John the Baptist

Saint John the Baptist (heb. Jochanan ben Sacharja, arab. يحيى Yaḥyā or يوحنا Yūḥanna, aram. Yohanoun) (died c. 30) was a preacher and ascetic who according to Christian tradition, attracted large crowds on the banks of the Jordan River, suggesting repentence and baptism in view of the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was one of those whom he baptized. He was killed by Herod Antipas, whom John had denounced for his (incestuous) marriage. Jesus' own ministry followed John's, and some of Jesus' early followers had previously been followers of John. John, like Jesus, preached at a time of political, social, and religious conflict, and he prophesied that fire was coming to destroy the wicked.

Christians commonly refer to John as the Precursor or Forerunner of Jesus, since in the gospels, John announces Jesus' coming. He is also identified with Elijah, and is described as a relative of Jesus Scripture describes John as endowed with prenatal grace, so the feast day of his birth (June 24) is celebrated more solemnly than that marking his martyrdom (August 29).

Muslims regard John as a prophet, as do Bahá'ís and Mandaeans.

John followed the example of previous Hebrew prophets, living austerely, challenging sinful rulers, calling for repentance, and promising God's justice. He also conferred baptism as a purification rite for repentant sinners ("baptism of John"), which the Bible clearly differentiates from baptism as practiced by Christians after Pentecost.

Herod's stepdaughter, to whom the name Salome was later attributed, is said in and to have asked him for John's head on a platter, and the presentation of his severed head often appears in art. Another theme of Christian art is his beheading, which is mentioned not only in these two gospels, but also in . He is also depicted as an ascetic wearing camel hair and with a staff and scroll inscribed "Ecce Agnus Dei" (Latin, "Behold the Lamb of God" — ) or bearing a book or dish with a lamb on it. In Orthodox icons, he often has angel's wings, since applies to him a prophecy about an ἄγγελος (angelos), a word that can mean a messenger, but also an angel.

In the New Testament

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, 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 Zachariah and 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; 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, and it was restored on the occasion of Zachariah naming John. On the basis of Luke's account, the Catholic calendar placed the feast of John the Baptist on June 24, six months before Christmas. According to Luke, Jesus and John the Baptist were related, their mothers being cousins ; there is no mention of this in the other Gospels, and the scholar Raymond E. Brown has described the relationship as 'of dubious historicity'; Géza Vermes has called it 'artificial and undoubtedly Luke's creation'


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 ().

The Gospel of John does not describe John baptizing Jesus but has John introducing Jesus to his disciples as the "Lamb of God" ().

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" (). Gospel of John then points out that Jesus' disciples were baptizing more people than John ().

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". ().

The book of Acts portrays the disciples of John as eventually merging into the followers of Jesus a development not reported by the Gospels except for the early case of Andrew, Simon Peter's brother ().

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

According 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. The synoptic Gospels state that Herod reacted to John's condemnation of Herod's marriage to Herodias, the wife of Herod's brother Philip (}. 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 ().

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.

The Gospels date John's death before the crucifixion of Jesus. Josephus places John's death no later than 36 CE. Some scholars believe that Herod Antipas did not marry his brother's wife until his brother Philip died in 34 CE, placing these events after the 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, to which Jesus replied that there had been no greater son of woman than John the Baptist ().

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.


Christians believe that John the Baptist had a specific role ordained by God which was to be the forerunner or precursor to the Messiah, whom they believe to be Jesus. and also Luke 1:76 "...thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; 1:77 "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 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. —
Though the interpretation of this passage as referring to a forerunner of the Messiah was uncommon amongst Jews prior to the 2nd century BC, it became significantly more common under Hellenic, and later Christian, influences.

Christians interpreted as referring prophetically to John, based on John's own statement as written in ::He said, 'I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord" ', as the prophet Isaiah said.


An account of John the Baptist is found in all extant manuscripts of the Jewish Antiquities (book 18, chapter 5, 2) by Flavius Josephus (37–100):

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.

Jesus-mythicist Frank Zindler argues that the passage is an interpolation by a Sabian but his opinion is beyond the pale of mainstream scholarship. The passage dates to at least the early third century as it is quoted by Origen in Contra Celsum. It was also quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century.

According to this passage, the execution of John was blamed for a defeat Herod suffered in around 36. Divergences between the passage's presentation and the Biblical accounts of John include the following:

  • Baptism for those whose souls have already been "purified beforehand by righteousness" is for purification of the body, not general repentance of sin ().

Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan differentiates between Josephus' account of John and Jesus: "John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise." To get baptized, Crossan writes, you went only to John. Stopping the movement meant only stopping John. 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.

John in the main Christian traditions

Eastern Orthodox Church

The Eastern Orthodox 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.

The Eastern Orthodox Church remembers Saint John the Forerunner on six separate feast days, listed here in order in which they occur during the church year (which begins on September 1):

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).

Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church commemorates St. John the Baptist on two feast days:


According 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 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.

Over the 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:

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, 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.

