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Merriam-Webster defines martyr as "a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion." John the Baptist did suffer death, the first known associate of Jesus to do so. But it does not seem that he suffered for refusing to renounce his religion, nor did he suffer for witnessing to Jesus. Instead, we are told that he was imprisoned and later beheaded because 'John said to Herod [Antipas], “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”' (Mark 6:18) The issue was that according to Jewish law (Leviticus 20:21), a man must not marry a woman was divorced from his brother (as opposed to his widow). This was the situation between Herod Antipas and his brother, known both as Herod II and Herod Phillip.

This being the case, it seems that John the Baptist died for the political offense of publicly criticizing the ruler. He may be seen as dying for refusing to renounce the particular Jewish law mentioned above, but not for his belief in Jesus. Jesus is not known to have ever mentioned the issue of Antipas' marriage. John is clearly a saint according to many Christian traditions. But do these traditions consider him a martyr of Christian faith?

The question: Is John the Baptist a Christian martyr? I am seeking information on this subject both from experts and from denominational perspectives.


note: I would appreciate help from the moderators in phrasing the question in case it is thought to be opinion-based.

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    Of men begotten of women, John the Baptist was the greatest. Not only a prophet, but more than a prophet. His place in scripture is unique. And he definitely followed Christ. It is splitting hairs to debate whether it is appropriate to add 'Christian' to the term 'martyr' in his case. Nor did he rebuke Herod according to Jewish law. John's words are very precise : 'It is not of existence to have her' ouk exesten. It is not appropriate. It is not of human existence. The gentiles do not do it, commonly. It is confusion if both brothers still live. There is nothing 'Jewish' about John's rebuke.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 5:52
  • @NigelJ how do you account for 'exesten' being translated as 'lawful' practically everywhere else in the NT as well as here - including in disputes with/among Jewish authorities over sabbath law, healing, divorce, taxes, and capital punishment? Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 13:31
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    @DanFefferman The Greek word for 'law' is nomos see Strong 3551. ἔξεστιν see Strong 1832 is a matter of 'permission' (Strong) or being 'allowed' (Liddell & Scott 1854) which is not a matter of stated law : it is a matter of what nature allows or permits. Which is more fundamental than stated law. 'It is not natural' is what John was conveying to Herod.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 14:36
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    You knowledge of Greek is clearly better than mine, but I can't understand why you insist on this. Would you say that when the Pharisees said to Jesus “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath,” (using the same Greek word) they were actually appealing to natural law, not Jewish law? Since the Baptist was a Jew speaking to a Jewish ruler, isn't it logical to presume he would appeal to Torah law rather than natural law? Note that practically every translator renders this as "lawful" in the passage in question. biblegateway.com/verse/en/Mark%206:18 Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 17:47
  • @NigelJ I don't think it's a hair split. If Jesus cared about the distinction between John and those in the kingdom enough to propound upon it, we should honour that, despite the good intention of us wanting to honour John. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 7:59

7 Answers 7

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Is John the Baptist a Christian Martyr?

In all honesty, one would have to say no. But that does not mean he was not in a sense a martyr for Christ. His whole life was one of penance and making ready the way of the Lord.

Seeing that St. John the Baptist was martyred prior to Christ’s death and resurrection and establishing his Church, one would have to say no.

But that does not mean he was not in some way linked to Christ in his martyrdom.

Nevertheless, St. John the Baptist is recognized as the precursor of Christ, a special friend and favorite of Christ, and a glorious martyr of zeal for God's holy law, as indicated in this Litany of St. John the Baptist.

According to the New Testament, John was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded by Herod Antipas around AD 30 after John rebuked him for divorcing his wife Phasaelis and then unlawfully wedding Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip I. Josephus also mentions John in the Antiquities of the Jews and states that he was executed by order of Herod Antipas in the fortress at Machaerus. - John the Baptist

Although not technically a Christian, John the Baptist is recognized as a saint who was martyred because he rebuked Herod Antipas for marrying the wife of his brother Herod Philip I.

He is also known as John the Forerunner in Christianity, John the Immerser in some Baptist Christian traditions. - John the Baptist (Wikipedia)

Several Christian traditions hold that St. Stephen is the first actual Christian martyr or protomartyr in Christianity.

