John the Baptist: The Forerunner

A few years ago, after I became the editor of The Forerunner, my mother told me that I was named for John the Baptist. In Spanish and Portuguese families, it is a tradition to name children for the feast day of the saint that the falls closest to the birth. June 24th is the traditional birth date for John the Baptist on the church calendar. I had known I was born on this feast day, but I never knew that I was actually named for John. Most people known me as “Jay,” but that is is actually a nickname for John Rogers.

How amazing it is that the name of the media organization that has defined a large part of my adult life is The Forerunner. That got me wondering how this date was first decided. In my research, I discovered that this day is important in many Catholic countries. June 24th is a holiday in Quebec and is also celebrated in Manila, Brazil, Venezuela, and in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Above is an icon on a church in Kiev, Ukraine. The Cyrillic letters say, “Sv. Ivan Predtecha” or in English, “St. John the Forerunner.” When we founded the Russian language Forerunner in Kiev in 1991, we thought that Predtecha would be the name, but later settled on Predvestnik, which means literally “Foreteller” or “Herald,” but I was told also has a lesser known connotation of “Forerunner.”

Ironically, almost every time the December 25th question is examined in the popular media, the critics begin by examining when Christmas was first “celebrated.” However, the opposite approach makes much more sense. John’s birthday of June 24th was not tied to the nativity of Jesus, but John’s birthday was calculated first and from there the church fathers arrived at a date of late December or early January for the birth of Jesus. Later on, a Christmas observance was celebrated on one of these dates.

Was June 24th really John’s birthday?

This is the conclusion I came to when I examined Luke’s account of John’s conception. I reprint here part of an article in which I ask: Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th?

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5).

According to 1 Chronicles 24:7-19, King David had divided the priests into 24 divisions who took turns serving in the Temple. During their service they lived in the Temple and were separated from their wives and children. Each order served for a period of eight days twice a year. The priests of the course of Abijah served during the 10th and 24th weeks of the Jewish year. Luke goes on to recount how the angel Gabriel appeared to Zecharias while he was serving in the Temple.

So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:8-15).

Note here that “the whole multitude of the people” (i.e., the whole nation of Israel) was present outside the Temple. Some have attempted to reconstruct the weeks of service according to Josephus’ account in Antiquities 7:14:7, which relates that the first division, the division of Jehoiarib, was on duty when Jerusalem was destroyed on August 5, AD 70. Using this date as an anchor, the eighth division of Abijah would serve two times in the year, one of them being in late September. However, it is uncertain if these allotments began on exactly the same day of the year, since there would be four extra weeks to account for at the end of the year. But there were only two times in the year when the “whole multitude of the people” of Israel was required to be in Jerusalem worshiping at the Temple. These were the fall and spring feast days. John’s vision apparently occurred on one of the high feast days, the church fathers thought it was the Day of Atonement, and then John returned to his home immediately after that.

So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:23,24).

Since “the hill country of Judea” is no more than a day’s journey from Jerusalem, the conception of John the Baptist must have occurred soon after that. Several of the Church fathers noticed this correspondence and made the inference that John must have been conceived shortly after the Day of Atonement, which usually falls in September. In fact, the church father John Chrysostom thought that Zecharias was actually the Jewish High Priest because he was in the Holy Place on the Day of Atonement, which in 6 BC fell on September 22nd. So September 24th was calculated as the date of John’s conception. The birth of John occurred exactly nine months later on June 24th. Since Jesus was conceived six months after John, various dates around this time, December 25th, January 2nd and 6th were given by various church fathers and each of these have been celebrated as the Nativity of Jesus.

If John was conceived during one of the spring feasts, Passover or Pentecost, then we would have winter birth for John and a summer birth for Jesus. Notwithstanding, the Day of Atonement fits well as an anchor date because it points to a winter birthday for Christ. Josephus notes that Herod died shortly before the Passover in 4 BC, which began of April 11th of that year. This gives several months for the events surrounding the Nativity and fits the narrative accounts of both Matthew and Luke.

We should not be dogmatic about the exact day. However, we can use December 25th as the anchor date. This date helps explain several events recorded in the nativity accounts.

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