Armenians believe that Gandzasar Monastery's Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, in Nagorno Karabakh, too contains or contained in the past St. John's head. A discussion about how St. John's head ended up in medieval Armenia's province of Artsakh, and in Gandzasar, can be found in the “History of the Land of Aghvank,” a collection of texts attributed to the medieval Armenian historian Movses Kaghankatvatsi.

Other views

Islamic view

John the Baptist is known as Yahya in Arabic and in the Qur'an. The Qur'an, in the sura Maryam, identifies John is the son of Zachariah and maternal cousin of Jesus. It relates an account similar to that of the Gospel of Luke, including the barrenness of Zachariah's unnamed wife and his doubts, though Zachariah is not described as actually mute but only that the sign of the coming of John was that he would not speak for three nights. John, whose tidings are foretold by the angels, is exhorted to hold fast to the Scripture and was given wisdom by God while still child. (Surah). He is described as "pure", "devout", "dutiful towards his parents" and as "not arrogant or rebellious" (Surah ) and is called "a Prophet of the Righteous" coming "to confirm a word from Allah". (Surah )

Mandaean view

John the Baptist plays a large part in some Mandaean writings, especially those dating from the Islamic period.

Mandaeans highly revere him and may possibly have some remote connection with his original disciples.

They believe John the Baptist, called Yahya in the Sidra d-Yahia ("Book of John"), was the last and greatest of the prophets. While Mandaeans agree that he baptized Jesus (Yeshu), they reject the latter as either a saviour or prophet. They view John as the only true Messiah.

According to the text of the Ginza Rba, John died at the hand of an angel. The angel appeared as a three-year-old child, coming to John for baptism. John knew the angel for what it was, and that once he touched its hand, he would die immediately. John performed the baptism anyway, and died in the process. Afterward, the angel covered John's body with mud.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, latter-day revelation confirms the biblical account and also makes known additional events in the ministry of John the Baptist. According to this tradition, revelation reveals that John was "ordained by an angel," when he was 8 days of age, to overthrow the kingdom of the Jews and to prepare a people for the Lord. They also claim that he was baptized while yet in his childhood (Doctrine and Covenants 84:27–28).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that John the Baptist appeared on the banks of the Susquehanna River near Harmony Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania (present-day Oakton), as a resurrected being, to Joseph Smith, Jr. and Oliver Cowdery on 15 May 1829, and ordained them to the Aaronic priesthood.; . According to this tradition, John the Baptist's ministry has operated in three dispensations: the last of the prophets under the law of Moses, the first of the New Testament prophets, and the bringer of the Aaronic priesthood to the dispensation of the fulness of times. They also believe John's ministry was foretold by two prophets in the Book of Mormon: Lehi and his son, Nephi ().

Bahá'í view

There are numerous quotations in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, Founder of the Bahá'í Faith mentioning John the Baptist. He is regarded by Bahá'ís as a lesser Prophet. Bahá'u'lláh claimed that His Forerunner, the Báb, was the spiritual return of John the Baptist. In His letter to Pope Pius IX, Bahá'u'lláh wrote:

"O followers of the Son! We have once again sent John unto you, and He, verily, hath cried out in the wilderness of the Bayán: O peoples of the world! Cleanse your eyes! The Day whereon ye can behold the Promised One and attain unto Him hath drawn nigh! O followers of the Gospel! Prepare the way! The Day of the advent of the Glorious Lord is at hand! Make ready to enter the Kingdom. Thus hath it been ordained by God, He Who causeth the dawn to break.

However, Bahá'ís consider the Báb to be a greater Prophet (Manifestation of God) and thus possessed of a far greater station than John the Baptist.

Gnostic and anthroposophic views

In Gnosticism, John the Baptist was a "personification" of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. As an Old Testament prophet, Elijah did not know the True God (the God of the New Testament), and thus had to be reincarnated in Gnostic theology. As predicted by the Old Testament prophet Malachi, Elijah must "come first" to herald the coming of Jesus Christ.

Modern anthroposophy, initiated by Rudolf Steiner, concurs with the idea that the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah, in line with the Synoptic Gospels (e.g. ,,), although the Gospel of John explicitly denies this (). Furthermore, after his beheading at Machaerus his soul is said to have become the inspiring group genius of Christ's disciples. According to Steiner, the painter Raphael and the poet Novalis were more recent incarnations of John the Baptist.

Unification church

The Unification Church teaches that God intended that John help Jesus during his public ministry in Israel. In particular, John should have done everything in his power to persuade the Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah. He was to become Jesus' greatest disciple. John's failure to do so was the chief obstacle to the fulfillment of Jesus' mission.

In art

John has been one of the saints most frequently appearing in Christian art. 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. 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; in many ways this is the equivalent of Western Crucifixions on roods and elsewhere, where John the Evangelist takes the place of John the Baptist (except in the idiosyncratic Isenheim Altarpiece). John the Baptist is very often shown on altarpieces designed for churches dedicated to him, or where the donor patron was named for him or there was some other connection of patronage - John was the patron saint of Florence, among many other cities, which means he features among the supporting saints in many important works.

