John the Baptist (born 1st century BC, died between 28-36 AD) was a Jewish prophet of the Jordan River region, celebrated by the Christian church as ‘the Forerunner’ to Jesus Christ.
He emerged from the wilderness preaching a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and offered a water baptism to confirm the repentant person’s commitment to a new life cleansed from sin.
Here are 10 facts about John the Baptist.
1. John the Baptist was a real person
John the Baptist appears in the Gospels, certain extra-canonical Gospels, and in two works by the Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. While the Gospels may appear to differ from Josephus, upon closer examination, it becomes obvious that the differences are of perspective and focus, not of facts. Indeed, the Gospels and Josephus clearly support each other.
2. John’s ministry was situated in the wilderness
The wilderness held great significance for the people of the Second Temple period, for whom it served several functions. It was a place of refuge, it was somewhere a person might go out to encounter God, or it provided the setting for events in which God intervened in the history of his people, such as the Exodus.
The wilderness, however, was also associated with the expiation of sins, such as the ritual of sending a scapegoat bearing the sins of the nation to the desert demon, Azazel.
3. John was one of several wilderness prophets
John the Baptist was not the only one to preach in the wilderness. Theudas, the Egyptian and several unnamed prophets roamed the desert preaching their messages. Most were peaceful, and their sole aim appeared to be to prompt God to intervene once again and rescue the people from the oppressive Roman rule.
Others, such as Judas the Galilaean, took a more militant approach. Most were seen as dangerous dissenters by the Roman authorities and dealt with accordingly.
4. John’s baptism was based on existing Jewish lustration rites
Lustration rites had always been important in Judaism. Their purpose was to achieve ritual purity, with Leviticus 11-15 being a particularly important passage in this regard. As time went on, these rites were adapted and reinterpreted by some; although ritual purity remained significant, ascetic concerns also came to be addressed.
Indeed, John was not the only prophet to be associated with baptism. The ascetic, Bannus, lived in the desert and practiced ritual bathing in order to be pure as he took his meals. The covenanters at Qumran also observed strict ritual purity and even built a complex system of pools, cisterns and aqueducts to accommodate this need.
5. John’s baptism differed in one important aspect
The rite of baptism offered by John required people to change their hearts, reject sin and return to God. In other words, he asked them to repent. This meant that they had to express sincere sorrow for their sins, pledge to treat their neighbours justly and to show piety towards God. Only once they had done that were allowed to submit to baptism.
John preached that his water rite, which served fundamentally as a penitential ritual, was accepted by God because the heart of the penitent was truly changed. As a result, God would forgive them their sins.
6. John expected another figure to come after him
John’s baptism prepared people for another figure to come. The Coming One was due to arrive very soon (as per the synoptics) or was already present but was as yet unannounced (per the Fourth Gospel). This figure would judge and restore the people, he would be mightier than John, he would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and his ministry could be described using threshing floor imagery.
Each of these elements reflects an aspect of John’s preaching. Tradition has interpreted this figure as Jesus of Nazareth, but it is more likely that John was speaking about God.
7. One of John’s disciples was Jesus
One of those who came to listen to John and to submit to his baptism was Jesus of Nazareth. He listened to John’s preaching, was inspired by it and submitted to baptism in his turn.
8. Jesus and John worked together on their holy mission
Crucially, Jesus did not return to his home and continue his life in purity as most of John’s hearers did. Instead, he joined John’s ministry, preached his message and baptised others. Jesus understood that there was a sense of urgency, with the epiphany of the Coming One due imminently.
Eventually, the two men established a coordinated campaign in order to save as many people as they could. John continued to work in Judaea, while Jesus took his mission to Galilee.
9. John was arrested and executed
Herod Antipas arrested, imprisoned and executed John for several reasons. John, who had spoken out against immorality, targeted Herod Antipas, who had repudiated his wife in order to marry Herodias. Herod’s first wife was the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabataea, and their marriage had sealed a peace treaty. With the treaty now broken Aretas waged the war that his daughter’s marriage had been intended to prevent.
The tense period between Herod’s divorce and the subsequent war was intensified by John’s preaching of judgement and the removal of unrepentant sinners, which included Herod as an impure Torah breaker. Moreover, John attracted large crowds, a potential source of trouble.
For Herod, it was imperative to deal with him as the other desert preachers had been. What made John even more dangerous was his announcement of a Coming One, who could have been interpreted as a political figure and, therefore, a direct threat to Herod’s authority.
10. Many Christian denominations consider John a saint
The early Church reinterpreted John’s role as a baptiser to one of forerunner. In addition to baptising repentant sinners, he became the prophet who announced the coming of Christ. Now ‘tamed,’ John could be venerated as a saint in Christianity, where he became the patron saint of monastic movements, a healer, a miracle worker and even a ‘marrying saint.’
Dr Josephine Wilkinson is a historian and author. She holds a PhD from the University of Newcastle, has received British Academy research funding and has been scholar-in-residence at Gladstone’s Library (formerly St Deiniol’s Library). Wilkinson is the author of Louis XIV, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Princes in the Tower, Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn and Richard III (all published by Amberley), and Katherine Howard (John Murray).