WHO WAS ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST?
By Fr Christopher Cook
John the Baptist is a somewhat mysterious figure in the New Testament, who was famous as a preacher, even before he became the herald of Christ and baptised him in the river Jordan. He is also called the Forerunner, or, in Greek, Prodromos. Jesus declared him to be the greatest of the sons of men; indeed he was the greatest, but also the most tragic. He was a prophet from before his birth, leaping in the womb to announce the coming of the incarnate Son of God, but his task was to proclaim the fulfilment of all prophecies, and thus his own obsolescence. And this he did. with great courage he spread the news that he, the greatest of all men, was the least in the kingdom of heaven. His disciples would have preferred him to fight, to build his sect, to overshadow this upstart whom he himself had baptised. But he did not, and therefore quite rightly has glory in heaven.
St John has been greatly venerated throughout the history of the Church, a fact attested to by the huge number of churches and institutions dedicated to him, by the number of his feast days, and by his prominence in the liturgy. In the Catholic Church the traditional order of Mass had eight references to him, but since the second Vatican Council there seems to have been less emphasis on him and more on St Joseph. The Orthodox Churches, always more reverent towards tradition, still have many references to him in the Liturgy.
John was related to Jesus through their mothers. In Luke 1:36, Elizabeth is described as Mary’s “kinswoman,” meaning that they were related in some way through marriage or blood. Most likely, it was a blood relationship, but neither a particularly close or distant one. Elizabeth, being elderly, may have been an aunt, great-aunt, or one of the many types of “cousin.” The precise relationship cannot be determined. This means that Jesus and John were cousins in one or another senses of the word.
The gospels describe John the Baptist as having specific role as forerunner or precursor of the Messiah. In St Luke's Gospel (1:17) the role of John is referred to as being "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." His father prophesies of him (Luke 1:76) : "thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways.” This his vocation as Herald or Forerunner of the Messiah.
There are several passages within the Old Testament which are prophetic of John the Baptist in this role. These include a passage in the prophet Malachi (3:1) which refers to a future 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.”
The Archangel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to announce the Birth of St John
Saints Zechariah and Elizabeth, Parents of St John. Icon of the Conception of St John the Baptist
St John’s parents are the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. During their many years together they prayed that God would grant them the joy of a child. The years, the decades, passed, and little by little these two faithful people became reconciled to the fact that they would remain for ever childless. But then the amazing happened. While ministering in the Temple, offering incense at the altar, Zechariah received the news from an angel that their longing for a child would be fulfilled. Zechariah could not bring himself to believe the angel, and so was struck dumb. But shortly afterwards a child was conceived.
The visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her Kinswoman Elizabeth
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy she was visited Mary, her kinswoman, to whom the Archangel Gabriel had appeared to announce that though still a virgin she would conceive and bear a son who would be the Son of God. The Archangel had then commanded Mary to visit Elizabeth. This incident, known as the Visitation, is remarkable because as Mary greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s unborn baby leapt in the womb, and “filled with the Holy Spirit” she cried out with these words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Here is the unborn John the Baptist already fulfilling the role of prophet, leaping for joy and acknowledging the presence in Mary’s womb of the incarnate Son of God, just as later in his adult life he would point to Jesus, and declare to his followers, “Behold the Lamb of God.” It is an ancient tradition that at this moment, as he leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb, at the presence of the unborn Christ, and as she was filled with the Holy Spirit, John was cleansed of any stain of original sin. This is one reason why his Birthday is celebrated in the liturgy as well as the date of his Beheading.
The unborn St John leaps for joy and then kneels to worship and receive a blessing from the unborn Son of God
Zechariah only regained his speech after his wife had been delivered of a son, and he had written down that the newly born child should be named John, as the angel had commanded. Zechariah regained his speech, and proclaimed the great hymn of praise and thanksgiving known as the Benedictus, which since then has always been an integral part of the office of Lauds or Morning Prayer.
The Birth of St John the Baptist
THE CHILDHOOD of ST JOHN
There is no firm historical record of his childhood, but these details were readily supplied by various apocryphal accounts which appeared in the Early Church. Most, if not all, is clearly fictional, but it is not impossible that some of them preserve a genuine tradition or memory of St John. We find in these accounts many astounding miracles, but this account of his childhood is not without interest.
