Who is John the Baptist?
Understanding the Saint through Sacred Scripture and History
Who is John the Baptist?
Two people introduced in the main narrative of Luke’s Gospel are of great importance to Christianity – the parents of John the Baptist, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Although they are not the main focus of Luke’s infancy narrative, Zechariah and Elizabeth play a vital role in laying the foundation of the importance of Christ’s birth to both the Jewish community and also to humanity at large. The couple both come from a priestly background, Zechariah being a priest and Elizabeth being from a priestly family of the tribe of Aaron[A1] .
By birth, this makes John the Baptist is a priest, through the tribe of Levi. Pope Benedict XVI explains that “In him the priesthood of the Old Covenant moves toward Jesus; it becomes a pointer toward Jesus, a proclamation of his mission.” Pope Benedict continues, “concerning the priests who are consecrated to God, it is said: Drink no wine nor strong drink, you nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die; it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations (Lev 10:9.)”[A2]
The typology in the beginning of Luke hinges on a dialogue between the Angel of the Lord and Zechariah by the Holy of Holies. The Angel speaks to Zechariah and says:
6 And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,
17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Eli′jah,
to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,
and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
The prose used by Luke is to refer the audience back to the book of Malachi in the Old Testament and to frame John the Baptist as the new Elijah to “prepare the way before me” for Christ’s birth. Luke, according to tradition, was a fairly educated man (a physician) and a skilled writer who used his knowledge and skill to highlight the importance of the link of John the Baptist’s birth with Christ’s birth by connecting it to the Old Testament scripture to prove Malachi’s prophecy is being fulfilled through John. By examining Mal. 4: 5-6, we can see that Luke uses nearly identical language:
5 “Behold, I will send you Eli′jah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.”
It’s important to note that John does not assume the identity of Elijah, but rather that he takes on the figure and statue of the Old Testament prophet – as Pope Benedict writes, “he comes in the spirit and power of the great prophet.”
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 
The first day of summer either occurs on 20th or 21st June – the longest day of the year. It happens to fall not too far from the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. These are the days of summer where there is the most sunlight. I’ve always found it a puzzling paradox how the Church has organized the feast of John the Baptist with Christmas.
In chapter three of the Gospel of John, there is a scene between John and his disciples concerned with people going to Jesus to be baptized instead of to John. John’s reply is one of true humility toward the Incarnate Lord. He says, “30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” The seasons are a testimony to our movement toward Christ, especially after the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. Christians are moving forward in the liturgical calendar as the sun begins to decrease toward the Christmas feast. Of course, winter begins around 21st December, and with it, as anyone who follows the Liturgy of the Hours knows, every day the dawn from on high breaks upon us a little more each day.
It’s important to review the backstory of John’s parents to get to know the Baptist a bit better. When we first encounter Zechariah he is silenced by Gabriel for his doubting of God’s powers, which was no doubt a humbling experience. It is often the case that God gives us trials in life so as to humble us and to mold us toward living a life of holiness. Mary, who is conceived without sin, gives her unconditonal answer to God’s will. However, this was not Zechariah’s response. Whereas Mary questioned out of a naivety, Zechariah questioned Gabriel because he doubted that God could make John’s birth a possibility. Zechariah had been without speech for the entire duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John, but during the debate over the tradition of naming the child, Zechariah was given another chance to give his will to God’s plan for salvation.
After the birth of John, Zechariah witnessed all that had come true with the miracle of his son’s conception and birth. Among his wife Elizabeth’s kin, a great debate arose over the naming of the child. The tradition of naming the child after the father had a precedent with the family; however, Elizabeth insisted on the name of John. Edward Sri points out, “What is interesting for us as readers is that we know John is the name Gabriel instructed Zechariah to give to the child (see 1:13), yet Elizabeth seems to arrive at the same conclusion on her own – independent of any angelic revelation or conversation with her husband, who has been mute for the last nine months.”