There is no known tradition or historical opinion that John the Baptist was a follower of Jesus, accepted the Christian faith or was even baptized according to the Trinitarian formula. Thus St. John was not a Christian martyr, but a martyr of upholding the Law as laid down by Moses and upholding the institution of marriage.

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    Worth noting that St. Stephen is also generally considered a Christian martyr (the first one by some accounts). Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 13:33
  • Also in the sentence. But that does not mean he was in some way linked….
    – 007
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 1:20
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We are not given many details about events leading to John the Baptist's murder yet enough is said to show that this miracle child of Zechariah and Elizabeth was the greatest of all the prophets up to that time. He was born to fulfil the ancient prophecy about a messenger who would come to prepare the way of the promised Messiah - Jesus Christ (Malachi 3:1-2). John was born a few months before Mary's miracle child was born, and John died a gruesome death a very few years before Jesus died a far more gruesome death. He pointed to Jesus Christ as the Light, and that the only way to see that divine Light was to repent and be baptised. Then such repentant ones would be prepared to receive Jesus Christ by faith. John was the forerunner to the Christ; and he died for the Christ, whose very foot-latches he felt unworthy to handle.

Now, that is the question - did he really die for Christ? The idea presented is that "he did not die for refusing to renounce his religion, nor did he suffer for witnessing to Jesus... it seems that John the Baptist died for the political offense of publicly criticizing the ruler." Well, how many thousands of Christians have been executed by political and religious powers for publicly offending the ruler by disobeying their laws that violated God's laws? Their executioners rarely said they were killed for being Christians (apart from recent decapitations etc. of men in orange boiler-suits). Usually, they are charged with breaking some laws of the land (or of the church, as in dark ages in the past).

Merriam-Webster's definition could really do with an update. Especially by dropping the 'voluntary' bit. Those captured, lined up and beheaded or shot - did they 'voluntarily' submit to that? What does the Bible say about John the Baptist and his wicked murder?

John came to bear witness to the Light, John 1:7, that all through him might be saved. Salvation. "The true light is over there," John effectively said, pointing to Jesus Christ. "Repent and be baptized" he said. Those who did were then prepared to follow that Light because then their hearts had been touched and the good seed of the kingdom would take root therein. To as many as receive Christ, to them he gives power to become the sons of God. Salvation in Christ alone. That startling witness echoes down the centuries to this day. All who proclaim it are Christians.

Yes, John the Baptist's preaching was from heaven, a fact Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his day with - Mat.21:25. Yes, John bore witness to Christ - John 3:26. Yes, he frankly rebuked the ruler for his immorality and was then imprisoned. But did that rule out the two other clear indicators that he was the first follower of Christ at the time of Christ - in other words, a Christian? And that he was murdered for not recanting the biblical truth he had stated or for not paying a bribe to Herod - does that mean he could not be a martyr for the Christian faith? John preached publicly in order to get people prepared for salvation in Christ. That he fell foul of a political ruler by condemning sexual immorality in the court does not negate his Christianity. Or, are we becoming so conditioned by today's fluid standards of sexuality, that we won't say "Boo!" to a "goose" on that front even though Christians are to be sexually pure, even in their thoughts? Do those claiming to be Christians today think biblical requirements for Christian conduct have no part to play in witnessing for God and Christ? John's example exposes hypocrisy, and if one has to die for speaking plainly, then so be it.

In Mark's gospel (chapter 1) John preached the baptism of repentance unto [eis] the remission of sins. He preached of Christ coming after him, mightier than him. In his ministry, John challenged behaviour of all who heard him, long before he challenged Herod. Sins were exposed; sins were to be admitted; sins were to be confessed. Herod had his sins exposed by John; Herod did not deny his sin but neither did he admit it; Herod never confessed his sin. (Mark 6:14-29) To quote:

"Eventually, Herod decided to please Herodias who had attempted to kill John for his words, but could not, Herod being, apparently, so keen to observe, hear and hear gladly, the man who had told him what was not lawful. But time, and life, and circumstances, worked together to expose the heart, as they always will. And Herod's true evaluation of the man he seemed so diligent to hear, and observe and hear again, gladly, was to be seen by all men...

But Herod desired to please his - unlawful - woman, rather than to hearken to the messenger sent of God to prepare the way of the Lord... How did Herod value [John]? Less than the opinion of them that sat there and less than half of his kingdom... How shall we value the messenger who prepares the way of the Lord? Do we not realise that, without him and his words, we shall never see the Lord?

