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John the Baptist

JOHN THE BAPTIST. The immediate forerunner of Jesus, sent by God to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. John was of priestly descent on the side of both his parents. His father Zachariah (kjv Zacharias) was a priest of the course of Abijah, while his mother Elizabeth belonged to the family of Aaron. They are described as being “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (Luke.1.6). John was born in a city of the hill country of southern Judea, about six months before the birth of Jesus. His parents were then old. His birth had been foretold by an angel to Zachariah while he was serving in the temple. The angel told him that his prayer for a child would be answered and that his wife would give birth to a son who was to be named John and who was to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. About his childhood and youth we know only that he lived as a Nazirite in the desert and that he was filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth (Luke.1.15). It is thought by some that he was a member of a Jewish sect of monks called the Essenes, but there is no clear evidence that this was so.

His first public appearance is carefully dated by Luke (3:1-2), according to the way time was then reckoned. This was somewhere about a.d. 26 or 27. His early ministry took place in the wilderness of Judea and in the Jordan Valley. The main theme of his preaching was the near approach of the messianic age and the need for adequate spiritual preparation to be ready for it. His mission was to prepare the people for the advent of the Messiah so that when he made his appearance, they would recognize and accept him. His message did not harmonize with what many of his hearers expected, for while they looked for deliverance from and judgment on the foreign oppressor, John said that the Messiah would separate the good from the bad and would cast into the fire any tree that did not bring forth good fruit. Many of the Jews, especially the Pharisees, thought that they would enter the kingdom of God automatically, simply because they were physically descended from Abraham; but John declared in no uncertain terms that this was not so at all. He called on them to repent sincerely of their sins and to be baptized. The baptism by water that he administered signified a break with and cleansing from sin. His baptism was not something utterly new to the Jews; it had its roots in practices already familiar to them: in the various washings required by the Levitical law (Lev.11.1-Lev.11.47-Lev.15.1-Lev.15.33), in the messianic cleansing foretold by the prophets (Jer.33.8; Ezek.36.25-Ezek.36.26; Zech.13.1), and in the proselyte baptism of the Jewish church. His baptism, however, differed essentially from these in that while the Levitical washings brought restoration to a former condition, his baptism prepared for a new condition; the Jews baptized only Gentiles, but he called on Jews themselves to be baptized; and his baptism was a baptism of water only in preparation for the messianic baptism of the Spirit anticipated by the prophets.

While the multitudes of common people flocked to the Jordan, Jesus also came to be baptized. Although Jesus and John were cousins, it appears that John did not know that Jesus was the Messiah until he saw the Holy Spirit descend on him at his baptism (John.1.32-John.1.34). When Jesus came to him for baptism, he saw that Jesus had no sin of which to repent, and John would have refused to baptize him, had Jesus not insisted, saying that it was necessary for him to fulfill all righteousness. Shortly after, John said to two of his disciples as they saw Jesus pass by, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John.1.29), and they left him to follow Jesus. He recognized the subordinate and temporary character of his own mission. For some unexplained reason, some of his disciples did not leave him to follow Jesus; and when some of them came to John with the complaint that all men were coming to Jesus, he said to them, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John.3.30), saying also that he was not the Messiah but only the forerunner of the Messiah. Little is known about John’s training of his disciples beyond the fact that it included forms of prayer (Luke.11.1) and frequent fastings (Matt.9.14), but he must also have taught them much concerning the Messiah and his work. Their loyalty to him is shown in their concern about Jesus' overshadowing popularity, their refusal to abandon him in his imprisonment, the reverent care they gave his body after his death, and the fact that twenty years later there were disciples of his, including Apollos, the learned Alexandrian Jew, in faraway Ephesus (Acts.19.1-Acts.19.7).

The exact time of John’s imprisonment or the length of time he was in prison is not known. It is clear, however, that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee after John was put in prison and that John was in prison approximately seven months when he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to inquire whether he really was the Messiah. This inquiry seems strange in view of his previous signal testimonies and is probably to be explained either in the interest of his disciples, who needed assurance that Jesus was really the Messiah; or in some misgivings of his own because the messianic kingdom was not being ushered in as suddenly and as cataclysmically as he had expected; or perhaps because he thought he was being forgotten while others were being helped. When the two disciples returned to John, Jesus expressed the frankest appreciation of John, declaring him to be more than a prophet, and that he was indeed God’s messenger sent to prepare the way for him (Matt.11.10-Matt.11.19).