Six months after his birth, Jesus the Messiah was born at Bethlehem. The raging Herod carried out his plan deliver himself from any other claimant to his throne, and committed that terrible atrocity we call the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. Several thousands of young children, gathered for the Roman census, were slaughtered. The young John would have been one of them, but, protected by God, he was hidden in the desert. He was left an orphan, but the Lord guarded the youth. St. John, deprived of parental care, was preserved by a super-essential power, deer coming to him nourishing him with warm milk, and he, seeing no human face, bit by bit increased in wisdom, was fortified in prayerful striving towards the Almighty, and not only did he not lag behind the development of other children, but he was led by the Holy Spirit, strengthened for an exceptional service which the Evangelist Luke, likened to the service of the prophet Elijah.
St John the Baptist as a child
MINISTRY OF ST JOHN BAPTIST
Luke gives us an extraordinarily precise date for the beginning of John’s ministry. He writes:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins [Luke 3:1-3].
“The fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar” is most naturally understood as a reference to A.D. 29.
At first St. John led a most austere life in the wilderness, exercising himself in prayer and meditating on the high mission he was called to perform. In the thirtieth year of his age, John came from out his seclusion. This was also the age at which the priests and Levites were permitted by the Jewish law to begin the exercise of their functions. He was clothed in camel's hair, fastened by a girdle of raw leather. He was truly a man of the desert, who had nothing to do with the comfort or luxuries of a settled dwelling. He tasted no cooked food, subsisting merely on locusts and wild honey and what could be found in the desert. To start his ministry he came to the thinly settled banks of the river Jordan.
St John the Baptist in the Wilderness
The main emphasis of his preaching was the need for repentance, in particular repentance to prepare for the coming of the One Who Is To Come. “Make ye the way straight,” says he; “for cometh He whose sandal-strap I am not worthy to unloose; He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”
John was received by the people as true herald of God. All classes of people came and listened to him. Among them were many Pharisees, whose pride and hypocrisy he sharply reproved. Among those who flocked to see him were many soldiers and publicans, or tax-collectors, whose way of life and behaviour were generally seen as immoral and violent. He exhorted all of them to works of charity and to a reformation of their lives,
He was asked by these soldiers and tax-collectors about the morality of their occupations and what they needed to do to be right with God. Both of these occupations required cooperation with the Roman imperial authorities, and they were required to quit their jobs. John tells them no, but to do their duty in a righteous manner. This is indeed an important message for us today, when many people are required to cooperate with employers, state institutions, and corporations that are, in part at least, engaged in immoral or questionable activity.
Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”
And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?”
And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” [Luke 3:12-14].
To all those who came to him, listened to his preaching and professed repentance in the sense demanded by John, he baptized in the river Jordan.
St John preaching to the crowds by the River Jordan
WAS JOHN ELIJAH RETURNED?
In Jesus’ day, the scribes predicted that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah, and at one point, St Matthew tells us, Jesus was discussing John the Baptist and said, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). This has led some to believe that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah. This of course cannot be the case, for Elijah never died. In II Kings 2:11 we read that instead of dying Elijah was assumed into heaven by a whirlwind.
By identifying John the Baptist as the “Elijah” who was to come, Jesus indicated that the fulfilment of the Elijah prophecy was not meant to be taken literally. Elijah himself was not to return and go about Judaea, preaching to the people. Instead, someone like Elijah was to appear and do this, and that person was John the Baptist.
St John the Baptist embarks on his Ministry
BAPTISM OF JESUS
If we follow Luke’s chronology it would appear likely Jesus’ ministry began shortly after John’s did, which places the likely date of Jesus’ baptism in A.D. 29 or early A.D. 30. This enabled John to assume the role of forerunner or herald of the Messiah, preparing the way for him by conducting his ministry in an Elijah-like way and calling the nation to repentance. In keeping with that, he baptised people as a sign of their repentance.
Icon of the Baptism of Our Lord by St John the Baptist in the River Jordan
As the Forerunner he also came to identify and announce the Messiah. According to John the Baptist: “I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptising with water, that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:31).
This identification was made when he baptised Jesus. At first St John refused to baptise Jesus, saying that it should rather be he who was baptised by Jesus (Matthew 3: 13-15). But Jesus insisted, and so John baptised him. St John the Evangelist tells us what happened : “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (1:32-34). St Matthew informs us that as Jesus was baptised there was also heard a voice from Heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3: 17).
