St John the Baptist1, one of the few historical characters to be afforded a personality before he was born, is considered one of the most important figures in Christianity. John was a blood relation of Jesus Christ and they were about the same age. He had a controversial life during which he disregarded the hierarchy of the time while paving the way for Jesus. The shocking story of his death at the instigation of a dancing girl has been immortalised in the art world. Parents the world over have their children ceremonially baptised two thousand years after John popularised the ritual.
In the time of Herod Antipas, King of Judea, Zachary, a priest, and his wife Elizabeth were childless. This caused them much distress as they had prayed for a family. When Elizabeth was considered too old to become pregnant, Zachary was visited by an angel with news which would greatly affect them; they would have a son whom they would name John.
And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.
– Luke 1:16-17
Zachary was afraid and struggled to believe what the angel was saying, so as a punishment he was temporarily struck dumb. Elizabeth conceived a baby 'filled with the Holy Ghost' and kept her secret safe for five months.
Mary and Elizabeth
Elizabeth was related2 to Mary, the future mother of Jesus Christ. After Mary's Annunciation (Luke 1: 26) that she would bear the son of God and that her older relative Elizabeth would also give birth to the Precursor, she set out to visit her relative to see if the prediction had any truth. The journey was long and arduous but when Mary arrived, she saw Elizabeth from a distance and called out to her. When she turned, Mary could see that Elizabeth was heavily pregnant. Elizabeth welcomed Mary, saying:
When I heard your greeting, the child in my womb jumped for joy.
– Luke 1:44
When Elizabeth had carried her baby to full term, she went into labour and gave birth to a son. As was the custom in their faith, the baby was circumcised. However, when the priest called the baby Zachary after his father, Elizabeth corrected him and said the child should be called Jehohanan (Hebrew for John). Confirmation was obtained in writing from Zachary, as he still could not speak. However, as soon as the child was named, Zachary's affliction was removed and he spoke, praising God. The people who had gathered for the ceremony wondered:
What an one, do you think, shall this child be? For the hand of the Lord was with him.
– Luke 1:66
When John grew to manhood he lived as an anchorite3 in a wilderness of his own making. He detached himself from society, living in isolation so that he would not be distracted from his religious meditations.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar...the word of the Lord was made unto John, the son of Zachary, in the desert. And he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching.
– Luke 3:1-3
We don't know how old John was when he began his ministry, because we don't know the exact year of his birth. However, we do know that the reign of Tiberius Caesar began in 14 AD, so we can assume John's ministry began around 29 AD.
John the Baptist
John was a powerful orator and he attracted a huge following of people. He was described as wearing clothes 'of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his loins'. His meagre food was said to consist of locusts and wild honey. John preached that wealthy men should give their second coat to someone who hadn't got one, and people who had plenty of food should give it away to the starving. Word spread about the new prophet and some hailed him the Messiah, but John insisted: there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose.
Those who were willing to be swayed by John's teachings were baptised by him in the river Jordan. He became so famous that he was known as 'John the Baptist' while he lived; even King Herod Antipas knew him by this name. When questioned about his qualification to anoint people, John replied that he was 'divinely sent to baptise with water' to cleanse the body. Jesus travelled from Galilee to be baptised by John. The Baptist at first refused to perform the rite, saying: I ought to be baptised by thee, and comest thou to me? (Matthew 3:14) but because Jesus willingly yielded himself to the ceremony it gave credence to John's ministry.
The Baptism of Christ is known as the First Luminous Mystery in the Roman Catholic faith. When Jesus had been baptised, a voice came from Heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17). The significance of the Baptism of Christ is that all three forms of the Trinity appeared at the same time: as well as Jesus being there on Earth, and the voice of God the Father being heard, the Holy Spirit is reported in Matthew 3 to have appeared in the form of a dove. Thereafter, John sent his followers to become disciples of Jesus, stating: behold the Lamb of God (John: 1:36), and:
He that has the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears Him, rejoices with joy because of the bridegroom's voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.
– John 3:29-30
John the Baptist had fulfilled his destiny; many had heard his voice and heeded his advice. He had met Jesus and baptised Him. He had heard the voice of God. What happened to his own earthly life now mattered not to him.