Herod's fearing; Herod's hearing; Herod's observing; were all, utterly, worthless. For Herod did not repent. He was preoccupied with pleasing others - his unlawful woman and those who sat to watch a damsel dance.

Later, he killed the apostle James, John's brother, with the sword and saw that it pleased the Jews. So he proceeded to take Peter also. After Peter's release by angelic means, Herod ascended a throne and was lauded as a god by the crown. Had he but spake the words in denial, he would have been spared. But he loved the praise of men and judgment fell upon him... But Herod never wanted to please the One for whom John was sent to prepare the way. For Herod never repented." The Beginning of the Gospel, pp. 30-33, Nigel Johnstone, Belmont Publications, 2012

Why would Herod's murders of James and Peter cause them to be called 'martyrs' but not that of John the Baptist? Consider Revelation 6:9-11 as the final word on the matter:

"I saw under [heaven's] altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled." (A.V.)

John the Baptist was slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which he held fast to. He is in their number, he really died for Christ. That is the definition of a martyr that the Bible gives us.

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  • Articulate and well reasoned, but: If he's a Christian, then what's the meaning of Jesus's unfavourable comparison to the people of the kingdom? I think we need to recognise that distinction. Surely being the greatest of all the OT prophets is honour enough? Do we actually honour him by blurring categories his Lord recognised? He never saw Jesus crucified and resurrected, after all. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 7:55
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    @AncientGiantPottedPlant What Jesus said in Mat.11:11 was not unfavourable to J the B. It spoke of the end of the old covenant era, but that verse may have answers in the Hermeneutics site, or you could ask it there. Given today's sloppy insistence that anyone claiming to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, must be unquestioningly accepted as such, I'm amazed the OPs Q has even been asked, for J the B WAS a follower of Jesus and was killed for his faith (no matter what politically-minded thinkers might say to the contrary.)
    – Anne
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 11:55
  • "Less than the least in the kingdom of heaven" isn't a nullity. Look,I revere JtB, but that has to be a meaningful distinction. And if it's not personal, it's a Jew/Christian,OT/NT distinction Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 17:33
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John the Baptist was a Christian martyr because he was a Christian because he did believe in Jesus Christ before most people. He recognized Jesus to be Christ at the baptism event. John died because he preached the word of God and he rebuked openly against sin.
He was a prophet of God but unlike previous prophets who also died as martyrs, the new thing about John was that he was one of the first prophets to know by revelation Jesus Christ.

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    – agarza
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 20:18
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The word martyr from Greek, is translated as witness in English Bibles. Going beyond the English dictionaries, the word only means a witness, spectator. Every evangelist is a martyr of Christ. The modern meaning of the word must have evolved due to the increasing killing of people due to Christian faith. People dying for Christian faith resulted in that word got the meaning of dying for a cause. In this sense, John was not a testifier for a cause/religion in his death, however he was indeed a testifier for Christ in his ministry. Even those believers murdered by the mainstream "churches" for their faith were martyrs for Christ to the point of death. I think we should keep the original meaning of the word in mind which is different from its modern term.

As for associating John the Baptiser as Christian, we should know that scripture says that all prophets testified only about Christ, hence all of them were Christians. "All the prophets prophesied only of the days of the Messiah." [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99a]. It is not wrong to call John a Christian.

Thayer's Greek Lexicon
STRONGS NT 3144: μάρτυρ

μάρτυρ, μάρτυρός, ὁ, see μάρτυς.

μάρτυςμάρτυς (Aeolic μάρτυρ, a form not found in the N. T.; (etymologically one who is mindful, heeds; probably allied with Latinmemor, cf. Vanicek, p. 1201; Curtius, § 466)), μάρτυρός, accusative μάρτυρα, ὁ; plural μάρτυρες, dative plural μάρτυσι; the Sept. for עֵד; (Hesiod, Simonides, Theognis, others); a witness (one who avers, or can aver, what he himself has seen or heard or knows by any other means);

a. in a legal sense: Matthew 18:16; Matthew 26:65; Mark 14:63; Acts 6:13; Acts 7:58; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 10:28.

