St. John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist (4? B.C.-31? A.D.) is important in Christian tradition as the forerunner of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

The two ancient sources that speak of John are the Gospels and the Antiquities of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. John was the son of the priest Zachariah and of Elizabeth, and the cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus. He was born in Palestinian hill country about 4 B.C. Little is known of his early years. The Gospels state that his birth and name were foretold by God to his father and that his conception was miraculous because his mother, Elizabeth, was beyond childbearing age. He spent his early years "in the desert," according to the Gospel; this phrase is almost a technical term in Qumran literature for the place where the Jewish sectaries lived together near the Dead Sea.

As an adult, John appeared on the banks of the river Jordan sometime during the reign of Herod Antipas (ca. 21 B.C.-A.D. 39). Since Jesus was put to death sometime between A.D. 29 and 31, and since he and John met at the beginning of Jesus' public life, it can be assumed that John started his own public ministry sometime in the mid-20s of the 1st century A.D.

According to the sources, John was a reforming zealot. He preached an imminent catastrophe of divine punishment; he castigated hypocrisy, demanded repentance, and announced the imminent coming of the Messiah. Many of the elements of John's doctrine resemble some teachings of the Qumran sectaries as noted in the Dead Sea Scrolls, particularly his antiestablishment attitude, his insistence on imminent divine punishment for sinners, and his preaching of a kingdom of God that would soon be established. John furthermore insisted that all who repented of their sins should come to him and go through a rite of washing or baptizing; hence he was called the Baptist.

Two major events marked John's career. First was the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34). Jesus came and, being baptized by John, was recognized by him as the son of God. The second event concerned king Herod, who had dismissed his first wife, the daughter of King Aretas, and had married Herodias, the wife of his brother. John denounced this act. Herod, fearing that John's preaching might provoke retributive action by Aretas, imprisoned John in the fortress of Machaerus. The Gospels relate that Herodias, wounded in her pride, prevailed on Herod through the charms of her daughter, Salome, to have John beheaded. He died sometime between A.D. 26 and 31. The Christian churches commemorate the event on August 29 of each year.


Further Reading on St. John the Baptist

The best books on John the Baptist have been written in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Recommended are Carl Hermann Kraeling, John the Baptist (1951), and Matthew Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins (1961).