A number of narrative scenes from his life were often shown on the predella of altarpieces dedicated to John, and other settings, notably the large series in grisaille fresco in the Chiostro del Scalzo, which was Andrea del Sarto's largest work, and the frescoed Life by Ghirlandajo in the Tornabuoni Chapel, both in Florence. There is another important fresco cycle by Filippo Lippi in Prato Cathedral. These include the typical scenes: the Annunciation to Zechariah, John's birth, his naming by his father, the Visitation, John's departure for the desert, his preaching in the desert, the Baptism of Christ, John before Herod, the dance of Samome, and his beheading.

His birth, which unlike the Nativity of Jesus allowed a relatively wealthy domestic interior to be shown, became increasingly popular as a subject in the late Middle Ages, with depictions by Jan van Eyck (?) in the Turin-Milan Hours and Ghirlandajo in the Tornabuoni Chapel being among the best known. His execution, a Church feast-day, was often shown, and by the 15th century scenes such as the dance of Salome became popular, sometimes, as in an engraving by Israhel van Meckenem, the interest of the artist is clearly in showing the life of Herod's court, given contemporary dress, as much as the martyrdom of the saint. Salome bearing John's head on a platter equally became a subject for the Northern Renaissance taste for images of glamourous but dangerous women (Delilah, Judith and others), and was often painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder and engraved by the Little Masters. These images remained popular into the Baroque, with Carlo Dolci painting at least three versions. John preaching, in a landscape setting, was a popular subject in Dutch art from Pieter Brueghel the Elder and his successors.

As a child (of varying age), he is sometimes shown from the 15th century in family scenes from the life of Christ such as the Presentation of Christ, the Marriage of the Virgin and the Holy Kinship. Leonardo da Vinci's versions of the Virgin of the Rocks were influential in establishing a Renaissance fashion for variations on the Madonna and Child that included John, probably intended to depict the cousin's reunion in Egypt, when after Jesus's Flight to Egypt John was believed to have been carried to join him by an angel. Raphael in particular painted many compositions of the subject, such as the Alba Madonna, La belle jardinière, Aldobrandini Madonna, Madonna della seggiola, Madonna dell'Impannata, which were among his best known works. John was also often shown by himself as an older child or adolescent, usually already wearing his distinctive dress and carrying a long thin wooden cross - another theme influenced by Leonardo, whose equivocal composition, reintroducing the camel-skin dress, was developed by Raphael Titian and Guido Reni among many others. Often he is accompanied by a lamb, especially in the many Early Netherlandish paintings which needed this attribute as he wore normal clothes. Caravaggio painted an especially large number of works including John, from at least five largely nude youths attributed to him, to three late works on his death - the great Execution in Malta, and two sombre Salomes with his head, one in Madrid, and one in London.

The death of John remained a popular subject throughout the Baroque period, and then enjoyed a considerable revival at the end of the 19th century with Symbolist painters such as Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes (National Gallery, London). Oscar Wilde's play Salome was illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, giving rise to some of his most memorable images.


As a patron saint

Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of Puerto Rico, and its capital city San Juan bears his name. In 1521, the island was given its formal name "San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico", following the usual custom of christening the town with both its formal name and the name which Christopher Columbus had originally given the island, honouring John the Baptist. The indistinct use of "San Juan Bautista" and "Puerto Rico" for calling both the city and the island led to a reversal in practical use by most inhabitants due largely to a map-making error. Therefore by 1746 the name for the city (Puerto Rico) had become that of the entire island, while the name for the island (San Juan Bautista) had become the name for the city. The official motto for the island of Puerto Rico also references the saint, Joannes Est Nomen Eius (translated, "John is his name").

He is also a patron saint of French Canada, and Newfoundland. The Canadian cities of St. John's, Newfoundland (1497) and Saint John, New Brunswick (1604) were both named in his honor. In the UK Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of Penzance, Cornwall. His feast day is June 24, celebrated in Quebec as the Fête nationale du Québec (la Fête St-Jean-Baptiste), and in Newfoundland as Discovery Day.

Also on the night from 23rd to 24th June, Saint John is celebrated as the patron saint of Porto, the second largest city in Portugal. An article from June 2004 in The Guardian, remarked that "Porto's Festa de São João is one of Europe's liveliest street festivals, yet it is relatively unknown outside the country.

He is also patron of the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, Florence, and Genoa, Italy.

Saint John the Baptist is also the patron saint of Jordan, his beheading is believed to have taken place in Machaerus in central Jordan.

The Baptistines are the name given to a number of religious orders dedicated to the memory of John the Baptist.

Saint John is also the patron saint of Lian, Batangas, San Juan, Metro Manila (Philippines) and the entire state of South Carolina.

St. John the Baptist is (along with St. John the Evangelist) claimed as a Patron Saint by the fraternal society of Free and Accepted Masons (better known as the Freemasons).

Churches and other establishments named after John

Famous churches

See also



  • Catherine M. Murphy, John the Baptist: Prophet of Purity for a New Age. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8146-5933-0

References to John in ancient literature

  • Josephus wrote that "...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." (Josephus, AJ, 18.5.2)

References to John (Yahya) in the Qur'an

External links

Search another word or see austerelyon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature