John the Baptist
John the Baptist (יוחנן המטביל Yokhanan HaMatbil, Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστής, يوحنا المعمدان; Late 1st century BC – 28–36 AD) was a Jewish itinerant preacher in the early first century AD. John is revered as a major religious figure in Christianity, Islam, the Bahá’í Faith, and Mandaeism. He is called a prophet by all of these faiths, and is honored as a saint in many Christian traditions. Other titles for John include John the Forerunner in Eastern Christianity and “the prophet John (Yaḥyā)” in Islam. To clarify the meaning of “Baptist”, he is sometimes alternatively called John the Baptizer.
John used baptism as the central symbol or sacrament of his messianic movement. Most scholars agree that John baptized Jesus. Some scholars believe Jesus was a follower or disciple of John. The New Testament texts in which John is mentioned portray him as rejecting this idea, although several New Testament accounts report that some of Jesus’ early followers had previously been followers of John. John the Baptist is also mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus. Some scholars maintain that John was influenced by the semi-ascetic Essenes, who expected an apocalypse and practiced rituals corresponding strongly with baptism, although no direct evidence substantiates this.
According to the New Testament, John anticipated a messianic figure greater than himself. Christians commonly refer to John as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus, since John announces Jesus’ coming. John is also identified as the spiritual successor of the prophet Elijah. John was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded by Herod Antipas sometime between 28 and 36 AD after John rebuked him for divorcing his wife, Phasaelis, and unlawfully taking Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip I.
John the Baptist is mentioned in all four canonical Gospels and the non-canonical Gospel of the Nazarenes. The Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) describe John baptising Jesus; in the Gospel of John this is implied in John 1:32–1:34.
The Gospel of Mark introduces John as a fulfilment of a prophecy from the Book of Isaiah (in fact, a conflation of texts from Isaiah, Malachi and Exodus) about a messenger being sent ahead, and a voice crying out in the wilderness. John is described as wearing clothes of camel’s hair, living on locusts and wild honey. John proclaims baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, and says another will come after him who will not baptize with water, but with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus comes to John, and is baptized by him in the river Jordan. The account describes how; as he emerges from the water, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends on him ‘like a dove’. A voice from heaven then says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)
Later in the gospel there is an account of John’s death. It is introduced by an incident where the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, hearing stories about Jesus, imagines that this is John the Baptist raised from the dead. It then explains that John had rebuked Herod for marrying Herodias, the ex-wife of his brother (named here as Philip). Herodias demands his execution, but Herod, who ‘liked to listen’ to John, is reluctant to do so because he fears him, knowing he is a ‘righteous and holy man’.
The account then describes how Herod’s daughter Herodias (NRSV; other translations refer to the girl as the daughter of Herodias) dances before Herod, who is pleased and offers her anything she asks for in return. When the girl asks her mother what she should request, she is told to demand the head of John the Baptist. Reluctantly, Herod orders the beheading of John, and his head is delivered to her, at her request, on a plate. John’s disciples take the body away and bury it in a tomb.(Mark 6:17–29)
There are a number of difficulties with this passage. The Gospel refers to Antipas as ‘King’ and the ex-husband of Herodias is named as Philip, but he is known to have been called Herod.Although the wording clearly implies the girl was the daughter of Herodias, many texts describe her as “Herod’s daughter, Herodias”. Since these texts are early and significant and the reading is ‘difficult’, many scholars see this as the original version, corrected in later versions and in Matthew and Luke. Josephus says that Herodias had a daughter by the name of Salome.
Scholars have speculated about the origins of the story. Since it shows signs of having been composed in Aramaic, which Mark apparently did not speak, he is likely to have got it from a Palestinian source. There are a variety of opinions about how much actual historical material it contains, especially given the alleged factual errors. Many scholars have seen the story of John arrested, executed, and buried in a tomb as a conscious foreshadowing of the fate of Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew account begins with the same modified quotation from Isaiah, moving the Malachi and Exodus material to later in the text, where it is quoted by Jesus. The description of John is taken directly from Mark (“clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey”), along with the proclamation that one was coming who would baptise with the Holy Spirit “and fire”.(Matthew 3:1–12)
Unlike Mark, Matthew describes John as critical of Pharisees and Sadducees and as preaching “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and a “coming judgment”.
