This paper was written by my student Jeff Poplin, UNC-Charlotte, class of 2001. It offers a nice survey of the traditions on John the Baptizer that developed after the New Testament.
An overwhelming majority of past and present texts focusing on John the Baptist almost exclusively examine the first four gospels of the New Testament but lack in their evaluation of both independent and secondary source material relating to him. The intended purpose of this paper is to first provide several extra-biblical sources and then to engage in critical correlation and evaluation between each in hopes of revealing what appear to be incontestable facts about John the Baptist and his life. I will be presenting here a collection of early Jewish-Christian gospels, records from historians, various traditions, texts, and other additional writings in as best a chronological order as is possible. As such, I am going to assume the reader has a basic understanding of John as presented in the four narrative gospel traditions (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) of the New Testament and sayings gospel Q.
At the beginning of this quest stands the famous Jewish historian Joseph Ben Matthias, more commonly known by his adopted Roman name Flavius Josephus. Josephus was a Jew born in Jerusalem in 37 C.E. and lived until 100 C.E. As a devoted Jewish man, he became a Pharisee around the age of nineteen and served as a priest until about the age of twenty-six, at which point he became involved in the Jewish rebellion against the Romans. By the age of twenty-nine, Josephus had taken command, as general, of the Galilean forces, but would soon suffer defeat in 67 C.E. at the hands of Vespasian. Utilizing his quick wit, Josephus told Vespasian he would be emperor of Rome one day and it was this event which is generally held to have saved his life. He accompanied Vespasian’s son Titus and witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. From this point forward Josephus lived until his death in Rome and devoted himself to writing.
His works include The Jewish War (7 books), written in the 70’s while Vespasian was in power and hunting down the lineage of David and Antiquities of the Jews (20 books) written in the 90’s after Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian were dead. It is this second work which contains a reference John the Baptist. The one passage in Josephus in which John is mentioned is found in Antiquities18,5,2:
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 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 very greatly moved [or pleases] 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 any thing 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 would 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 Gods displeasure to him.1
In this brief account two points are clear: (1) the reason given for John’s execution and (2) the entire absence of any mention of a greater successor. Josephus is widely held to be an accurate reporter of the surrounding world of his time because many of the events occurred during his lifetime, or one generation earlier, and his writings are out of the realm of Christian theology, which seem to plague writings of later authors. With the exception of a very few exaggerations, Josephus provides his reader with an accurate and unbiased account of events during the first century C.E.
In 1945, near the small village of Nag Hammadi, Egypt, thirteen codices or volumes, containing fifty-two papyrus documents written in Coptic language were discovered. These texts are a collection of Gnostic writings where they had been buried since the forth century C.E. Found within this set of works was a sayings gospel entitled the Gospel of Thomas, comprised of 114 secret sayings Jesus spoke and recorded by Didymos Judas Thomas (Judas the “twin,” Aramaic thomas and Greek didymos means “twin”). The copy of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi is a Coptic translation of the original, which was probably written in Greek. Interestingly enough, 3 papyrus fragments of the Greek text of Thomas (POxy 1, 654, 655) were actually discovered some forty-five years earlier at the site of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt – an ancient Egyptian provincial capital located one hundred and twenty-five miles south of Cairo – but were unidentifiable until the Coptic copy was discovered.
The Gospel of Thomas is roughly dated from the middle to late first century C.E. and contains only one passage explicitly referring to John the Baptist and one which may contain an allusion to John. First, is a saying of Jesus praising John, similar to a Q saying (Luke 7:28), 46:1-2; followed by a saying in response to praise of Jesus by his disciples, 52:1-2:
Jesus said, “From Adam to John the Baptist, among those born of women, no one is so much greater than John the Baptist that his eyes should not be averted. But I have said that whoever among you becomes a child will recognize the <father’s>imperial rule and will become greater that John.”2
His disciples said to him, “Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel, and they all spoke of you.” He said to them, “You have disregarded the living one who is in your presence, and have spoken of the dead.”2
With only one explicit reference to John the Baptist, it is difficult to say the Gospel of Thomas presents any substantial portrayal of him or that there is any real interest in John. However, what can be said is Thomas presents scholars with another record of Jesus’ praise of John as being the greatest born among women.
Christian authors from the mid-second to the early fifth century refer to gospels that were used by early Christians who claimed to be deeply rooted in Judaism. No copies of these Jewish-Christian gospels exist today, not even fragments. Our few sources of information about the existence and contents of these gospels are the references to and quotations from them in the works of Christian authors such as Jerome, Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Epiphanius. Scholars have analyzed the various quotations, pieced together clues from all the sources, and have reached a consensus that there were three distinct Jewish-Christian gospels: (1) the Gospel of the Hebrews, (2) the Gospel of the Ebionites, and (3) the Gospel of the Nazoreans.
The Gospel of the Hebrews was used and quoted by Christian authors in the mid-second century, putting its date sometime in the early second century. Of the three Jewish-Christian gospels, this one is the most widely referenced with direct quotations preserved by five authors, while three more mention the Gospel of the Hebrews without quoting from it directly. Jerome (c. 345-420 C.E.), in his Commentary on Isaiah 4, preserves a quote from the Gospel of the Hebrews that describes Jesus’ baptismal experience but without mentioning John the Baptist:
And it came to pass when the Lord came up out of the water, the whole fount of the Holy Spirit descended upon him and rested on him and said to him, “My Son, in all the prophets was I waiting for you that you should come and I might rest in you. For you are my rest; you are my first-begotten Son who reigns forever.”3
The Gospel of the Ebionites was probably named for the group of Jewish followers of John the Baptist and later Jesus that flourished in the middle to late first century. A better term for the whole early movement would be Ebionite/Nazarene, for the early followers were called Nazarenes (“Branchites”) while later followers were called Ebionites. All of our quotations from the Gospel of the Ebionites come from Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315-403 C.E.) in his 375 C.E. work Heresies. Scholars indicate it was composed in the first half of the second century. Ireaeus (c. 140-200 C.E.) is probably the earliest witness to the Ebionites and in 175 C.E. remarks they are using their own gospel, similar to Matthew but without the virgin birth. Epiphanius preserves three passages which reference John the Baptist directly. First is a report of John’s ascetic lifestyle of ministry, Heresies 30.13:4-5:
It happened that John was baptizing; and Pharisees and all Jerusalem went out to him and were baptized. And John had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt about his waist. And his food was wild honey, which had the taste of manna, like a cake with oil.4
The next passage makes reference to John’s ministry of baptizing, Heresies30.13:6:
It happened in the days of Herod, king of Judaea, that John came baptizing a baptism of repentance in the river Jordan. It was said of him that he was of the tribe of Aaron the priest, a son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. And all went out to him.4
The third passage describes an expanded account of Jesus’ baptism by John, Heresies 30.13:7-8:
When the people were baptized, Jesus also came and was baptized by John. And as he went up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending and entering into him. And there was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased. Today I have begotten you.” And immediately a great light illuminated the place. When john saw this, he said to him, “Who are you, Lord?” And again the voice (came) from heaven to him, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” John fell down before him and said, “I beg you, Lord, you baptize me.” But he prevented him, saying, “Let it be, for thus it is fitting that everything should be fulfilled.”4
Hegesippus first referred to the Gospel of the Nazoreans in 180 C.E. and he reports that it was written in the Hebrew alphabet. It was based on Matthew; therefore the gospel had to have been written after Matthew and before 180 C.E. This means that it was probably written in the first half of the second century. Jerome records a verbal exchange between Jesus and his brothers regarding John the Baptist and Jesus’ need for baptism in Against Pelagius 3.2:
The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, “John the Baptist baptized for the remission of sins; let us go and be baptized by him.” But he said to them, “Wherein have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless what I have said it (itself) ignorance.”5
There exist inherent problems pertaining to the understanding of the Jewish-Christian gospels. Often later writers regard some of the ideas contained in these gospels as heretical and present them in a hostile manner. It resembles a “here is what they say but now let me tell you what the truth is” mentality. All of the quotations are fragmentary, some a line or two at best, but were it not for these citations, we would know little or nothing about the texts.
