JOHN THE BAPTIST, SAINT
In the New Testament the forerunner of the Messiah (feast day: 30 Ba’unah). He is called Ioannes ho Baptistes because in Matthew 3:6-11 he prepares for the coming of Christ by administering the baptism of conversion and penance. His origin and mission are described in Luke 1:5-80 as parallel to those of Jesus Christ.
John is the son of Zechariah, of priestly family, and Elizabeth, and his birth is considered miraculous because of the old age of his parents. Tradition situates the event in ‘Ayn Karim, a small village some 4 miles (about 7 km) west of Jerusalem. Luke 1:80 states that the child dwelt in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel, which might suggest that he had some relation to the Essene movement based in Qumran, although John the Baptist differs from the Qumran community in that his message was open to all. He appears preaching and baptizing on the banks of the Jordan in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 28-29). When Jesus goes from Nazareth to receive John’s baptism, John recognizes him and proclaims him the Messiah (Mt. 3:1-12). In his preaching, John censures the behavior of Herod Antipas, which leads to his own imprisonment, and beheading at the request of Herodias, niece of Herod, who receives his head on a platter. John’s body is recovered by his disciples and buried (Mt. 14:3-12).
The Gospels show John the Baptist as Elijah restored to life (Mt. 11:14, 17:10-13; Mk. 9:13), applying to him the passage of Malachi 2:23. Although he is inferior to Jesus and at the service of the latter’s mission (Mt. 3:11-12; Jn. 1:8, 30-31), he is greatly praised by Jesus as the greatest of those born of woman (Mt. 11:9-11; Jn. 5:35). John’s preaching to the whole of Israel is an invitation to repentance and the radical conversion of men in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom and the Messiah (Lk. 3:7-9, 16-17). A group of disciples gathers around him, some of whom will later follow Jesus (Jn. 1:35-51), whereas others seem to continue John’s movement parallel to that of Christ (Acts 18:24; 19:1ff.).
John is also praised by Flavius Josephus, who adds that he died in Maqueronte (Josephus Antiquities 18. 5. 2). The apocryphal gospels add new data to his life. Some state that his conception took place 9 October and his birth 5 June. The Protogospel of James of the second or third century, based on Matthew 23:35, confuses Zechariah the father of John the Baptist with Zechariah the prophet, son of Berechiah, a confusion that continues in a large part of later literature. This same apocryphal gospel relates the legendary flight of Elizabeth with the child from the persecution of Herod, and the miracle whereby the rock opens up and hides mother and child from their pursuers. The Qur’an mentions him (19 and 21), and so John the Baptist and his parents became popular figures in Islamic literature.
The cult of John the Baptist was widely extended throughout the church at the end of the fourth century, almost certainly through the influence of the monks, who saw in him a perfect model of asceticism, and also because of the continual discoveries of relics of the saint. Numerous churches were dedicated to John the Baptist in Palestine during the Byzantine period, located in ‘Ayn Karim and especially in Sebaste (in Samaria), the place to which the disciples, according to tradition, removed his body. Churches were soon erected in the West also.
It is sufficient to mention Saint John Lateran in Rome and the church in Ravenna consecrated by Saint Peter Chrysologus. From the fourth century at least, the Greeks celebrated 7 January as the feast of the day after the baptism of Jesus. This date was changed by the Nestorians and Armenians. The West, at least from the time of Augustine, celebrated the birth of John the Baptist on 24 June, corresponding to the celebration of the birth of Jesus on 25 December, whereas the beheading was commemorated on 29 August, perhaps corresponding to the date of the dedication of a church in his honor in Sebaste or the translation of relics.
There are abundant traditions of relics of John the Baptist and places where they are preserved. Saint JEROME, Rufinus of Aquileia, and Theodoretus coincide in stating that the body of John the Baptist was buried and venerated in Sebaste. According to Theodoretus, the tomb was profaned in the time of JULIAN THE APOSTATE, in the fourth century, the body burned and the ashes scattered to the winds. Rufinus, however, states that some monks were able to save the bones and send them to Patriarch ATHANASIUS I of Alexandria. Some scholars, such as Sozomen in the fifth century, claim that the head of John the Baptist, having been removed from Alexandria, was sent to Constantinople by order of the Emperor Valens in the fourth century. Others, such as Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century (PL 67 pp. 420-32) state that it was taken from the Holy Land to Emessa by two monks.
Place in the Coptic Church
In the Coptic church, John the Baptist is the most venerated biblical character after Jesus and the Virgin Mary. His cult was highly popular in Egypt and many churches were dedicated to him. There are eight feasts related to him in the calendar of the Coptic church: (1) 2 Tut commemorates the death of Zechariah and recalls the childhood of John the Baptist; (2) 26 Tut commemorates the annunciation by the archangel Gabriel to Zechariah of the birth of John; (3) 18 Babah commemorates the death of the patriarch THEOPHILUS OF ALEXANDRIA who built the shrine for the relics of John the Baptist; (4) 11 Tubah marks the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan; (5) 16 Amshir marks the death of Elizabeth, recalling John’s birth; (6) 30 Amshir recalls the discovery of John the Baptist’s head; (7) 2 Ba’unah recalls the discovery of his bones; and (8) 30 Ba’unah celebrates his birth.