b. in an historical sense: Acts 10:41; 1 Timothy 6:12; (2 Timothy 2:2); one who is a spectator of anything, e. g. of a contest, Hebrews 12:1; with a genitive of the object, Luke 24:48; Acts 1:22; Acts 2:32; Acts 3:15; Acts 5:32 G L T Tr WH; Acts 10:39; Acts 26:16; 1 Peter 5:1; with a genitive of the possessor 'one who testifies for one', Acts 1:8 L T Tr WH; ; with a genitive of the possessor and of the object, Acts 5:32 Rec.; μάρτυρα εἶναι τίνι, to be a witness for one, serve him by testimony, Acts 1:8 R G; ; (Luke 11:48 T Tr WH). He is said to be a witness, to whose attestation appeal is made; hence, the formulas μάρτυς μου ἐστιν ὁ Θεός, Romans 1:9; Philippians 1:8; Θεός μάρτυς, 1 Thessalonians 2:5: μάρτυρα τόν Θεόν ἐπικαλοῦμαι, 2 Corinthians 1:23; ὑμεῖς μάρτυρες καί ὁ Θεός, 1 Thessalonians 2:10; the faithful interpreters of God's counsels are called God's witnesses: Revelation 11:3; Christ is reckoned among them, Revelation 1:5; Revelation 3:14.

c. in an ethical sense those are called μάρτυρες Ἰησοῦ, who after his example have proved the strength and genuineness of their faith in Christ by undergoing a violent death (cf B. D. American edition and Dict. of Chris. Antiq. under the word ): Acts 22:20; Revelation 2:13; Revelation 17:6.

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    I dispute that the OT figures were Christians. Did they believe in the Gospel? Did they know Christ crucified and resurrected? Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 7:50
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    Crucifixion resurrection doesn't define Christ. He is alpha and omega. Of course, none of the old prophets or believers were New Covenant Christians, believing in the good news of new covenant grace.
    – Michael16
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 9:32
  • It's central. Paul uses it as a shorthand for the entire gospel Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 17:34
  • I don't know JtB understood Jesus as the alpha and omega either. The apostles didn't figure it out until the resurrection, after all. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 18:00
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No, as John was not a Christian

John was the last Jewish prophet. Because he knew Jesus and recognised him as the Messiah, it's tempting to call him a Christian, but this is a mistake.

Jesus said of John many complimentary things, but seemed to state pretty clearly that John was of the old covenant, not the new revelation of the Kingdom of God:

Matthew 11:11 "Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."

We can't ignore that last clause or interpret it away until it's a nullity.

John was on the wrong side of history: he never saw Christ crucified, and he never saw the resurrection. He wasn't born again as we know it. Someone who knows neither that Jesus was crucified or resurrected isn't a Christian; they don't know or believe in the Gospel.

None of that is a criticism of John, it's just a clear eyed assessment of what he did and didn't believe. He was the greatest prophet of the entire old covenant, which is surely honour enough not to offend anyone here.

FWIW, he was certainly a martyr, as were many of the prophets. Had he affirmed Herod's sin, his head would never have ended up on that platter. He's a great martyr for today, given his target of sexual misconduct by the powerful and licentious.

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    The book of Hebrews says Abraham believed in the resurrection, and that Moses esteemed "the reproach of Christ greater than the treasures of Egypt, for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward" (11:19 & 26). They were "made perfect" along with Christians (v.40), equally. In the O.T., faith in the promises of God was what counted, including faith in the coming Christ. John was perfectly placed by God, in history, to support Christ on Earth - No?
    – Anne
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 13:00
  • @Anne Sure, the resurrection general. Even the Pharisees did. Christ crucified and resurrected? No, and it matters. I agree with everything else you say, but not the conclusion; Jesus's "unfavourable" comparison is not a nullity. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 17:29
  • @Anne The key comparator is down in v39. Hebrews 11:26,39-40 CSB For he considered reproach for the sake of Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, since he was looking ahead to the reward. "All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us." The OT heroes are superheroes of faith (and consider the Hebrews definition of faith!). They believed in that which they never got to see. We have the advantage of following after Jesus, and it matters. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 17:40
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    I've read your answer and all your comments, and see that we are unlikely to agree entirely, but that's okay! I would not wish to argue with you.
    – Anne
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 17:46
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    @Anne. Fair enough. I thought every argument you made was sound and intelligent. I'd lean towards your conclusion myself if not for the words of Jesus which to me directly implies a meaningful group distinction that I otherwise wouldn't have thought of. Upvoted. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 17:53
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I don't know if you've read the entire Bible yet, but if you have, then you should understand that such laws (Jewish Laws) were given by the God of the Old testament, who was and is the same being as Jesus Christ (see sources below), known in the Old Testament, primarily, by the name of Jehovah. That being known, it is very plain to see that John the Baptist was martyred for standing up for the principles of Christ.