The Gospels tell that John met his death through the vindictiveness of Herodias, whom John had denounced for her sin of living in adultery with Herod. Josephus, on the other hand, attributes John’s death to Herod’s jealousy of his great influence with the people. He also says that the destruction of Herod’s army, in the war with his spurned wife’s father-in-law, was regarded by the Jews as God’s punishment on him for the murder of John. Josephus undoubtedly gives, not the real reason, which he would not dare to give to the public, but the reason Herod chose that the public be given.

Bibliography: C. H. Kraeling, John the Baptist, 1951; J. Steinmann, Saint John the Baptist and the Desert Tradition, 1958; C. H. H. Scobie, John the Baptist, 1964; W. Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, 1968.——SB

Son of the priest Zechariah and Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth, John was born in circumstances suggesting divine intervention (Luke 1:5-79). He grew up in the desert (Luke 1:80). His association with the Qumran* community in his early days is possible, and in this case he may have been responsible for the Qumranic influences in the fourth gospel; but this suggestion should not be exaggerated. After his call, John was too independent a figure to be committed to another movement, whatever his background.

John's ministry began in the region of the Jordan; although if W.F. Albright is right to identify “Aenon near Salim” (John 3:23) with the Samaritan territory near Nablus, it had significantly wider scope. John appeared as an ascetic preacher (cf. Luke 1:15), clothed like the OT prophets with camel's hair, and eating locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6). He preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4 RSV), which included a reference to the dawning kingdom of God (Matt. 3:2). The eschatological content of his message, with its stress on judgment, is given by Matthew and Luke (Matthew 3:7- 12). The baptism which John administered had its background in Jewish lustration and initiation rites; but in John's hands it acquired a new dimension, both because it was no longer self- administered, and because it was accompanied by the demand for repentance in the light of Israel's need for renewal, and in the face of the coming messianic age (Mark 1:5; contrast Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2).

John's relation to Jesus in the NT is of special and obvious importance. He was similar to Jesus in many ways (cf. the parallelism of Luke 1 and 2); yet after him the line was drawn across history (Matt. 11). For he was above all the forerunner of the Messiah he recognized and confessed (Mark 1:2f., 7f.), even if he possibly had doubts on this score eventually (Matt. 11). The Johannine estimate of his own identity is probably correct. He regarded himself as neither the Christ nor Elijah, the expected forerunner of the new age; but simply as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (John 1:23 KJV). Probably, however, he modeled himself on Elijah. John is thus an important bridge- figure between Judaism and Christianity; his popular preaching marked a new beginning in Israel's history. His ministry was, as a result, regarded in the early church as the beginning of the Gospel period (Acts 10:36f.; cf. 1:22). John was put to death by Herod Antipas in the fortress of Machaerus, after the hostility of both Herod and Herodias, his wife, had been aroused (Mark 6:14- 29; differing in some respects from the account in Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2). The disciples of John the Baptist evidently remained together after his death (cf. Mark 6:29); but the Clementine Recognitions 1.60 is the only source to suggest that their existence constituted a threat to the Christian Church.

C.H. Kraeling, John the Baptist (1951); P. Winter, “The Proto-Source of Luke 1,” Novum Testamentum I (1956), pp. 184-99; J.A.T. Robinson, “The Baptism of John and the Qumran Community,” HTR L (1957), pp. 175-91; P. Benoit, “Qumran et le Nouveau Testament,” NTS VII (1960-61), pp. 279-88; C.H.H. Scobie, John the Baptist (1964); W. Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition (1968); F.F. Bruce, New Testament History (1969/70), pp. 145-54; E. Bammel, “The Baptist in Early Christian Tradition,” NTS XVIII (1971-2), pp. 95-128.

The sources for the life of John the Baptist (hereafter known as John) are found chiefly in the four gospels and Acts of the NT, and in a reference in Josephus.

Mark—1:2-11, 14; 2:18; 6:14-29; 8:27f.; 9:11-13; 11:29-33

“Q”—Matt 3:7-10—Luke 3:7-9Matt 3:11, 12—Luke 3:15-17Matt 11:2-6—Luke 7:18-23Matt 11:7-11—Luke 7:24-28Matt 11:16-19—Luke 7:31-35Matt 11:12—Luke 16:16Matthew 3:14ff.


21:32Luke 1:5-25, 57-66, 67-803:1ff.



11:1Acts 1:5, 2210:3711:1613:24f.

19:1-7John 1:6-8, 15, 19-403:22-305:33-3610:40f.

Josephus, Antiquities XVIII. v. 2

References extracted from Slavonic Josephus and from Mandean materials cannot be safely used for the history of the 1st cent.



