Luke 1:57-66, 80

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. [58] Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. [59] On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. [60] But his mother said, "No; he is to be called John." [61] They said to her, "None of your relatives has this name." [62] Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. [63] He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "His name is John." And all of them were amazed. [64] Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. [65] Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. [66] 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 "John".

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?



John the Baptist

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