Continuing the search of early Christian literature for references to John the Baptist, we find another gospel written in the middle of the second century (c.150) C.E. The Infancy Gospel of James, traditionally called the Protoevangelium of James, claims to have been written by James the brother of Jesus shortly after the death of Herod in 4 B.C.E. The gospel is preserved in over one hundred Greek manuscripts and contains two consecutive passages near the end pertaining to John the Baptist. The first passage details how Elizabeth flees with John to escape Herod’s execution of all infants two years old and younger, 22:5-9:
As for Elizabeth, when she heard that they were looking for John, she took him and went up into the hill country. She kept searching for a place to hide him, but there was none to be had. Then she groaned and said out loud, “Mountain of God, please take in a mother with her child.” You see, Elizabeth was unable to keep on climbing because her nerve failed her. But suddenly the mountain was split open and let them in. This mountain allowed the light to shine through to her, since a messenger of the Lord was with them for protection.6
The next passage records the murder of Zechariah, in the temple, as a result of his nondisclosure of the whereabouts of his son John, 23:1-9:
Herod, though kept looking for John and sent his agents to Zechariah serving at the altar with this message for him: “Where have you hidden your son?” But he answered them, “I am a minister of God, attending to his temple. How should I know where my son is?” So the agents left and reported all this to Herod, who became angry and said, “Is his son going to rule over Israel?” And he sent his agents back with this message for him: “Tell me the truth. Where is your son? Don’t you know that I have your life in my power?” And the agents went and reported this message to him. Zechariah answered, “I am a martyr for God. Take my life. The Lord, though, will receive my spirit because you are shedding innocent blood at the entrance to the temple of the Lord. And so at daybreak Zechariah was murdered, but the people of Israel did not know that he had been murdered.6
John the Baptist is not emphasized greatly in the Infancy Gospel of James. Nothing is recorded of his birth or his role in God’s plan as a prophet before Jesus. The only information presented is John being hidden in the hill country of Judea as a child and his father being martyred for not revealing his location. If one only read this gospel, it would be very difficult to know who John was or why it was necessary to mention the events surrounding his parents. It would appear that the author of this gospel knew of the earlier canonical accounts of Matthew’s recording the murder of infants and Luke’s account of a parallel birth story of John to Zechariah and Elizabeth to that of Jesus and was providing an explanation of how John escaped the slaughter of infants. Therefore James could not have written the gospel since Matthew and Luke were written toward the end of the first century and James the brother of Jesus died in 62 C.E. One possible explanation for the usage of his name is due to the prominence he held as leader of the Jerusalem church after the death of his brother Jesus and as such was thought to bring validity to the gospel.
Having finished our discussion of the gospel material, we now turn our attention to other writings by historians, bishops, and early church fathers to uncover evidence of the life and activity of John the Baptist. These sources include the Pseudo-Clementines, works of Ephraem, Serapion, Sozomen, Rufinus, Marcellinus, traditions of the Mandeans, and the Golden Legend.
The Pseudo-Clementines are a group of writings claiming to be the work of Clement of Rome (the traditional successor of St. Peter as bishop of Rome). Among these writings are the so-called Recognitions and Homilies and recount Clement’s life story. Both writings originated in Greek and contain similarities that have led scholars to hypothesize that these two works independently used a common source (called B). The common source was written in Greek around 220 C.E. and is thought to preserve traditions that extend back to the first century. A few passages in these works mention John the Baptist and provide evidence that his disciples honored him after his death (possibly the earliest reference to the Mandeans – see below). Recognitions 1,53:5-54:1-3,8 records a discussion between Peter and Clement on the major sects or schools of Judaism:
For the people were divided into many beliefs that began in the days of John the Baptist. For as the Messiah was ready to be revealed for the abolition of sacrifices and in order to reveal and show forth baptism, the slanderer who was opposed recognized from predestination the point in time and created sects and divisions, so that if the former sin should receive renunciation and correction, a second vice would be able to obstruct redemption.
The first of these then are the ones called Sadducees, who arose in the days of John when they separated from the people as righteous ones and renounced the resurrection of the dead. They put forward their unbelieving doctrine speciously when they said, namely, “It is not right to worship and fear God in prospect of a reward for goodness.” In this doctrine, as I have said, Dositheus began and, after Dositheus, Simon who also started to create differences of opinions in the likeness of the former. Now the pure disciples of John separated themselves greatly from the people and spoke of their teacher as if he were concealed (or: said that their master was, as it were, concealed).7
The next passage has Peter reporting to Clement a discussion between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus, Recognitions 1,60:1-4, 63:1:
One of the disciples of John approached and boasted regarding John, “He is the Christ, and not Jesus, just as Jesus himself spoke concerning him, namely that he is greater than any prophet who had ever been. If he is thus greater than Moses, it is clear that he is also greater than Jesus for Jesus arose just as did Moses. Therefore, it is right that John, who is greater than these, is the Christ.” Simon the Canaanite testified against this one, “John was greater than the prophets who were begotten of women but not greater than the Son of Man. Hence, Jesus, in addition, is the Christ, while he was only a prophet. The matters of Jesus are as far removed when compared with the matters of John as is the one who is sent out and proceeds ahead from the one who sends him to run out before him and as is the one who performs the service of the law from the one who institutes the law.” Now he spoke these things, witnessed to related matters, and then was silent. Thus we the ignorant fishermen testified against the priests concerning God who alone is in the heavens; against the Sadducees concerning the resurrection of the dead; in truth against the Samaritans concerning Jerusalem, though we did not enter into their city but rather spoke publicly outside; against the scribes and the Pharisees concerning the kingdom of the heavens; against the disciples of John in order that they not be tripped up by him. Against all we said that Jesus is the eternal Christ.7
The last passage comes from Homilies 2,13:
There was one John, a day-baptist (one who baptizes every day), who was also, according to the method of combination, the forerunner of our Lord Jesus; and as the Lord had twelve apostles, bearing the number of the twelve months of the sun, so also he, John, had thirty chief men, fulfilling the monthly reckoning of the moon, in which number was a certain woman called Helena, that not even this might be without a dispensational significance. For a woman, being half a man, made up the imperfect number of the triacontad; as also in the case of the moon, whose revolution does not make the complete course of the month. But of these thirty, the first and the most esteemed by John was Simon…8
The Apocalypse of Paul is a work believed to have been written originally in Greek around the mid-third century in Egypt. It is a revelation introduced with Paul’s visions of paradise from 2 Corinthians 12 and then continues to relate the secrets of which Paul would not speak. Angels lead Paul through Heaven where he encounters Jesus, Mary, and the patriarchs. Among the patriarchs he meets is John the Baptist:
The revelation of the holy apostle Paul: the things which were revealed to him when he went up even to the third heaven and was caught up into Paradise and heard unspeakable words.”
