John the Baptist
St John the Baptist in the Desert c. 1542 Titian (1490–1576)
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson January 23-29: Matthew 3; Mark1; Luke 3
We read in Luke 1:13-15: “But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.” Zacharias was apparently being told to separate John as a Nazarite, which is described in Numbers 6:1-3: “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the Lord: He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried.”
Furthermore, a Nazarite was not to cut his or her hair: “All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.” (Numbers 6:5) And they should not be defiled by being around any dead person: “All the days that he separateth himself unto the Lord he shall come at no dead body. He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die: because the consecration of his God is upon his head.” (Numbers 6:6-7) According to Numbers 6:8-21, the separation of a Nazarite may be temporary, but in John’s case, it appears that his separation was permanent.
We then read about John in Matthew 3:1, 4 (see also Mark 1:6): “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judæa, And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” We are not told in Numbers 6 that wearing a camel-hair raiment and eating locust and wild honey was part of the vow of a Nazarite. Ellicott’s Bible Commentary for English Readers states, “The dress was probably deliberately adopted by the Baptist as reviving the outward appearance of Elijah, who was ‘a hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather’ (2Kings 1:8); and the ‘rough garment,’ that had been characteristic of…[a] prophet's life even at a later period [in Hebrew history] (Zechariah 13:4)…” (biblehub.com/matthew/1-4.htm)
Of the locusts and wild honey, Ellicott’s Bible Commentary for English Readers states, “Locusts were among the articles of food permitted by the Law (Leviticus 11:21), and were and are still used by the poor in Palestine and Syria. They are commonly salted and dried, and may be cooked in various ways, pounded, or fried in butter, and they taste like shrimps. The ‘wild honey’ was that found in the hollows of trees (as in the history of Jonathan, 1Samuel 14:25), or in the ‘rocks’ (Deuteronomy 32:13; Psalm 81:16). Stress is laid on the simplicity of the Baptist's fare, requiring no skill or appliances, the food of the poorest wanderer in the wilderness, presenting a marked contrast to the luxury of the dwellers in towns.” (biblehub.com/matthew/1-4.htm)
It is interesting that Leviticus 11:21-22 is one among a number of odd Old Testament scriptures where, for whatever reason, reality is set aside in the text, “Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth; Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.”
It is not clear to the modern reader why insects, which have six legs, would be described in Leviticus as having four legs. Again, in my opinion, Ellicott’s Bible Commentary for English Readers comes to the rescue, at least in part: “Of every flying creeping thing.--Rather, of all winged creeping things. Having laid down the general rule that those creatures which creep along upon their feet in the manner of quadrupeds, and which have also wings, must not be eaten, the Lawgiver now mentions those which form an exception.” Ellicott then explains, “Which have legs above their feet.--Better, which have knees above their hinder legs, that is, those which have the third or hindmost pair of legs much longer and stronger than ordinary insects. Those insects, therefore, in whose hindermost legs the second joint is much larger and stronger, whereby they are enabled to leap or raise themselves up with great force and leap a great distance upon the earth, are excepted. These are the locusts.
The canonical law which obtained during the second Temple defines more minutely the characteristics of clean locusts. A clean locust we are told has (1) four front feet, (2) four wings, (3) two springing feet, and (4) the wings so long and broad that they cover the greater portion of the back body of the insect. If it possesses these four characteristics it is clean, whether it is with a tail or without it, and whether it has an oblong or round head.” (biblehub.com/ Leviticus/ 11-21.htm) This definition in Ellicott is fine for locusts and grasshoppers, but Leviticus 11:21-22 includes beetles. Interestingly, there are a few beetles: flea beetles, leaf beetles and flower beetle; that do have strong, leaping hind legs. However, it is not entirely clear if the clean insects in Leviticus 11:21-22 includes only these rather rare types of beetles. Ellicott lists four criteria for clean insects. Beetles don’t fit criteria #2 in that they don’t actually have four wings, as the front wings have become hardened into shell-like wing-cases.
What about John’s “raiment of camel’s hair” (Matthew 3:4)? Today, camel hair jackets and blazers are considered to be posh and often very expensive. Such garments were known in Western Europe as early as the 17th century. The British clothing manufacturer, Jaeger (est. 1884), popularized camel hair jackets, which were worn by polo players between matches. As such, these jackets were introduced into the posh 1920s and 1930s society of the US. (Boston AP, Camel hair polo coat is aristocrat of classics, Fort Scott Tribune;retrieved 15 January 2023).
Bactrian camel hair is of two types: course guard hair and fine undercoat. Camel hair jackets are made from the latter. However, it is very unlikely that John was much into polo and did not have access to many Bactrian camels as they are found in the east, from Turkey to China and Siberia. Dromedaries are the common camel in the Middle East, and in the hot Judean desert, they have much shorter, finer guard hairs and very little undercoat hair. Camel hair is prepared by spinning the hair into yarn, which is then woven into fabric. Course camel-hair fabric was used for making tents, carpets, cloaks and bags (i.e. sackcloth; biblehub.com/jonah/3-5; retrieved 15 January 2023). It was probably also used for making clothes worn by poorer people. Throughout the Old Testament, sackcloth was worn by people showing repentance, but it may also have been the common wear of the poor. It makes sense that the more wealthy people would put on the clothing of the poor to show their humility.
This is probably the application John employed, which is consistent with his diet of locust and wild honey – the food of the poor. It is possible that John was poor, perhaps not as a self-inflicted punishment, but because of his natural circumstances. His parents were both quite old when he was born and therefore probably died when he was quite young – leaving him an orphan at an early age. On the other hand, John may have inherited some money and/or property from his priest-father Zacharias, and turned away from it to live a life of poverty.
Like any other time in history, during the first century AD, poor people would have tended to use the most commonly available goods. The three options for fabric at the time of John would probably have been goats, sheep, and camels, in that order. Archaeological data from ancient Israel suggest that the ratio of goats to sheep may have been as high as 8:2 (psephizo.com/biblical-studies/what-did-jesus-have-against-goats; retrieved 15 January 2023). Therefore, most poor people at the time would have been wearing clothing made of course goat-hair fabrics. Camels were probably more common in out-lying areas where nomadic tribes would have been living. The fact that John was wearing raiments of camel hair suggests that he may have been living among these fringe societies. The fact that Matthew 3:4 makes specific reference to his camel-hair raiment suggests that his clothing was unusual by a more urban standard.
Later on, Christians from the early Middle Ages to modern times have employed hairshirts, or cilices (the hair of goats from Cilicia, a Roman province in south-east Asia Minor), to cause mild irritation to the skin, mimicking John’s camel-hair shirt, to show their piety, humility and penitence – such as during Lent. It is entirely possible that John did not wear a camel-hair raiment just to irritate his skin, but wore it because he was poor, and that’s the kind of clothing poor people of the time wore. I recall my mother talking about her (and many other women of the time) making dresses out of flour sacs for my sisters during the Great Depression. They were literally dressed in sackcloth – not to show their piety, but because they used whatever fabric was available.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD