John was a historical figure mentioned in each of the Canonical gospels, Aramaic Matthew and by the Jewish historian Josephus. He followed the example of previous Hebrew prophets, living austerely, challenging sinful rulers, calling for repentance, and promising God's justice. John is regarded as a prophet in Christianity, Islam, the Bahá'í Faith, and Mandaeism. Some scholars maintain that he was influenced by the Essenes, who were semi-ascetic, expected an apocalypse, and practiced rituals conferring strongly with baptism, although there is no direct evidence to substantiate this.
All four canonical gospels relate John's preaching and baptism in the River Jordan. Most notably he is the one who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and baptizes him. The baptism marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and (most clearly) Luke relate that Jesus came from Galilee to John and was baptized by him, whereupon the Spirit descended upon Jesus and a voice from Heaven told him he was God's Son. Their lives (e.g., births) are believed to have been similar, although in Christianity, John is thought of as the last prophet and Jesus as the Messiah.
Christians believe that John the Baptist had a specific role ordained by God as forerunner or precursor of Jesus, who was the foretold Messiah. The New Testament Gospels speak of this role. In Luke 1:17 the role of John is referred to as being "to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." In Luke 1:76 as "...thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways" and in Luke 1:77 as being "To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins."
There are several passages within the Old Testament which are interpreted by Christians as being prophetic of John the Baptist in this role. These include a passage in the Book of Malachi 3:1 that refers to a prophet who would prepare the way of the Lord:
Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. — Malachi 3:1and also at the end of the next chapter in Malachi 4:5-6 where it says,
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.The Jews of Jesus' day expected Elijah to come before the Messiah; indeed, some modern Jews continue to await Elijah's coming as well, as in the Cup of Elijah the Prophet in the Passover Seder. This is why the disciples ask Jesus in Matthew 17:10, 'Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?.' The disciples are then told by Jesus that Elijah came in the person of John the Baptist,
Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist. — Matthew 17:11-13These passages are applied to John in the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John indicates that John the Baptist did not fully appreciate his status.
An account of John the Baptist is found in all extant manuscripts of the Jewish Antiquities (book 18, chapter 5, 2) by Flavius Josephus (37–100):
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, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him.The faithful believe that John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, thus serving as a bridge between that period of revelation and the New Covenant. They also teach that, following his death, John descended into Hades and there once more preached that Jesus the Messiah was coming, so he was the Forerunner of Christ in death as he had been in life. According to Sacred Tradition, John the Baptist appears at the time of death to those who have not heard the Gospel of Christ, and preaches the Good News to them, that all may have the opportunity to be saved. Orthodox churches will often have an icon of St. John the Baptist in a place of honor on the iconostasis, and he is frequently mentioned during the Divine Services. Every Tuesday throughout the year is dedicated to his memory.
The Eastern Orthodox Church remembers Saint John the Forerunner on six separate feast days, listed here in order in which they occur during the church year (which begins on September 1):
- September 23 — Conception of St. John the Forerunner
- January 7 — The Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner. This is his main feast day, immediately after Theophany on January 6 (January 7 also commemorates the transfer of the relic of the right hand of John the Baptist from Antioch to Constantinople in 956)
- February 24 — First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Forerunner
- May 25 — Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Forerunner
- June 24 — Nativity of St. John the Forerunner
- August 29 — The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner
Yaḥyā ibn Zakarīyā (Arabic: يحيى بن زكريا), translated literally as John, son of Zechariah, is an Islamic prophet also known as the Biblical figure John the Baptist. He is believed by Muslims to be a witness to the word of God, and a prophet who would herald the coming of Jesus (Isa). His father Zakariya, the Biblical priest Zechariah, too was an Islamic prophet.