As he was speaking to me, behold two others came up together and another was coming after them crying out to them: Wait for me, that I may come to see Paul the beloved of God; there will be deliverance for us if we see him while he is still in the body. I said to the angel: My lords, who are these? He said to me: This is Zacharias and John his son. I said to the angel: And the other who runs after them? He said: This is Abel whom Cain killed. They greeted me and said to me: Blessed are you, Paul, you who are righteous in all your works. John said: I am he whose head they took off in prison for the sake of a woman who danced at a feast.9
Ephraem the Syrian (c. 306-373 C.E.) is perhaps the foremost writer in Christianity’s Syriac tradition. He was born in Nisibis, under Roman rule, and spent his early life there teaching and writing hymns. Constantine rose to power during Ephraem’s lifetime making it a good situation for Christian writers to produce their works without fear of persecution. During Ephraem’s lifetime and several decades thereafter, his method of biblical interpretation was the sole standard among Syriac writers. One set of hymns in particular, the Hymns on the Nativity, is of interest for the purposes of this paper. It is comprised mostly of hymns sung by Mary to her son Jesus. Ephraem probably composed the collection of hymns for use at the feast of Christ’s birth, celebrated in his time on January 6th, which was later brought into conformity with the Roman tradition of December 25th by the Syriac church. According to Ephraem, the conception of John the Baptist occurred in a dark month and of Jesus in a light month (autumnal equinox the nights are longer, whereas vernal equinox days are longer), Hymns on the Nativity 27:2-3, 18:
2″Yodh” stands at the beginning of Your name (Jesus)
It stands at the tenth in the month of April
On the tenth You entered the womb.
Your conception was in a symbol of the perfect number
3 The number ten is complete;
on the tenth of April You entered the womb.
The number six is also perfect;
on the sixth of January Your birth gave joy to the six directions.
18 The conception of John took place
in October in which darkness dwells.
Your conception took place in
April when the light rules over darkness and subdues it.10
An Egyptian Bishop by the name Serapion wrote The Life of John the Baptist in 390 C.E. Little is known about his life and the only reference to this work comes from Hugh J. Schonfield as an appendix in his The Lost Book of the Nativity of John. However, Schonfield does not reproduce the complete text, only the infancy and childhood section:
With the assistance of God and His divine guidance, we begin to write of the holy Man John the Baptist, son of Zacharias: may his intercession be with us Amen! There was an aged priest-Levite from the tribe of Judah, whose name was Zacharias. He was a prophet who rose among the children of Israel in the days of Herod, King of Judaea. He had a God-loving wife, called Elizabeth, and she was from the daughters of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi. She was barren and had no children, and she and her husband were advanced in years. They were both righteous and pious people, guiding their steps by all the commandments and ordinances of God. And Zacharias was officiating constantly in the Temple of the Lord. When it fell to him, during the turn of his division, to burn incense to the Lord, he entered the Temple according to his habit, at the time of the burning of the incense, and the angel of the Lord appeared to him immediately, standing on the right of the altar. When Zacharias saw him he was frightened and startled. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, but rather rejoice, O Zacharias! God has heard your prayer, and your wife Elizabeth shall conceive and bear you a son, who shall be called John; you shall have joy and delight, and many shall rejoice over his birth. He shall be great before the Lord, and he shall not drink any wine or strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in the womb of his mother, and shall reconcile many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He shall go before Him in the spirit and with the power of Elijah, in order to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for Him.”
Zacharias was astonished at these words, and doubt overtook him, because no child had been born to him. He did not remember Abraham, the head of the Patriarchs, to whom God gave Isaac, after he had reached the age of a hundred years, nor his wife Sarah who was also barren like his own wife. Zacharias said, therefore, to the angel: “How can this happen to me while I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?” And the angel answered and said to him: “I am the angel Gabriel. I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this news. And from now you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when this takes place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in due course.” And he disappeared from sight. Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zacharias, wondering at his remaining so long in the Temple. When he came out he was unable to speak to the people, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the Temple, and he kept making signs to them. And as soon as his term of service was finished, he returned home. And Elizabeth got information of the affair (from God).
In those days Elizabeth conceived, and lived in seclusion till the fifth month, because she felt somewhat ashamed. She feared to appear in her old age while pregnant and milk dripping from her breasts. She lived in a secluded room of her own house, and Zacharias also lived likewise. Between them stood a locked door, and they did not speak at all to any one in all those days.
When she reached her sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, from the house of David; and the name of the virgin was Mary. When the angel came into her presence he said to her:
“Rejoice, O Mary, because you have been favored with a grace from God. You shall be with child and shall give birth to a son, who shall be called Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called ‘Son of the Most High.'” And Mary said to the angel: “How can this happen to me while I have not known any man?” And the angel said to her: “The Holy Spirit shall descend upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you, because the child that is born of you is holy and shall be called ‘Son of God,’ and lo Elizabeth who is related to you is also expecting a child in her old age, and it is now the sixth month with her who is called barren, because with God there is nothing impossible.” And she had no doubt on the matter but said to the head of the angels: “I am the servant of the Lord, let it be with me as you have said.” He then greeted her and disappeared.
Mary was astonished at the fact that Elizabeth was expecting a child, and kept saying in her heart: “Thy acts are wonderful and great, O God Omnipotent, because Thou hast given descendants to an old and barren woman. I shall not cease walking until I have met her and beheld the wonderful miracle which God has performed in our times: a virgin giving birth to a child, and a barren woman suckling.”
In those days she rose up in haste and went into the hill-country to the town of Judah, and she entered the house of Zacharias, and greeted Elizabeth. The latter went to her with great joy and delight, and greeted her, saying: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
The holy and pious virgin embraced then the true turtle-dove, and the Word baptized John while still in the womb of his mother. And David appeared in the middle and said: “Mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” And immediately after John moved in the womb, as if wishing to come out and greet his master. After they had finished their mutual greetings, the Virgin stayed with Elizabeth three months, until the latter’s time was near, and then returned to her home. When the holy Elizabeth gave birth there was great joy and delight in her house, and after eight days they went to circumcise him, and wished to call him Zacharias. His mother, however, said: “No, call him John.” And they said to her: “You have no relation of that name.” And she said to them: “Ask his father about his name.” And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote thus: “His name is John.” When he had written this he recovered the use of his tongue forthwith, and he glorified God who had granted him this great mercy, and uttered prophecies concerning his son John the Baptist, and was cognisant of the gift that he had received from God.
John grew up in a beautiful childhood and sucked his mother two years. The grace of God was on his face, and he grew up fortified by the Spirit. When Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, behold magians came from the East saying: “Where is he that is born the King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the East and are come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard these words he was troubled by what he had heard from the magians that (that child) was the King of the Jews, and he immediately desired to kill Him.
Then the angel of the Lord appeared forthwith to Joseph and said to him: “Arise and take the child and his mother and flee into the land of Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word.” Then Herod sought the Master in order to destroy him, but he did not find Him, and he began to kill all the children of Bethlehem. And Elizabeth feared that her son John might be killed like them, and she took him immediately to Zacharias in the Temple, and she said to him: “My lord, let us go with our son John to some other countries, in order to save him from Herod the unbeliever, who is murdering children because of Jesus the Christ. Mary and Joseph have already gone to the land of Egypt. Get up quickly that they may not kill our son, and change our joy into grief.” And Zacharias answered and said to her: “I must not leave the service of the Temple of the Lord and go to a foreign land the inhabitants of which worship idols.” And she said to him: “What should I do in order to save my infant son?” And the old man answered and said to her: “Arise and go to the wilderness of ‘Ain Karim, and by the will of God you will be able to save your son. If they seek after him, they will shed my blood instead of his.”
