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John the Baptist, also known as John the Baptizer or the Baptist, was a Jewish prophet who lived in the 1st century C.E. in Palestine and is known as the forerunner of Jesus. Each of the four gospels in the New Testament begin the account of Jesus' adult life with a description of John and his preaching, although the specific details do not always agree. The lives of the prophets such as the Baptist serve as models of religious devotion to those who hear of their stories and lives.
According to the Gospel of Luke, John was set aside for great things even before his birth. John was the son of Zechariah, a righteous priest, and Elizabeth, a descendant of priests. When his parents were quite old and they thought they would never have any children, an angel appeared to Zechariah when he was serving in the temple. The angel-Gabriel-told him that Elizabeth was to have a son, and that they should name him John. The angel predicted that John would lead the people back to God. Because Zechariah questioned the angel, he was no longer able to speak.
When Elizabeth was in her 6th month of pregnancy, Mary, her relative who was pregnant with Jesus at the time, came to visit. Elizabeth's child-who was filled with the Holy Spirit-recognized Jesus and leapt within the womb, causing his mother to bless Mary (these words are part of the "Hail Mary" recited by many Catholics). After the child was born, Zechariah named him John and was able to speak again.
As an adult, John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, eating only locusts and wild honey, and wearing a camel-hair cloak and a leather belt. He traveled around the area of the Jordan River warning people that God would punish them for acting unjustly; they should change their behavior (repent) and be baptized (immersed in water) as a sign that God forgave them. In this way, John prepared them for the coming "Kingdom of God." John baptized many people, including Jesus. (When Jesus came out of the water, the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven identified him as God's beloved son.) John also taught a number of students, or disciples.
John the Baptist sharply criticized Herod Antipas, one of the Jewish rulers, for taking his brother's wife, Herodias. As a result, John the Baptist was put in prison. At Herod's birthday banquet, Herodias's daughter danced before his guests and so pleased the ruler that he granted her anything she requested. Prompted by her mother, the girl requested the head of John the Baptist "on a platter." Although Herod regretted his promise, he beheaded John.
Some people at the time thought that John might be the messiah (the mythological figure who was to free Israel from oppression), but the New Testament is clear in differentiating between the two. John was the prophet who proclaimed that the messiah was coming, and Jesus was the messiah. John baptized with water, Jesus with the Spirit.
Some historians speculate that John the Baptist was associated with the Qumran community (which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls), who like John lived in the wilderness near the Jordan River, practiced baptism, and preached a similar message.
John the Baptist is not to be confused with John the apostle, the son of Zebedee and brother of James, nor John the supposed author of the Gospel, Letters, or Apocalypse of John, nor John Mark. No writings are attributed to the Baptist.