Monday, June 26, 2006

Camel's Hair, Locusts, and Wild Honey

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.”


crystal said...

Hi Jeff. Interesting post!

I like reading about the historical Jesus too. I hadn't heard of Fredricksen before - I'll have to look her up. I've read some of the Jesus seminar stuff and some Crossan ... I like his anti-gnostic outlook, but disagree with his conclusion that Jesus wasn't resurrected. Sometimes I visit the blogroll guys on Mark Goodacre's weblog, but I don't always understand what they're talking about.

Also interesting how different Jesus and his cousin John were, one so ascetic and the other accused of being a glutten and drunkard.

But I'm not sure I wanted to know locusts were kosher :-)

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Crossan is an interesting character. I used to deride and ridicule him when the only thing I knew about him was that he'd made a claim somewhere that the body of Jesus may have been eaten by wild dogs... Having read him a little bit, there is some of what he writes that is very interesting, but I still suspect he's trying to project a worldview shaped by Irish history onto 1st century Judea.

Yes, the contrast between John and Jesus is interesting, and the ultimate reactions towards them turned out to be very similar nonetheless.

Sorry I haven't been able to keep up too well with all of your respective blogs... Been very busy. :-)

Paula said...

Off topic: i like the links list of your blog: well balanced between what is usually perceived as liberal and conservative.

crystal said...

It's also interesting that Crossan used to be a vowed religious priest ... wonder what changed his view so.

Jeff said...

Crossan goes into that topic in depth in this audio interview:

Just string all those together... Blogger is weird sometimes. It wouldn't let me post it as a hyperlink.

Jeff said...

Hi Paula,

Thank you. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that it tends to highlight the extent of the polarization I've been talking about. Secondly, I've always believed that you can learn something from just about anyone. Regardless of where you stand, sometimes the other guy has a good point. Then again, maybe I'm just schizoid. >;-/

I think that the Church needs both its liberals and its conservatives to achieve a balance and a healthy tension. Both sides bring strengths to the table, as long as they show each other charity. If they don't, then the tension becomes unhealthy.

“…let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.” Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises (Presuppositions)