Luke 1:57-66, 80
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.  Her neighbours
and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced
with her.  On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were
going to name him Zechariah after his father.  But his mother said, "No; he is
to be called John."  They said to her, "None of your relatives has this name."
 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give
him.  He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "His name is John." And all of
them were amazed.  Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and
he began to speak, praising God.  Fear came over all their neighbours, and all
these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 
All who heard them pondered them and said, "What then will this child become?" For,
indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. 80 The child grew and became strong in
spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Once again Luke the story-teller is the only New Testament writer to tell us anything
about the birth of John the Baptist, but his account is supported by tradition. According
to the apocryphal gospels, Zechariah, John the Baptist's father, was a priest of
the course of Abia, the eighth of the twenty-four courses into which the priests
were divided (I Par., xxiv, 7-19), and Elizabeth, John the Baptist's mother, "was
of the daughters of Aaron".
In his gospel, Luke calls Elizabeth Mary's "cousin", and according to St. Hippolytus
(in Nicephor., II, iii) this was true. Hippolytus said that a certain Mathan had
three daughters: Mary, Soba, and Ann. The eldest two, Mary and Soba, married at Bethlehem.
Mary married a man of Bethlehem and was the mother of Salome, but Soba married a
Levite, a member of the priestly caste, by whom she had Elizabeth. Ann, the youngest,
married Joachim, a Galilean, and produced Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Thus Salome,
Elizabeth, and Mary were first cousins, and Elizabeth was "of the daughters of Aaron"
on her father's side, but was the cousin of Mary on her mother's side.
But an old Persian version of Luke's gospel uses the translation, "mother's sister"
for the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. In other words, Elizabeth was Mary's
aunt. Elizabeth eventually married Zechariah while Mary married Joseph, and according
to a tradition which can be traced back to the time before the Crusades, Elizabeth
and Zechariah's home was the little town of Ain-Karim, five miles south-west of Jerusalem,
so a considerable distance from Nazareth in Galilee where Mary and Joseph settled.
Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were regarded as godly people, yet Elizabeth was barren.
This follows an Old Testament tradition of godly women who had appeared cursed by
God because they were barren, but who eventually produced. Each produced a son who
became famous in the service of the Lord. Thus Sarah produced Isaac when she was
past child-bearing age, Manoah's wife (whose name we never discover) produced Samson
when all seemed lost and Hannah produced Samuel against all the odds. The fact that
John the Baptist's mother was also considered barren, associates John with this well-known
Old Testament theme in which God miraculously keeps his promise of "seed" for the
nation by producing male babies who grow up to become famous leaders of their people.
Like all the husbands of these apparently barren women, Zechariah can't believe his
ears when the angel tells him that Elizabeth will bear a son. Unlike the others,
Zechariah is struck dumb for his insolence in doubting the word of the angel, but
finds his tongue again when he tells the world that the new baby will not be called
after his father or grandfather following the usual tradition, but will be called
After his birth, we're told only that "the child grew and became strong in spirit,
and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel." Some
early writers speculated that John was taken into the desert by his parents to escape
Herod's massacre of all the new born babies when Jesus was born, since John would
only have been about six months old at the time. But we have no reason to believe
that Elizabeth and Zechariah were in Bethlehem, and most scholars have discounted
this as legend. Another legend adds that Herod had Zechariah executed between the
temple and the altar, because he had prophesied the coming of the Messiah, but again,
this is unlikely to be founded in fact.
However, there is a considerable body of thought which believes that John might either
have lived the life of an anchorite in the desert, or might have been trained by
and served in the Essene community at Qumran (the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls).
The Essene community were strong at the time of the gospel events, yet aren't mentioned
at all in the New Testament. Some scholars believe this is because it was such common
knowledge that John (and possibly Jesus) were from the community or associated with
it in some way, that nobody thought to spell it out for the readers of the gospels.
There are some similarities between John's work and the work of the Essenes. The
Essenes were the only other branch of Judaism at the time to practise a form of baptism,
although it was more a ritual washing than was John's baptism. This feature of his
ministry, more than anything else, attracted public attention to such an extent that
John became known as "the Baptist". The Essenes also spoke of a "Teacher of Righteousness",
upon which John's prophecies about the coming Messiah might be based.
John emerged from the desert and began his ministry around the age of 27, wearing
a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey, and
preaching a message of repentance to the people of Jerusalem and "making the way
smooth" for the coming of the Messiah. John was a fierce and terrifying figure, the
last echo of Moses and Elijah, the final challenge of the fire and thunder of the
God of the ancient Jews.
John was well aware that he was a forerunner, not the Messiah, but that his job was
to prepare the people to receive the coming Messiah. He said, "I indeed baptize you
with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes
I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire."
(Luke 3:15-17). He also proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah on at least one occasion,
saying to the disciples, "Behold the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sin
of the world. This is he of whom I spoke." (John 1:29-30).
But later, when John was in prison for denouncing Herod's relationship with his sister-in-law,
he seems less certain about Jesus' identity. He send some of his remaining disciples
to Jesus to ask Jesus, "Are you the one?" (Luke 7:19-23).
John died in prison when he was decapitated by Herod in response to a whim by Herod's
seductive step-daughter, Salome (Mark 6:21-28). Even the Jews were shocked by this
summary execution, and when Herod was defeated shortly afterwards by his father-in-law
Aretas, it was commonly attributed to divine vengeance. (Joseph., loc. cit.) After
John's death, his disciples "came, and took his body, and laid it in a tomb" (Mark
6: 29), "and came and told Jesus" (Matthew 14:12).
John the Baptist's death is remembered on 29 August, and his burial-place has been
fixed by an old tradition at Sebaste (Samaria), although if John was executed at
Machaerus in the prison there, it's hard to understand why he was buried quite so
far from the Herodian fortress. Perhaps his remains were later carried to Sebaste.
At any rate, by the middle of the fourth century his tomb was honoured at Sebaste.
John the Baptist had a very contrasting manner and a contrasting ministry to Jesus,
yet the two complemented each other. Close in age and probably cousins, they may
have shared some time of training together in the desert. It says a great deal for
John's humility that he was able to accept that there was one coming who would be
greater than he himself, and that he was able to step back and allow his younger
cousin to take the leading role in ministry.
But perhaps above all John teaches us the importance of those who sow seeds, those
who prepare the way for others to reap the harvest. We are all supremely valuable
in ministry and like John and Jesus must learn to work together, for without John
to prepare the way for him, how would Jesus have succeeded in his ministry?