The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

Beheading St. John the Baptist.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (alternate names: Decollation of Saint John the Baptist and Beheading of the Forerunner) is a holy day observed by various Christian churches which follow liturgical traditions. The day commemorates the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist.

Accounts

The biblical account portrays the beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Herod Antipas. According to the Synoptic Gospels, Herod had imprisoned John because he reproved Herod for divorcing his wife (Phasaelis), and unlawfully taking his brother Herod Philip I’st wife, Herodias. On Herod’s birthday, Herodias’ daughter (traditionally named 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 the daughter 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.

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 which fell upon Herod at the hands of Aretas his father-in-law (Phasaelis’ father), was God’s punishment for his unrighteous behaviour.

Feast day

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

The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast on August 29, as does The Lutheran Church and The Church of England including many other national provinces of the Anglican Communion.

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

The Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates the Decollation of St. John on Saturday of Easter Week.

The Syriac Orthodox, Indian Orthodox, and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches commemorate the martyrdom on January 7.

Relics

According to ancient tradition, the burial-place of John the Baptist was at Sebastia 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 were carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria, where on 27 May 395, they were laid in the basilica that was newly dedicated to the Forerunner 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 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:

Muslim tradition maintains that the head of John the Baptist was interred in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Pope John Paul II visited the tomb of John the Baptist at the Umayyad Mosque during his visit to Syria in April, 2001.

In medieval times it was rumored that the Knights Templar had possession of the head, and multiple records from their Inquisition in the early 14th century make reference to some form of head worship.

Some Christians believe that the head on display in San Silvestro in Capite in Rome is that of John the Baptist.

Amiens Cathedral claims the head as a relic brought from Constantinople by Wallon de Sarton as he was returning from the Fourth Crusade.

Some believe that it is buried in Turkish Antioch, or southern France.

In 1881 The New York Times claimed that the inmates of two rival French monasteries used to exhibit, the one the skull of John the Baptist ‘when he was a boy’, the other his cranium ‘after he had become a man’.

It is believed that a piece of his skull is held at the Romanian skete Prodromos on Mount Athos.

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 (September 14). 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 1263 during 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.

In the year 1484 the right hand of the Forerunner was given away by the son of Sultan Bayezid II to the Knights of Malta on the island of Rhodes in order to gain their good-will. The Knights later transferred the relic to Malta.

When the Russian emperor Paul I (1796–1801) became Grand Master of the Maltese Order, the right hand of the Baptist, together with other relics, were transferred in the year 1799 (because of the Napoleonic threat) from the island of Malta to the chapel of the Priory Palace at Gatchina in Russia (this transfer is commemorated on October 12).

John the Baptist’s right hand is said to be in the possession of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the Cetinje monastery, in the Republic of Montenegro.

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.

In July 2010, a small reliquary was discovered under the basilica 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.

A Reliquary with Finger of Saint John the Baptist is in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Knasas City, MO

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