WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 29: On this day, more than a billion Christians around the world—especially Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans—mark one of the oldest commemorations in 2,000 years of Christian history: the tragic Beheading of St. John the Baptist.
The big problem is: If you care to visit and venerate the sacred relic of John’s head, you’d have to pick from among many claims that criss-cross Europe and the Middle East. In 2001, Pope John Paul II visited Syria and offered prayers during a visit to one of the major shrines to John the Baptist’s head inside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The juxtaposition isn’t as strange as it may sound. Islam honors John as the Prophet Yahya ibn Zackaria in Arabic. Translated into English, Muslims refer to the prophet as John, son of Zechariah, the same as in the New Testament.
Unfortunately for pilgrims, other claims for John’s head could take Christian travelers to purported locations in Turkey, Germany, France, Italy, Greece and Israel. The game of holy hopscotch relates to such historical eras as the Roman takeover of Jerusalem, the Crusades and the Medieval development of competing pilgrimage routes. Even the famed Knights Templar claimed that they preserved the head for a while.
If you think that this wild tale isn’t related to the core Christian interest in the boundaries of life and death, then you should read our other stories this week about Clay Morgan’s new book Undead. We’ve also posted a look at 3,000 years of spiritual and pop-culture fascination with the dead, the undead, zombies, vampires and all manner of ghoulish creatures.
JOHN THE BAPTIST IN CHRISTIAN TRADITION
The story of John’s beheading involved seduction, adultery and a grand party—all the elements of thrilling novel today. The elaborate birthday bash that led to John’s beheading is intriguing, to say the least: The incestuous feelings of Herod Antipas were triggered by his stepdaughter’s dance, and one drunken promise later, John’s fate was sealed. That’s why countless artists—painters, sculptors, musicians and filmmakers, too—have tried to capture scenes from the drama.
When Italian artist Caravaggio depicted John the Baptist’s beheading, experts called it “one of the most important works in Western painting.” For Caravaggio, the painting of John’s beheading is the only work that bears his signature (examined closely, it’s placed in the blood emerging from John’s throat. Wikipedia has details). Though Caravaggio’s painting can’t be called precisely “biblical,” it was inspired by the date around 28 CE, when John the Baptist lost his life to Salome, the woman who requested his head on a platter.
The scene of Herod’s party began something like this: Herod Antipas, ruler of Palestine, was as well known for corruption as he was for throwing extravagant parties. On the night of Herod’s birthday banquet, courtiers, soldiers and other nearby leaders were drinking heavily. Before long, Herod’s illegitimate wife allowed her daughter to dance for the drunken men; captivated by her seductive dancing, Herod promised her anything she desired. By her mother’s request, the girl asked for the head of someone who had recently shamed her family: John the Baptist. Before his guests, Herod had no choice but to fulfill her request.
John the Baptist had started out innocently enough: as a hermit in the wilderness, he had kept to himself until, one day, was moved to preach about repenting sins for the coming Messiah. His brash honesty often got him in trouble: honesty finally cost him his life when John criticized the actions of King Herod, who had divorced his own wife to take his brother’s wife. Herod feared the man who attracted crowds of followers, but he’d found no need to kill John the Baptist until his stepdaughter had asked. (Read more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) Even after John’s death, the event continued to haunt King Herod—especially when a new preacher named Jesus began to rise, just as John had predicted.