The NT places a very high estimate upon the importance of John and his ministry. There existed a real solidarity between the missions of Jesus and John. Of John, Jesus said, “among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). He was the forerunner of Christ (Mark 1:2). His rite of baptism became a central Christian ordinance (Acts 2:38). His imprisonment and death had a great effect upon Jesus (Mark 1:14f.). The Master regarded him as the second Elijah sent by God in accord with ancient prophecy (Mal 4:5; Mark 9:13). He was the greatest figure yet produced under the old covenant (Matt 11:11). He epitomized all the OT saints who stood at the threshold of the new order without entering in (Heb 11:39b). He does not deserve the neglect the Church often accords him.

Radical criticism has sought to discredit the historical value of the birth narrative in Luke. The theory is widely held that the section was at first a document of the Baptist movement, embellished with legends, and exalting his position. The section is interpolated by one or two Christian stories, but left largely intact. There is, however, a complete lack of any evidence for the hypothesis. The creation of a Baptist sect to which these hypothetical sources are credited is poor criticism. There is no indication in any but the latest Mandean sources, themselves valueless as history, that John regarded Jesus with hostility or envied his rising fame and honor. All the data suggests that both John and his followers welcomed the advent of Christ and readily gave way to His leadership. The argument is wholly circular, which discovers in the sect the alleged sources that are then attributed to it. This kind of criticsm does not discredit Luke, but only the critics. The narrative in Luke bears all the marks of an authentic piece of historical tradition culled by the author in his research, which is generally credited with substantial accuracy. There was no motive in making John the son of an obscure priest if he was not. It is most unlikely that legends crept into the work of Luke, a first-rate historical source. Pessimism over his integrity is unwarranted and reflects an anti-supernaturalistic bias.


Jesus held the ministry of John to be of the highest importance. For John was a part of the messianic complex of events that form the grand object of prophecy. He was called to be the great eschatological pioneer, the forerunner of the Messiah Himself. Although he exercised his ministry just before Jesus did, and belonged to the time of promise, yet in another sense he belonged also to the time of fulfillment. John was the line of demarcation in the history of salvation. In him the future predictions of the OT began to find fulfillment (Matt 11:10-15). Jesus strongly endorsed John’s ministry, indicating the close solidarity he felt with John’s calling. Although Jesus stated, “he who is least in the kingdom is greater than he” (11:11), He did not intend to depreciate the greatness of John who was foremost among the revered OT worthies, but rather to exalt the superb opportunities open to one who will partake of the messianic promises in Christ Himself (cf. Matt 13:17).

John entered dramatically onto the stage of history in a.d. 28. Clothed in a cloak of camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey, he proclaimed to all who would hear the need for repentance and rectitude of life. He located in southern Transjordania, not far from Judea, in the uninhabited country bordering on Antipas’ realm. Everything about him recalled the prophet Elijah—his mantle, existing in the wilderness, his message—and people flocked to hear him. His food and clothing indicated his rejection of official Israel of the time and his conviction of a prophetic calling. Like the Essene community, John withdrew from society; but unlike them he sought to reform it by his preaching. The wilderness represented more than a solitary place to John. It was the place to which Elijah had fled (1 Kings 19:4), and the place where God led His people to the promised land. The wilderness was a place where the Lord revealed Himself, and where some believed the Messiah would appear (Matt 24:26). The setting only added to the excitement that John’s ministry stimulated among the expectant people of Judea. He did not go to the desert to hide from people. In fact he attracted large crowds (Luke 3:10). The fourth gospel reveals that John’s ministry extended into Samaritan territory (John 3:23). Aenon near Salim where John baptized people is near to Nablus. Later when Jesus spoke of entering into the labors of others (4:38) he was no doubt referring to the work of John. Both men were contemptuous of the “sons of Abraham” who rested so complacently upon their inherited election, and both made mission trips into foreign areas.

It is not easy to fit John into the current pattern of Jewish sects and parties. With the discovery of the Qumran scrolls, a hypothesis has become popular that ties John in with the Essene community. Perhaps John, the son of aged parents, was left an orphan and adopted by the Essene community. The community was situated not far from John’s home or from the place where he began to minister. By the time of his ministry, however, John had broken any connection he had with them. Although it is true that similarities exist between John and the community, differences also exist, and the theory is entirely speculative. It would seem somewhat closer to reality to think that John made an attempt at following the profession of father, being under a solemn obligation to do so as a son, but was so disgusted by the political machinations and corruption he encountered in the priesthood that he concluded Israel deserved the divine wrath. Whereupon he separated himself from official religion and called upon men to form a righteous remnant. John and Qumran practiced baptism, both saw their ministry in terms of the “voice” prophecy (Isa 40:3), and both were ascetic, but the resemblance is superficial. On the other hand, the Qumran sect was a closed system in retreat from the world, and would have frowned upon John’s efforts to convert sinners. The degree of anticipation was different. Qumran still waited for the messiah to come; John knew He was already here.

