John the Baptist, St.
JOHN THE BAPTIST, ST.
Christ's precursor, son of the priest zachary and Mary's kinswoman St. elizabeth.
Birth and Infancy. The Gospel of Luke provides details of John's annunciation, birth, and infancy. The archangel gabriel appeared to Zachary while he was performing his priestly duty in the Temple and announced that Elizabeth would conceive a son in her old age (Lk 1.11). The form used corresponds to that employed in the OT in foretelling the births of the famous men (Jgs 13.2–20). Gabriel told Zachary to give his promised son the name of John, which means "Yahweh is gracious" (Lk 1.13). The child would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb and become an ascetic of Israel. He would lead many of the sons of Israel to their Lord and would walk in the power and spirit of Elias (1.14–17). In his canticle called the benedictus zachary sings of his son as "prophet of the Most High"(1.76). John was born six months before Christ (1.36), according to tradition in the town of Ain Karim, about three-and-a-half miles west of Jerusalem. During the visit of Mary to Elizabeth the unborn John leapt with messianic joy in his mother's womb (1.44). Luke also relates that John spent his youth in the desert (1.80).
Ministry. John appeared in the region of the jordan as an ascetic and a preacher of penance (Mt 3.1–6; Mk1.1–6; Lk 3.1–6; Jn 1.19–28). With his preaching of baptism for the forgiveness of sins, the Kingdom of God began to unfold. As precursor of the messiah, his principal task was to announce the arrival of Jesus Christ as Messiah and to baptize him. He appeared not as a priest, like his father, but as a preacher clothed in camel's hair, the traditional garb of the prophets; elijah, whom John resembles in many ways, is described as wearing the same ascetic clothing (2 Kgs 1.8). For centuries the people had honored this sign of the prophet, but false prophets had caused it to fall into disrepute, so that to wear it was to invite sarcasm (Zec 13.3–4).
John came as "a voice crying in the desert" (Is 40.3–4). All four Evangelists identify the Isaian "voice" with the Baptist. According to the Fourth Gospel the Baptist categorically denied that he was Elijah or the expected Prophet or the Messiah (Jn 1.19–23). But he was indeed the last of the OT prophets, one sent by God to announce the baptism of repentance and the arrival of the Kingdom in Christ. He preached a moral reform designed to prepare the Jews for the advent of the Messiah. Their interior conversion was to be visibly proclaimed by baptism with water and a confession of sin. Jesus' submission to John's baptism indicated his acknowledgement of the truth of John's mission but by that very act supplanted John's baptism (Mt 3.13–17; Mk 1.9–11; Lk 3.21–22; Jn1.32–34). (See baptism of christ.)
The message of John's sermons is rather forbidding and severe (Mt 3.7–12; Mk 1.7–8; Lk 3.7–18). More important is the imminent coming of the Messiah and the impending judgment he would bring: "the axe is laid to the root of the trees" (Lk 3.9). But Luke (3.10–14) insists also on the positive and humane aspects of the Baptist's message. No profession is denied salvation; all are called
primarily to practice justice and charity toward their fellow man.
In John's Gospel the Baptist describes himself as the friend of the Bridegroom who must decrease as Christ must increase (Jn 3.25–30); he proclaims Jesus as the Lamb of God, and a few of John's disciples follow Jesus (Jn 1.35–37).
The Disciples of John the Baptist. John gathered around him a group of disciples (Mt 11.2; Lk 7.18–19) who remained faithful to him until his death. He taught them a special way of prayer (Lk 11.1) and fasting. The apostles Andrew and John had been disciples of the Baptist before joining Christ (Jn 1.35–40). The Synoptic Gospels record a dispute between the disciples of the Baptist and those of Christ over fasting (Mt 9.14 and parallels), and John's Gospel refers to a dispute between the disciples of the Baptist and those of Jesus over baptism (Jn3.25–28). The Baptist, however, seems to have counseled his disciples to follow Jesus (Mt 11.2–6; see below).
Later (a.d. 53), Paul met Apollos and about 12 Ephesians who had received the baptism of John and apparently formed their own religious community at Ephesus (Acts 18.24; 19.1–7). The Fourth Gospel seems to contain a polemic against the disciples of the Baptist (Jn1.6–8), which suggests that they existed as a separate
group, distinct from the Christian Church, even up to the end of the first century.
