John the Baptist
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John the Baptist is a figure in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, and is considered a prophet in the Qur'an. He is also briefly mentioned in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, so was apparently a real person. 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.
In the Bible
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
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.
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. 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
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 Capite in Rome. This one has the endorsement of Pope Benedict XVI.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- Amiens Cathedral has one that it got from Wallon de Sarton. He picked his up in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.
- Romanian monks at Mount Athos say they have one, too.
- Another one was found on a small island in the Black Sea off Bulgaria.
- There is one in Germany without the meat.
With Revelation 13:1, John may have been the beast John of Patmos described:
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
“”And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.
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.
Better than Jesus?
- St. John's wort — an herb that was named after him
- Specifically Herod Antipas, and not the Herod the Great of the nativity
- Apparently Herod "feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly." (Mark 6:20)
- Up to half his kingdom, according to Mark 6:23.
- See Mark 6:14-29 for the story.
- The Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 5, paragraph 2.
- General Audience, Aug. 29, 2012
- Secrets of the Knights Templar: The Knights of John the Baptist, Ancient Origins
- Historical Notes: Is the head of Christ buried in Scotland?, Keith Laidler, The Independent, 15 Aug 1998
- Are these the bones of John the Baptist?, CNN, Aug. 30 2010.
- "Was John the Baptist Elijah?", Skeptic's Annotated Bible.