How great was the amount of grief that occurred at that time when they separated from each other! The holy Zacharias took the child to his bosom, blessed him, kissed him and said: “Woe is me, O my son John, O glory of my old age! They have impeded me from having any access to your face which is full of grace.” He then took him and went into the Temple, and blessed him, saying: “May God protect you in your journey.” Immediately after, Gabriel, the head of the angels, came down to him from heaven holding a raiment and a leathern girdle, and said to him: “O Zacharias, take these and put them on your son. God sent them to him from heaven. This raiment is that of Elijah, and this girdle that of Elisha.” And the holy Zacharias took them from the angel, prayed over them and gave them to his son, and fastened on him the raiment which was of camel’s hair with the leather girdle. He then brought him back to his mother and said to her: “Take him and bring him into the desert, because the hand of the Lord is with him. I have learnt from God that he will stay in the desert till the day of his showing unto Israel.”
The blessed Elizabeth took the child while weeping, and Zacharias also was weeping, and the latter said: “I know that I shall not see you again in the flesh. Go in peace. May God guide you.” Elizabeth walked then away with her son, and went into the wilderness of ‘Ain Karim, and stayed there with him.
It happened that when King Herod sent troops to Jerusalem to kill its children, they came and began to kill children till the evening. That day was the seventh of September. When they began to return to their king, behold, Satan came to them and said: “How did you leave the son of Zacharias without killing him? He is hidden with his father in the Temple. Do not spare him, but kill him in order that the king may not wax angry with you. Go for him, and if you do not find the son, kill the father in his place.” The troops did what Satan taught them, and went to the Temple early in the morning, and found Zacharias standing and serving the Lord, and they said to him: “Where is thy son whom thou has hidden from us here?” And he answered them: “I have no child here.” They said to him: “You have a child whom you have hidden from the king.” And he answered and said: “O cruel ones, whose king drinks blood like a lioness, how long will you shed the blood of innocent people?” They said to him: “Bring out your child so that we may kill him; if not, we shall kill you in this place.” And the prophet answered and said: “As to my son, he has gone with his mother to the wilderness, and I do not know his whereabouts.”
Now when Zacharias had said good-bye to Elizabeth and his son John, he had blessed him and made him a priest, and afterwards delivered him to his mother, who said to him: “Pray over me, O my holy father, so that God may render my path in the wilderness easy.” And he said to her: “May He who made us beget our child in our old age, direct your path.” Then she took the child and went into the wilderness in which no soul lived. “O blessed Elizabeth, your story is truly wonderful and praiseworthy. You did not ask for an adult to accompany you, and you knew neither the way nor a hiding place. You did not care to provide food nor a little drinking water for the child. You did not say to his father Zacharias: ‘To whom are you sending me in the wilderness?’ At that time there was neither a monastery in the desert nor a congregation of monks so that you may say: ‘I shall go and stay with them with my son.’
In the time when the soldiers of Herod came to Zacharias and asked, saying: “Where is your infant son, the child of your old age?’ you did not deny the fact and say: ‘I have no knowledge of such a child,’ but you simply answered: ‘His mother took him into the desert.’ And when Zacharias uttered these words to the soldiers concerning his son, they killed him inside the Temple, and the priests shrouded his body and placed it near that of his father Berechiah in a hidden cemetery, from fear of the wicked (king); and his blood boiled on the earth for fifty years, until Titus son of Vespasian, the Emperor of the Romans, came and destroyed Jerusalem and killed the Jewish priests for the blood of Zacharias, as the Lord ordered him.
As to the blessed John, he wandered in the desert with his mother, and God prepared for him locusts and wild honey as food, in accordance with what his mother was told about him not to let any unclean food enter his mouth. After five years the pious and blessed old mother Elizabeth passed away, and the holy John sat weeping over her, as he did not know how to shroud her and bury her, because on the day of her death he was only seven years and six months old. And Herod also died the same day as the blessed Elizabeth.
The Lord Jesus Christ, who with His eyes sees heaven and earth, saw His kinsman John sitting and weeping near his mother, and He also began to weep for a long time, without any one knowing the cause of His weeping. When the mother of Jesus saw Him weeping, she said to Him: “Why are you weeping? Did the old man Joseph or any other one chide you?” And the mouth that was full of life answered: “No, O my mother; the real reason is that your kinswoman, the old Elizabeth, has left my beloved John an orphan. He is now weeping over her body, which is lying in the mountain.”
When the Virgin heard this she began to weep over her kinswoman, and Jesus said to her: “Do not weep, O my virgin mother, you will see her in this very hour.” And while He was still speaking with His mother, behold a luminous cloud came down and placed itself between them. And Jesus said: “Call Salome and let us take her with us.” And they mounted the cloud, which flew with them to the wilderness of ‘Ain Karim and to the spot where lay the body of the blessed Elizabeth, and where the holy John was sitting.
The Savior said then to the cloud: “Leave us here at this side of the spot.” And it immediately went, reached that spot, and departed. Its noise, however, reached the ears of John, who, seized with fear, left the body of his mother. A voice reached him immediately and said to him: “Do not be afraid, O John. I am Jesus Christ, your master. I am your kinsman Jesus, and I came to you with my beloved mother in order to attend to the business of the burial of the blessed Elizabeth, your happy mother, because she is my mother’s kinswoman.” When the blessed and holy John heard this, he turned back, and Christ the Lord and His virgin mother embraced him. Then the Savior said to His virgin mother: “Arise, you and Salome, and wash the body.” And they washed the body of the blessed Elizabeth in the spring from which she used to draw water for herself and her son. Then the holy Mary got hold of the blessed (John) and wept over him, and cursed Herod on account of the numerous crimes which he had committed. Then Michael and Gabriel came down from heaven and dug a grave; and the Savior said to them: “Go and bring the soul of Zacharias, and the soul of the priest Simeon, in order that they may sing while you bury the body.” And Michael brought immediately the souls of Zacharias and Simeon, who shrouded the body of Elizabeth and sang for a long time over it.
And the mother of Jesus and Salome wept, and the two priests made the sign of the cross on the body and prayed over it three times before they laid it to rest in the grave; then they buried it, and sealed the grave with the sign of a cross, and went back to their own places in peace. And Jesus Christ and His mother stayed near the blessed and the holy John seven days, and condoled with him at the death of him mother, and taught him how to live in the desert. And the day of the death of the blessed Elizabeth was the 15th of February.
Then Jesus Christ said to His mother: “Let us now go to the place where I may proceed with my work.” The Virgin Mary wept immediately over the loneliness of John, who was very young, and said: “We will take him with us, since he is an orphan without any one.” But Jesus said to her: “This is not the will of My Father who is in the heavens. He shall remain in the wilderness till the day of his showing unto Israel. Instead of a desert full of wild beasts, he will walk in a desert full of angels and prophets, as if they were multitudes of people. Here is also Gabriel, the head of the angels, whom I have appointed to protect him and to grant him power from heaven. Further, I shall render the water of this spring of water as sweet and delicious to him as the milk he sucked from his mother. Who took care of him in his childhood? Is it not I, O my mother, who love him more than all the world? Zacharias also loved him, and I have ordered him to come to him and inquire after him, because although his body is buried in the earth, his soul is alive.