St John the Evangelist writes that on two occasions John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to his disciples, saying “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” On the second occasion, the two disciples of John to whom he said this, at once left John and followed Jesus. One of these was St Andrew, who then introduced his brother St Peter to Jesus (John 1: 29-43). John had earlier declared that Jesus must increase and he decrease. “After me comes one who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mark 1:7).
The gospels indicate that the early ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus both took place in Judea, in the southern portion of Israel, near Jerusalem.
IMPRISONMENT AND DEATH
Icon of the Imprisonment of St John the Baptist
But some time after the Baptism of Jesus John was arrested by King Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea, which included part of the wilderness near Jerusalem. It was this which led Jesus to begin his ministry in Galilee: “Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee”(Matthew 4:12).
Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, and the gospels portray him as a complex man. For a start, he had entered into an unlawful marriage. At some point, he apparently took as his wife Herodias, the former wife of his brother Herod Philip, while his brother was still alive. This was very much against Jewish law, and put him in opposition to John the Baptist, who publicly opposed the union (Mark 6:18). As a result Herod arrested arrest John (Matthew 14:3).
The Beheading of St John the Baptist
Although he had John in custody, and although his wife, Herodias, hated John and wanted him dead, Herod Antipas served as John’s protector and had an unusual fascination with the fiery preacher: “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly” (Mark 6:20).
The Head of St John the Baptist is delivered to Salome
Although John was now imprisoned, Herodias’ hatred of John for publicly criticizing her betrayal of her former husband remained as strong as ever. Eventually, after her daughter Salome had delighted Antipas with a special dance at his birthday feast, Herodias was able to manipulate the inebriated king into giving the order for John’s death by beheading. the Baptist’s head was placed on a platter and delivered to Salome, who then gave it to her mother (Mark 6:21-28). This is the reason that many icons and other paintings of Saint John depict him with a head on a platter to one side or even carried by him. St John’s disciples then came and took the body away and interred him in a tomb.
Icon of the head of St John the Baptist
Even John’s death did not end Antipas’s fascination with him. When he began to hear reports about Jesus, he thought Jesus might be John raised from the dead (Mark 6:14), and he sought to see Jesus for himself (Luke 9:9).
Icon of the Burial of St John the Baptist
HOW WELL KNOWN WAS JOHN IN HIS OWN DAY?
It’s easy for us to think of John the Baptist as simply the forerunner and herald of Christ, but he was quite famous in his own right. We can deduce this from the facts that the movement he began ended up having followers in distant lands, and that we have information about him from outside the New Testament.
It is reasonable to guess that he gained followers beyond Judaea through particular individuals who travelled around the Middle East and spread his message wherever they went. One of these seems to have been Apollos, who later became a Christian evangelist.
According to Acts: “Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:24-25).
Apparently, Apollos had some knowledge of the connection between John the Baptist and the Messiah, but only limited knowledge. He did not know about Christian baptism and the difference between it and John’s baptism. Aquila and Priscilla gave him supplementary knowledge to complete his understanding of the Christian message (Acts 18:26-28), but word apparently did not get to all of his followers at first. When St. Paul returned to Ephesus, he found about a dozen of his apparent disciples there, who had heard of John’s baptism but not Christian baptism and the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7). These were apparently converts made by Apollos based on his knowledge of John the Baptist’s movement, before he learnt the full message of Christ.
NON-BIBLICAL SOURCES FOR JOHN’S LIFE
The Jewish historian Josephus records that one of Herod’s armies was destroyed in the year AD 36. He writes:
“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 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 anything 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 should 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 against him” [Antiquities 18:5:2].
The details of Josephus’s account differ from that of the gospels. Apparently Josephus was not aware of the role of Herodias and her daughter in the matter, or Herod’s complex relationship with John. Instead he attributes to Herod the standard suspicion of a prophetic leader that any ruler of the time might have had.
The Christian community’s awareness of more of the details likely came through a woman named Joanna, who was the wife of a man named Chuza, who was a steward of Herod Antipas and thus a court insider. In Luke 8: 1-3 Joanna is named as one of the followers of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3).
The traditional Tomb of St John the Baptist
THE CULT OF ST JOHN
The cult of St John was widely extended throughout the church by the end of the fourth century, almost certainly through the influence of the monks, who saw in him a perfect model of asceticism, and also because of the continual discoveries of relics of the saint. Numerous churches were dedicated to him in Palestine during the Byzantine period, located in ‘Ayn Karim and especially in Sebaste (in Samaria), the place to which his disciples, according to tradition, removed his body and buried it.
Churches were soon erected in the West also. It is sufficient to mention Saint John Lateran in Rome and the church in ravenna consecrated by Saint Peter Chrysologus. From the fourth century at least, the Greeks celebrated 7th January as the Saint’s feast day, following the Orthodox Epiphany, which celebrates Our Lord’s baptism by John.
The West, at least from the time of St Augustine, celebrated the birth of John the Baptist on 24th June, corresponding to the celebration of Our Lord’s birth on 25th December (St Luke places the Annunciation six months after the conception of St John). The Beheading, however, was celebrated on 29th August, perhaps corresponding to the date of the dedication of the church in Sebaste or the date of the translation of his relics.
There are abundant traditions concerning the relics of the Saint and the places where they are preserved.There is much agreement that the body of the Baptist was buried and venerated in Sebaste. According to Theodoret the tomb was profaned in the time of Julian the Apostate in the mid fourth century, the body burnt and the ashes scattered to the winds.
Rufinus, another chronicler, however, states that some monks were able to save the bones and send them to St Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria. Some fifth century scholars then claim that the head, having been removed from Alexandria, was sent to Constantinople by order of the Emperor Valens in the fourth century.
There are many traditions, some to a greater or lesser extent conflicting with each other, and it must be said many cathedrals, churches and monasteries claim to have relics of St John. The Grand Mosque in Damascus, on the site of an earlier church claims to have the body of St John the Baptist, who is also venerated by Moslems. A prized possession of the Sovereign Order of St John is the right arm of the Saint.
The Right hand of St John the Baptist
FEAST DAYS OF ST JOHN
In the West Saint John the Baptist now has two feasts to himself. On 29th August his Beheading is celebrated, and 24th June celebrates his birth. Of course the feasts of the Visitation and the Baptism of the Lord are also linked to St John the Baptist.
The Shrine of St John the baptist in the Great Umayyid Mosque, Damascus
Eastern Christianity has many more feasts associated with St John the Baptist, and have a very rich tradition concerning him. The Eastern Orthodox faithful, as in the West, 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. But in the east 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. Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches will often have an icon of Saint John the Baptist in a place of honour on the iconostasis, and he is frequently mentioned during the Divine Services. Every Tuesday throughout the year is dedicated to his memory.
Reliquary containing Relics of St John, in Genoa Cathedral
The Eastern Orthodox Church remembers Saint John the Forerunner on six separate feast days:
23rd September – Conception of Saint John the Forerunner
7th January – The Synaxis of Saint John the Forerunner.(This is his main feast day, and also commemorates the transfer of the relic of the right hand of John the Baptist from Antioch to Constantinople in 956)
24th February – First and Second Finding of the Head of Saint John the Forerunner
25th May – Third Finding of the Head of Saint John the Forerunner
24th June – Nativity of Saint John the Forerunner
29th August – The Beheading of Saint John the Forerunner, a day of strict fast and abstinence from meat and dairy products and foods containing meat or dairy products.
5th September -- The commemoration of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Saint John's parents.
12th October - the Transfer of the Right Hand of the Forerunner from Malta to Gatchina in the year 1799. This was to save it from being taken by Napoleon when he invaded Malts. The Russian Emperor Paul gave into the safekeeping of the monks at Gatchina. This feast is observed solely by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Icon of the Third Finding of the Head of St John the Baptist
Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of Jordan, as his beheading took place in Machaerus in central Jordan.
He is also patron of the Knights of Malta (also known as the Sovereign Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem), Florence, and Genoa. In Malta St John is patron saint of Xewkija on the island of Gozo, which remember him with a great feast on the Sunday nearest to 24th June.
In many Mediterranean countries, the summer solstice is dedicated to St. John. The associated ritual, with the burning of bonfires, is very similar to Midsummer celebrations in the Anglo-Saxon countries.
Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of Puerto Rico and its capital city, San Juan.
Many towns and localities in the Philippines venerate St John as the town or city patron. A common practise of many Filipino fiestas in his honour is the bathing and the dousing of people in his memory.
An Icon of St John the Baptist with the wings of an Angel.
Free from sin at his birth and living in the Wilderness, which he transformed into an earthly Paradise, St John was seen as living the Angelic Life, and in this way was an inspiration to the early desert monks.
A naturalistic, rather heroic depiction of St John, very different from the Orthodox tradition of sacred art, with its more formal, stylised and traditional icons.