More Christian Apocrypha Updates 10: The Life and Martyrdom of John the Baptist

[This is the latest in a series of posts on texts to be featured in New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures edited by Brent Landau and I. The material here is incorporated also into the information on the texts provided on my More Christian Apocrypha page].

Life Mart. Bapt. draws heavily on the New Testament Gospel information about John but adds some details. No details are given of his birth and childhood; after a bare mention of his birth, the action moves right to his adulthood when Gabriel instructs him on his mission of baptism and particularly the baptism of Jesus. He goes to the Jordan and gains forty disciples. This draws the interest of Herod Antipas and he orders the prophet to be brought to him. John refuses to go with Herod’s envoy and indicts Herod for sleeping with his brother’s wife. Herod now seeks an opportunity to kill him. After baptizing Jesus, John appears before Herod and formally accuses him. He is imprisoned but John is able to bring in his disciples and leads them in prayer. He tells them of his coming death and tells them to keep to his commandments, which are reminiscent of some of Jesus’ teachings. Herod’s nobles want him to release John or behead him. Herod sends Julian to talk to him but John is unrepentant. The famous feast happens and John is beheaded. One of Herod’s guests is a secret disciple of John and asks for the head and he gives it to six of John’s disciples. They take it to Emesa and hide it in a cave. The author then reveals himself to be an unnamed disciple of John (some manuscripts identify this disciple as Mark the Evangelist).

Andrew Bernhard has prepared the first ever English translation of this text, drawing on information about seven Greek manuscripts examined for the edition by François Nau (“Histoire de saint Jean Baptiste attribuée à saint Marc l’Évangéliste,” PO [1908]: 521-41). There are also eight Slavonic manuscripts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but no edition has yet appeared of this branch of the tradition. There are five different martyrdoms of John described in the seminal study of traditions about John and his father Zecharias by Alexander Berendts (Die handschriftliche Überlieferung der Zacharias- und Johannes-Apokryphen [TU, N. F. 11/3; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1904). Life Mart. Bapt. is Berendts 5; I am working on a translation of Berendts 1 (the Decapitation of John [CANT 180.2]) for MNTA 2. There remains a great deal of confusion in the literature about which manuscripts belong to each of Berendts’ recensions.

Life Mart. Bapt. concludes with the depositing of John’s head in a cave in Emesa. It appears that the text was written to bolster the discovery of the Baptist’s head in  453 CE. A number of sources refer to this event, including the Invention of John the Baptist’s Head (in Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Armenian). Also of interest about this text is that a photographic reproduction of one of the manuscripts (Genoa, Biblioteca Fanzoniana, Urbani 35) was published for the golden sacredotal jubilee of Pope Leo XIII in 1888.

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