“As to Elizabeth his mother, she will constantly visit him and comfort him, as if she was not dead at all. Blessed is she, O my mother, because she bore my beloved. Her mouth will never suffer putrefaction, because she kissed your pure lips; and her tongue will not be dismembered in the earth, because she prophesied concerning you and said: “Happy is she who believed that the promise that she received from the Lord would be fulfilled; nor will her womb decay in the earth, because her body, like her soul, shall suffer no putrefaction. And my beloved John will last for ever, and he will see us and be comforted.”
These words the Christ our Lord spoke to His mother, while John was in the desert. And they mounted the cloud, and John looked at them and wept, and Mary wept also bitterly over him, saying: “Woe is me, O John, because you are alone in the desert without anyone. Where is Zacharias, your father, and where is Elizabeth, your mother? Let them come and weep with me today.”
And Jesus Christ said to her: “Do not weep over this child, O my mother. I shall not forget him.” And while He was uttering these words, behold the clouds lifted them up and brought them to Nazareth. And He fulfilled there everything pertaining to humanity except sin.
And John dwelt in the desert, and God and His angels were with him. He lived in great asceticism and devotion. His only food was grass and wild honey. He prayed constantly, fasted much, and was in expectation of the salvation of Israel.11
Rufinus of Aquileia (c. 345-411 C.E.) was born to noble and wealthy parents and received his education in Rome where he became close friends with Jerome. Around the year 402 C.E., Aquileia came under threat of the Goths, and Chromatius, bishop of Aquileia during that time, asked Rufinus to translate Eusebius’ (c. 265-340 C.E.) Church History (c. 325 C.E.) to help divert the people’s mind from their danger. Rufinus agreed and published an abridged translation of the original in 402 C.E. adding his own continuation bringing the history up to the year 395 C.E. In book 11, chapter 28, we find a reference to the despoiled tomb of John the Baptist:
In Julian the Apostate’s time (c. 361-363 C.E.) the ferocity of the pagans sprang forth in all its savagery, as though the reins had gone slack. Thus it happened that in Sebaste, a city of Palestine, they frenziedly attacked the tomb of John the Baptist with murderous hands and set about scattering the bones, gathering them again, burning them, mixing the holy ashes with dust, and scattering them throughout the fields and countryside. But by God’s providence it happened that some men from Jerusalem, from the monastery of Philip, the man of God, arrived there at the same time in order to pray. When they saw the enormity being perpetrated by human hands at the service of bestial spirits, they mixed with those gathering the bones for burning, since they considered dying preferable to being polluted by such a sin, carefully and reverently collected them, as far as they could in the circumstances, then slipped away from the others, to their amazement or fury, and brought the sacred relics to the pious father Philip. He in turn, thinking it beyond him to guard such a treasure by his own vigilance, sent the relics of this spotless victim to Athanasius, then supreme pontiff, in the care of his deacon Julian, who later became bishop of Parentium. Athanasius received them and closed them up within a hollowed-out place in the sacristy wall in the presence of a few witnesses, preserving them in prophetic spirit for the benefit of the next generation, so that now that the remnants of idolatry had been thrown down flat, golden roofs might rise for them on temples once unholy.12
Interestingly, members of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey claim to have John the Baptist’s arm relic encased in gold within a 12th century relic box inside the Palace.
Like Rufinus, Sozomen (c. 375-447 C.E.), a Byzantine church historian, uses the earlier work of Eusebius as a basis for his own. In 443 C.E., Sozomen published an abridgment of Ecclesiastical History covering the period from 323 to 439 C.E. In chapter twenty-one of his work, he relates that in 392 C.E. the head of John the Baptist was discovered:
About this period, the head of John the Baptist, which Herodias had asked of Herod the tetrarch, was removed to Constantinople. It is said that it was discovered by some monks of the Macedonian persuasion, who originally dwelt at Constantinople, and afterwards fixed their abode in Cilicia. Mardonius, the first eunuch of the palace, made known this discovery at court, during the preceding reign; and Valens commanded that the relic should be removed to Constantinople. The officers appointed to convey it thither, placed it in a public chariot, and proceeded with it as far as Pantichium, a district in the territory of Chalcedonia. Here the mules of the chariot suddenly stopped; and neither the application of the lash, nor any of the other means that were devised, could induce them to advance further. So extraordinary an event was considered by all, and even by the emperor himself, to be of God; and the holy head was therefore deposited at Cosila, a village in the neighborhood, which belonged to Mardonius. Soon after, the emperor Theodosius, impelled by an impulse from God, or from the prophet, repaired the village. He determined upon removing the remains of the Baptist, and it is said met with no opposition, except from a holy virgin, who had been intrusted with the care of the relic. He laid aside all authority and force, and after many entreaties, extorted a reluctant consent from her to remove the head; for she bore in mind what had occurred at the period when Valens commanded its removal. The emperor placed it, with the box in which it was encased, in his purple robe, and conveyed it to a place called Hebdoma, in the suburbs of Constantinople, where he erected a spacious and magnificent church. The woman who had been appointed to the charge of the relic, could not be persuaded by the emperor to renounce her religious sentiments, although he had recourse to entreaty and promises; for she was, it appears, a Macedonian. A presbyter of the same sect, named Vincent, who also took charge of the remains of the prophet, and performed the sacerdotal functions over it, followed the religious opinions of the emperor, and entered into communion with the Catholic Church.13
Marcellinus (c. ?-534 C.E.) was one of the lessor literary figures of late antiquity and little is known about his life. It appears from our sources that under Justin I (c. 518-527 C.E.) Marcellinus was chancellor to Justinian. The only surviving work of Marcellinus is his chronicle (Annales) that continues the work of Jerome from 379 to 518 C.E., later updated to 534 C.E. He composed it in Constantinople and closely follows the language and style utilized by Jerome. Marcellinus’ entry for 1 September 452 to 31 August 453 records:
John, the herald of the Lord and his baptizer, revealed his head, which at an unspeakably horrible demand, Herodias had once accepted after it had been cut from his shoulders and placed on a dish, and buried far from his headless body; he revealed his head to two eastern monks entering Jerusalem to celebrate the resurrection of Christ the Lord, so that when they reached the place where the former king Herod lived they were advised to search around and dig the ground up faithfully. So while they were journeying back to their own places, carrying in their rough saddle-bag the head they had discovered by faith, a certain potter from the city of Emesa, fleeing from the poverty which threatened him daily, showed himself to them as a companion. While, in ignorance, he was carrying the sack entrusted to him with the sacred head, he was admonished in the night by him whose head he was carrying, and fleeing both his companions he made off. He entered the city of Emesa immediately with his holy and light burden, and as long as he lived there he venerated the head of Christ’s herald. At his death, he handed it over in a jar to his sister, put away and sealed just as it was. Next a certain Eustochius, who was secretly a priest of the Arian faith, unworthily obtained this great treasure and dispensed to the rabble, as if it were purely his own, the grace of which Christ the Lord bestows on his inconstant people through John the Baptist. When his wickedness was detected he was driven out of the city of Emesa. Afterwards this cave, in which the head of the most blessed John was set in an urn and reburied underground, became the abode of certain monks. Finally, while the priest and head of the monastery, Marcellus, was living a faultless life in that cave, blessed John, the herald of Christ, revealed himself and his head to Marcellus and showed that it was buried here, conspicuous by its many miracles. It is agreed therefore that this venerable head was found by the foresaid priest Marcellus while Uranius was bishop of the city mentioned. This was on the twenty-forth day of February in the consulship of Vincomalus and Opilio, in the middle of Lent, and the ruling emperors were in fact Valentinian and Marcian.14
