John the Baptist was born into a priestly race by both parents; his father Zacharias, being a priest of Abia, or Abijah (1 Chronicles 24:10), and his mother, Elisabeth, was «of the daughters of Aaron (Luke 1:3). John birth was miraculously foretold by an angel who also assigned John to be his name. He was born in the hill country where his mother went probably for privacy six months prior to the birth of Jesus.
According to Jewish law the child was circumcised on the eighth day and named. Friends and neighbors thought he should be name Zacharias after his father, but his mother insisted his name was to be John, when the father was asked, he still being speechless, took a writing tablet and wrote his name should be John. He was set apart as a Nazarite, according to the angelic injunction (Luke 1:15).
Little is known of John’s youth from that time until his ministry except for one verse, «The child grew and waxed strong in spirit and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel» (Luke 1:80).
John began his preaching ministry about the fifteenth year during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (25 AD). Preaching in Jerusalem and Judea, throughout the surrounding area including the River Jordan, John attracted a great multitude to himself (Matthew 3:3). He proclaimed the approaching of the «kingdom of heaven,» and administered the «rite of baptism» unto those who had repented.
The narrative of his birth, hard ascetic life, and the general expectation that someone great was about to appear attracted many to him. But, John performed no miracles (John 10:41).
It was during this time that Jesus came to be baptized, John at first declined until Jesus declared, «Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteous» (Matthew 3:15). By tradition with the baptism of John had performed his most important function; the king had come and been anointed to enter into his ministry (John 3:23; 4:1).
However, John’s ministry continued to a lesser degree; he instructed his disciples in certain moral and religious duties such as fasting (Matthew 9:14; Luke 5:33) and prayer (Luke 11:1). John continued witnessing to Jesus, and announcing that he was the Lamb of God and influenced two of his own disciples to accept Jesus as the Messiah and continue follow him (John 1:29, 33-37).
Shortly thereafter John’s ministry ended because he spoke out against Herod Antipas taking his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. John was imprisoned for reprimanding the king for this and other sins. While he was imprisoned John encouraged his disciples to follow Jesus (John 7:19-28). Meanwhile Herodias, who was embittered against John, was determined that he should die, but Herod’s conviction that John was a just man (Mark 6:20) and his fear of the people (Matthew 14:5) prevented this.
But her opportunity finally came, and taking advantage of a promise that Herod had given to her daughter, Heroditas asked for John’s head. The king reluctantly ordered the executioners to behead John in prison. Afterward John’s disciples buried his body, and went and told Jesus (Matthew 4:3-12; Mark 6:17-29).
The nature of John the Baptist was filled with impetuosity and fire; however, his life was characterized by self-denial, humility and holy courage. He abstained from so much that many thought him possessed saying, «He hath a devil.» In humility he refused the admiration which multitudes practically forced upon him. He said he was just a voice preaching in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of a greater one whose shoe-latchet he was not worthy to unloose.
The way in which John the Baptist was revered in the early is speculative. Early tradition holds that John was seen as an Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, the extent to which he viewed himself as such is questionable, but from the preceding one is likely to say he entertained very little of this view of himself because of his humility.
Perhaps at first there was some controversy between the Church and John’s disciples who did not acknowledge a subordinate status; but John’s encouragement, when he was alive, to his disciples to follow Jesus should have helped to relieved this. The Mandeans, who revere John, perhaps were remotely connected with the disciples.
In art John the Baptist is depicted bearing a book or dish with a lamb on it (from John 1:29). His feast days are June 24 (nativity practically six months before Christmas, according to Luke 1:37) and August 28, his death or decollation. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 599-600
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 507