Matthew shortens the account of the beheading of John, and adds two elements: that Herod Antipas wants John dead, and that the death is reported to Jesus by his disciples. Matthew’s approach is to shift the focus away from Herod and onto John as a prototype of Jesus. Where Mark has Herod killing John reluctantly and at Herodias’ insistence, Matthew describes him as wanting John dead.
In Luke and Acts
The Gospel of Luke adds an account of John’s infancy, introducing him as the miraculous son of Zechariah, an old man, and his wife Elizabeth, who was past menopause and therefore unable to have children. According to this account, the birth of John was foretold by the angel Gabriel to Zechariah, while he was performing his functions as a priest in the temple of Jerusalem. Since he is described as a priest of the course of Abijah and Elizabeth as one of the daughters of Aaron, this would make John a descendant of Aaron on both his father’s and mother’s side. On the basis of this account, the Catholic as well as the Anglican and Lutheran liturgical calendars placed the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24, six months before Christmas.
Elizabeth is described as a “relative” of Mary, the mother of Jesus in Luke 1:36. There is no mention of a family relationship between John and Jesus in the other Gospels, and Raymond E. Brown has described it as “of dubious historicity”. Géza Vermes has called it “artificial and undoubtedly Luke’s creation”. The many similarities between the Gospel of Luke story of the birth of John and the Old Testament account of the birth of Samuel suggest that Luke’s account of the annunciation and birth of Jesus are modeled on that of Samuel.
Unique to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist explicitly teaches charity, baptizes tax-collectors, and advises soldiers.
The text briefly mentions that John is imprisoned and later beheaded by Herod, but the Gospel of Luke lacks the story of a step-daughter dancing for Herod and requesting John’s head.
The Book of Acts portrays some disciples of John becoming followers of Jesus Acts 18:24–19:6 a development not reported by the gospels except for the early case of Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother John 1:35–42
In the Gospel of John
The fourth gospel describes John the Baptist as “a man sent from God” who “was not the light”, but “came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that through him everyone might believe”. John clearly denies being the Christ or Elijah or ‘the prophet’, instead describing himself as the “voice of one crying in the wilderness”.
Upon literary analysis, it is clear that John is the “testifier and confessor par excellence“, particularly when compared to figures like Nicodemus.
Jesus’s baptism is implied but not depicted. Unlike the other gospels, it is John himself who testifies to seeing “the Spirit come down from heaven like a dove and rest on him”. John explicitly announces that Jesus is the one “who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” and John even professes a “belief that he is the Son of God” and “the Lamb of God”.
The Gospel of John reports that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing and that a debate broke out between some of the disciples of John and another Jew about purification. In this debate John argued that Jesus “must become greater,” while he (John) “must become less” (Latin Vulgate: illum oportet crescere me autem minui).
The Gospel of John then points out that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing more people than John. Later, the Gospel relates that Jesus regarded John as “a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light”.
Simon J. Joseph has argued that the Gospel demotes the historical John by painting him only as a prophetic forerunner to Jesus whereas his ministry actually complemented Jesus’.
- The prophecy of Isaiah
Although Mark’s Gospel implies that the arrival of John the Baptist is the fulfilment of a prophecy from the Book of Isaiah, the words quoted (“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way – a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'”) are actually a composite of texts from Isaiah, Malachi and the Book of Exodus. (Matthew and Luke drop the first part of the reference.)
- Baptism of Jesus
The gospels differ on the details of the Baptism. In Mark and Luke, Jesus himself sees the heavens open and hears a voice address him personally, saying, “You are my dearly loved son; you bring me great joy”. They do not clarify whether others saw and heard these things. Although other incidents where the “voice came out of heaven” are recorded in which, for the sake of the crowds, it was heard audibly, John did say in his witness that he did see the spirit coming down “out of heaven”. John 12:28–30, John 1:32
In Matthew, the voice from heaven does not address Jesus personally, saying instead “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist himself sees the spirit descend as a dove, testifying about the experience as evidence of Jesus’s status.
- John’s knowledge of Jesus
John’s knowledge of Jesus varies across gospels. In the Gospel of Mark, John preaches of a coming leader, but shows no signs of recognizing that Jesus is this leader. In Matthew, however, John immediately recognizes Jesus and John questions his own worthiness to baptize Jesus. In both Matthew and Luke, John later dispatches disciples to question Jesus about his status, asking “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” In Luke, John is a familial relative of Jesus whose birth was foretold by Gabriel. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist himself sees the spirit descend like a dove and he explicitly preaches that Jesus is the Son of God.
