Catholic churches worldwide noted August 29 as the day of the beheading of John the Baptist, but the mental picture of John is never his death nor his imprisonment. Rather believers always remember John’s life, embracing the hardship of the desert or baptizing at the Jordan River – hence his name, John “the Baptist” (not related to this writer’s southern denomination).
In the early verses of Mark’s gospel he tells readers, “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (1:4-6)
The desert? Now that’s no place for a Jerusalem son of priestly aristocracy, related by both mother and father to the priestly line. And the locust diet (yes, it’s kosher according to Lev. 11) and camel hair fashion? What’s that about?
Jamison Creel, superintendent of the American school in Beit Jala, adjacent to Bethlehem, speculates that John was in the desert searching for an authentic religious experience, as opposed to the corrupt one offered by the Roman-affiliated Jerusalem priesthood.
“I think that though he grew up in a family that had access to the Jerusalem religious system he rejected it for being what it was at the time, based on greed and power and far from God. So he withdrew. There are many who connect John to the Qumran community and that is possible, but whether or not he interacted with them we can see that there were a lot of people that were critical of what was going on in Jerusalem.”
Roman historian and former Temple priest Josephus relates some specific examples of such greed. Twice, he writes, the high priest sent his servants to various threshing floors to collect tithes due to other priests. He also relates that the high priest would pay bribes to advance his position.
The Baptizer himself, upon seeing Pharisees and Sadducees among the crowds observing and receiving baptism, warns, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance.” (Matt.3:7-8)
Parallel to John’s desert experience were the Essenes, a division of the priestly line who rejected the Jerusalem priests as a corrupting influence on both the city and the Temple and mirrored some features of John. They resided in the desert (likely at or near Qumran) in search of wholesome religion and adopted a strict diet like John. Both had a particular dress code, as the Essenes dressed in white, representing purity, while John’s attire resembled an Old Testament prophet, especially Elijah (2 Kings 1:8).
The Gospels relate John’s activity in light of Old Testament prophecies by Isaiah and Malachi:
“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.’” (Mark 1:2-3)
John took this messianic call quite literally and, finding the Roman-impacted priesthood wanting, went to the desert.
The Gospel of Mark, arguably the earliest Gospel written, moves quickly to John’s ministry and baptizing activities, detailing these in the first chapter. This is the first meeting recorded in the Scriptures between the two cousins (other than a certain prenatal connection when pregnant Mary visited equally expectant Elizabeth as recorded in Luke 1:41)
“And this was his [John’s] message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” (Mark 1:7-9)
Consequently when Jesus arrives at the river John is hesitant, asking, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14)
Creel, who holds an M.A. in Middle Eastern Cultures and Religions from Jerusalem University College, explains, “I think John was just hesitant because he was a humble man and he knew who Jesus was. Jesus needed to go through with the baptism though as an act of obedience to God and a model to us.”
Among the more interesting of the disputed sites in the Holy Land is the authentic locale of Jesus’ Baptism by his cousin John. The late Anson Rainey, the world’s most prominent historical geographer, devoted about two pages and a sub-chapter in his 400-page magnum opus, The Sacred Bridge, to the topic.
The traditional site is located on the Jordan River a few miles north of the Dead Sea. The Jordanians have invested the full weight of their board of tourism promoting that site where both they and the Israelis have cordoned off small sections of the river. Their findings are substantial.
Matthew 3:1 tells that John was preaching in the “wilderness of Judea,” while Mark explains “all of the land of Judea and those from Jerusalem” went out to be baptized by him. These passages seem to support the Jordanian site.
John 1:28 refers to John baptizing at “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” so it is reasonable that Jesus’ baptism occurred within the borders of modern Jordan. Passage between the two sides of the Jordan River was not difficult in the first century as the water bound the land together (as opposed to the present when it is an international boundary between two countries sharing an uneasy relationship).
