John the Baptist - sources

The key sources are the gospels, particularly Luke with its account of the birth. Acts also contains an important reference. Relevant quotations appear under the appropriate headings.
  A further important text is in The Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, reproduced here.

  '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 irate, 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 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.' (book 18, chapter 5, 2)

There are a number of interesting early apocryphal accounts, perhaps the most important being The Protoevangelium of James, which has additional stories of the infancy of John.  Others, unlikely to have been familiar to early Renaissance and later artists,  include The Life and Martydom of John the Baptist, the fourth century Life of John the Baptist by Serapion, a fourth century Egyptian Bishop, and the splendidly titled Decapitation of the Forerunner by Euriptus, claimed to be a disciple of John.  More significant for artists are the extensive accounts in the Golden Legend.


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