- John and Elijah
See also: Matthew 3:4
The Gospels vary in their depiction of John’s relationship to Elijah. Matthew and Mark describe John’s attire in a way reminiscent of the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8, who also wore a garment of hair and a leather belt. In Matthew, Jesus explicitly teaches that John is “Elijah who was to come” (Matt. 11:14 – see also Matt. 17:11–13); many Christian theologians have taken this to mean that John was Elijah’s successor. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist explicitly denies being Elijah. In the annunciation narrative in Luke, an angel appears to Zechariah, John’s father, and tells him that John “will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,” and that he will go forth “in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:16–17).”
In Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews
An account of John the Baptist is found in all extant manuscripts of the Antiquities of the Jews (book 18, chapter 5, 2) by Flavius Josephus (37–100):
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s [Antipas’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 the 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 pleased] 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 God’s displeasure to him.
According to this passage, the execution of John was blamed for the defeat Herod suffered. Some have claimed that this passage indicates that John died near the time of the destruction of Herod’s army in 36 AD. However, in a different passage, Josephus states that the end of Herod’s marriage with Aretas’ daughter (after which John was killed) was only the beginning of hostilities between Herod and Aretas, which later escalated into the battle.
Divergences between the passage’s presentation and the biblical accounts of John include baptism for those whose souls have already been “purified beforehand by righteousness” is for purification of the body, not general repentance of sin (Mark 1:4). Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan differentiates between Josephus’s account of John and Jesus, saying, “John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise.” To get baptized, Crossan writes, you went only to John; to stop the movement one only needed to stop John (therefore his movement ended with his death). Jesus invited all to come and see how he and his companions had already accepted the government of God, entered it and were living it. Such a communal praxis was not just for himself, but could survive without him, unlike John’s movement.
Matthew 14:12 records that “his disciples came and took away [John’s] body and buried it”. Theologian Joseph Benson refers to a belief that “it seems that [the body] had been thrown over the prison walls, without burial, probably by order of Herodias.
The burial-place of John the Baptist was traditionally said to be at the Nabi Yahya Mosque (Saint John the Baptiste Mosque) in Sebastia in current Palestinian territories, and mention is made of his relics being honored there around the middle of the 4th century. The historians Rufinus and Theodoretus record that the shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate around 362, the bones being partly burned. A portion of the rescued relics were carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria, where on 27 May 395, they were laid in the basilica newly dedicated to the Forerunner on the former site of the temple of Serapis. The tomb at Sebaste continued, nevertheless, to be visited by pious pilgrims, and Saint Jerome bears witness to miracles being worked there.
What became of the head of John the Baptist is difficult to determine. Nicephorus and Symeon Metaphrastes say that Herodias had it buried in the fortress of Machaerus (in accordance with Josephus). Other writers say that it was interred in Herod’s palace at Jerusalem; there it was found during the reign of Constantine I, and thence secretly taken to Emesa where it was concealed, the place remaining unknown for years, until it was manifested by revelation in 453. However, the decapitation cloth of Saint John is kept at the Aachen Cathedral. The Coptic Christian Orthodox Church also claim to hold the relics of Saint John the Baptist. These are to be found in a monastery in Lower Egypt between Cairo and Alexandria. It is possible, with permission from the monks, to see the original tomb where the remains were found.
- Several different locations claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. The current official place for the Catholic Church is the Shrine of Saint John the Baptiste (Nabi Yahya in Arabic) inside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The place was visited by Pope John Paul II in 2001 who “paused for a minute’s silent meditation at the tomb of St John the Baptist”. Previous to that the catholic Church used to believe that it was kept in the San Silvestro in Capite in Rome; and then that it was held by the Knights Templar at Amiens Cathedral in France (brought home by Wallon de Sarton from the Fourth Crusade in Constantinople), at Antioch in Turkey (fate uncertain). Other traditions assume that it was in Residenz Museum in Munich, Germany (official residence of the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria from 1385 to 1918). or even the parish church at Tenterden in Kent, where it was preserved up until the Reformation.
