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Yahkanon wrote:

Hi, guys —

John the Baptist was baptizing the Israelites with water for repentance. I can't find this ritual in the Tanakh nor Talmud.

Was John the Baptist Jewish or Mandaean?



  { Since a repentance with water is not in either text, do you know if John was a Jew or Mandaean? }

John replied:

Hi, Yahkanon —

John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah, a Levite, who was a Priest. Therefore he was an Israelite. While Jews is technically a reference to members of the tribe of Judah, in its broader sense, it includes any of the twelve tribes of Israel, so It is fair to say that John the Baptist was Jewish.

As far as I know, there is no such thing as a Mandaean. Perhaps you meant Midianite. In any case, John the Baptist, like Jesus, Mary, and the twelve Apostles, were all Israelites. Therefore they can be called Jewish. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we also know came from Judah and therefore are actually Jewish.

John's baptism was a baptism of repentance, akin to the ceremonial washing prevalent at the time. It was also symbolic of the Red Sea crossing, found in Exodus 14, and the crossing of the Jordan, recorded in Joshua. Unlike Christian Baptism, it was not a baptism which brought about the new birth. It was not sacramental in the sense we know Baptism today.


Eric replied:

Dear Yahkanon,

While revered by the Mandaeans as a Mandaean, John the Baptist was, according to our Scriptures, a Jew with no hint of any other teaching. As my colleague ably pointed out, John was descended from Israelites, the son of a Jewish priest, and recognized as Jewish by Jesus Himself. Mandaeans, who refer to John as their last prophet, surmise that they may be descended from followers of John the Baptist who fled eastward from the Jordan valley and ultimately settled along the lower reaches of the Tigris, Euphrates, and Karun Rivers. There is nothing incompatible with Christianity in this claim.

As for whether John the Baptist was a Jew, let's look at Luke 1:5-9:

    5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years. 8 Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense."

    Luke 1:5-9

  1. Zechariah was a priest, a descendant of Aaron. This made him ethnically a Jewish priest, since Aaron was the brother of Moses, the founder of the Jewish people, and Jewish priesthood was defined in terms of one's being a descendant of Aaron (Exodus 28:4).
    (I am using
    Jew in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged recognized sense of Israelite, a member of the Hebrew people.)

  2. Zechariah served in the temple of the Lord. There was only one temple of the Lord, and that was the temple the Jews worshiped at. While non-Jews admittedly did worship at the temple, they would not have served as priests there.

So we've established that Zechariah was a Jew, in the broad sense of being a Hebrew and following the Jewish faith. Luke 1 Verses 16-17 says of John the Baptist,

"Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

Luke 1:16-17

So here John the Baptist was

  1. sent to minister to and convert the Jews (Israelites);
  2. in the power of Elijah (a Jewish prophet);
  3. to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (the Jewish Messiah). 
  4. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 1:59) according to the Jewish custom that confirms the Jewish covenant (Genesis 17:12).
  5. Zechariah specifically refers to the "God of Israel" (verse 68), along with Abraham (verse 73), the father of the Jews.
  6. John the Baptist "lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel" (verse 80).

I don't know how much more Israelite (Jewish) you can get.

  • Why did John baptize?

It was a Jewish tradition. There were ceremonial washings, to be sure, in the Old Testament (Exodus 29:4, Leviticus 14:8-9, Leviticus 15:5-13, Leviticus 15:21-27, Leviticus 16:26, etc.) Baptism probably developed from these washings. In any case, it's a jump based on this evidence to go from:

John baptized which was not attested to as such in the Old Testament


John the Baptist was a Mandaean.

Both Christianity and Mandaeism acknowledge that baptism rites existed before John the Baptist. As Christians believe, Mandaeism believes that baptism is a purification rite.

Perhaps this is one of what Pope John Paul II, who showed respect to Mandaeism and met with its leaders, called, the many points of contact between [Mandaeism] and the Christian faith.

Ultimately much of this depends on which testimony you believe: the Mandaean testimony or the Christian testimony. There is not a lot of third-party evidence to confirm either view.

My colleagues may want to consult the following:

for information on Mandaeism.


Mary Ann replied:

Yahkanon —

John the Baptist was Jewish, born the son of Zechariah the priest.

His baptism of repentance was his own, but he may have derived it from practices of the Essenes, a sect of Judaism, to whom some believe, he belonged to or whom influenced him.

Mary Ann

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