Slavonic Josephus, according to Dr. Robert Eisler, was translated from Greek into Slavonic in Lithuania between 1250 and 1260 C.E. by a Judaizing heretic priest of the Russian Church, who obtained copies of Josephus’s first rough Greek version of the original Aramaic before it was rewritten in the form in which it has come down to us. It contains deviations from and additions to the Greek text of Jewish War – most notably passages relating to John the Baptist; “John the Forerunner” and “The Wild Man (John), Herod Philip’s Dream and the Second Marriage of Herodias”:
Now at that time there walked among the Jews a man in wondrous garb, for he had put animals’ hair upon his body wherever it was not covered by his (own) hair; and in countenance he was like a savage. He came to the Jews and summoned them to freedom, saying: “God hath sent me to show you the way of the Law, whereby ye may free yourselves from many masters; and there shall be no mortal ruling over you, but only the Highest who hath sent me.” And when the people heard that, they were glad. And he did nothing else to them, save that he dipped them into the stream of the Jordan and let (them) go, admonishing them to desist from evil works; (for) so would they be given a king who would set them free and subject all (the) insubordinate, but he himself would be subject to no one – (he) of whom we speak. Some mocked, but others put faith (in him). And when he was brought to Archelaus and the doctors of the Law had assembled, they asked him who he was and where he had been until then. And he answered and spake: “I am a man had hither the spirit of God hath called me, and I live on the cane and roots and fruits of the tree.” But when they threatened to torture him if he did not desist from these words and deeds, he spake nevertheless; “It is meet rather for you to desist from your shameful works and to submit to the Lord your God.” And Simon of Essene extraction, a scribe, arose in wrath and spake: “We read the divine book every day; but thou now come forth from the wool like a wild beast, dost thou dare to teach us and to seduce the multitudes with thy cursed speeches? And he pushed (upon him) to rend his body. But he spake in reproach to them: “I will not disclose to you the secret that is among you because ye desired it not. Therefore have unspeakable misfortune come upon you and through your own doing.” And after he had thus spoken, he went forth to the other side of the Jordan; and since no man durst hinder him, he did what (he had done) before.15
Philip, during his government, saw a dream, to wit that an eagle plucked out both his eyes; and he called all his wise men together. When some explained the dream in this manner and other in that, there came to him suddenly, without being called, that man of whom we have previously written, that he went about in animals’ hair and cleansed the people in the waters of the Jordan. And he spake: “Hear the word of the Lord – the dream that thou hast seen. The eagle is thy venality, for that bird is violent and rapacious. And this sin will take away thine eyes, which are thy dominion and they wife.” And when he had thus spoken, Philip expired before evening, and his dominion was given to Agrippa. And his wife [Herodias] was taken by Herod his brother. Because of her all law-abiding people abhorred him, but durst not accuse (him) to his face. But only this man, whom we called the savage, came to him in wrath and spake: “Forasmuch as thou hast taken thy brother’s wife, thou transgressor of the law, even as thy brother has died a merciless death, so wilt thou too be cut off by the heavenly sickle. For the divine decree will not be silenced, but will destroy thee through evil afflictions in other lands; because thou dost not raise up seed unto thy brother, but gratifiest (thy) fleshy lusts and committest adultery, seeing that he has left four children.” But Herod, when he heard (that), was wroth and commanded that they should beat him and drive him out. But he incessantly accused Herod, wherever he found him, until he (Herod) grew furious, and gave orders to slay him. Now his nature was marvelous and his ways not human. For even as a fleshless spirit, so lived he. His mouth knew no bread, nor even at the Passover feast did he taste of unleavened bread, saying: “In remembrance of God, who redeemed the people from bondage, is (this) given to eat, and for the flight (only), since the journey was in haste.” But wine and strong drink he would not so much as allow to be brought nigh him; and every beast he abhorred (for food); and every injustice he exposed; and fruits of the trees served him for (his) needs.15
I now wish to introduce a tradition from the Mandeans, a small sect of people living mostly in Iran and Iraq and are the sole surviving followers of John the Baptist. Calling themselves the “Children of Light,” these Mandeans live today just as their ancestors did two thousand years ago; they dress in white linen robes, baptize in living (running) water, and carry staffs made of olive wood. Their holy text is the Ginza and is a collection of hymns, myths, and various other materials. In it there is a story of a messenger from the lightworld revealing the coming of John the Baptist and his later interaction with Jesus:
Then, in that time a child will be born with the name John, the son of the old father Zacharias, which came to him in old age at the summit of one-hundred years. The mother Elizabeth was pregnant with it, and as a woman in old age she brought it forth. When John has become strong and grows in that age of Jerusalem, faith will swell in his heart, and he will take possession of the Jordan and practice baptism forty-two years before Nebo assumes a body and goes into the world. When John has become strong in that age of Jerusalem, takes possession of the Jordan, and practices baptism, Jesus Christ will come, will walk in humbleness, will be baptized with the baptism of John, and will become wise through the wisdom of John. Then he will turn from the word of John, will change the baptism of the Jordan, will twist the words of truth, and will call forth evil and deceit in the world.16
Finally, the last text examined by this paper is The Golden Legend, written around 1260 C.E. by Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend is basically a compilation of 243 religious chapters or legends stemming from over 130 various sources either directly quoted or referred to in the text. The majority of the legends contained within the text deal with Saints and events surrounding their lives and deaths. One legend of particular interest to this paper is legend number 125:
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist: The feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist, as we find in the book De mitrali officio, was instituted in celebration of four events. The first is the beheading itself, the second, the collection and cremation of the saint’s bones, the third, the finding of his head, the fourth, the translation of one of his fingers and the dedication of a church in his honor.
First, then, the feast celebrates John’s beheading, which came about in the following way. We have from the Scholastic History that Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was on his way to Rome and stopped to visit his brother Philip. He made a secret agreement with Herodias, Philip’s wife, who, according to Josephus, was the sister of Herod Agrippa, that on his return journey he would repudiate his own wife and wed Herodias. This, however, was no secret to the wife of this Herod Antipas, the daughter of Aretas, king of Damascus. She did not wait for her husband’s return but went as fast as she could to her own homeland. Herod meanwhile came back and took Herodias away from Philip, thus making enemies of King Aretas, Herod Agrippa, and Philip.
John the Baptist took Herod to task for this, on the ground that according to the law he had no right to marry his brother’s wife while his brother was alive. Because of the severity of John’s rebuke and because John, by his preaching and baptizing, attracted a large following, Herod chained him and put him in prison. He also wished to please his wife but feared to lose the allegiance of John’s followers. What he really wanted to do was to kill John, but was afraid of the people. Indeed, both Herodias and Herod longed to find an opportunity to get rid of John, and they seem to have arranged secretly between themselves that Herod would invite the leading men of Galilee to a banquet in honor of his birthday, and would have Herodias’s daughter dance for them, after which Herod would swear to give her anything she asked for, and she would ask for the head of John. On account of his oath he would have to grant her request but would pretend to be saddened because he had sworn. That there had been this conspiracy and false pretense seems to be suggested by what the Scholastic History says: “It is entirely credible that Herod and his wife had secretly plotted John’s death on this occasion.” Likewise Jerome in the Gloss: “He therefore swore to find an occasion to put John to death, because if the girl had asked for the death of her father or mother, Herod would have not yielded.”