- The saint’s right hand, with which he baptised Jesus, is claimed to be in the Serbian Orthodox Cetinje monastery in Montenegro; Topkapi Palace in Istanbul; and also in the Romanian skete of the Forerunner on Mount Athos. The saint’s left hand is allegedly preserved in the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John at Chinsurah, West Bengal, where each year on “Chinsurah Day” in January it blesses the Armenian Christians of Calcutta.A crypt and relics said to be John’s and mentioned in 11th- and 16th-century manuscripts, were discovered in 1969 during restoration of the Church of St. Macarius at the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in Scetes, Egypt; Additional relics are claimed to reside in Gandzasar Monastery’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, in Nagorno Karabakh.
Another obscure claim relates to the town of Halifax in West Yorkshire, United Kingdom, where, as patron saint of the town, the Baptist’s head appears on the official coat-of-arms. One legend (among others) bases the etymology of the town’s place-name on “halig” (holy) and “fax” (face), claiming that a relic of the head, or face, of John the Baptist once existed in the town.
Also, in 2010, bones were discovered in the ruins of a Bulgarian church in the St. John the Forerunner Monastery (4th–17th centuries) on the Black Sea island of St. Ivan and two years later, after DNA and radio carbon testing proved the bones belonged to a Middle Eastern man who lived in the 1st century AD, scientists said that the remains could conceivably have belonged to John the Baptist. The remains, found in a reliquarium are presently kept in the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in Sozopol.
Christians believe that John the Baptist had a specific role ordained by God as forerunner or precursor of Jesus, who was the foretold Messiah. The New Testament Gospels speak of this role. In Luke 1:17 the role of John is referred to as being “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” In Luke 1:76 as “…thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways” and in Luke 1:77 as being “To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins.”
There are several passages within the Old Testament which are interpreted by Christians as being prophetic of John the Baptist in this role. These include a passage in the Book of Malachi (Malachi 3:1) that refers to a prophet who would prepare the way of the Lord:
Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.— Malachi 3:1
and also at the end of the next chapter in Malachi 4:5–6 where it says,
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
The Jews of Jesus’ day expected Elijah to come before the Messiah; indeed, some present day Jews continue to await Elijah’s coming as well, as in the Cup of Elijah the Prophet in the Passover Seder. This is why the disciples ask Jesus in Matthew 17:10, ‘Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?’ The disciples are then told by Jesus that Elijah came in the person of John the Baptist,
Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.— Matthew 17:11–13
(see also 11:14: “…if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who was to come.”)
These passages are applied to John in the Synoptic Gospels. But where Matthew specifically identifies John the Baptist as Elijah’s spiritual successor (Matthew 11.14, 17.13), the gospels of Mark and Luke are silent on the matter. The Gospel of John states that John the Baptist denied that he was Elijah.
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not deny, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”— John 1:19–21
Influence on Paul
Many scholars believe there was contact between the early church in the Apostolic Age and what is called the “Qumran-Essene community”. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found at Qumran, which the majority of historians and archaeologists identify as an Essene settlement. John the Baptist is thought to have been either an Essene or “associated” with the community at Khirbet Qumran. According to the Book of Acts, Paul met some “disciples of John” in Ephesus.
Due to influence of Qumranic terminology and ideas in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, some scholars believe that the “disciples” mentioned in Acts 19:1–7 were disciples of John the Baptist. This view, which assumes that John was an Essene, is debated by scholars. While John the Baptist practiced baptism, the Essenes used ritual washing, also called ablution, as a form of spiritual purification.
The Catholic Church commemorates Saint John the Baptist on two feast days:
- 24 June – Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
- 29 August – Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
According to Frederick Holweck, at the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to his mother Elizabeth, as recounted in Luke 1:39-57, John, sensing the presence of his Jesus, upon the arrival of Mary, leaped in the womb of his mother; he was then cleansed from original sin and filled with the grace of God. In her Treatise of Prayer, Saint Catherine of Siena includes a brief altercation with the Devil regarding her fight due to the Devil attempting to lure her with vanity and flattery. Speaking in the first person, Catherine responds to the Devil with the following words:
… humiliation of yourself, and you answered the Devil with these words: ‘Wretch that I am! John the Baptist never sinned and was sanctified in his mother’s womb. And I have committed so many sins …— Catherine of Siena, A Treatise of Prayer, 1370.
The Eastern Catholic Churches and Eastern Orthodox faithful believe that John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, thus serving as a bridge between that period of revelation and the New Covenant. They also teach that, following his death, John descended into Hades and there once more preached that Jesus the Messiah was coming, so he was the Forerunner of Christ in death as he had been in life. Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches will often have an icon of Saint John the Baptist in a place of honor on the iconostasis, and he is frequently mentioned during the Divine Services. Every Tuesday throughout the year is dedicated to his memory.
