John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci

John the Baptist was one of the most popular religious leaders in the time of Jesus. Widely viewed today as a kind of precursor to Jesus, he was selected to perform the work of Isaiah and go out into the wilderness and "prepare ye the ways of the Lord: make his paths straight."

Said to be a cousin of Jesus, John the Baptist was a Jewish version of an ascetic holy man. He wore animal skins and camel leather and survived in the wilderness on nothing but locusts and honey. According to early Christian sources he was born and lived most of his early life in Ain Karim. He likely spent time with the Essenes.

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Our knowledge of the figure of John the Baptist is very limited. We have only those references to him in the Christian gospels, where he stands alongside of Jesus. We also have references to him in the Jewish historian, Josephus, who was writing toward the end of the first century. So John the Baptist is clearly a very important figure of the time. He was a renowned kind of eccentric, it appears, from the way that Josephus describes him. But he seems to have this quality of a kind of prophetic figure ... one who was calling for change. So he is usually thought of as being off in the desert wearing unusual clothes ... a kind of ascetic, almost. But what he is really is a critic of society, of worldliness, who seems to be calling for a change in religious life. But I think we have to think of John the Baptist primarily as one who was calling for a return to an intensely Jewish piety ... to follow the way of the Lord ... to make oneself pure ... to be right with God. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

In 2004, British-Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson announced that he found a cave with a man-made pool, dated to the time of Christ, near Kibbutz Tzuba, and claimed it was used by John the Baptist and may even have where Jesus Christ himself was baptized. The claim is based on: 1) the traditional belief that John the Baptist was born a two kilometers from the cave; 2) pottery shards dated to the A.D. 1st century; 3) an incised drawing of stick figure with staff inside the cave though to be an icon of John; and 4) the presence of a Byzantine shrine honoring the site. Most scholars were skeptical of the claims which are nearly impossible to prove. Some described the claim as fiction.

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity ; Religious Tolerance ; History of Christianity ; BBC on Christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Early Christian Art ; Early Christian Images ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images ; Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ ; Jesus Central ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ ; Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Bible History Online ; Biblical Archaeology Society ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL)

Teachings of John the Baptist

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John in the Desert by Domenico Veneziano
From what can be ascertained from the Dead Sea Scrolls the teachings of John the Baptist were very similar to those of Jesus but according to the Bible he emphasized the vengeful aspects of God's teachings.

John called on people who had turned away from God to repent, He "baptized" Jews who had confessed their sins and bathed them in the Jordan River. Jesus's baptism by John marked the beginning of his career as a religious figure.

There were strong militant overtones to John the Baptist's teachings. He once proclaimed: "One mightier than I cometh---he shall baptize you in spirit and fire: his winnowing fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor, and gather the wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire." When crowds grew too big at his gatherings he was arrested by Roman authorities.

John the Baptist and Baptism

Baptism is regarded as a command of Christ and the most important sacrament. It was done before Christ, and is associated with John Baptist who preceded Jesus. When Gentiles adopted Judaism they were baptized because they were impure, and then circumcised. Jesus was baptized by John Baptist before he launched his career as teacher and miracle worker. He ordered his disciples to baptize all people.

Baptism is sometimes viewed as a spiritual circumcision in which a person is initiated into the Christian community by performing an act that symbolizes the Covenant with God. “Ye were also circumcised with the putting of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism” (Colossians ii, 11-12). It is also viewed as means by which an individual becomes acquainted with the Holy Spirt (so “ye are a temple of God, and Spirit of God dwelleth in you, Corinthians xiii, 14).

Jesus baptism site on the River Jordan

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “ John the Baptist, of course, is known for having practiced baptism. But then, so did lots of other people. We hear of other groups around this time, besides the Sadducees and the Pharisees and Essenes. There are the obscure little groups. We only know their names, but one of them is called Morning Dippers, or Hemero-Baptists, they're called. This seems to refer to a group that practiced self-washing ... ritual washing as an act of purification. We also know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, that the Qumran community practiced ritual washing as an act of purification as well, to keep themselves pure before God. So, the idea of baptizing, or washing as a sign of purity seems to come, actually, out of the Temple practice itself. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“In terms of the Jesus tradition, then, to have Jesus either submit to baptism, or himself baptize others, suggests that we are part of a culture that was looking toward Temple purity as its ideal of religious life. By Temple purity, I mean the notion that one should be pure ... should be washed ... should be cleansed before you can go to the Temple and offer your sacrifices or your worship to God. So one of the concerns of the Temple, you see, and of the Priests who ran it, was that proper purity regulations be followed scrupulously. In some cases, however, it seems that these purity regulations, though, were made also a practice of kind ... what we might call personal piety among some Jewish groups. This seems to be what's going on in the Essene group. And it may also be what's reflected in the story of John, who practices baptism. And it seems to be that he calls for baptism as a sign of rededication or repurification of life in a typically Jewish way before God.” <>

See Baptism Under Rituals

Jesus and John the Baptist

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “When Jesus was about 30 years old, he waded into the Jordan River with the Jewish firebrand John the Baptist and, according to New Testament accounts, underwent a life-changing experience. Rising from the water, he saw the Spirit of God descend on him “like a dove” and heard the voice of God proclaim, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The divine encounter launched Jesus on a preaching and healing mission that began in Galilee and ended, three years later, with his execution in Jerusalem. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

