Did John the Baptist’s father die a martyr?

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, holds his infant prophet son in this 1535 work of Teramo Piaggio. According to early Christian belief, Zechariah, a priest in the Jerusalem Temple, died a martyr’s death while serving at the altar.

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, holds his infant prophet son in this 1535 work of Teramo Piaggio. According to early Christian belief, Zechariah, a priest in the Jerusalem Temple, died a martyr’s death while serving at the altar.

John the Baptist plays an important role in the Gospels as the one who was to prepare the way for the messiah. The Gospel of Luke provides for us information about John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest who at the time of the incense offering in the Temple was visited by the angel Gabriel, who announced John’s birth.

Zechariah didn’t believe and could not talk until he witnessed John’s birth and gave him his name (Luke 1:5-25, 57-80). The praise Zechariah offers at the birth of John is known as the Benedictus (Latin for “blessed”). This is the last we hear about Zechariah in Scripture, but this isn’t the last we hear about him in Church history.

There was an early understanding in the Church that Zechariah died a martyr’s death. When Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees that “all the righteous blood shed upon earth [will come upon you], from the righteous blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar,” (Matthew 23:35) some early fathers believed Jesus was speaking about John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah. Seeing that no other person mentioned in Scripture perfectly fits the description of this Zechariah, John’s father is certainly a possible candidate.

Apocryphal writings that contain accounts about Zechariah’s martyrdom in the temple area also circulated in the early Church. In fact, one of them, the Protoevangelium of James, was written sometime in the first quarter of the second Christian century, which is quite early since it is traditionally believed that St. John the Apostle died only a few decades earlier. According to this apocryphal writing, King Herod was searching for John the Baptist and sent guards to Zechariah to find out where he was. Zechariah replied that he is always in the temple area serving God and had no idea where John could be. When threatened with death, Zechariah is said to reply: “I am God’s martyr, if you shed my blood; for the Lord will receive my spirit, because you shed innocent blood at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord.” (Protoevangelium of James, 23). According to this story, the guards killed him and his body was found later on.

Another interesting story is given by the early Church father Gregory of Nyssa (d. AD 394). According this account, Zechariah, knowing about Mary’s Virgin Birth of Christ, refused to remove Mary from praying in the place in the temple area reserved for virgins. When asked why he refused to remove Mary, Zechariah declared that “the King of creation, according to his divine pleasure, had come through a new kind of birth.” Enraged, the crowd murdered Zechariah in front of the altar of sacrifice.

As you can see, the details in these sources differ quite a bit on the circumstances surrounding Zechariah’s death. However, they do agree on two main points. First, they both attest that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was martyred. Second, he was killed in the temple area.

Interestingly enough, archeology has also confirmed in this early Christian belief. In 2003, excavators in the Kidron valley discovered a fourth century inscription written on a monument called “Absalom’s tomb” or “Absalom’s pillar.” The inscription reads, “This is the tomb of Zachariah, the martyr, the holy priest, the father of John.” The inscription is too late to be a credible witness to the actual events, but it does show us that fourth century Christians believed Zechariah was a martyr.

If Zechariah was a martyr in the temple area, it does provide us with something to ponder. Remember, it was in the temple that Zechariah encountered the angel Gabriel, who gave the good news about John. Zechariah’s response was less than stellar; he didn’t believe and was struck dumb. Zechariah’s death, according to these sources, shows us a complete reversal. Zechariah showed forth his belief in the temple area by attesting to the truth and through his martyrdom spoke out loudly about his faith.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.