Beheading of John the Baptist

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Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist-Caravaggio (1610).jpg
Decollation of Saint John the Baptist
Beheading of the Forerunner
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
Eastern Catholic Churches
Orthodox Church
Oriental Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion
FeastAugust 29 (Translation of Relic)
AttributesThe severed head of Saint John the Baptist on a round silver platter, often held by Salome or Herod Antipas
Salome and the Apparition of the Baptist's Head by Gustave Moreau. Watercolor painting. 1876. Now in Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.
Icon of the Beheading of John the Baptist (Museum of Icons, Recklinghausen)

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, also known as the Decollation of Saint John the Baptist or the Beheading of the Forerunner, is a biblical event and holy day observed by various Christian churches that follow liturgical traditions. The day commemorates the martyrdom by beheading of Saint John the Baptist on the orders of Herod Antipas through the vengeful request of his step-daughter Salome and her mother Herodias.

Traditional accounts[edit]

According to the Synoptic Gospels, Herod, who was tetrarch, or sub-king, of Galilee under the Roman Empire, had imprisoned John the Baptist because he reproved Herod for divorcing his wife (Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas of Nabataea) and unlawfully taking Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip I. On Herod's birthday, Herodias' daughter (whom Josephus identifies as Salome) danced before the king and his guests. Her dancing pleased Herod so much that in his drunkenness he promised to give her anything she desired, up to half of his kingdom. When Salome asked her mother what she should request, she was told to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Although Herod was appalled by the request, he reluctantly agreed and had John executed in the prison.[1]

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also relates in his Antiquities of the Jews that Herod killed John, stating that he did so, "lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his [John's] power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise), [so Herod] thought it best [to put] him to death." He further states that many of the Jews believed that the military disaster that fell upon Herod at the hands of Aretas, his father-in-law (Phasaelis' father), was God's punishment for his unrighteous behavior.[2]

None of the sources gives an exact date, which was probably in the years 28–29 AD (Matthew 14:1–12; Mark 6:14–27; Luke 9:9) after imprisoning John the Baptist in 27 AD (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14) at the behest of Herodias his brother's wife whom he took as his mistress. (Matthew 14:3–5; Mark 6:17–20);[3] According to Josephus, the death took place at the fortress of Machaerus. The following comparison table is primarily based on the New International Version (NIV) English translation of the New Testament.[4] The account of Flavius Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews was translated by William Whiston.[5]

Matthew Mark Luke–Acts John Josephus
Prologue Luke 1:5–80 John 1:6–18
Ministry Matthew 3:1–17 Mark 1:4–11
  • John the Baptist preached to people and baptised them in the Jordan.
  • John the Baptist baptised Jesus.
Luke 3:1–22; Acts 1:5, 1:21–22, 10:37–38, 11:16, 13:24–25, 18:25, 19:3–4
  • John the Baptist preached to people and baptised them in the Jordan.
  • John the Baptist baptised Jesus.
John 1:19–42, 3:22–36, 4:1
  • John the Baptist preached to people and baptised them in the Jordan. He denied being the Messiah.
  • John the Baptist did not baptise Jesus. He insisted Jesus was superior: the Son/Lamb of God.
  • Two of John the Baptist's disciples – including Andrew – defected to Jesus at John's own insistence.
  • John the Baptist baptised at Enon/Salim before being arrested. His disciples told him Jesus was successful; John endorsed Jesus as his superior and the Son of God.
  • Jesus heard the rumour he was more successful than John.
Jewish Antiquities 18. 5. 2.
  • John the Baptist preached to people and baptised them.
Prison Matthew 11:2–7, 14:6–12
  • John the Baptist criticised king Herod Antipas for marrying his brother's ex-wife Herodias.
  • John the Baptist was therefore arrested by Herod Antipas.
  • John the Baptist, in prison, heard about Jesus' deeds, sent some disciples to ask if Jesus was the awaited one. Jesus listed his miracles and said: 'Blessed is he who doesn't reject me'. The disciples returned to John the Baptist.
  • Herod wanted to kill John, but was afraid of the people.
  • John the Baptist was executed by beheading by Herod Antipas on the request of Herodias' daughter. His disciples buried his remains and told Jesus.
Mark 1:14, 6:17–29
  • John the Baptist criticised king Herod Antipas for marrying his brother's ex-wife Herodias.
  • John the Baptist was therefore arrested by Herod Antipas.
  • Herodias wanted John killed, but Herod Antipas protected John because he knew John was a just and holy man.
  • John the Baptist was executed by beheading by Herod Antipas on the request of Herodias' daughter. His disciples buried his remains.
Luke 3:19–20, 7:18–25, 9:9
  • John the Baptist criticised king Herod Antipas for marrying his brother's ex-wife Herodias and other evils.
  • John the Baptist was therefore arrested by Herod Antipas.
  • John the Baptist [in prison?] heard about Jesus' deeds (in Capernaum and Nain), sent 2 disciples to ask if Jesus was the awaited one. Jesus listed his miracles and said: 'Blessed is he who doesn't reject me.' The disciples returned to John the Baptist.
  • [no execution motive mentioned]
  • John the Baptist was executed by beheading by Herod Antipas.
John 3:24
  • [no arrest motive mentioned]
  • John the Baptist was arrested.
  • [no execution motive mentioned]
  • [no execution mentioned]
Jewish Antiquities 18. 5. 2.
  • John the Baptist gained a large following.
  • Herod Antipas feared the widely popular John the Baptist would incite his followers to launch a rebellion against his rule.
  • Therefore, he had John the Baptist arrested and imprisoned at Macherus.
  • Herod Antipas later had John the Baptist executed 'to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties'.
Epilogue Matthew 14:1–6
  • Word of Jesus' miracles spread.
  • Herod Antipas concluded Jesus was actually John the Baptist risen from the dead.
Mark 6:14–16
  • Word of Jesus' miracles spread; some people believed Jesus was actually John the Baptist risen from the dead, others believed he was Elijah, still others he was like a prophet of the past.
  • Herod Antipas agreed with those saying Jesus was actually John the Baptist risen from the dead.
Luke 9:7–9
  • Word of Jesus' miracles spread; some people believed Jesus was actually John the Baptist risen from the dead, others believed he was Elijah, still others that an old prophet had risen.
  • Herod Antipas didn't believe Jesus was John the Baptist, but had to be someone else.
John 5:30–38
  • Jesus said his claims were reliable, because he knew John the Baptist's testimony about Jesus was reliable, even though Jesus didn't need human testimony.