The Eastern Orthodox Church remembers Saint John the Forerunner on six separate feast days, listed here in order in which they occur during the church year (which begins on September 1):
- 23 September – Conception of Saint John the Forerunner
- 7 January – The Synaxis of Saint John the Forerunner. This is his main ml day, immediately after Theophany on January 6 (January 7 also commemorates the transfer of the relic of the right hand of John the Baptist from Antioch to Constantinople in 956)
- 24 February – First and Second Finding of the Head of Saint John the Forerunner
- 25 May – Third Finding of the Head of Saint John the Forerunner
- 24 June – Nativity of Saint John the Forerunner
- 29 August – The Beheading of Saint John the Forerunner, a day of strict fast and abstinence from meat and dairy products and foods containing meat or dairy products
In addition to the above, 5 September is the commemoration of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Saint John’s parents. The Russian Orthodox Church observes 12 October as the Transfer of the Right Hand of the Forerunner from Maltato Gatchina (1799).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church) teaches that modern revelation confirms the biblical account of John and also makes known additional events in his ministry. According to this belief, John was “ordained by the angel of God” when he was eight days old “to overthrow the kingdom of the Jews” and to prepare a people for the Lord. Latter-day Saints also believe that “he was baptized while yet in his childhood.”
Joseph Smith said: “Let us come into New Testament times – so many are ever praising the Lord and His apostles. We will commence with John the Baptist. When Herod’s edict went forth to destroy the young children, John was about six months older than Jesus, and came under this hellish edict, and Zecharias caused his mother to take him into the mountains, where he was raised on locusts and wild honey. When his father refused to disclose his hiding place, and being the officiating high priest at the Temple that year, was slain by Herod’s order, between the porch and the altar, as Jesus said.”
The Church of Jesus Christ teaches that John the Baptist appeared on the banks of the Susquehanna River near Harmony Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania as a resurrected being to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery on May 15, 1829, and ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood. According to the Church’s dispensational view of religious history, John’s ministry has operated in three dispensations: he was the last of the prophets under the law of Moses; he was the first of the New Testament prophets; and he was sent to confirm the Aaronic Priesthood in our day (the dispensation of the fulness of times). Latter-day Saints believe John’s ministry was foretold by two prophets whose teachings are included in the Book of Mormon: Lehi and his son Nephi.
In Gnosticism, John the Baptist was a “personification” of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Elijah did not know the True God (as opposed to the Abrahamic God), and thus had to be reincarnated in Gnostic theology. As predicted by the Old Testament prophet Malachi, Elijah must “come first” to herald the coming of Jesus Christ. Modern anthroposophy concurs with the idea that the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah, (cf. Mark 9:11–13),Matthew 11:13–14, Luke 7:27 although John the Baptist in the Gospel of John explicitly denies being linked to Elijah (John 1:21).
Among the early Judeo-Christian Gnostics the Ebionites held that John, along with Jesus and James the Just – all of whom they revered – were vegetarians. Epiphanius of Salamis records that this group had amended their Gospel of Matthew, known today as the Gospel of the Ebionites, to change where John eats “locusts” to read “honey cakes” or “manna”.
John the Baptist is considered the chief prophet of the Mandaeans, and plays a large part in some of their writings, including the Ginza Rba and the Draša D-Iahia (The Mandaean Book of John). They view John as the only true Messiah, and are opposed to Jesus. The Mandaean scriptures state: “If the carpenter [Jesus] has joined together the god, who then has joined together the carpenter?”
John is also honored as a Nabi (Arabic: نَـبِي, Prophet) as Yaḥyā ibn Zakarīyā (يَـحـيٰى بن زَكَـرِيّا)), or “Jehiah, son of Zechariah”, or simply Yaḥyā (Arabic: يحيى). He is believed by Muslims to have been a witness to the word of God, and a prophet who would herald the coming of Jesus. His father Zechariah was also an Islamic prophet. Islamic tradition maintains that John was one of the prophets whom Muhammad met on the night of the Mi’raj, his ascension through the Seven Heavens. It is said that he met John and Jesus in the second heaven, where Muhammad greeted his two brothers before ascending with archangel Gabriel to the third heaven. John’s story was also told to the Abyssinian king during the Muslim refugees’ Migration to Abyssinia. According to the Qur’an, John was one on whom God sent peace on the day that he was born and the day that he died.