Imprisonment and Death. The Evangelists further describe how "all the country of Judea went out to him, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem" (Mk 1.5; Mt 3.5; Lk3.7). Josephus (Ant. 18.5.2), as well as the Evangelists, records the reaction of herod antipas, who, fearing an uprising, had the Baptist imprisoned. John had fearlessly denounced Herod's sinful marriage with herodias, his brother's wife. In turn, Herodias instigated her daughter Salome to request John's death; to please her Herod had John beheaded, although he had regarded him as a religious and just man (Mt 14.3; Mk 6.17–20). While in prison, John had sent a delegation of his disciples to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah. According to some critics, John had found it difficult to accept a meek and merciful Messiah rather than an Elijah-like figure. In answer, Jesus pointed to his fulfillment of the OT messianic expectation, especially as described by Isaiah (35.5; 61.1). He then took the occasion to eulogize John as "a prophet, yes, more than a prophet…. Among those born ofwomen there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11.9–11; Lk 7.18–28).
John the Baptist and Qumran. Many scholars think that the qumran community of the Judean desert had an important influence on the Baptist. Some claim that John belonged to the community (e.g., J. Steinmann); others suggest that a common eschatological expectation in the area of the Judean desert is sufficient to explain the similarities (e.g., P. Benoit).
These similarities are striking. The Baptist stands against a specific background, that of the messianic expectation of the Judean desert. The Qumran community was a priestly one; John, too, came from a priestly family that manifested intense messianic hopes. Both John and the sectarians of Qumran found inspiration in the text of Is 40.3. John preached a baptism of repentance, and while the Qumran community practiced ritual ablutions, there is no indication that they attached any moral significance to these. Yet the Qumran ritual was frequently repeated, whereas that of John was apparently administered only once. John announced a second baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Lk 3.16), that is, an eschatological judgment; the Qumran ascetics, too, preached a second baptism that would be the work of the Spirit of God and would be eschatological (1QS 4.20–22). A striking difference, however, between John the Baptist and the Qumran community is the universality present in John's preaching in contrast to the closed character of the Qumran group, which regarded all outsiders as "sons of darkness."
Since John spent many years in the desert (Lk 1.80) and since there are marked similarities between John and the Qumranites, it seems probable that he knew the Qumran community. It has even been suggested that as a child he had been educated by them. Certainly, it appears that an influence was at work, for the discoveries at Qumran shed light upon the figure of John the Baptist and upon the general eschatological expectation that existed in the Judean desert. Whether there was a more immediate influence is not ascertainable. But he certainly was not a member of the Qumran community during his active ministry, for his missionary life was not in keeping with the rule of this community.
Iconography. The first representation of John, dating from the beginning of the second century, is found in the Catacombs of St. Callistus in Rome. It depicts the baptism of Christ by John. Evidence of a cult of the Baptist is not apparent before the fourth century, when Constantine built the Lateran Basilica and dedicated it to St. John the Baptist. In the sixth century the baptism of Christ by John was sculptured in bas relief on the ivory throne of Bishop Maximian, at present in the Archiepiscopal Museum at Ravenna. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance and to the present, the Baptist has been the subject of paintings, sculptures, bronzes, and frescoes by the greatest of the artists. Statues of him are found on the Cathedrals of Chartres, Amiens, and Reims. In the Peruzzi Chapel of the church of S. Croce in Florence there is a series of frescoes by Giotto depicting John's life.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. l. hartman (New York 1963) 1179–81. j. michl et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2 (Freiburg 1930–38) 5:1084–89. p. vielhauer, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 3 3:804–808. j. steinmann, Saint John the Baptist, tr. m. boyes (New York 1958). p. benoit "Qumrân et le N. T.," New Testament Studies 7 (1960–61) 276–296. j. dupont "L'Ambassade de Jean-Baptiste," Nouvelle revue théologique 83 (1961) 805–821, 943–959. a. feuillet, "Lea Trouvailles de Qumrân: Saint Jean-Baptiste et les hommes du désert," Cahiers Évangiles 27 (1957) 33–38.
[m. e. mciver]