John the Baptist

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"Saint John the Baptist" by Leonardo da Vinci
Light iron-age reading
The Bible
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Gabbin' with God

John the Baptist is a figure in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, and is considered a prophet in the Bible as well as the Qur'an. He is also briefly mentioned in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, so was apparently a real person.[1] His biblical appearance is most famous for its description of his execution, and for his baptism of Jesus. He should not be confused with the disciple John, the Gospel of John, or the author of the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos.

Despite the name, he was not in fact a Baptist; he just did baptisms.

In the Bible[edit]

John the Baptist is mentioned in all four canonical gospels. The Gospel of Luke alleges that John's mother Elizabeth was the cousin of Jesus' mother Mary,(Luke 1:36) and that his birth was also heralded by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:11, Luke 1:19), but no other gospel makes this claim.

John baptised people in the river Jordan, but warned that "one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose," and who would baptise with fire instead of water (Luke 3:16). John thus primarily plays the role of Elijah (see below), heralding the coming of Christ. John also preached repentance for sin (Matthew 3:2, Luke 3:3), as opposed to forgiveness.

Baptism of Jesus[edit]

John (right) baptises Jesus beneath a dove, while running at him or about to lose his balance and fall on him. Don't ask me who all those other people are supposed to be.
Matthew 3:13-15
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.

In a number of biblical accounts (e.g. Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11), Jesus was baptised by John, following which "heaven was opened" (Luke 3:21, Matthew 3:16) and God spoke etc etc. Following this, Jesus travels into the wilderness and the whole saga begins.


Caravaggio's "The Beheading of St John the Baptist" (1608)

King Herod[note 1] divorced his first wife and married Herodias, who was both the wife of his late brother (Herod Archelaus) and his niece. The Bible claims that John condemned this marriage as unlawful, provoking a quarrel with Herodias. Herod imprisoned John, but wouldn't kill him.[note 2] The story runs that the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod on his birthday, after which Herod promised her whatever she wanted.[note 3] The unnamed daughter conferred with her mother, and asked for John's head. Herod was reluctant to do so, but as he had made an oath to honour any request she made, he carried it out.[note 4]

Josephus presents a different account of events.[1] According to him, Herod feared John's power and influence over his followers. Worrying about the potential for rebellion that this devotion presented, Herod had John executed. This account excludes reference to a conflict with Herodias or her daughter, along with any reluctance on the part of Herod to do the deed due to his respect for the man. While Josephus thus appears to confirm the existence of John, his record contradicts the biblical narrative.

Josephus mentions John in the context of Jewish opinion of his death. Some time after the execution, Herod had been soundly defeated in battle by a neighbouring king (part of a quarrel involving both Herodias and a previous wife). The perception was that this was the judgement of God for John's execution. The order of events here (Josephus has Herod marrying Herodias after John's death) is further contradictory of the biblical account.

Fate of his several heads[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Relic
One of John the Baptist's heads on display at the Basilica of St. Sylvester the First, in Rome.

A spectacular relic like the severed head of John the Baptist was a sure temptation to covetousness. As such, his head was miraculously multiplied, and instances of his noggin can be worshipped revered at several locations.

  • There's one at the church of San Silvestro in CapiteWikipedia in Rome. This one has the endorsement of Pope Benedict XVI.[2]
  • Some Muslims believe that the head is at the former Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Damascus, Syria, which is now the Ummayad Mosque.Wikipedia
  • The Knights Templar were supposed to have gotten ahold of one in the Middle Ages. This is connected with a fringe theory that the Templars worshipped John rather than Jesus, and used his head in rituals.[3] Where the head ended up, who knows? When the Templars were suppressed by the French in 1307 their possessions were scattered, supposedly to destinations such as Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland.[4]
  • Amiens CathedralWikipedia has one that it got from Wallon de Sarton. He picked his up in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.
  • Romanian monksWikipedia at Mount Athos say they have one, too.
  • Another one was found on a small island in the Black Sea off Bulgaria.[5]
  • There is one in Germany without the meat.[6]

With Revelation 13:1, John may have been the beast John of Patmos described:

Revelation 13:1
And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.

Reincarnation of Elijah[edit]

And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.
John 1:21

A number of biblical passages maintain that John the Baptist was Elijah or "Elias" (Matthew 11:13-14, Matthew 17:12-13, Mark 9:13). This is necessary as part of a prophecy in Malachi that claims that God would send Elijah to prepare the way for the Messiah (Malachi 3:1, Malachi 4:5-6). However, John 1:21 presents the question directly, with John the Baptist denying the charge.

Nevertheless, as the references to the contrary are supposed to have been spoken by Jesus himself, John's own opinion on the matter is irrelevant.[7]

Patron saint[edit]

John the Baptist was proclaimed the patron saint of French Canadians in 1908 by Pope Pius X. St. John the Baptist Day (June 24) has long been celebrated as a public holiday in the province of Quebec.

Better than Jesus?[edit]

Mandaeism,Wikipedia an obscure gnostic religion practiced in southern Iraq, holds John the Baptist as its greatest prophet, while rejecting Jesus.

See also[edit]


  1. Specifically Herod Antipas, and not the Herod the Great of the nativity.
  2. Apparently Herod "feared John, knowing that he was a just man and holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly." (Mark 6:20)
  3. Up to half his kingdom, according to Mark 6:23.
  4. See Mark 6:14-29 for the story.