The Jewish historian Josephus gives an interesting account of John the Baptist in his Antiquities, XVIII. v. 2.

But some of the Jews believed that Herod’s army was destroyed by God, God punishing him very justly for John called the Baptist, whom Herod had put to death. For John was a pious man, and he was bidding the Jews who practised virtue and exercised righteousness toward each other and piety toward God, to come together for baptism. For thus, it seemed to him, would baptismal ablution be acceptable, if it were not used to beg off from sins committed, but for the purification of the body when the soul had previously been cleansed by righteous conduct. And when everybody turned to John—for they were profoundly stirred by what he said—Herod feared that John’s so extensive influence over the people might lead to an uprising (for the people seemed likely to do everything he might counsel). He thought it much better, under the circumstances, to get John out of the way in advance, before any insurrection might develop, than for himself to get into trouble and be sorry not to have acted, once an insurrection had begun. So because of Herod’s suspicion, John was sent as a prisoner to Macherus, the fortress already mentioned, and there put to death. But the Jews believed that the destruction which overtook the army came as a punishment for Herod, God wishing to do him harm.

There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of this passage in Josephus. It shows no mark of Christian invention or interpolation. Josephus presents John as a humanistic philosopher advocating virtue, but suppresses the messianic overtones to his ministry, just as one would expect from Josephus writing for Roman and Greek readers. Josephus merely supplements what is known already from the gospels. The Antiquities bring out the political side to John’s ministry as Herod saw it, whereas the gospels emphasize the moral and religious side. Undoubtedly Herod feared the political consequences of John’s popularity. His moral charges only added fuel to the flames. The testimony of Josephus reminds us that the memory of John lasted a long time after his death.


The good news was accompanied with severe denunciations of the status quo in Israel. Physical descent from Abraham did not guarantee the favor of God. Spiritual kinship with God must be evidenced in daily life. Even as a Gentile needed to be baptized to become a proselyte to Judaism, so the Jews needed to be baptized to become a part of God’s purified remnant of the latter days (Matt 3:10; 21:31). It was the hour of universal judgment, beginning with the house of Israel and extending throughout the world. The imminence of judgment in John’s preaching is plain. The work of judgment would belong to the ministry of the Messiah whose purpose it was to destroy wicked men and purge the remnant of sin. When Jesus came preaching “the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18), neglecting to emphasize the vindictive side of the prophecy in Isaiah (61:2), it gave John reason for pause. He hesitated for a time in his wholehearted support of Jesus’ claims for Himself because Jesus did not appear to be exactly the kind of Messiah he had expected. The explanation lies in Jesus’ own understanding of his twofold coming. The kingdom was present in its mystery form (Matt 13:11; Eph 3:5) in advance of its apocalyptic manifestation which was still future. John shared the OT time perspective of prophecy wherein the two comings of the Messiah were combined as one.

John followed his prophetic warnings about wrath with the appeal for repentance. A radical change of attitude resulting in a substantial alteration of life was demanded. His ethical instructions were exceedingly radical. When the multitude asked him what they ought to do to show their willingness to change, John gave some very harsh, practical steps to take. They ought to share their possessions with those who had none (Luke 3:11). The tax collectors ought to keep their demands within just limits (v. 13), a severe requirement because the job was not a pleasant one, and this policy could guarantee only the most meager earnings. The soldiers he asked to be content with their rations and to avoid all extortion and violence in the carrying out of their duties. He did not imply it was sinful to be a soldier. Forbidding pillaging of the local population could be a very large prohibition at a time when the soldiers were extremely hard up and in need of money or food. John made no effort to make his ethical demands palatable. Clearly exhortation (parenesis) goes along with proclamation (kerygma). Repentance and faith is to be accompanied with a serious attempt to reform one’s life. “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matt 3:8). A genuine experience of grace must reveal itself in spiritual fruit.


The rite that John performed on penitent sinners was the outstanding feature of his whole ministry; yet he was by no means its originator. Its distinctiveness lay in the meaning John put into the act. Basically this had two facets: a messianic or eschatological orientation, and personal renewal in the life of the person baptized. John saw himself as a figure of the end times sent in accord with divine prophecy to set in motion the complex of events in which the Messiah would be revealed to Israel and the world. John’s water baptism was a sign of a greater baptism of the Spirit that the Messiah would administer. At the same time, John was conscious of the unworthiness of Israel to receive her messianic King. He was no universalist—God would deal with His people, not some other—yet John rejected the notion that simply being a Jew was enough to insure divine favor. Repentance and reform of life were prerequisites to entering the Messiah’s kingdom. Baptism was the first evidence of the sincere desire to alter one’s way of behavior.