John 10:40–42

  • The narrator downplays John the Baptist's deeds in comparison to Jesus, and claims John's testimony of Jesus had convinced many people to believe in Jesus.
Jewish Antiquities 18. 5. 2.
  • Some Jews believed God later destroyed Herod Antipas' army as a punishment, because he had unjustly executed John the Baptist.

Feast day[edit]

The liturgical commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is almost as old as that commemorating his birth, which is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest, introduced into both the Eastern and Western liturgies to honour a saint.

The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast on 29 August, as does the Lutheran Church. Many other churches of the Anglican Communion do so as well, including the Church of England, though some designate it a commemoration rather than a feast day.[6]

The Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches also celebrate this feast on 29 August. This date in the Julian Calendar, used by the Russian, Macedonian, Serbian and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, corresponds in the twenty-first century to 11 September in the Gregorian Calendar. The day is always observed with strict fasting, and in some cultures, the pious will not eat food from a flat plate, use a knife, or eat round food on this day.

The Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates the Decollation of St. John on the Saturday of Easter Week, while the Syriac Orthodox, Indian Orthodox, and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches commemorate his death on 7 January.

Related feasts[edit]

The Beheading of St John the Baptist by Jan Rombouts

There are two other related feasts observed by Eastern Christians:

  • First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist (24 February). According to church tradition, after the execution of John the Baptist, his disciples buried his body at Sebaste, but Herodias took his severed head and buried it in a dung heap. Later, Saint Joanna, who was married to Herod's steward,[7] secretly took his head and buried it on the Mount of Olives, where it remained hidden for centuries.
The First Finding occurred in the fourth century. The property on the Mount of Olives where the head was buried eventually passed into the possession of a government official who became a monk with the name of Innocent. He built a church and a monastic cell there. When he started to dig the foundation, the vessel with the head of John the Baptist was uncovered, but fearful that the relic might be abused by unbelievers, he hid it again in the same place it had been found. Upon his death, the church fell into ruin and was destroyed.
The Second Finding occurred in the year 452. During the days of Constantine the Great, two monks on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem reportedly saw visions of John the Baptist, who revealed to them the location of his head. They uncovered the relic, placed it in a sack and proceeded home. Along the way, they encountered an unnamed potter and gave him the bag to carry, not telling him what it was. John the Baptist appeared to him and ordered him to flee from the careless and lazy monks, with what he held in his hands. He did so and took the head home with him. Before his death, he placed it in a container and gave it to his sister. After some time, a hieromonk by the name of Eustathius, an Arian, came into possession of it, using it to attract followers to his teaching. He buried the head in a cave, near Emesa. Eventually, a monastery was built at that place. In the year 452, St. John the Baptist appeared to Archimandrite Marcellus of this monastery and indicated where his head was hidden in a water jar buried in the earth. The relic was brought into the city of Emesa and was later transferred to Constantinople.
  • Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist (25 May). The head was transferred to Comana of Cappadocia during a period of Muslim raids (about 820), and it was hidden in the ground during a period of iconoclastic persecution. When the veneration of icons was restored in 850, Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople (847–857) saw in a vision place where the head of St. John had been hidden. The patriarch communicated this to the emperor Michael III, who sent a delegation to Comana, where the head was found. Afterwards, the head was again transferred to Nyc, and here on 25 May, it was placed in a church at the court.
Iconostasis in the Church of the Ascension of Jesus, Skopje from 1867, Northern Macedonia. The Beheading of John the Baptist is carried out by figures stylized like Ottoman Turks.


