[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].
The Life of John the Baptist is told through the voice of Serapion, an Egyptian bishop of the fourth century, on the occasion of an unspecified feast day for John. It begins with a harmony of details about John’s birth taken from the Gospel of Luke and the Infancy Gospel of James, finishing with the death of Zechariah and Elizabeth fleeing from Herod’s soldiers into the desert. After five years, when John is seven years and six months old, Elizabeth dies, portentously on the same day as Herod the Great. Jesus, “whose eyes sees heaven and earth” (7:3), sees John grieving and spirits himself and Mary to the desert on a cloud. They bury Elizabeth and then Jesus and Mary remain with John for seven days, teaching him how to live in the desert. Then Mary and Jesus return to Nazareth, leaving John under the protection of Gabriel and watched by the souls of his parents. The text then shifts to John’s adult career and the story of Herod Antipas and his affair with Philip’s wife Herodias. The gospel account is expanded with a prologue to the story of John’s death revealing that Herodias and Herod worked together to obtain Philip’s land and then Herodias and her daughter left Philip to join Herod in Judea where he lived daily with both of them in adultery. Thanks to Herodias’s scheming, John is arrested and beheaded. Herodias wishes to defile the head of the Baptist, but to her surprise it flies up into the air and continues its criticism of Herod in the skies, first of Jerusalem and then throughout the world, for fifteen years. The head lands in the town of Homs (Emesa), where it is buried by the townspeople and a church is built upon the spot. Herodias, her daughter, and Herod all meet grisly ends, thus allowing John’s disciples to take his body (recalling Mark 6:29//Matt 14:12) and bury it in Sebaste, near the body of the prophet Elisha. Over time the remains are carried off to Alexandria, where Serapion, the author of the text, helps in building a church in the Baptist’s honour.
The Life of John the Baptist first appeared in scholarship almost a century ago and has been mostly neglected ever since. I became interested in it several years ago when Jean-Michel Roessli contacted me and asked me to contribute something to his collection (co-edited with Tobias Nicklas) Christian Apocrypha. Receptions of the New Testament in Ancient Christian Apocrypha (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014; my paper, “The New Testament and Other Early Christian Traditions in Serapion’s Life of John the Baptist,” appears p. 281-300). Years passed between writing that paper and its publication. In the meantime, Slavomir Céplö was finding new manuscripts of the text (Mingana, the original editor, used 2 MSS and knew two more; Slavomir has increased that number to 10) and additional parallels in Arabic literature. So, my essay is now woefully outdated but Slavomir has really done excellent work on the text and I’m happy to have it reach a wider audience through MNTA.
There are a number of other John the Baptist texts that are similarly neglected (my article gives an overview of the material, p. 285-91). Two are featured in MNTA vol. 1 (including the Life and Martyrdom of John he Baptist, mentioned HERE) and at least two more are set to appear in vol. 2.