From what source did John derive inspiration for his practice and theology of baptism? Scholars such as Lidzbarski have sought to relate John’s baptism with that of the Mandeans, but there is a serious problem of chronology. The Mandean sect arose centuries after the time of John and borrowed their rite from Nestorian Christians. Their esteem for John came in during the Islamic period. It is utterly impossible to detect any influence on John from such a source. Something of the same is true of Jewish proselyte baptism. It is questionable whether the practice existed in the time of John. It may have had an influence upon later Christian practices, but cannot be used as a sure source for John’s baptism. Differences also exist in essence. Proselyte baptism was politically and ritualistically oriented, whereas John’s was eschatological and ethical. One needs to be very cautious in assuming that proselyte baptism gives a model for John’s. The fact that it is not mentioned in the NT limits its usefulness. The most natural place to look for an antecedent is the OT itself. Ceremonial lustrations to effect purity are common in the ancient world and in the Bible. In Leviticus 15, bathing in water is prescribed to cope with uncleanness. All forms of Jewish baptism sprang from such a source. It is unlikely that any real distinction was made between outward bodily cleanness and inward spiritual purity. The outer lustrations had deep spiritual significance. The believer ought to have “clean hands and a pure heart,” an inner purging with hyssop as well as outward ablutions (Ps 24:4; 51:7). Ultimately, all baptism looks forward to the opening of a fountain that can cleanse from sin and uncleanness (Zech 13:1).

The Qumran sect carried on their activities very near the place where John began his, which is often pointed out as the source of John’s rite and theology. The Qumran community practiced baptism for repentance. Baptism could have no effect unless accompanied with sincere repentance (Manual of Discipline, ch. 5). There may be no distinction between inner and outer, but there is also no separation of the two. The practices at Qumran go a long way in providing a possible source for John’s baptism. The coincidence is striking, and a positive relationship may indeed have existed between them. There are, however, important differences to note before assuming any substantial identity. John’s baptism was a once and for all, final act of repentance, not to be repeated. There is no indication that the first baptism at Qumran was thought of as an initiatory rite. The whole tenor of John’s preaching was more urgent and eschatological than theirs. His message was offered to the whole nation, not to exclusive members of the sect. If he did borrow some of the ideas of Qumran, he altered them before use. More likely John saw his rite in terms of prophetic symbolism. The word of the Lord could be performed as well as preached. Adapting the practice of Jewish lustration to his purposes gave John the ideal instrument for putting his message before men. His baptism was a plenary cleansing from all sin and uncleanness, an eschatological act that united the penitent with the remnant Israel of the latter days.

John and Jesus.

A question arises as to the identity of John. When John was approached by the party from Jerusalem, and asked if he was the Christ or Elijah, he replied emphatically in the negative (John 1:20f.). When Jesus ventured to reveal His evaluation of John, he affirmed unmistakably, “he is Elijah” (Matt 11:14). Is it possible that Jesus regarded him as Elijah, whereas John did not? John certainly played the part of Elijah, both the historical and the eschatological figure. Could he have done so without modeling himself upon the pattern consciously? He knew himself to be the forerunner of the Messiah (John 3:28). The answer must lie in the sense of the question posed to John. Although John lived in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17), and was called Elijah by Christ Himself, nevertheless, he was not Elijah redivivus in a literal sense. Figuratively he was Elijah, and he carried out the functions of the forerunner, but he did not want to accept the Jewish interpretation of this figure. He preferred to designate himself simply as “the voice” (John 1:23), because this title was not loaded with traditional misinter-pretations.


The account of John’s death is the only major story in the gospel of Mark that is not about Jesus (Mark 6:17-29). It must have reached its place in the story of Jesus after being preserved and told by the disciples of John who claimed his dead body (6:29). Many radical critics regard the story as legendary, containing merely a historical kernel. It is clear from both Mark and Josephus that Herod regarded John as a prime instigator in the messianic ferment that gripped Judea. When he heard about Jesus’ miracles, he thought John must have been raised from the dead (6:14). John constituted a political threat to Herod’s reign, and when John also criticized the morals of Herodias, his bride, Herod locked John in prison. There is nothing intrinsically unlikely in the story and nothing historically impossible. The death had an effect on Jesus Himself. When He first heard of the arrest, He withdrew into Galilee, sensing danger to Himself (Matt 4:12); when He learned of John’s execution He went into a lonely place (14:13) doubtless to contemplate the dread meaning of this for His own future.


Without doubt, John the Baptist was a profound influence upon the people of his day and upon the birth and growth of the Church. His prophetic passion and burning zeal set the stage for the emergence of Jesus Christ.