The purported head of Saint John the Baptist, enshrined in its own Roman side chapel in the San Silvestro in Capite, Rome
A Muslim shrine dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria.
A 1742 Tarì coin of the Knights Hospitaller, depicting the head of Saint John the Baptist on a round silver platter.

According to ancient tradition, the burial place of John the Baptist was at Sebaste, near modern-day Nablus in the West Bank, and mention is made of his relics being honored there around the middle of the fourth century. The historians Rufinus and Theodoretus record that the shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate around 362, the bones being partly burned. A portion of the rescued relics was carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria, where, on 27 May 395, they were laid in the basilica that was newly dedicated to John the Baptist on the former site of the temple of Serapis. The tomb at Sebaste continued, nevertheless, to be visited by pious pilgrims, and St. Jerome bears witness to miracles being worked there. Today, the tomb is housed in the Nabi Yahya Mosque ("John the Baptist Mosque").

What became of the head of John the Baptist is difficult to determine. Nicephorus[8] and Symeon Metaphrastes say that Herodias had it buried in the fortress of Machaerus (in accordance with Josephus). Other writers say that it was interred in Herod's palace at Jerusalem; there, it was found during the reign of Constantine and thence secretly taken to Emesa, in Phoenicia, where it was concealed, the place remaining unknown for years, until it was manifested by revelation in 453.

Over the centuries, there have been many discrepancies in the various legends and claimed relics throughout the Christian world. Several different locations claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among the various claimants are:[9]

Numerous other relics of John the Baptist are also believed to exist, including the following:

  • According to tradition, Luke the Evangelist went to the city of Sebaste, from which he took the right hand of the Forerunner (the hand that baptized Jesus) and brought it to Antioch, his home city, where it performed miracles. It is reported that the relic would be brought out and shown to the faithful on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September). If the fingers of the hand were open, it was interpreted as a sign of a bountiful year; if the hand was closed, it would be a poor harvest (September 1 was the beginning of the liturgical year and the harvest season).
  • On January 7, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfer of the Right Hand of the Holy Forerunner from Antioch to Constantinople in 956 and the Miracle of Saint John the Forerunner against the Hagarines at Chios.
  • In 1204, after the Sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, the Frankish emperor Baldwin gave one bone from the wrist of Saint John the Baptist to Ottonus de Cichon, who in turn gave it to a Cistercian abbey in France.
  • It is said John the Baptist's arm and a piece of his skull can be found at the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, Turkey.
    • At the time of Mehmed the Conqueror, the skull was held in Topkapı, while after his death, his stepmother Mara Branković, a Serbian princess, brought it to Serbia. It was then kept a while at the Dionisios monastery at Mount Athos, then the skull fragment was sent to a nearby island in order to prevent the outbreak of a plague; however, the Ottoman fleet seized it and delivered it to Hasan Pasha of Algeria, who held it in his home until his death. It was then returned to Topkapı. The skull is kept on a golden plate decorated with gold bands with gems and Old Serbian inscriptions. The plate itself is stored in a 16th-century rock crystal box.[13]
    • John's arm was brought from Antioch to Constantinople at the time of Constantine VII. It was kept in the Emperor's chapel in the 12th century, then in the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos, then in the Church of Peribleptos in the first half of the 15th century. Spanish envoy Clavijo reported that he saw two different arms in two different monasteries while on a visit to Constantinople in 1404. With the Fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans seized possession of it. In 1484, Bayezid II sent it the knights of Rhodes, while they held his brother Cem captive in return. In 1585, Murad III had the arms brought from Lefkosia castle to Constantinople (henceforth known as Istanbul). The arm is kept in a gold-embellished silver reliquary. There are several inscriptions on the arm: "The beloved of God" on the forefinger, "This is the hand of the Baptist" on the wrist, and "belongs to (monk) Dolin Monahu" on the band above the elbow.[13]
  • In the year 1484, the right hand of the Forerunner was given by the son of Sultan Bayezid II to the Knights Hospitaller on the island of Rhodes in order to gain their goodwill. The Knights later brought the relic with them when they moved the Order to Malta. When Napoleon conquered Malta in 1798, it was one of the few treasures that Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch was permitted to remove from the island.[14] On 12 October 1799, after the resignation of Hompesch, it was presented, together with the other Malta treasures — the icon of the Madonna of Philermos and a splinter of the True Cross — to Russian emperor Paul I, who had been elected the new Grand Master of the Maltese Order, and taken to the chapel of the Priory Palace[15] at Gatchina in Russia. After Paul's death in 1801, the relic was transferred to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and survived the storming of the Winter Palace during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, because it was at the church in Gatchina, together with the other relics of the Knights, for a celebration in their honour on 12 October.[14] The relic eventually went to the Ostrog monastery in Montenegro and from there to its current location at Cetinje Monastery also in Montenegro.[16]
  • The right hand is also reputed to be kept at the Dionysiou monastery on Mount Athos.
  • Relics of John the Baptist are said to be in the possession of the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in Scetes, Egypt.[17]
  • In July 2010, a small reliquary was discovered under the ruins of a 5th-century monastery on St. Ivan Island, Bulgaria. Local archaeologists opened the reliquary in August and found bone fragments of a skull, a hand and a tooth, which they believe belong to John the Baptist, based on their interpretation of a Greek inscription on the reliquary. The Bulgarian Orthodox bishop who witnessed the opening speculated that the relics might have been a gift from an 11th-century church on the island possibly dedicated to the saint.[18] The remains have been carbon-dated to the 1st century.[citation needed]
  • A reliquary with a finger of Saint John the Baptist is in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.[19]
  • On August 29, 2012, during a televised public audience at the summer palace of Castel Gandolfo, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned the dedication of a crypt in Sebaste, Samaria, where the head of the Baptist had been venerated since the middle of the fourth century.[10] In addition, the Pontiff also noted that the religious feast particularly commemorates the transfer of this relic, now enshrined in the Basilica of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome.