Baptism of Christ

Professor John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University told PBS: “That Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist is as certain as anything historians know about Jesus. It is somewhat clouded, however, in our present texts by the fact that later followers of Jesus thought it was not appropriate that the Messiah should be baptized, and apparently inferior, therefore, to John the Baptist. Jesus was baptized by John, and therefore he had to accept John's message, at least when he was being baptized, whether he changes is another question, later. But, he accepts it when he was being baptized, and John's message is, "God, very soon, imminently, any moment, is going to descend to eradicate the evil of this world in a sort of an apocalyptic consummation...." [Source:John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“One of the earliest statements we have... is a statement by Jesus that John is the greatest person ever born on earth, but the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John. Now, it's a marvelously ambiguous statement. The first half lauds John to the heavens, the second puts the least person in the Kingdom.... [ahead of him] But that means exactly what I would expect. It means Jesus is changing his vision of God and the Kingdom of God from what he has taken from John. He's not really denigrating John, but he is saying the Kingdom of God is not exactly what John was teaching. <>

“The difference I see between John the Baptist and Jesus is, to use some fancy academic language that, John is an apocalyptic eschatologist. An eschatologist is somebody who sees that the problem of the world is so radical that it's going to take some kind of divine radical solution to solve it. One type, for example, is John. God is going to descend in some sort of a catastrophic event to solve the world. There is another type of eschatology. And that's what I think Jesus is talking [about]. I'm going to call it ethical eschatology. That is the demand that God is making on us, not us on God so much as God on us, to do something about the evil in the world. In an apocalypse, as it were, we are waiting for God. And in ethical eschatology, God is waiting for us. That's, I think, what Jesus is talking about in the Kingdom of God. It's demand for us to do something in conjunction with God. It is the Kingdom of God. But it's the Kingdom on earth of God.” <>

Salome and the Death of John the Baptist

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Caravaggio's Beheading of St. John the Baptist
John the Baptist's death, according to Josephus, was the result of whimsical exotic dancer named Salome not his religious activities. Salome’s mother Herodias (c. 15 BC-after 39 AD) was a Jewish princess of the Herodian Dynasty. After her husband died she married her uncle Herod Antipas, who had divorced his wife to marry her. John the Baptist denounced Herod Antipas for breaking Moses's commandments and was imprisoned.

Later, Salome danced before Herod Antipas and his guests on Herod’s birthday. Herod was so pleased with her dancing that he promised anything she wanted. At the urging of his her mother she said she wanted John the Baptist to be beheaded. Her wish was granted and John’s head was presented on a silver plate to Salome, who then gave the head to her mother.

Herod was reportedly deeply overcome with remorse after the death of John the Baptist. When he first witnessed Jesus he was struck by the new prophet's similarity to John the Baptist. "It is John, whom I beheaded," Herod said. "He is risen from the dead." Salome is not mentioned by name in the Bible. The story was the subject of a Richard Straus opera and an Oscar Wilde play. The beheaded of John the Baptist was a popular subject of Renaissance painters.

Why was John the Baptist killed? Professor Attridge told PBS: “John was killed because he was critical of the contemporary Herodian ruler, Herod Antipas. All of the sources agree on that, both Josephus and the testimony of the gospels. Exactly what was involved in that critique is not entirely clear. The material in the gospels suggests that it had to do with Herod's marital practices and his personal morality. There may have been something more political involved in John's condemnation of Herod, insofar as Herod Antipas was tied in intimately with the Roman imperial authorities. In any case, John was executed by Herod as a troublemaker and a political upstart. Now, we don't know how that impacted Jesus, whether on the basis of the death of John he reconsidered the apocalyptic message that had come from John or whether he wanted to continue it and extend it. Both are possible. He never takes a direct stance on that.” <>

Historical Problems with John the Baptist

Professor Harold W. Attridge of Yale Divinity School told PBS: “We know both from the pages of the gospels and also from Josephus..., that John was an apocalyptic preacher. That is, someone who was proclaiming a message of judgment and issuing a call for repentance to his contemporaries, in the light of what he predicted to be the imminent intervention into human history by God to judge the good and the evil. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament, Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

Salome with the head of John the Baptist by Titian

“Jesus seems to have responded to that call...; the gospels then go on to say that Jesus was the one predicted by John. So one of the essential problems is the accuracy of that description of the relationship between the two. That is, John as the self-conscious and deliberate forerunner of Jesus. Most contemporary scholars would see that to be a construct developed by the early church to help explain the relationship between the two. Because for the early church it would have been something of an embarrassment to say that Jesus, who was in their minds superior to John the Baptist, had been baptized by him, and thereby proclaimed some sort of subordination to him, some sort of disciple relationship to him.” <>

What was the significance of baptism and was it unique to John? “There were many teachers around the time of Jesus who were baptizing; baptismal or washing rituals were also a part of Judaism that didn't have this kind of eschatological orientation, or prophetic orientation, that we associate with John the Baptist.... From the gospels and from the testimony in Josephus we can learn that John's baptism had something of a prophetic or eschatological orientation. It was a way of expressing repentance in the face of imminent judgment. <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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