A. T. Robertson, John the Loyal (1911); A. Blakiston, John the Baptist and His Relation to Jesus (1912); C. H. Kraeling, John the Baptist (1951); A. S. Geyser, “The Youth of John the Baptist,” NovTest, I (1956), 70ff.; P. Winter, “The Proto-Source of Luke I,” NovTest, I (1956); K. Stendahl, The Scrolls and the New Testament (1957); J. Steinmann, Saint John the Baptist and the Desert Tradition (1957); J. A. T. Robinson, Twelve New Testament Studies (1962).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)






1. The Scene

2. His First Appearance

3. His Dress and Manner

4. His Message

5. His Severity


1. Significance

(1) Lustrations Required by the Levitical Law

(2) Anticipation of Messianic Lustrations Foretold by the Prophets

(3) Proselyte Baptism

2. Baptism of Jesus


1. The Time

2. The Occasion


1. The Inner Circle

2. Their Training

3. Their Fidelity


1. John’s Relation to Jesus

2. Jesus’ Estimate of John


I. Sources.

The sources of first-hand information concerning the life and work of John the Baptist are limited to the New Testament and Josephus Luke and Matthew give the fuller notices, and these are in substantial agreement. The Fourth Gospel deals chiefly with the witness after the baptism. In his single notice (Ant., XVIII, v, 2), Josephus makes an interesting reference to the cause of John’s imprisonment. See VI, 2, below.

II. Parentage.

John was of priestly descent. His mother, Elisabeth, was of the daughters of Aaron, while his father, Zacharias, was a priest of the course of Abija, and did service in the temple at Jerusalem. It is said of them that "they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Lu 1:6). This priestly ancestry is in interesting contrast with his prophetic mission.

III. Early Life.

We infer from Luke’s account that John was born about six months before the birth of Jesus. Of the place we know only that it was a city of the hill country of Judah. Our definite information concerning his youth is summed up in the angelic prophecy, "Many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb" (Lu 1:14-16), and in Luke’s brief statement, "And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel" (Lu 1:80). The character and spiritual insight of the parents shown in the incidents recorded are ample evidence that his training was a fitting preparation for his great mission.

IV. Ministry.

1. The Scene:

The scene of the Baptist’s ministry was partly in the wilderness of Southern Judea and partly in the Jordan valley. Two locations are mentioned, Bethany or Bethabara (Joh 1:28), and Aenon near Salim (Joh 3:23). Neither of these places can be positively identified. We may infer from Joh 3:2 that he also spent some time in Peraea beyond the Jordan.

2. His First Appearance:

The unusual array of dates with which Luke marks the beginning of John’s ministry (Lu 3:1,2) reveals his sense of the importance of the event as at once the beginning of his prophetic work and of the new dispensation. His first public appearance is assigned to the 15th year of Tiberius, probably 26 or 27 AD, for the first Passover attended by Jesus can hardly have been later than 27 AD (Joh 2:20).

3. His Dress and Manner:

John’s dress and habits were strikingly suggestive of Elijah, the old prophet of national judgment. His desert habits have led some to connect him with that strange company of Jews known as the Essenes. There is, however, little foundation for such a connection other than his ascetic habits and the fact that the chief settlement of this sect was near the home of his youth. It was natural that he should continue the manner of his youthful life in the desert, and it is not improbable that he intentionally copied his great prophetic model. It was fitting that the one who called men to repentance and the beginning of a self-denying life should show renunciation and self-denial in his own life. But there is no evidence in his teaching that he required such asceticism of those who accepted his baptism.

4. His Message:

The fundamental note in the message of John was the announcement of the near approach of the Messianic age. But while he announced himself as the herald voice preparing the way of the Lord, and because of this the expectant multitudes crowded to hear his word, his view of the nature of the kingdom was probably quite at variance with that of his hearers. Instead of the expected day of deliverance from the foreign oppressor, it was to be a day of judgment for Israel. It meant good for the penitent, but destruction for the ungodly. "He will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with .... fire" (Mt 3:12). "The axe also lieth at the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Lu 3:9). Yet this idea was perhaps not entirely unfamiliar. That the delay in the Messiah’s coming was due to the sinfulness of the people and their lack of repentance, was a commonplace in the message of their teachers (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, I, 169).

The call to repentance was then a natural message of preparation for such a time of judgment. But to John repentance was a very real and radical thing. It meant a complete change of heart and life. "Bring forth .... fruits worthy of repentance" (Lu 3:8). What these fruits were he made clear in his answers to the inquiring multitudes and the publicans and soldiers (Lu 3:10-14). It is noticeable that there is no reference to the usual ceremonies of the law or to a change of occupation. Do good; be honest; refrain from extortion; be content with wages.