In the Quran, God frequently mentions Zechariah’s continuous praying for the birth of a son. Zechariah’s wife, mentioned in the New Testament as Elizabeth, was barren and therefore the birth of a child seemed impossible. As a gift from God, Zechariah (or Zakaria) was given a son by the name of “Yaḥya“, a name specially chosen for this child alone. In accordance with Zechariah’s prayer, God made John and Jesus, who according to exegesis was born six months later, renew the message of God, which had been corrupted and lost by the Israelites. As the Quran says:
(His prayer was answered): “O Zakariya! We give thee good news of a son: His name shall be Yahya: on none by that name have We conferred distinction before.”
He said: “O my Lord! How shall I have a son, when my wife is barren and I have grown quite decrepit from old age?”
He said: “So (it will be) thy Lord saith, ‘that is easy for Me: I did indeed create thee before, when thou hadst been nothing!'”
(Zakarya) said: “O my Lord! give me a Sign.” “Thy Sign,” was the answer, “Shall be that thou shalt speak to no man for three nights.”— Quran, sura 19 (Maryam), verse 7
John was exhorted to hold fast to the Scripture and was given wisdom by God while still a child. He was pure and devout, and walked well in the presence of God. He was dutiful towards his parents and he was not arrogant or rebellious. John’s reading and understanding of the scriptures, when only a child, surpassed even that of the greatest scholars of the time. Muslim exegesis narrates that Jesus sent John out with twelve disciples, who preached the message before Jesus called his own disciples. The Quran says:
“O Yaḥya! take hold of the Book with might”: and We gave him Wisdom even as a youth,— Quran, sura 19 (Maryam), ayah 12
John was a classical prophet, who was exalted high by God, for his bold denouncing of all things sinful. Furthermore, the Qur’an speaks of John’s gentle pity and love and his humble attitude towards life, for which he was granted the Purity of Life:
And piety as from Us, and purity: He was devout,
And kind to his parents, and he was not overbearing or rebellious.
So Peace on him the day he was born, the day that he dies, and the day that he will be raised up to life (again)!— Quran, sura 19 (Maryam), ayah 13–15
John is also honored highly in Sufism as well as Islamic mysticism, primarily because of the Quran’s description of John’s chastity and kindness. Sufis have frequently applied commentaries on the passages on John in the Quran, primarily concerning the God-given gift of “Wisdom” which he acquired in youth as well as his parallels with Jesus. Although several phrases used to describe John and Jesus are virtually identical in the Quran, the manner in which they are expressed is different.
It has been claimed that the Quran is mistaken in saying that John the Baptist was the first to receive this name (Quran 19:7–10), since the name Yoḥanan occurs many times before John the Baptist. However, according to Islamic scholars, “Yaḥyā” is not the same name as “Yoḥanan”. Despite this, “Yaḥyā” is etymologically the same name as the Biblical figure Yᵉchîyâh (English rendering: “Jehiah”) of the Books of the Chronicles. Therefore, the Qur’an in Surah 19:7 is likely not claiming that “no one was ever given the name Yahya before this child”. Rather, this Qur’an verse is a clear reference to the Biblical account of the miraculous naming of John, which accounted that he was almost named “Zacharias” (Greek: Ζαχαρίας) after his father’s name, as no one in the lineage of his father Zacharias (also known as Zechariah) had been named “John” (“Yohanan”/”Yoannes”) before him.
The exegetes frequently connected the name with the meaning of “to quicken” or “to make alive” in reference to John’s mother’s barrenness, which was cured by God, as well as John’s preaching, which, as Muslims believe, “made alive” the faith of Israel. This is the same meaning as the Hebrew name Yᵉchîyâh (יְחִיָּה; “Jehiah”) (lit.: “YHWH lives”). Yᵉchîyâh was also the name of one of the doorkeepers for the Ark of the Covenant during the reign of King David in the Bible. Because of this, it is supposed that this name “Yaḥyā” was commonly used in the 6th–7th centuries CE by Arab Christians as an allegorical honorific of John the Baptist (Arabic: يُوحَنَّا الْمَعْمَدَانُ, Yūḥanna al-Mamadan), who considered him to be a “doorkeeper” for the “Ark of the New Covenant”, Jesus Christ (Arabic: يَسُوعَ الْمَسِيحِ, Yasū’u l-Masīḥ).
