgiveness of sins on which eternal salvation hung, not for physical purity. His dress was camel's hair, not white linen. He did not require a long novitiate for his converts, nor did he organize them under rigid requirements. Almost all the other similarities with Qumran can be traced to common dependence on the prophet Isaiah. Indeed, if John had ever been connected with Qumran, his break was so radical that it scarcely seems necessary to posit any original connection at all. When he steps upon the stage of history, his message and mission are altogether his own.

All four evangelists treat John as "the beginning of the gospel." This reflects both the historical fact and the theological conviction that through John, Jesus perceived the nearness of the kingdom of God and his own relation to its coming. The church continued to treat John as the perpetual preparer for the coming of Christ, calling out for people to repent and let the shift of the aeons take place in their own lives, to "make ready the way of the Lord" (Mk. 1:2).


Kraeling, Carl H. John the Baptist. New York, 1951. Despite more recent publications, this work remains definitive. Historical sleuthing at its best.

Scobie, Charles H. H. John the Baptist. London, 1964. Adds some interesting conjectures on the Samaritans.

Wink, Walter. John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition. Cambridge, U.K., 1968. A critical study of the use made of the Baptist traditions by the evangelists.

Walter Wink (1987)

John the Baptist

views updated May 29 2018

John the Baptist. A Jewish prophetic figure at the time of Jesus mentioned by Josephus and frequently in the gospels. He preached on the banks of the Jordan demanding repentance and baptism in view of God's impending wrath (Matthew 3. 11). He denounced King Herod Antipas and was beheaded by him (Mark 6. 16–29). Jesus was among those baptized and it is possible that he belonged originally to John's circle (cf. John 3. 22–4). Feast days, 24 June (nativity; six months before Christmas according to Luke 1. 37) and 29 Aug. (death, or ‘decollation’).

In Islam, Yaḥyā is mentioned as a prophet (6. 85, 19. 14 f.), and the prayer of his father, Zakariyya, for a child in his old age (21. 89) is held up as an example of prayer being answered.

John the Baptist, Saint

views updated May 21 2018

John the Baptist, Saint (active 1st century ad) Prophet who heralded the appearance of Jesus Christ and the coming of the kingdom of God. The son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, he was born in Judaea six months before Jesus. John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, recognizing him as the Messiah. Herod Antipas beheaded John, after Salome asked for his head as a reward for her dance.

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Saint John the Baptist

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Saint John the Baptist