5. His Severity:

John used such violence in addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees doubtless to startle them from their self-complacency. How hopelessly they were blinded by their sense of security as the children of Abraham, and by their confidence in the merits of the law, is attested by the fact that these parties resisted the teachings of both John and Jesus to the very end.

With what vigor and fearlessness the Baptist pressed his demand for righteousness is shown by his stern reproof of the sin of Herod and Herodias, which led to his imprisonment and finally to his death.

V. Baptism.

1. Significance:

The symbolic rite of baptism was such an essential part of the work of John that it not only gave him his distinctive title of "the Baptist" (ho baptistes), but also caused his message to be styled "preaching the baptism of repentance." That a special virtue was ascribed to this rite, and that it was regarded as a necessary part of the preparation for the coming of the Messiah, are shown by its important place in John’s preaching, and by the eagerness with which it was sought by the multitudes. Its significance may best be understood by giving attention to its historical antecedents, for while John gave the rite new significance, it certainly appealed to ideas already familiar to the Jews.

(1) Lustrations Required by the Levitical Law.

The divers washings required by the law (Le 11-15) have, without doubt, arcligious import. This is shown by the requirement of sacrifices in connection with the cleansing, especially the sin offering (Le 14:8,9,19,20; compare Mr 1:44; Lu 2:22). The designation of John’s baptism by the word baptizein, which by New Testament times was used of ceremonial purification, also indicates some historical connection (compare Sirach 34:25).

(2) Anticipation of Messianic Lustrations Foretold by Prophets.

John understood that his baptism was a preparation for the Messianic baptism anticipated by the prophets, who saw that for a true cleansing the nation must wait until God should open in Israel a fountain for cleansing (Zec 13:1), and should sprinkle His people with clean water and give them a new heart and a new spirit (Eze 36:25,26; Jer 33:8). His baptism was at once a preparation and a promise of the spiritual cleansing which the Messiah would bestow. "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me .... shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Mt 3:11 margin).

(3) Proselyte Baptism.

According to the teaching of later Judaism, a stranger who desired to be adopted into the family of Israel was required, along with circumcision, to receive the rite of baptism as a means of cleansing from the ceremonial uncleanness attributed to him as a Gentile. While it is not possible to prove the priority of this practice of proselyte baptism to the baptism of John, there can be no doubt of the fact, for it is inconceivable, in view of Jewish prejudice, that it would be borrowed from John or after this time.

While it seems clear that in the use of the rite of baptism John was influenced by the Jewish customs of ceremonial washings and proselyte baptism, his baptism differed very essentially from these. The Levitical washings restored an unclean person to his former condition, but baptism was a preparation for a new condition. On the other hand, proselyte baptism was administered only to Gentiles, while John required baptism of all Jews. At the same time his baptism was very different from Christian baptism, as he himself declared (Lu 3:16). His was a baptism of water only; a preparation for the baptism "in the Spirit" which was to follow. It is also to be observed that it was a rite complete in itself, and that it was offered to the nation as a preparation for a specific event, the advent of the Messiah.

We may say, then, that as a "baptism of repentance" it meant a renunciation of the past life; as a cleansing it symbolized the forgiveness of sins (Mr 1:4), and as preparation it implied a promise of loyalty to the kingdom of the Messiah. We have no reason to believe that Jesus experienced any sense of sin or felt any need of repentance or forgiveness; but as a Divinely appointed preparation for the Messianic kingdom His submission to it was appropriate.

2. Baptism of Jesus:

While the multitudes flocked to the Jordan, Jesus came also to be baptized with the rest. "John would have hindered him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? But Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt 3:13-15). Wherein was this act a fulfillment of righteousness? We cannot believe that Jesus felt any need of repentance or change of life. May we not regard it rather as an identification of Himself with His people in the formal consecration of His life to the work of the kingdom?

VI. Imprisonment and Death.

1. The Time:

Neither the exact time of John’s imprisonment nor the period of time between his imprisonment and his death can be determined. On the occasion of the unnamed feast of Joh 5:1, Jesus refers to John’s witness as already past. At least, then, his arrest, if not his death, must have taken place prior to that incident, i.e. before the second Passover of Jesus’ ministry.

2. The Occasion:

According to the Gospel accounts, John was imprisoned because of his reproof of Herod’s marriage with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (Lu 3:19,20; compare Mt 14:3,1; Mr 6:17,18). Josephus says (Ant., XVIII, v, 2) that Herod was influenced to put John to death by the "fear lest his great influence over the people might put it in his power or inclination to raise a rebellion. Accordingly, he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, and was there put to death." This account of Josephus does not necessarily conflict with the tragic story of the Gospels. If Herod desired to punish or destroy him for the reasons assigned by the evangelists, he would doubtless wish to offer as the public reason some political charge, and the one named by Josephus would be near at hand.

