Matthew 11:2-3 reported that, while in prison, John the Baptist heard about what his Jesus was doing, and wanted to know more. What Matthew didn’t report was the conditions John endured in prison.

Historians tell us that John the Baptist was imprisoned in the castle fortress of Machaerus, located just east of the Dead Sea in Judea. King Herod Antipas (also known as Herod the tetrarch) had committed sins of marital corruption and John the Baptist preached publicly against the king’s immorality. Antipas exacted vengeance, locking John up indefinitely in the dungeon of his fortress.

Although we don’t know exactly what John’s prison cell in Machaerus was like, we can make a reasonable guess about this kind of “Roman hospitality” based on the Tullianum prison in the center of the city of Rome (where Simon Peter would later be jailed). The only prison in Rome proper, Tullianum was “a conical, windowless chamber of rough-hewn tufa, the only entrance to which is a hole in the floor of the room above.” According to historians, “Prisoners were flung through this hole into the prison, and on occasion left there to starve and rot.” A Numidian king named Jugurtha was imprisoned here in 104 BC, and his first comment was that it was unbearably cold.

In Machaerus, it’s likely that John’s prison cell was comparable to Tullianum—and the Baptist suffered more than a year imprisoned there, until he was unceremoniously decapitated in his cell simply to please the whims of Antipas’ cruel wife, Herodias (Matthew 14:1-12).

 

Works Cited:

[GSM, 101-102; ZB1, 71; ARF, 78]

 

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