The Baptist and Herod Antipas
John not only told people how to live their lives, he insulted those whom he thought were hypocrites, adulterers and law-breakers. King Herod Antipas had divorced his first wife Queen Phasaelis so that he could marry Herodias, the ex-wife of his half-brother. John spoke out about Herod's domestic arrangements, and accused the new queen of being a whore, an adulteress and a harlot, which infuriated her. Spurred on by his wife, Herod had John arrested and imprisoned. The king had reason to fear John because he had a lot of followers, but John wouldn't be silenced. He continued to shout his tirades through the walls of his prison and still the multitudes gathered to listen. Herod was in an uncomfortable position: on the one hand he had to appease his wife and shut John up, on the other he had to keep the peace, which meant not doing anything detrimental to the people's prophet. For a while he ignored the situation, pretending not to hear John's constant verbal outpourings and spoiling his wife in other ways to distract her.
There's an old saying 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned' and Queen Herodias was an early example. No doubt used to getting her own way, her pride took a battering when her husband stalled in what was his obvious duty: that of ordering the execution of her tormentor John the Baptist. He continued to rant in his cell for all the world to hear, while the king was too frightened of the reaction of the people to consider doing away with the problem. Some subterfuge was called for, and the queen bided her time.
Queen Herodias had a daughter, Salomé, from her first marriage, who was born around 14 AD. At the time of John the Baptist's imprisonment Salomé would have been in her late teens. The queen set about teaching her daughter a seductive striptease dance4, to be performed at the king's next birthday celebration. In front of assembled guests, Salomé performed her dance and the king was so pleased that he declared in front of everyone that she could have any reward she wished for, even up to half his kingdom's worth. Salomé sought the advice of her mother, who instructed her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. The king was cornered, he couldn't break his promise and refuse the girl's request, so he ordered John's execution. The Baptist's severed head was presented to Salomé on a platter, she in turn gave it to her victorious mother. The Precursor's body was collected by his followers, and Jesus was informed of his death. John's mortal remains were entombed at Sebaste (the ancient capital of Samaria). The tomb no longer contains any part of him but it is still visited by pilgrims, and miracles have been recorded there.
Veneration of St John the Baptist
St John the Baptist has two feast days in the Roman Catholic religion: 24 June (the Nativity) and 29 August (the Beheading). John the Baptist is also venerated in many religions around the world, for example he is known as Prophet Yahya in Islam. He is the Patron Saint of the Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem (the Knights of Malta) and of towns such as Penzance in Cornwall, UK, as well as lots of cities including Florence, Genoa and Turin in Italy. He is also Patron Saint of the province of Newfoundland in Canada and many countries including Jordan, Malta and Puerto Rico. The Coptic Christian Orthodox Church display John's bones as relics and there is a head, claimed to belong to John, on exhibit at the Church of San Silvestro in Capite, Rome (although another head is also on show at the Residenz Museum in Munich, Germany).
St John the Baptist in the Arts and on Film
The life and death of St John the Baptist has been the inspiration for many celebrated artists including Guido Reni, Francesco Trevisani, Tiziano Vecellio and Rogier van der Weyden.
Hollywood epics featuring John the Baptist include The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), when John was played by Charlton Heston. The 1977 television two-parter Jesus of Nazareth featured English actor Michael York as John, Robert Powell as Jesus and a stellar supporting cast of Hollywood elite in other roles, such as Christopher Plummer as Herod Antipas, Ernest Borgnine as the Centurion at the crucifixion, Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene and Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary.
Salomé in the Arts and on Film
There is still some debate as to whether Salomé was a willing seductress or just an innocent pawn in her mother's plot to silence John the Baptist permanently. Whatever she was in reality, her name has become synonymous with seduction. The story of the dancing girl and her gruesome reward has inspired artists through the ages:
- Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist by Tiziano Vecellio (1488 – 1576)
- Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)
- Salomé and the Apparition of the Baptist's Head, by Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898)
Richard Strauss composed an opera, and Oscar Wilde wrote a play, both entitled Salomé. Actresses who have played the part of Salomé on the big screen include Rita Hayworth, Kate O'Mara, Isabel Mestres, Paola Tedesco, Vera Drudi, Brigid Bazlen and Florence Lawrence.
John the Baptist's Cave?
John the Baptist, who was just a figure from the Gospels, now comes to life.
– British archaeologist Shimon Gibson, leader of the excavation team
Archaeologists have discovered a cave at the Kibbutz Tzuba near Jerusalem in Israel, where they believe John the Baptist may have performed some of his baptisms and foot-washing rituals. The walls of the cave have images etched on them, which team leader Gibson thinks tells the story of John the Baptist's life. There is a carving of a man with an unruly head of hair and a dotted tunic, he has one raised hand and in the other he is holding a staff. Another clue that this cave was utilised by John, and his followers after his execution, is a rough carving of a man's severed head. The images could have been added later by monks from the Byzantine era, in commemoration of John's life.