SUNDAY, JUNE 24: Just in time for the annual feast of St. John the Baptist’s Nativity (the feast of his beheading is in August)—scientists are breathlessly claiming to have found some of his bones. This news comes complete with National Geographic headlines, now that the venerable organization understands the potency of biblical claims. Sensational finds—even if they are of dubious accuracy—attract readers and viewers, National Geographic knows all too well.
If we write this holiday story with an air of skepticism, that’s because National Geographic is infamous for trumpeting headlines about biblical discoveries that turn out, often in later National Geographic headlines, to be bogus. Read the entire story at the National Geographic website and, way down at the bottom of the story, you will find: “While the new results suggest the bones are from John the Baptist’s time and place, archaeologist Andrew Millard said scientists will probably never be able to definitively say whether the relics belonged to the biblical figure.” The bones might be from other early Christian relics.
All headlines on this “discovery” seem to involve question marks. The Christian Science Monitor adds its own skepticism to its opening lines: “A small handful of bones found in an ancient church in Bulgaria may belong to John the Baptist, the biblical figure said to have baptized Jesus. There’s no way to be sure, of course, as there are no confirmed pieces of John the Baptist to compare to the fragments of bone.”
Why is this such appropriate news for the worldwide feast day? Because there are few saints with as many conflicting claims about their relics. As you’ll find in the “Relics” section of the Wikipedia article on St. John the Baptist: “Several different locations claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among them: Umayyad Mosque in Damascus; San Silvestro in Capite in Rome; and the Residenz Museum in Munich, Germany (official residence of the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria from 1385 to 1918). Further heads, no longer available, were once held by the Knights Templar at Amiens Cathedral in France (brought home by Wallon de Sarton from the Fourth Crusade in Constantinople), at Antioch in Turkey (fate uncertain), and the parish church at Tenterden in Kent, where it was preserved up until the Reformation.”
And, that’s just the tip of the skeleton! Two different locations claim to have St. John the Baptist’s right hand. And … Well, you get the idea. For many centuries, these relics have been in huge demand all around the world—so the temptation for extra bits and pieces to have found their way into reliquaries was enormous.
Why does St. John the Baptist matter around the world?
As the man who baptized Jesus—the forerunner and prophet who prepared the way for Jesus—St. John the Baptist is revered to this day in Christianity, Islam (where he is a great Prophet better known as Yaḥya ibn Zakariya, “John son of Zechariah”), Sufism, the Baha’i faith and Mandaeism (a tiny Gnostic sect largely displaced by war in Iraq). John’s works are written about in both the New Testament and the Quran, as well as mentioned by a noted Jewish historian. (Learn more about the Catholic point of view at Catholic.org.)
John’s association with Jesus came long before his birth. Christian tradition holds that John was Jesus’ cousin. John’s father was a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem, and it was John’s father—Zachariah—who beheld the news that his elderly wife would bear a son. The news was so miraculous that Zachariah was unable to speak during his wife’s pregnancy. At just six months older than Jesus, John the Baptist spent much of his young adult life as a hermit in the desert of Judea. (Wikipedia has details.) At 30, John began preaching on the shores of the Jordan River about the necessity of repentance and baptism. When Jesus came to be baptized, John recognized the messianic figure. For Muslims, the Quran revises and expands on John’s story, pointing out that the Prophet Muhammad met him on his famous Mi’raj, which Muslims just recalled in their calendar of holidays.
Even in the early centuries of Christianity, John the Baptist held special honor. In Constantinople alone, 15 churches were dedicated to this saint! Today, local bonfires mirror pre-Christian traditions marked near St. John’s Nativity, during Solstice celebrations. Today, Christian faithful now mark the day with outdoor feasts, games and dancing. In Slavic countries, St. John the Baptist’s Nativity is similar to the American Halloween, and children go door-to-door asking for treats; in Germany, specific “St. John’s herbs” are brought to church for a blessing.
From the wild man to a prophet granted the Purity of Life
In Christian tradition, St. John the Baptist remains largely a wild man with a wild story. Preachers like to describe John’s extreme ascetic practices. Countless artists and filmmakers (from Caravaggio, Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss to Rita Hayworth) have envisioned the dramatic story of his beheading as a result of the scheming Salome. But the Islamic tradition casts John in humbler and more graceful light.
In Sura 19, the Quran says that John was granted Purity of Life “and piety (for all creatures) as from Us, and purity: He was devout, and kind to his parents, and he was not overbearing or rebellious. So Peace on him the day he was born, the day that he dies, and the day that he will be raised up to life (again)!”