The Church of John the Baptist (Ein Karem)
Here John the Baptist was Born
Location – Ein Karem
Map Coordinates - 31.768014, 35.162908
Merged Gospels story - 7
The picture above shows the traditional birthplace of John the Baptist.
There are two major landmarks in the village of Ein Karem. The first is up the hill, at a place called the Church of the Visitation. The second is in the valley – the Church of Saint John the Baptist. Both of these are Catholic churches, and this one marks the high point of our trip to Ein Karem – to see the actual place where John the Baptist was born.
The Courtyard of the Monastery.
As you walk onto the compound you see a sign that says, “Saint John in the Mountains”. That phrase actually comes from the Book of Luke, which calls this area the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39).
The first thing you see when you enter the courtyard is something that reminds you of the Church of the Visitation. You may know that at the Church of the Visitation there are mosaics on the walls all quoting Mary’s Magnificat in 47 languages. Here there are 24 mosaics in different languages surrounding the walls of this courtyard. But this is not the Magnificat. This is a passage of Scripture, starting in Luke 1:68, called The Benedictus.
This was a benediction spoken by Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist on the eighth day of John’s life. These were the first words spoken by Zacharias since the angel Gabriel struck him dumb nine months earlier in the sanctuary of the Temple (see Luke 1:20).
This church was built in the second half of the 19th century, and it was constructed on the remnants of two other earlier churches – one from the Byzantine era, perhaps somewhere around 400 AD, and the other built during the Crusader period, around 1100 AD.
This brings me to a question. Why do people keep rebuilding churches on the same spots where previous churches were built? There is a consistent tradition in the Holy Land that churches should be built on sites where something famous happened. If there was an event that happened in the Bible, then when Christianity became legal, the local people would put a church on the site. In fact, it was just as much a shrine as a church. If those churches were destroyed, it was important to put another church on this very same spot.
That’s one of the ways that we know that Biblical sites are authentic – it’s because someone built a church there. The earlier that church was built, the more likely it was to be built on the actual site that it commemorates.
The Biblical Story.
If you remember the story from the Book of Luke, Zacharias was struck dumb in the sanctuary of the Temple because he did not believe it when the angel Gabriel told him that he would have a child in his old age (Luke 1:5-25). The Angel told Zacharias to name his child John, which in Hebrew is the name Yohanan, and that means God is gracious. Zacharias was not able to speak during the entire time that Elizabeth was pregnant, including the three months that Mary visited them.
Eight days after John was born, when he was to be circumcised, his father, Zacharias, confirmed what the Angel told him to do nine months earlier, by writing out the words on a tablet, “His name is John”. Because of this act of obedience and faithfulness, Zacharias was given the power of speech, and the first words out of his mouth were the ones you see on these walls outside the church – the Benedictus (Luke 1:57-80).
This church was the winter home of Zacharias and Elizabeth. While it is believed that Elizabeth kept herself in seclusion in her summer home on the hill, she actually delivered John in her winter home in the valley.
The Samaritan Uprising.
There is very little that remains of the Byzantine church that once commemorated the birth of John the Baptist. But unlike other houses of worship that were constructed over holy sites in Jerusalem, the Byzantine church that once stood here was not destroyed by seventh-century Persian or Muslim invaders. This church was destroyed 200 years earlier.
During the Byzantine era the entire land that was called Palestine at the time was declared a Christian nation, and the Byzantine empire that controlled this entire land built churches everywhere, including in Samaria. The Byzantines built a large octagonal church on mount Gerizim called the Church of Mary Theotokis, which means The God-Bearer. That was a problem for the Samaritans, because Mount Gerizim is where the Samaritans had always performed their blood sacrifices. And the church of Mary Theotokis was built very close to the spot where the Samaritans believe that Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac. Because of this and other acts of hostility by the Byzantines against the Samaritans, there were several Samaritan uprisings. One of the things the Samaritans did is that they came down south to Judea, and they destroyed this church – the one built over the birthplace of John the Baptist.
The Crusader Church.
This church lay in ruins for hundreds of years until the Crusaders rebuilt it. But after the Crusaders left the Holy Land the church was either destroyed again, or it fell into complete disrepair.
The Franciscan Church.
A few centuries later the Franciscan Catholics purchased the site and began working on its reconstruction. Most of this church was restored in the 17th and 19th centuries, largely by money from Spanish kings, Spanish craftsmen and artists. This is why the décor of the church has a very heavy Spanish influence.
Inside the Church.
As you face forward in any church, the wall that you are looking at is called the apse. There is always one apse in the middle, and many churches have a smaller apse on the right and one on the left.
The Statue of Zacharias.
On the left is a sculpted figure of Zacharias, clothed in the raiment of a priest of the Temple. That’s because he was a Jewish Priest.
The Statue of Saint Elizabeth.
On the right there is a statue of Saint Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
The Statue of Mary.
Towering above both Zacharias and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptism is Mary, dressed in a blue cloak and standing between two marble pillars.
The Byzantine Tomb.
There are some Byzantine remains here in the church, and one of those archeological relics is a locked crypt that tourists never get a chance to see. Christians, like Jews, used to bury their dead in tombs like this.
And after about a year, the bones were removed, and were put in stone boxes, called ossuaries. Upon removing the bodies from this tomb, the sarcophagi were then prepared for another deceased member of the church. This tomb was carved entirely out of stone. Everything here is one piece of limestone, and this includes the three sarcophagi that line the walls of this tomb.
Myself and my son Dan inside the Byzantine tomb at the Church of Saint John the Baptist.
The Altar of the Birth of John the Baptist.
The most revered site in the church is the grotto on the left side. This cave is believed to be part of the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth, and in this part John the Baptist was born. You descend into this crypt by walking through an elaborately adorned green and gold gate. Above this gate are the first words of the Benedictus of Zacharias written in Latin. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: because he has visited and wrought the redemption of his people.”
As you kneel before the altar, you see that beneath and around the altar are white marble reliefs illustrating biblical events. On the wall above the crypt and next to the apse is a picture of young John the Baptist wearing a pelt of camel fur, just as he is described in the Gospels. On the opposite wall is a painting of John's last moments on earth.
You will notice a plaque on the floor of the altar. The plaque refers to John as the Precursor of Christ. We’ve seen that title for John in other places in Israel. For example, in the Treasure Room at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, there is a large fragment, considered to be the skull cap of John the Baptist. But the casing around this skull cap does not say, “John the Baptist”. It calls him the Precursor, which is another word for Forerunner. And that’s what he is called here on this plaque. John was the forerunner of Jesus, because he came to prepare the way of the Lord.
How long did John live here?
We know that his parents were old, so they probably didn’t live too much longer on this earth. But there is evidence for us to believe that from an early age John was told the story about his father’s vision of the angel Gabriel in the Temple. He was probably told of his miraculous birth, and that he himself would come to preach in the spirit and the power of Elijah (see Luke 1:17).
Jesus, Himself, even referred to John the Baptist as the spiritual second-coming of Elijah. For this reason, Elijah was very influential in the mind of John. So much so, that John deliberately emulated this ancient prophet, not only in his lifestyle, but John even retraced the footsteps of Elijah throughout his own very brief ministry.