On the translation and permanence of the relics of John the Baptist in Alexandria, Coptic historical tradition, contained in the History of the Church of Alexandria (Orlandi, 1968) and in the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS, draws on a tradition along the lines of Rufinus of Aquileia and is briefly as follows. In the times of Julian the Apostate, the relics of John the Baptist were in danger of being destroyed by fire in Sebaste (or Jerusalem) when the emperor ordered the Christian tombs, discovered during the reconstruction of the Temple, to be burnt. Some Christians were able to save them and send them to Athanasius, who placed them in the baptistery of Alexandria. Athanasius declared his intention of building a martyrium to John the Baptist in the place occupied by the garden of his parents. Theophilus heard of this, and when he succeeded Athanasius as archbishop of Alexandria, he built the martyrium over the ruins of the Sarapion, which had been destroyed by the monks. The relics were then removed to the martyrium.
Place in Coptic Literature
Coptic literature is full of references to John the Baptist in encomia, doxologies, and magic texts. Among the encomia there is a Sahidic fragment attributed to Theophilus of Alexandria, probably genuine, De aedificatione Martyrii Ioannis Baptistae (Orlandi, 1969, pp. 23-26). This fragment contains an account of the translation of the bones of John the Baptist and of the prophet Eliseus to Alexandria and the intent of Athanasius to build the martyrium, a project he was unable to complete. The text probably continues with the building of the church by Theophilus, as narrated in the fragments of a Sahidic encomium (van Lantschoot, 1931, pp. 235-54).
Also preserved is an untitled homily in Sahidic that might have belonged to CYRIL I, patriarch of Alexandria (Rossi, 1887, fasc. 3, pp. 53-65; for the attribution to Cyril, see Orlandi, 1971, p. 181). The fragments of this homily narrate the martyrdom of John the Baptist and largely coincide with another encomium attributed to THEODOSIUS I, patriarch of Alexandria, in Sahidic and preserved in several manuscripts (Kuhn, 1966, Vols. 33 [text] and 34 [translation]). This encomium is divided into three parts: the birth of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, and John’s martyrdom. John is said to have his throne in the seventh heaven by the side of the Holy Trinity.
A homily preserved in Bohairic, by an unknown author, is dependent on these Sahidic works and narrates the martyrdom (De Vis, 1922, pp. 1-52). An encomium attributed to PROCLUS OF CONSTANTINOPLE has also been preserved in Sahidic Coptic (Rossi, 1887, pp. 65-82). It is independent of the works mentioned and is concerned in particular with the burial of John the Baptist’s head. A further encomium in Sahidic is attributed to Saint JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (Budge, 1913, pp. 128-145 [text]; pp. 335-51 [translation]; see also the improved translation in German by W. Till, 1958, pp. 322-32).
This work is of great interest because of the apocalyptic traits it contains. As his field of action, John the Baptist is assigned to the third heaven, to which he carries the souls dedicated to him in a golden ship, freeing them from rivers of fire. The discovery of relics of John the Baptist is also narrated in other Coptic works, for example, in “Gesta Gessi et Isidori” (Steindorff, 1883, pp. 137-58). There are besides many other fragments, probably from homilies on the birth of Christ or liturgical texts, that mention John the Baptist and his glory in heaven (Till, 1958, pp. 311-21; Orlandi, 1971, p. 181).
Coptic literature concerning John the Baptist contains the marvelous accounts proper to apocryphal literature and attributes to the saint new miracles, such as his appearance to a wealthy young woman, who, when she is about to marry, consecrates herself to virginity (van Lantschoot, 1931, p. 239). But above all, his role as prophet and forerunner of the Messiah is stressed, together with his glorification in heaven. Thus in the Panegyric on John the Baptist by Theodosius of Alexandria (Kuhn, 1966) it is stated that in the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, John, in an imaginary conversation with his mother, asks her to allow him to leave her womb in order to adore his Lord and the mother of his Lord.
When he realizes that the moment of his birth has not yet arrived, he asks Elizabeth herself to adore Jesus and Mary (Kuhn, 1966). The voice crying in the wilderness (Mt. 3:3ff.) is interpreted as the voice of the archangel Gabriel, who sends John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord. When John, acknowledging his unworthiness, refuses to baptize Jesus, the latter tells him that he has already baptized John through his mother Mary’s greeting when he was still in Elizabeth’s womb. A curious feature is that John the Baptist is compared in dignity with Adam, insofar as the latter was not the son of man but created directly by God, and he is even called the second Adam. Finally, attention is drawn to the fact that a confession of trinitarian and Christological faith is seen in the letters that make up the name of John the Baptist.
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GONZALO ARANDA PEREZ