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.
FORERUNNER, PRECURSOR, BAPTIST
c. 6–2 BCE
c. 30 CE
Roman Catholic Church, Eastern
Catholic Churches, Oriental
Orthodox Churches, Anglicanism, Islam, Mandeanism
June 24 (Nativity), August
29 (Beheading), January
7(Synaxis, Eastern Orthodox), Thout 2 ( Planetarium’s,Coptic
Cross, lamb, his own head
patron saint of French
Hospitaller of Jerusalem, Florence, Genoa, Jordan and many other places
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. 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. Zachary/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; 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.
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 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 not reported by the Gospels
except for the 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. 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
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 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 (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.
Some 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. “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the
disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the
Lord.” Luke 1:17 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 generally
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. – Malachi 3:1
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,
Christians interpreted Isaiah 40:3-5 as referring prophetically to John, based
on John’s own statement as written in John 1:22-23::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 Flavius
Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities book 18, chapter 5, paragraph 2:
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. (Whiston Translation) 
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
John’s imprisonment and subsequent execution is described as being to prevent
“mischief”, rather than owing to Herod’s wife’s daughter’s terpsichorean
persuasion of a reluctant Herod.
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[clarify], 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.
Eastern Orthodox Church
Eastern Orthodox icon John the Baptist – the Angel of the Desert (Stroganov
School, 1620s) Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Icon depicting Elizabeth leaving the infant John in the desert (John the Baptist
“in the Desert” Monastery near Jerusalem, Israel).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):
September 23 – Conception of St. John the Forerunner
January 7 – The Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner. This is his main feast day,
immediately after Theophany on January 6 (January 7 also commemorates the
transfer of the relic of the right hand of John the Baptist from Antioch to
Constantinople in 956)
February 24 – First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Forerunner
May 25 – Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Forerunner
June 24 – Nativity of St. John the Forerunner
August 29 – The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner
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 three separate
June 24 The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
August 29 The Beheading of St. John the Baptist
September 23 Conception of St John the Baptist
Wood Sculpture of John The Baptist’s Head by Master Santiago Martinez Delgado,
permanent Collection at the Museo Nacional in Bogotá, Colombia.
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, honoring 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
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
He is also patron of the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, Florence, and Genoa,
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
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 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.
Tomb of St.John the Baptist, Umayyad Mosque in Damascus,Syria
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
The Knights Templar. In medieval times it was rumored that they had possession
of the saint’s severed head, and multiple records from their Inquisition in the
early 1300s make reference to some form of head being worshiped by the
San Silvestro in Capite in Rome
Amiens Cathedral, France, brought home by Wallon de Sarton from the Fourth
Crusade in Constantinople.
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, 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.