VII. John and His Disciples.

1. The Inner Circle:

Frequent reference is made in the Gospel narrative to the disciples of John. As the multitudes crowded to his baptism, it was natural that he should gather about him an inner circle of men who should receive special instruction in the meaning of his work, and should aid him in the work of baptism, which must have soon increased beyond his power to perform alone. It was in the formation of this inner circle of immediate followers that he prepared a sure foundation for the work of the Messiah; for it was from this inner group that the disciples of Jesus were mainly drawn, and that with his consent and through his witness to the superior worth of the latter, and the temporary character of his own mission (Joh 1:29-44).

2. Their Training:

Concerning the substance of their training, we know from the disciples of Jesus (Lu 11:1) that it included forms of prayer, and from his own disciples (Mt 9:14) we learn that frequent fastings were observed. We may be sure also that he taught them much concerning the Messiah and His work.

3. Their Fidelity:

There is abundant evidence of the great fidelity of these disciples to their master. This may be observed in their concern at the over-shadowing popularity of Jesus (Joh 3:26); in their loyalty to him in his imprisonment and in their reverent treatment of his body after his death (Mr 6:29). That John’s work was extensive and his influence lasting is shown by the fact that 20 years afterward Paul found in far-off Ephesus certain disciples, including Apollos, the learned Alexandrian Jew, who knew no other baptism than that of John (Ac 19:1-7).

VIII. John and Jesus.

1. John’s Relation to Jesus:

John assumed from the first the role of a herald preparing the way for the approaching Messianic age. He clearly regarded his work as Divinely appointed (Joh 1:33), but was well aware of his subordinate relation to the Messiah (Mr 1:7) and of the temporary character of his mission (Joh 3:30). The Baptist’s work was twofold. In his preaching he warned the nation of the true character of the new kingdom as a reign of righteousness, and by his call to repentance and baptism he prepared at least a few hearts for a sympathetic response to the call and teaching of Jesus. He also formally announced and bore frequent personal testimony to Jesus as the Messiah.

There is no necessary discrepancy between the synoptic account and that of the Fourth Gospel in reference to the progress of John’s knowledge of the Messianic character of Jesus. According to Mt 3:14, John is represented as declining at first to baptize Jesus because he was conscious of His superiority, while in Joh 1:29-34 he is represented as claiming not to have known Jesus until He was manifested by the heavenly sign. The latter may mean only that He was not known to him definitely as the Messiah until the promised sign was given.

The message which John sent to Jesus from prison seems strange to some in view of the signal testimonies which he had previously borne to His character. This need not indicate that he had lost faith in the Messiahship of Jesus, but rather a perplexity at the course of events. The inquiry may have been in the interest of the faith of his disciples or his own relief from misgivings due to Jesus’ delay in assuming the expected Messianic authority. John evidently held the prophetic view of a temporal Messianic kingdom, and some readjustment of view was necessary.

2. Jesus’ Estimate of John:

Jesus was no less frank in His appreciation of John. If praise may be measured by the worth of the one by whose lips it is spoken, then no man ever received such praise as he who was called by Jesus a shining light (Joh 5:35), more than a prophet (Mt 11:9), and of whom He said, "Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11:11). If, on the other hand, He rated him as less than the least in the kingdom of heaven, this was a limitation of circumstances, not of worth.

Jesus paid high tribute to the Divine character and worth of John’s baptism; first, by submitting to it Himself as a step in the fulfillment of all righteousness; later, by repeated utterance, especially in associating it with the birth of the Spirit as a necessary condition of inheriting eternal life (Joh 3:5); and, finally, in adopting baptism as a symbol of Christian discipleship.


The relative sections in the Gospel Commentaries, in the Lives of Christ, and the articles on John the Baptist in the several Bible dictionaries. There are a number of monographs which treat more minutely of details: W.C. Duncan, The Life, Character and Ac of John the Baptist, New York, 1853; Erich Haupt, Johannes der Taufer, Gutersloh, 1874; H. Kohler, Johannes der Taufer, Halle, 1884; R.C. Houghton, John the Baptist: His Life and Work, New York, 1889; H.R. Reynolds, John the Baptist, London, 1890; J. Feather, John the Baptist, Edinburgh, 1894; George Matheson in Representative Men of the New Testament, 24-66, Edinburgh, 1905; T. Innitzer, Johannes der Taufer, Vienna, 1908; A.T. Robertson, John the Loyal, New York, 1911.

Russell Benjamin Miller