Depictions of Salome, Herod, and the death of John the Baptist[edit]

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1608 (Valletta Co-Cathedral, Malta)
Icon of the Third Finding of the Head of John the Forerunner (the end of 19th century, Russia)
Head of John the Baptist (Gaspar Nuñez Delgado), Museum of Fine Arts of Seville

Scenes from the events around the death of John were an extremely common subject in the treatment of John the Baptist in art, initially most often in small predella scenes, and later as a subject for larger independent works. The following list does not attempt completeness but begins with works with their own articles, then includes many of the best-known depictions in chronological order (to see each work, follow the link through the footnote):[20]

With articles

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Matthew 14:1–12, Mark 6:14–29, Luke 9:7–9
  2. ^ Flavius Josephus. Jewish Antiquities Archived 2007-04-19 at the Wayback Machine XVIII, v, 2.
  3. ^ Harmony of the Gospels, The People's New Testament Commentary
  4. ^ "Online Bible – New International Version". 2011. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  5. ^ Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiqities 18. 5. 2. (Translation by William Whiston). Original Greek.
  6. ^ "The Calendar". 16 October 2013.
  7. ^ Luke 8:3
  8. ^ Nicephorus Ecclesiastical History I, ix. See Patrologia Graeca, cxlv.-cxlvii.
  9. ^ a b Lost Worlds: Knights Templar, 10 July 2006 video documentary on The History Channel, directed and written by Stuart Elliott
  10. ^ a b "Benedict XVI, General Audience, August 29, 2012". 29 August 2012. Archived from the original on 18 July 2014. Retrieved 25 December 2014.
  11. ^ Sean Martin, The Knights Templar: The History & Myths of the Legendary Military Order, 2005. ISBN 1-56025-645-1
  12. ^ Hooper, Simon (30 August 2010). "Are these the bones of John the Baptist?". Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  13. ^ a b Aydın, Hilmi (2010-02-16). The Sacred Trusts: Pavilion of the Sacred Relics, Topkapı Palace Museum . p. 150. ISBN 9781932099720.
  14. ^ a b Grima, Noel (25 July 2010). "Re-establishing a long-lost connection". Malta Independent. Archived from the original on 15 March 2012. Retrieved 24 June 2011.
  15. ^ Hamer, Galina Puntusova, David. "History of the Priory Palace".
  16. ^ "Cetinje – The Old Royal Capital of Montenegro | Relics". The City of Cetinje. Archived from the original on 9 October 2011. Retrieved 24 June 2011.
  17. ^ "The Monastery of St. Macarius the Great".
  18. ^ Remains of John the Baptist Found, Archaeologists Claim Archived 2010-08-06 at the Wayback Machine, 3 August 2010
  19. ^ "Reliquary with Finger of Saint John the Baptist – Nelson-Atkins Museum". Flickr.
  20. ^ Web page titled "Links to images of Salome/Herod/the Death of John the Baptist" at The Text This Week Web site, accessed February 11, 2007

External links[edit]

Beheading of John the Baptist
Preceded by
Rejection of Jesus
Ministry of Jesus
New Testament
Succeeded by
To bring a Sword
Ministry of Jesus