The Quran also mentions a root used in the Hebrew name, ‘Yohanan’ יוֹחָנָן (Yahweh is gracious). Sura Maryam: 12–13 describes the virtues of Yahya: وَآتَيْنَاهُ الْحُكْمَ صَبِيًّا – وَحَنَانًا مِّن لَّدُنَّا وَزَكَاةً (And We gave him judgement, while yet a boy – And affection from Us, and purity.) Here ‘Ḥanān’ (حنان, Affection) is an Arabic word corresponding to the same root used in the Hebrew/Aramaic ‘Yohanan’.
The Unification Church teaches that God intended John to help Jesus during his public ministry in Judea. In particular, John should have done everything in his power to persuade the Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah. He was to become Jesus’ main disciple and John’s disciples were to become Jesus’ disciples. Unfortunately John didn’t follow Jesus and continued his own way of baptizing people. Moreover, John also denied that he was Elijah when queried by several Jewish leaders John 1:21 contradicting Jesus who stated John is Elijah who was to come, Matthew 11:14. Many Jews therefore, could not accept Jesus as the Messiah because John denied being Elijah, as the prophet’s appearance was a prerequisite for the Messiah’s arrival as stated in Malachi 4:5. According to the Unification Church, “John the Baptist was in the position of representing Elijah’s physical body, making himself identical with Elijah from the standpoint of their mission.”
Jesus stated in Matthew 11:11, “there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist,” however, in referring to John’s blocking the way of the Jews’ understanding of himself as the Messiah, said “yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” John’s failure to follow Jesus became the chief obstacle to the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission.
Inside of mainstream Christianity, various scholars and professionals have studied John the Baptist, particularly his relationship with Jesus of Nazareth, and have commented on the difficulties they found between the two men.
For example, as reported in The Christian Post, professor Candida Moss, of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, who appeared in a documentary series “Finding Jesus, Faith Fact Forgery,” noted John and Jesus become “de facto competitors in the ancient religious marketplace.” Even after baptizing Jesus, John did not follow Jesus but maintained a separate ministry.
After John’s death, Jesus’ followers had to differentiate him from the executed prophet, “countering the prevalent idea that Jesus was actually John raised from the dead.” Disciples present before Jesus indicated some people believed he was John the Baptist (Matthew 16:13-14).
Michael H. Crosby, Ph.D., Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA; Capuchin friar and priest; in his paper “Why Didn’t John the Baptist Commit Himself to Jesus as a Disciple?,” stated there was “no biblical evidence indicating that John the Baptist ever became a disciple of Jesus.” He conveys that John’s concept of what a messiah should be, was in contrast to how Jesus presented himself, and kept him from becoming a disciple of Jesus. Crosby identifies 25 points in the Gospel accounts that lead to the conclusion that John’s effectiveness as a “Precursor” in encouraging others to follow Jesus was very minimal, since the scriptures record only two of his own followers became Jesus’ disciples. Crosby noted, while many others believed Jesus’ miracles, there is no record of these “signs” convincing John, who continued a separate baptismal ministry, creating disciples resulting in a community that still exists in parts of the Middle East.
Crosby stated “an unbiased reading about John the Baptist “leaves us with the figure of John the Baptist as a reformist Jew who also may have wanted desperately to become a believer but was unable to become convinced of Jesus’ messiahship.”
Robert L. Deffinbaugh, graduate from Dallas Theological Seminary pastor/teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas, wrote a paper “John’s Problem with Jesus (Luke 7:18-35).” He examines the incident where the imprisoned John the Baptist, after receiving news about Jesus, sends two of his disciples asking Jesus if he were the Messiah or another should be sought.
John is not asking an incidental question, but instead is issuing a public challenge precipitating a crises since the message was presented to Jesus while he was with a gathered crowd. The implication was, if Jesus failed to answer the question satisfactorily “we will look for someone else to be the Messiah.” Deffinbaugh conveys John might have been looking for inauguration of the kingdom of God in a more dramatic way than what Jesus was implementing, as John had previously warned that “Messiah would come with fire.” Jesus answered the question by evidence of his miracle works and teachings which themselves gave evidence of his identity, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Luke 7:22).
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia