A Meal in the Wilderness
- While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea.
- His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God's kingdom is here.”
- John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey.
- People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action.
- There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.
Matthew 3:1–2; 4–6, The Message
A very common belief is that the “locust” of the biblical text refers not to the insect, but to the locust tree, the most dominant in all the terrain, planted and nurtured for its shade as well as for its very desirable fruit, the carob.
In 63 b.c.e. General Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) captured Jerusalem (some scholars indicate that he was invited in to settle a dispute between the crown princes), and the Kingdom of Judea became a client kingdom of the Roman Republic, with Hyrcanus, son of the Hasmonean Queen Alexandra, serving as prince, high priest, and puppet ruler for the Romans. Antipater became the first Roman procurator of Judea sometime around 49 b.c.e., but when he died in 44 b.c.e. his son Herod took over, becoming governor in 41 b.c.e. and ruler in 37 b.c.e. He would come to be known as Herod the Great, for he was a capable administrator who set about rebuilding Jerusalem, including the Temple complex; but he was also known for his cruelty and ruthlessness; he murdered many family members and rabbis in order to protect his power, to promote the Hellenic (Greek) way of life, and to remain in favor with Rome. Yet Judea prospered economically, for it was located on the important trade routes and was itself agriculturally fruitful, and the Romans did not much interfere in Herod's affairs. In fact, the Romans even exempted the Jews from observing the Roman religion; but for the privilege of being allowed to follow the Law, the Jews were made to pay a heavy tax. Nevertheless, Herod had put the Sadducees, a group of wealthy Jews who supported Roman rule, in charge of the Temple, appointed his own high priest, and hand-picked the members of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical court. His actions caused resentment among the Pharisees, who resisted Hellenization and generally had the support of the common people of Judea. In addition, there were the Zealots and the Sicarii, who agitated for open revolution against the Romans, and dozens of other sects and factions. When Herod died in 4 or 2 b.c.e., the kingdom had become so fractious that it split into three pieces, each governed by one of Herod's sons: Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Herod Philip. Some time around 6 c.e. the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus dismissed Archelaus for incompetence and combined Judea with Samaria and Edom (Idumea) into the Roman province of Iudaea ( Judea), administered by a prefect or procurator who reported directly to the emperor. This was the political climate into which John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were born and raised.
In the 1st century c.e., Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote a twenty-one-volume apologia called Antiquities of the Jews. Bringing his work to the public in 93 c.e., Josephus (as he is known today) intended to provide an explanation of Jewish history, laws, and customs in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. and the expulsion of the Jews from Judea. By outlining the stories of the patriarchs, he was also arguing in support of the many contributions that the Jewish people had made to civilization.
This source is not without controversy. Josephus himself had fought in the rebellion against Rome but afterward had cooperated with Roman authorities to the extent that he had been made a Roman citizen and been given land in Judea and a pension. As a result, many scholars have branded Josephus a traitor and informer and have refused to consider Antiquities of the Jews as anything but propaganda and an attempt at historic self-rehabilitation, for he took pains to include a defense of his cooperation with Rome. Other scholars, however, argue that he was an important bridge-builder between cultures, himself remaining a Jew who observed the Law yet explaining for non-Jews how Jewish and Graeco-Roman philosophies could exist compatibly.
Antiquities of the Jews does include an account of the man known as John the Baptist:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him… .Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.1
This account generally corresponds to the biblical story, though some of the details (such as the reason for John's assassination) differ. There is also a section of the work that offers an account of the life of Jesus:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.2
This section has come to be called the Testimonium Flavianum. Many scholars have difficulty accepting the authenticity of these sections that have a particularly Christian flavor. Extant copies seem to have been based on early Christian sources and not to have been transmitted accurately through history. The consensus among modern scholars is that Josephus did write something about John the Baptist and about Jesus of Nazareth but that the text has been corrupted to a significant degree by copyists' interpolations, additions, and errors. A minority of scholars continue to completely reject the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum and many other portions of Josephus' work.
Nevertheless, whether there is extrabiblical corroboration or not, the biblical stories of John the Baptist and, especially, of Jesus of Nazareth have changed the course of history and continue to influence the way many people live their lives.
Biblical Passage Notes
Other than the parents of Jesus, John the Baptist,whom tradition names as the son of the Virgin Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, is perhaps the best-known member of Jesus' family in the scriptures. Like Jesus, he was a descendant of Aaron on both sides, a member of the priestly tribe known as the Levites. His name is derived from Hebrew and means “the Lord is gracious.” Tradition says that hewas born in the hill country of Judea, in a town known today as Ein Karem, in Israel.
The scriptures tell us next to nothing of his early life, and by the time he appears in the gospels as a grown man, he has taken on the mantle of a prophet, wandering in the wilderness, eating off the land, and uttering apocalyptic pronouncements that often place him at odds with the religious leaders of his day.
When he dares to criticize King Herod Antipas for an adulterous and incestuous marriage, he is sent to prison and eventually murdered in fulfillment of a cruel and vengeful promise (see Matthew 14:7–11).
In the passage cited above, we encounter John in the “desert country of Judea.” It was a barren, often brutally dry place, inhabited in biblical times by wild animals and nomads, some of whom, like John the Baptist, were ascetics searching for wisdom and solace away from the crowds of the larger cities and towns of southern Israel. It appears that John might have been Nazir, and like his ancestor, Samson, subjected by vow to certain abstinences. Nazirites are Jewish men who refrain from cutting their hair, abstain from wine and meat, have no contact with the dead, and are known to be celibate—vows taken usually for only a short time (see Numbers 6). These characteristics may help to explain John's appearance and diet. His clothing evoked visions of Elijah, another ancestor and Nazir. In fact, those who first encountered John asked if he were Elijah, as it was the expectation and hope of the day that Elijah himself would return and restore the fortunes of the Jewish people. In John the Baptizer—prophetically calling the people to repentance, acting like a hermit, living in the wilderness—many saw the realm of God, i.e., the end days when judgment would be laid upon those who did not believe in God, to be at hand. If John were neither Elijah nor the Messiah, he surely spoke as if he were. But John, prophet that he was, pushed all this aside, and is quoted as saying that there was yet one to come who would be even greater than he, whose sandal he would not even be worthy to untie. Just a few biblical verses after this proclamation, Jesus, his cousin, appears at the river to be baptized, and it becomes clear from then on that the mantle of Elijah, the ascetical camel-garb symbol that John wore with authority, would soon be passed to Jesus. Very quickly John's role in the story decreases, and as quickly, Jesus' ascendancy increases.
John the Baptist would have really enjoyed a good, hearty bread with many of the foodstuffs from the land he traveled, such as this loaf made with raisins, rosemary, and camel's milk yogurt. It's a great taste if you're tired of carob and honey!
There is much to learn in this cameo appearance of the great New Testament prophet. The mere fact that the Matthean text mentions the eating habits of John the Baptist should be a clue to us of their importance, both to history and to John's character; it is not merely passing commentary. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew informs us that “John lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey.” The Greek word for locust, akris, is used four times in the New Testament and seems to refer to the class of insect known as Orthoptera, or “straight-winged.” By Mosaic law they were reckoned “clean,” so John could not have been accused of doing anything illegal by claiming them for food. And we do know that dried locusts were a rather common staple of many ancient Near Eastern communities, most particularly the Essenes, a religious sect of which many scholars believe John was a member. To this day, locusts are prepared as food in the Middle East and Africa in various ways: sometimes they are pounded and mixed with flour and water to be baked into cakes; other cooks boil, roast, or stew them in butter for eating. Dried and salted locusts have long been part of the diet of many nomadic tribes.
Still, biblical scholars, anthropologists, and other scientists have reached no consensus as to whether these foods could have sustained the Baptist in the wilderness. A very common belief, which we have adapted here for our purposes, is that the “locust” of the biblical text refers not to the insect, but to the locust tree (in Greek, keration), a plant species that is widespread in Israel. In many areas, including the Judean desert, the locust tree is the most dominant in all the terrain, planted and nurtured for its shade as well as for its very desirable fruit, the carob.
Given its ubiquity, and its connection to the Judean wilderness of the Baptist, it may be no surprise that the carob fruit is known throughout the Middle East as St. John's Bread. It has been dried and used as a food for cattle, people, and most especially swine (see the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:16), and as many as eight hundred pounds of seed pods can be harvested yearly from a single tree.
Carob has a long and distinguished history dating back to the ancients who accorded it such high respect that the weight of its seeds are most likely the original measure for what is today a goldsmith's karat.
Supposing (for the sake of argument) that John the Baptist was dining on carob fruit, and not locusts, as the King James Version insists, what new understanding might this bring to the interpretation of the text? Because carob powder can be used in place of cocoa at levels up to 50 percent, and it has a natural sugar content of up to 48 percent, one might begin to understand the somewhat manic and strange appearance attributed to John in the iconography of biblical art. Eating a lot of carob as a regular diet could have your hair standing on end by sunset! And although John might not have been aware of all the benefits of carob, he probably had some idea that it provided a lot of nutrients, and it was a good, all-around substitute for whatever else was lacking in his daily food regimen. “Carob contains as much vitamin B1 as asparagus or strawberries, the same amount of niacin as lima beans, lentils or peas, and more vitamin A than eggplant, asparagus and beets. It is also high in vitamin B2, calcium, magnesium and iron.”3 All of which is to say that though scholars might not be able to agree on whether locusts could sustain the Baptist in the wilderness, surely locust tree fruit, aka “carob,” would do the trick!
And what of honey (in Greek, meli)? The word itself is used only four times in all of the New Testament, in contrast to the nearly fifty times we encounter it in the Hebrew scriptures (in Hebrew, debhash). The Promised Land where the Israelites finally settled was known as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” which gives us some idea of the high esteem it too was given by our biblical forebears. Yet it was rare enough to be considered somewhat of a luxury, typifying sumptuous dining and finery of preparation. In the translation used for this chapter, “wild field honey” is the type stored by bees in rocks or in trees. Particularly in the wilderness of Judea, honey bees were known to build their hives in the crevices of rocks and in rotting lumber. The honey, oozing from between the stone formations or out of a log, gave it the appearance of flowing (hence the coining of the phrase), and some biblical commentators think that this is what the wandering Israelites encountered in the desert, naming it manna, remarking how sticky and sweet it was, like “food of the gods.” John the Baptist undoubtedly came across lots of honey in his travels; and because it was an excellent source of nutrition and was a curative for many ailments (including stomach upset), it provided a good balance to his other dietary choices.
John's fashion sense—he was “dressed in a camel hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap”—gives us some insight about the animals he came in contact with as he went preaching from one location to another. Obviously, he was aware of the generous uses for all parts of the camel: skin for clothing and liquid storage, milk for cheeses and other dairy needs, meat to complement vegetarian choices. Perhaps the leather was from the hide of a camel; or it might have been fashioned from the tough skin of some other domesticated animal (a steer, ox, lamb, or goat). Wherever his clothing products came from, it is clear that he was familiar with more than just the products of the land.
Keeping his appearance and his food opportunities in mind, we have included recipes that encompass a whole range of possibilities, including whatever fish John might have encountered at the Jordan River, baptizing and fishing for converts and all else his wide prophetic net might bring to shore.