St. John the Baptist by El Greco, 1597 - 1603
Yesterday, on Crystal’s blog (along with her usual display of beautiful and inspirational artwork), there was a reminder that it was the Feast of the Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist on June 24th.
One thing that always intrigued me about John the Baptist was the strange clothing and diet. I figured it must have been rough living in the desert, but why did he wear camel-hair clothing? Why was that significant? Why did he restrict himself to eating locusts and wild honey?
Of all the current crop of historical Jesus scholars out there right now who write for the mass-market, I find Paula Fredriksen to be the most impressive (although I haven’t gotten around to reading Fr. John Meier’s tomes yet). It seems to me that she has tried the hardest to be the most honest about going where the texts lead her without letting herself be steered by presuppositions and an ideological agenda about what she wants the meaning of Jesus to have been (as opposed to say, the Jesus Seminar scholars such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg). Although I strongly disagree with her ultimate conclusions (which apparently led her to convert from Catholicism to Orthodox Judaism), I find her work to be well-researched, easy-to-read, thought-provoking, and challenging.
She had an interesting theory about John’s clothing and diet that I thought might be worth sharing. She theorizes that John the Baptist, like many of his contemporaries, had a fixation on Ritual Purity and Kashrut that was not shared by his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. In her book ‘Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews’, she writes of John:
Mark's introduction of John fits with the information in Josephus:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leather girdle round his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. (Mk 1:4-6)
The italicized snippets in Mark's passage cohere well with Josephus' summary of John's preaching: John, Josephus says, "had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view, this [behavior] was necessary if baptism was to be acceptable to God." This immersion, Josephus explicitly states, did not confer forgiveness of sins,but served rather "for the purification of the flesh once the soul had previously been cleansed by right conduct." Repentance and sincere contrition before God, John and his contemporaries believed, would gain forgiveness. The former sinner, having harkened to John's call to repentance, would then amplify his new moral purity by immersion for bodily purity. In short, both Mark and Josephus describe a ritual of purification so immediately associated with John's mission that the activity itself was how he was known: John the Immerser, or Baptizer. The water of the Jordan purified the bodies of the former sinners only once their prior acknowledgment of sin and consequent repentance had already "purified" their souls.
Mark's description of John's clothing and diet in this passage may further cohere with Josephus' report of John's concern with bodily purity. Cloth of camel hair, a loosely woven fabric, would easily allow water to completely penetrate the garment during immersion, thus ensuring the body's full contact with water (a desideratum of immersion for purity). Purity concerns, too, might account for the details of John's diet. True, locusts and honey fit first of all with his venue in the wilderness: Such would be readily available in the desert. But Q adds to our knowledge of John's eating habits, claiming that he "came eating no bread and drinking no wine" (Lk 7:33//Mt 11:18). In other words, the Baptizer evidently did not eat man-made or cultivated foods. This, too, may reflect his purity concerns: Such food - locusts, honey, water - runs no risk of being impure, that is, of violating in any way the laws of kashruth.
The Judaism 101 article on Kashrut says that bugs aren't generally Kosher... but apparently some kinds of locusts are:
The various winged insects that walk on all fours are loathsome for you.
But of the various winged insects that walk on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs for leaping on the ground.
Lev. 11: 20-22
Incidentally, the author Anne Rice also admires Fredriksen’s work and used her as a consultant for her recent novel Christ the Lord : Out of Egypt, but Rice has returned to her Catholic roots. Rice says:
“In sum, the whole case for the non-divine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified by nobody and had nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and would be horrified by it if he knew about it – that whole picture which had floated in the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for 30 years – that case was not made.”