So the banquet is held, the girl is present, she dances for the company, everyone is pleased, the king swears that he will give her whatever she asks, she follows her mother’s instructions and demands the head of John. Two-faced Herod feigns sadness because of his oath – because, as Rabanus says, he had to do what he had sworn to do. But the sadness was only on his face. In his heart he was delighted. He excused his crime by citing his oath, thus doing an impious deed under cover of a show of piety. So the headsman is dispatched, John loses his head, the head is given to the daughter and presented by the daughter to her adulterous mother.
Augustine, in a sermon he preached on the beheading of John the Baptist, uses Herod’s oath as the occasion for a story with a moral. He says: “I heard this story from an innocent and trustworthy man. When someone refused to return something he had lent him or something that was owed him, he was distressed and provoked the borrower to swear. The borrower swore and the lender lost. That night the lender had a vision in which he was brought before the Judge, who asked him: ‘Why did you provoke the man to swear an oath when you knew he would swear falsely?’ The lender answered: ‘He refused to give me what was mine!’ The Judge: ‘It would have been better to lose what was yours rather than to make him lose his soul by swearing falsely!’ He was then punished by being laid on the ground an beaten so severely that when he awoke the traces of the whipping were visible.”
It was not, however, on this day that John was beheaded, but during the Days of Unleavened Bread in the year preceding the passion of Christ. It was right, therefore, that on account of the mysteries of the Lord which mark that season, the lesser event should yield to the greater and be celebrated at another time.
In connection with the beheading, John Chrysostom exclaims: “John is the school of virtues, the guide of life, the model of holiness, the norm of justice., the mirror of virginity, the stamp of modesty, the exemplar of chastity, the road of repentance, the pardon of sinners, the discipline of faith – John, greater than man, equal of angels, sum of the Law, sanction of the Gospel, voice of the apostles, silence of the prophets, lantern of the world, forerunner of the Judge, center of the whole Trinity! And so great a one as this is given to an incestuous woman, betrayed to an adulteress, awarded to a dancing girl!”
The second event commemorated by this feast is the burning and gathering, or collection, of Saint John’s bones. According to some sources, his bones were burned on the very day of his martyrdom and were partly recovered by the faithful. Hence he suffered, as it were, a second martyrdom, since he was burned on his bones. Therefore the Church celebrates this second martyrdom on this day. In the twelfth book of the Scholastic or Ecclesiastical History, we read that John’s disciples had buried his body at Sebaste, a city in Palestine between Elisaeus and Abdias, and that many miracles had occurred at his tomb. For this reason the pagans, by order of Julian the Apostate, scattered his bones, but the miracles did not cease, and the bones were collected, burned, and pulverized, and the ashes thrown to the winds to be blown over the fields, as both the above-mentioned histories report.
Bede, however, says that the collected bones were scattered still more widely, and so a second martyrdom seemed somehow to be suffered. Some people represent this, not knowing that they are doing so, when on the feast of the Baptist’s birth they gather bones from here and there and burn them. In any case, the bones were collected to be burned, as both the Scholastic History and Bede have indicated and some monks came from Jerusalem secretly, mingled with the pagans, and managed to carry off many of the relics. These they delivered to Philip, bishop of Jerusalem, who afterwards sent them to Anastasius, bishop of Alexandria. Still later, Theophilus, bishop of the same city, enshrined the bones in a temple of Serapis, which he had purged and consecrated as a basilica in honor of Saint John. This from Bede and the Scholastic History. Now, however, the relics are devoutly worshipped in Genoa, and Popes Alexander III and Innocent IV, after verifying the facts, have signified their approval by granting privileges.
As Herod, who ordered the beheading of John, suffered the penalty for his crimes, so the divine vengeance was visited upon Julian the Apostate, who ordered the burning of the martyr’s bones. How Julian was punished is told in the history of Saint Julian, which follows the chapter on the Conversion of Saint Paul. A full account of the origins, the reign, the cruelty, and the death of this Julian the Apostate is contained in the Tripartite History.
The third event commemorated by today’s feast is the finding of the head of John the Baptist, because, it is said, his head was indeed found on this day. We read in the eleventh book of the Ecclesiastical History that John was chained and beheaded in a castle in Arabia called Macheronta. Herodias, however, had John’s head taken to Jerusalem and, as a precaution, buried close to Herod’s palace, because she feared that the prophet would return to life if his head was buried with his body. In the time of Emperor Marcian, who, according to the Scholastic History, began to reign in A.D. 453, Saint John revealed the whereabouts of his head to two monks who had come to Jerusalem. They hurried to the palace that had been Herod’s, and found the head rolled up in haircloth sacks – the cloth, I suppose, that he wore in the desert. When they were on their way back to their homeland with the head, a potter from the city of Emissa, who was running away from poverty, joined them on the road. The potter carried the pouch contained the sacred head, which the monks had entrusted to him, but he was admonished by Saint John to get away from them, and he went back to Emissa with the head. As long as he lived, he kept the relic in a cave and venerated it there, and he prospered not a little. When he was dying, he committed the relic to his sister’s care, enjoining secrecy upon her, and she passed it on to her successors.
A long time passed, and Saint John revealed the presence of his head to the monk Saint Marcellus, who was living in the aforementioned cave. Here is how the revelation came about. While Marcellus was asleep, he seemed to see great crowds singing Psalms as they filed by, and saying: “Behold, Saint John the Baptist is coming!” Then he saw blessed John, who was accompanied by an attendant at his right and another at his left, and the saint blessed all who approached him. Marcellus went to him and prostrated himself at his feet, and the saint raised him, held him by the chin, and gave him the kiss of peace. Marcellus asked him where he had come from, and John answered: “I have come from Sebaste!”
When Marcellus awoke, he wondered much about this vision. Then, another night when he was asleep, someone came and awakened him, and, once awake, he saw a star shinning in the entrance to his cell. He got up and tried to touch the star, but it quickly moved to another part of the cave, and he followed it until it came to rest over the spot where John the Baptist’s head was buried. Marcellus dug down and found the urn containing the holy treasure. Now a bystander refused to believe what he heard and presumed to touch the urn, but his hand immediately shriveled and stuck to the urn. His companions prayed for him and his hand came free but was still misshapen. John then appeared to him and said: “When my head has been deposited in the church, you shall touch the urn and be restored to health.” The man did this and was whole again.
When Marcellus told the bishop of that city – the bishop’s name was Julian – all that had happened, they took up the relic and brought it into the city. From that time on, the Beheading of Saint John was solemnly celebrated annually there, on the day of the year when the head was found and dug up, or so we gather from what the Scholastic History says. Later on, however, it was transferred to Constantinople. We read in the Tripartite History that when Valens was emperor, he ordered the sacred head to be put in a wagon and translated to Constantinople. When the vehicle came close to Chalcedon, it could not be moved a foot farther, no matter how hard the oxen were goaded, so the cortege had to halt and deposit the relic at that point. At a later time, Emperor Theodosius wished to move it again. He found a virgin lady who had been appointed its custodian, and asked here to allow him to take the sacred head away. She consented, thinking that as in the time of Valens the relic would not allow itself to be moved, but the pious emperor wrapped it in purple, took it to Constantinople, and built a beautiful church for it. Still later, in Pepin’s reign, the head was transferred to Poitiers in France, where by John’s merits many dead were restored to life.
Just as Herod was punished for beheading John, and Julian for burning his bones, so also Herodias was punished for instructing her daughter to ask for the head, and the girl for doing so. There are some, indeed, who say that Herodias was not sentenced to exile and did not die in exile, but that when she had the head in her hands and taunted it gleefully, by God’s will the head breathed in her face and she expired. This is the popular tale, but what was said above, namely, what she was exiled with Herod and died in misery, is what the saints hand on in their chronicles, and therefore is to be believed. As for her daughter, she was walking over an icy pond when the ice gave way under her and she was drowned, through one chronicle says that the earth swallowed her alive. This is understandable, since it is said of the Egyptians who were drowned in the Red Sea: “The earth swallowed them.”
The fourth event commemorated by today’s feast is the translation of one of Saint John’s fingers and the dedication of a church. The finger with which he pointed to the Lord could not, wee are told, be burned. This finger was recovered by the aforesaid monks, and later, as the Scholastic History has it, Saint Thecla took it into the Alps and deposited it in the church of Saint Maximus. John Beleth adds his testimony, saying that the aforementioned Saint Thecla brought the finger overseas to Normandy and there built a church in honor of Saint John. According to this author, the church was dedicated on this day, for which reason the lord pope decreed that this day should be solemnized throughout the world.
In a city of France called Marienna, a lady who was very devoted to John the Baptist prayed earnestly to God that at some time a relic of Saint John might be given to her. Her prayers were not being answered, so she took confidence in God and bound herself by an oath not to eat until she received what she was asking for. After she had fasted for some days, she saw a wonderfully shinning thumb lying on the alter, and joyfully accepted it as a gift from God. In no time three bishops were present, each wanting a part of the thumb, whereupon they were astonished to see three drops of blood fall on the cloth on which the relic lay, and each bishop rejoiced at having merited one drop.
Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards, built and endowed a noble church at Monza, near Milan, in honor of Saint John the Baptist. Some time later, as Paul states in his History of the Lombards, the emperor Constantine, also called Constans, wanted to take Italy from the Lombards and consulted a holy man, who had the spirit of prophecy, about the outcome of the war. The holy man prayed during the night and gave his answer in the morning: “The queen built the church in honor of John, and John intercedes continually for the Lombards. Therefore they cannot be conquered. There will come a time, however, when that place will no longer be honored, and then they will be conquered.” And so it happened in Charlemagne’s time.
Gregory, in his Dialogues, tells us that a man of great virtue named Sanctulus had assumed the custody of a deacon whom the Lombards had captured, on condition that if the deacon escaped, he, Sanctulus, would accept capital punishment in his stead. Then Sanctulus forced the deacon to flee and be free. For this, Sanctulus was sentenced to death and led to the place of execution, and the strongest headsman, of whom there was no doubt that with one stroke he could sever the head, was chosen to carry out the sentence. Sanctulus extended his neck, and the executioner, mustering all his strength, raised his arm, holding the sword aloft. At that moment Sanctulus said: “Saint John, get hold of him!” Instantly the striker’s arm became stiff and inflexible, and held the sword heavenward until he swore an oath never again to strike a Christian. The man of God then prayed for him, and at once he was able to lower his arm.17
Now that our survey of the literary evidence for the historical John the Baptist has been completed, we must now take a step back and see the magnitude John plays in the history of the early “Christian” movement. An examination of the references to him, accompanied by their respective authors has just been presented. However, a question must be posed at this stage: what does this all mean? What can be said about John the Baptist’s life, his role, and mission during the early years of the first century?
Although each text, source material, or tradition presents its own version of the occurrences surrounding John, we are able to extract the core meaning from such sources and can confirm their validity by cross-checking these with other known reliable sources. What appears to be the common, agreed-upon facts of John the Baptist’s life are that he was born into a priestly family to Zacharias and Elizabeth, and that he grew up and lived in the wilderness where he preached of the coming kingdom of God and repentance through baptism. Interestingly, of the three events of Jesus’ life that most scholars agree on, John is involved with one: (1) Jesus was born, (2) John the Baptist baptized Jesus, and (3) Jesus was crucified. Many sources agree John wore a garment made of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist and lived off of wild honey and locusts/manna (depending on translation). He was also greatly revered by the people of Israel. Jesus is recorded as having said, “among those born of women, there is none greater than John the Baptist” and the twenty-four prophets of Israel spoke not of Jesus but John. Several of John’s disciples even view John as the Christ, possibly the earliest reference to the Mandeans, and separated themselves from the followers of Jesus. Herod had John beheaded at his desert fortress of Macherus, apparently for his disagreement of Herod’s taking of Herodias as his wife, and it is this event which was seen as leading to Herod Antipas’ military defeat and ultimate demise.
Knowledge of John and his life, mission and affiliation in the early “Christian” movement would not be possible by a study of the Bible alone. It is only when one takes into consideration all of the existing sources, New Testament, Jewish-Christian gospels, Gnostic scriptures, church historians, independent, and secondary source material that the true importance of John the Baptist is understood. Hopefully scholars will continue their search for extra-biblical materials concerned with John the Baptist and will renew their interest in the greatest person ever born.
1 Tabor, James D. “Josephus on John the Baptist.” (7/1/98): p. 2. Online. 15 Dec. 2000. Available: http://www.uncc.edu/jdtabor.
2 Miller, Robert J. “The Gospel of Thomas.” The Complete Gospels. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1994, p. 312-313.
3 Tatum, W. Barnes. John the Baptist and Jesus: A Report of the Jesus Seminar. Sonoma, California: Polebridge Press, 1994, p. 89.
4 Tatum, W. Barnes. John the Baptist and Jesus: A Report of the Jesus Seminar. Sonoma, California: Polebridge Press, 1994, p. 90.
5 Miller, Robert J. “The Gospel of the Nazoreans.” The Complete Gospels. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1994, p. 443.
6 “Protoevangelium of James.” (1/12/00): p. 6. Online. 15 Dec. 2000. Available: http://www.newadvent.org
7 Tatum, W. Barnes. John the Baptist and Jesus: A Report of the Jesus Seminar. Sonoma, California: Polebridge Press, 1994, p. 94-95.
8 “Recognitions and Homilies.” (1/12/00): p. 4-5, 10. Online. 15 Dec. 2000. Available: http://newadvent.org
9 Schneemelcher, Wilhelm. New Testament Apocrypha. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1963, p. 253.
10 McVey, Kathleen E. Ephraem the Syrian: Hymns. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1989, p. 211-213.
11 Schonfield, Hugh J. The Lost Book of the Nativity of John. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1929, p. 69-77.
12 Amidon, Philip R. The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia. New York, New York: Oxford Press, 1997, p. 85-86.
13 Walford, Edward. “Discovery of the Head of the Precursor of our Lord.”The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen. London, 1855, p.346-347.
14 Croke, Brian. The Chronicle of Marcellinus. Sydney, Australia: Berget, 1995, p. 20-21. The Paschal Chronicle says that the Baptist’s head was discovered in the city of Emesa in Holy Week of the year of empress Pulcheria’s death (c. 452 C.E.).
15 Thackeray, J. “The Principal Additional Passages in the Slavonic Version.”The Jewish War (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard University Press, 1965, p. 644-648.
16 Tatum, W. Barnes. John the Baptist and Jesus: A Report of the Jesus Seminar. Sonoma, California: Polebridge Press, 1994, p. 102.
17 Voragine, Jacobus de. “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.” The Golden Legend. Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 132-140.