I want to be clear, I am not speaking of the Trinity (I'm sorry, but I cannot see how the idea of a Trinity is possible while I'm reading this verse) when I say that Jesus Christ was Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, but referring to the following scripture:

John 1:18
No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.

And we know very well that the only begotten Son is Jesus Christ.

All of this brought to mind, it is indisputable that John the Baptist was a Christian martyr; what He was martyred for was declaring the law that Jehovah, now called Jesus Christ since he had fulfilled the title of Christ after dying for our sins, had put forth by direction from God the Father.

Edit: Someone commented that by my reasoning, all Jews would be Christian. This is not so, because the reason what I said applies to John is that he knew that Jesus was the Christ (John 1:19-34), the Son of God, whereas the other Jews did not recognize him as such.


Edit:

I gave my sources and my reasoning. If you disagree, it is only fitting and proper that you comment anything you see as false, or whatever else you see it as. I see no good reason to downvote without doing so. Please see that you do.

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  • Welcome to Christianity.SE and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others.
    – agarza
    Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 18:21
  • Thank you, I'm glad to be here. 😀 Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 18:44
  • By your reasoning all the Jews were Christian too
    – 007
    Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 23:29
  • @User14, That is not the case, because John knew that Jesus was the Christ, whereas the other Jews did not recognize him as such. Thank you for bringing up that clarification. Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 19:49
  • @RobertBradley. You say Jehovah is Jesus. Jews knew and worshipped Jehovah. Therefore Jews were and are Christian’s
    – 007
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 22:27
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2 Maccabees 7 starts by saying :

On another occasion a Jewish mother and her seven sons were arrested. The king was having them beaten to force them to eat pork.

The chapter goes on to mention how each one of the siblings and finally the mother were put to death for not obliging the King Antiochus. Indeed, the brave mother and her children are considered martyrs.

John the Baptist was jailed by Herod and put to death on the insistence of his illegitimate wife . John was in fact defending the precepts of faith , for which he would have to pay with his life.

So, every death at the hand of someone else , anticipated or otherwise, for defending one's faith or the precepts thereof, is martyrdom.Fr. Maximilian Maria Kolbe (1894-1941) is one of the latest additions to the list of martyrs.

Now, coming to the question if the Baptist is a Christian martyr, we need to have a look at Mtt 5: 17-19:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

So, the New Law given by Jesus does not in any way supplant the Old Law, but builds on it ! And, John the Baptist who died for the precepts of the Old Law died for the New Law also.

By the way, many consider the Innocent Children massacred by Herod as the first Christian martyrs.

The slain children were regarded by the early church as the first martyrs, but it is uncertain when the day was first kept as a saint’s day.

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Feast-of-the-Holy-Innocents

And they died for Jesus some thirty years before John the Baptist would be martyred. Can it therefore, be said that the Baptist is a martyr of Old Testament ?

PS: I am not an expert on the subject, nor am the spokesperson of a denomination. I have only tried to put some thoughts together.

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    O.P question asks if John the Baptist was a "Christian Matyr" sorry -1 vote from me. as it misses the crux of the question.
    – Adam
    Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 7:53
  • Adam, I am afraid you missed the second half of my answer, especially its last paragraph. Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 10:00
  • This is exactly the answer I would have posted. On top of it, the Catholic Church celebrates with solemnity the date of his beheading and wears red on August 29th for the Passion of St. John the Baptist
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 19:00
  • @PeterTurner I don't even see how it addresses the question that was asked. Most of it is irrelevant. None of it references authoritative sources. It shouldn't have been undeleted.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 22:33
  • It cites other people (St. Maximillian and The Holy Innocents) who are considered by Christians as martyrs who don't fit the bill (like St. Peter or St. Stephen who were obviously martyred in the conventional way). Do you need to cite sources when you reference the existence of historical figures? I guess it would be better if it were explained why they were considered martyrs for Christ, but the fact of the matter is they are - which makes this answer a heck of a lot better than the others
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 22:42

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