The Tomb of John the Baptist
Go Inside the Tomb of John the Baptist
Location - Sebastia
Map Coordinates - 32.276700, 35.196015
Merged Gospels story - 100
It’s a tight squeeze, but our Octagon Tour groups enjoy this exotic spot – the Tomb of John the Baptist in the West Bank city of Sabastia, where there are the remains of a Crusader church that was built above John’s tomb in 1160 AD.
The Life and Death of John.
From an early age, John must have known that he would preach in the spirit and power of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. After all, this is what the angel Gabriel told his father, and this is what Jesus told His followers. It also appears that John chose to baptize people in places where significant events occurred in the life of Elijah - as if John were retracing Elijah’s footsteps. When John died, you would expect that his followers would want to bury him next to Elijah.
The Crusader Church of Saint John the Baptist.
John’s disciples burying his headless body.
But Elijah wasn’t buried. According to 2 Kings 2:11 Elijah was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. John’s disciples did the next best thing. They buried him next to Elijah’s student, the Prophet Elisha, who lived eight centuries before Jesus.
Incidentally, according to an old tradition, the Old Testament prophet Obadiah was also buried in this same tomb.
The Ancient Mosque
The Crusaders built a two-room chapel directly over the tomb of John. But less than thirty years after the Crusaders built this church, they were driven out of the Holy Land by the Muslims in 1187 AD.
Soon after that the front room of this chapel was vandalized, and the back room of this chapel was converted into an Islamic mosque (below), where you can see the Islamic prayer niche, called a Mihrab, in the southern wall, facing Mecca. This is the direction that Muslims are commanded to pray.
The ancient mosque over the tomb of John the Baptist.
The Vandalized Crusader Chapel.
In the front room you can see that the wall was once filled with marble tiles displaying the Crusader cross on each tile. But after the Crusaders were defeated, the Muslims came in and systematically carved off the vertical post of each cross.
Crusader crosses, where the vertical post has been chipped off of each one.
Sebastia has been a Muslim town for about 800 years, and so it’s likely that this chapel was desecrated as an insult to the Crusaders who built it.
That wasn’t the only thing they did. Like the evil Jewish kings of the Old Testament who erected pagan statues on Jewish altars, the Muslims did the same thing by placing in here this statue of Baal, the ancient mythological rival of the God of Israel. Baal was the god of the evil queen Jezebel, and that makes this statue an idol.
The Muslims also placed here a statue of Herod the Great. We don’t know how he lost his head, but here you can see him wringing his beard. Herod, as you will recall, was the king who slaughtered Jewish Bethlehem babies in a miniature holocaust. Essentially, these two statues were an insult to both Jews (with the statue of Baal) and Christians (with the statue of Herod the Great).
The statue on the left is Baal, represented as a bull. The statue on the right is a headless Herod the Great, wringing his beard.
But the Muslims do honor John the Baptist, and that’s why his tomb below was preserved.
The Tomb of John the Baptist.
As we go deep into the earth, into this musty tomb, we will see six holes, behind which are six Jewish-styled tombs - spaces where people were once buried.
John's tomb was about nine feet lower than the bottom row of holes.
From the black carbon stains above these holes it appears that at some time before the age of flashlights, someone with a candle tried to peer into these empty tombs to see what was inside.
A peek inside one of the lower tombs behind this wall.
We are told that both John and Elisha were buried under these tombs, several meters below the current floor level. We’re fairly certain that John’s body is not here today, since there are reports that his bones were removed sometime around the third or fourth centuries, and that they were widely distributed among churches around the world.
In another part of the tomb we see what is called an arcosolium-styled tomb, with a circular arch above it. Next to it is a heavy stone door that was once used to seal the entrance to the tomb.
The Crusader church was destroyed by an earthquake. However, in 1892 part of it was rebuilt as a mosque dedicated to John the Baptist (called by the name Yahia in Islam).
The Attitude of John.
John the Baptist is remembered as saying this about Jesus: “He must become greater, and I must become less (John 3:30).” As he was in life, so he is in death. You see, for every ten thousand people who file through the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem, there is probably only one person who will descend these stairs. John would probably be happy with those numbers.
According to Jesus, John was the greatest man who ever lived, but what made him so great was his love for Christ, and his humility. John the Baptist gave us the clearest and most powerful example by which we can live our own lives.