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John baptizes Jesus (sarcophagus from SantaMaria Antiqua, Rome, 200s AD)

John the Baptist baptizes Jesus (sarcophagus from Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, 200s AD)

Who was John the Baptist?

John the Baptist was, according to the Bible, the cousin of Jesus Christ. He was the son of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. He was a little older than Jesus. Like his cousin Jesus, John was Jewish, and lived in Israel. As with Jesus, we don’t have any information from that time about John the Baptist except what the Bible says.

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How did people know John was a holy man?

According to the Bible, when John grew up, he began to live a very holy life. He wore skins and went barefoot and ate only wild food – locusts (they’re like grasshoppers), and wild honey. Because John was clearly such a holy man, a lot of Jewish people in Israel began to pay attention to John’s ideas, and follow him around.

History of honey

Why is he called John the Baptist?

When Jesus was grown up and ready to begin preaching, he began by asking John to baptize him. That’s why people call John “John the Baptist.”

What is baptism?

What happened to John after that?

Salome dancing: Mosaic from the baptistry of Florence, Italy, about 1250 AD.

A little after this, John got into trouble with the king of Israel, Herod. Actually he got into trouble with Herod’s wife, Herodias. In his preaching, John said that Herod should not have married her, because Herodias had been married before to Herod’s brother Philip. John felt it was immoral to marry your brother’s widow. But that was not wrong where they lived. In Jewish tradition, it was not just allowed but encouraged. Men were supposed to marry their brother’s widow, so they could have the children that their brother didn’t get to have. Herodias was angry when she heard John saying it was wrong. So she convinced her daughter, Salome (Herod’s stepdaughter) to help her get revenge.

(also from the baptistry of Florence, Italy, about 1250 AD)

(also from the baptistry of Florence, Italy, about 1250 AD)

Salome dances for Herod

So Herodias’ daughter Salome (SAL-oh-may) went to her stepfather Herod’s birthday party. Salome danced at the party, and she danced so beautifully that Herod promised to give her whatever she asked for as a reward. (In stories, this is always a terrible idea. And probably in real life, too.)

John the Baptist's head on a platter (Cluny museum, Paris)

John the Baptist’s head on a platter (Cluny museum, Paris)

So Salome asked her mother what she should wish for, and Herodias told Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

His head on a platter

Herod was not happy when he heard this, because John hadn’t really done anything wrong, and killing him was sure to make the people angry, but he kept his promise and cut off John’s head. (Mark 6:17-29).

Compare this story to the story of Esther – both are about foolish kings and sneaky women. Or to this Islamic story.

Bibliography and further reading about the history of Christianity:


Or check out the Encyclopedia Britannica page on John the Baptist.

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