One problem is that no one has ever found Bethany (not to be confused with Bethany, Lazarus’ hometown on the Mt. of Olives). Church fathers Origen and Eusebius reconciled the problem by opting for Gospel of John manuscripts that mention “Bethabara beyond the Jordan.” The sixth century Madaba Map, a Byzantine mosaic depicting the Holy Land, places Bethabara just north of the Dead Sea but confounds matters by putting it on the western (Israeli) side of the river.
More recently scholars have suggested Bashan, northeast of the Sea of Galilee, as the site of Bethany, indicating a more northern site for Jesus’ baptism. The Old Testament in Aramaic (the Targums) supports this theory as there is a relation between “t” in Aramaic and “sh” (BeThany/BaSHan) in Hebrew, a sibling language. (For example, the Targum of Jerusalem renders Bashan as Bethania in Deuteronomy 32:14.) According to this theory, Bethany refers to a region in the Roman province of Judea. This proposal is easier to reconcile with John 1 in which Jesus meets disciples near the Sea of Galilee so quickly after the baptism.
Adding to the confusion, John 3:23 has the Baptist immersing people “in Aenon near Salim” – south of the Sea of Galilee about halfway between it and the Dead Sea.
Ultimately perhaps it is best to simply affirm Luke’s powerful but geographically ambiguous statement that John “went into all the region around the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Luke 3:3). Considering the Jordan River has changed course a bit in 2,000 years, no one should be overly dogmatic about the accuracy of any site.
John’s preaching and baptizing activities were sufficiently significant that Roman historian Josephus calls John “a good man” and records, “For immersion in water, it was clear to him [John], could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions.”
Josephus’ inclusion of John in his vital historical work, Antiquities of the Jews, is significant, even if the Roman historian misunderstood John’s baptism.
But after these early and vital acknowledgments in each Gospel, mentions of John the Baptist diminish, consistent with John’s own words, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
As such, the Gospel narrative hurries to John’s imprisonment and death. John had been critical of Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias (as was Josephus, referring to it as “confounding the laws of our country”). Gospel writer Mark records that Herodias influenced Herod to imprison John.
Even John, certainly no “reed shaken by the wind,” (Matt. 11:7), underwent a crisis of faith while in prison, sending his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one to come?”
Jesus responded with a paraphrase of the passage he had read in synagogue previously. “Go and report to John the things you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news.” (Luke 7:22)
Creel expands, “I think that John was a bit disillusioned by what Jesus was doing. Even Jesus’ disciples, after his resurrection, constantly asked about the establishment of a kingdom. I’m sure John asked Jesus to save him, but it was not to happen. I think it is interesting that when Jesus responds to John’s disciples he points out many of the things he is doing that fulfill messianic prophecy, particularly from Isaiah 61, but he doesn’t say anything about ‘freedom for the captives, or release of prisoners.’ I think Jesus was letting John know that ‘I am the messiah, but I’m not going to perform a miracle that will result in your freedom.’”
Gospel writer Mark explains that Herodias, wife of Herod, “held a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But she could not, because Herod was in awe of John and was protecting him, knowing he was a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard him he would be very disturbed, yet would hear him gladly.” (Mark 6:19-20)
Enticed by his niece’s dance (the daughter of Herodias and his brother), Herod offered to grant her a wish during a birthday banquet. After conferring with her mom, the girl asks and receives the head of John the Baptist. John’s disciples retrieved the body and placed it in a tomb in Sebastia, according to church tradition.
This transgression by Herod did not escape Josephus’ notice. He wrote, “Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’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…”
On John’s memorial day, it’s a challenge to gain accurate perspective on John the Baptist. Was he that bold baptizer foregoing the compromised luxury of the Jerusalem priesthood and challenging both the political and religious leadership? Or was he the captive questioner, undergoing a crisis of faith?
Justifiably, Jesus should offer the concluding word on John, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt 11:11)This article originally appeared in the September issue of the Jerusalem Post - Christian Edition. sign up to our newsletter