The importance of this event is illustrated by Zachariah’s spoken revelation of the child’s name being John, as all were aware of him being rendered a mute after his duties as a priest in the Holy of Holies. By this divine revelation through Zechariah, after his mistrust in God’s plan in the Holy of Holies, Zechariah finally aligns his will with God’s and is finally allowed to speak when he asserts John’s name. At this point, Zechariah, being able to speak again, gives a great Benedictus, a canticle of reflection on the events that have transpired and a reflection on how we can order our own will toward God’s will:
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 through the tender mercy of our God,
when the day shall dawn upon us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 
The Zechariah Canticle is read every morning during the Divine Office and it is placed there as a reminder of the promise of God. It is also a reflection of the universal call within the Body of Christ in the common priesthood of the Church. What does it mean to be a member of the common priesthood in the Body of Christ and what does it mean to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways”?
What we know about John the Baptist mostly comes from the Gospels and his role as an eschatological (messenger of the end times) [A3] preacher and in baptizing Jesus. As mentioned in an earlier section on the parentage of Zechariah and Elizabeth, he was the descendent of a priestly family. Theissen and Marz indicate in The Historical Jesus that this heritage of being from a priestly family could be historical. John appears by his preaching to be in conflict with the temple with his call to baptism. He also has distanced himself from the temple with his location in the wilderness, which was not an uncommon with the Jewish sect known as Essenes.
Luke’s Gospel is the only Gospel that speaks directly to the more ethical teachings of John the Baptist. The other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Mark, have the baptism narrative of Jesus but do not convey John’s teachings to particular groups of people during their baptisms at the Jordan River. It is easy to imagine the scene laid out by Luke – a burly man, wrapped in camel skin with a coarse voice teaching:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
And with some trepidation a voice from among the crowd asks, “What then shall we do?” John speaks as though thunder is rolling off the banks of the Jordan and springing forth from the shallow of the river: “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise”. And to the tax collectors with firmness he teaches, “Collect no more than is appointed you”. Finally, his attention turns to the proud soldiers, and with a stern look on his face, his voice drops to a smooth cadence, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
A radically lived holy life is naturally attractive in itself, and pairing that with the natural charisma of a fiery preacher, it’s no wonder people were attracted to John’s ministry. John’s charisma and preaching would have changed lives alone; however, the Gospels are not the only source for John’s existence in the historic sphere.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus writes about John the Baptist in the Jewish antiquities. In reference to Herod[A4] Antipas, Josephus describes the character of John the Baptist explaining that, “For Herod had executed him, though he was a good man and had extorted the Jews to exercise virtue, both in practicing justice toward one another and in piety toward God, and, so doing, to join in baptism.” The interaction between John and Herod Antipas is very important to verifying his existence in the historical record. There is no doubt that Herod Antipas was the Tetrach of Judea during the 1st century A.D. What is important to convey is that the Gospels record that John the Baptist was put to death by Herod and non-Christian sources of Josephus confirms this claim.
Josephus goes on to explain that Herod Antipas grew concerned with possible insurrection against his rule due to John the Baptist’s charisma and decided to take John into custody. This arrest of John, where he was put to death, is given in a little less detail in Josephus’ account. However, Josephus does explain that the Jews felt that “the destruction which overtook Herod’s army came as vengeance against Herod [for executing John], God wishing to do him harm.”
It’s important to make the point that here that even with a later dating of Gospels—in a culture with a strong oral tradition—the application of kinship of Jesus to John the Baptist, whose historicity cannot be questioned by the verification of his fate from Herod Antipas, indicates that Gospels are reliable accounts. For example, if there was a religious sect going around saying my grandfather was a cousin to their leader, I’d be fully able to refute or support those claims.
 Pope Benedict XVI, The Infancy Narratives, 16.
 Ibid, 22.
 Lk. 1: 16-17 RSV
 Mal. 3:1 RSV
 Mal. 4: 5-6 RSV
 Lk. 1:8-11 RSV
 Pope Benedict, 23.
 Mal 4:5 RSV
 The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), Jn 3:30.
 Ibid, 58.
 RSV Lk 1:67–80.
 Thiessen and Marz, 198.
 Lk 3:7–9. RSV
 Lk 3:11. RSV
 Lk 3:13. RSV
 Lk 3:14. RSV
 Paul L. Maier, Josephus: The Essential Works (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1994), 271.
 Ibid, 272.