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In Mark 1:6, John the Baptist is described, "John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey." (NIV)

The description of John's clothing is clearly meant to connect him to Elijah:

They replied, "He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist." The king said, "That was Elijah the Tishbite." 2 Kings 1:8

Does his diet likewise look back to any figure from the Old Testament or otherwise carry any significance? I tried to do a search where honey and locusts are near each other but it only turned up this passage and the parallel in Matthew.

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  • Both his clothes and his diet point to a frugal or ascetic existence. Given that he was a Priest's son, it is clear that his poverty was freely chosen, rather than the result of a lack of privilege. The same can be said with regard to his cousin, Christ, the son of a carpenter, living in the vicinity of a prosperous and expanding ancient city, implying that construction workers, such as masons or carpenters, were always on demand. But they both abandoned these material gains and pursuits, and searched for the Kingdom of God instead.
    – Lucian
    Jan 13 '19 at 16:04
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    Is it really possible to survive on only eating locusts and honey? Or is this just something he displayed to the people who came to be baptized? Feb 10 '19 at 1:15
  • A cup of honey contains (RDI) 3% vitamin C, 8% Riboflavin, 2% Niacin, 4% Vitamin B6, 2% Folate, 0% Vitamin A, 0% Vitamin K, 0% Vitamin E, and 0% Vitamin B12. Regarding vitamin values of Locusts, my little short web search came up with the following: While commercially bred locusts contain all vitamins, wild crickets contain only thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin. Feb 10 '19 at 7:43
  • I don't know if one can apply the wild crickets data to John the Baptist, or not. I mean God could have supplied him with magic locusts. Although I think that a plausible explanation is that the people who came to see him in the desert brought food which they shared with him. The locusts and the honey might only have been his dessert, in other words. Feb 10 '19 at 7:44
  • Can you picture the following conversation between John and one of his disciples: "Hi John, I am bringing some sweet tomatoes and some bread that was given to me by a man in town, and I would like to share this with you. No thank you, I eat only locusts and honey, and so should you". Jul 10 '19 at 9:03
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Summary:

  • He followed all the laws of kosher diet.
  • He abstained from anything made from grapes as required for a Nazirite vow.
  • He seems to have lived off the fallow land, at least during the times he was baptizing by the Jordan, as Elijah had done for a time, relying on God to provide for him day by day.
  • Though this is never specifically mentioned in the gospels, he was a fully active priest, and therefore would have eaten meat and bread made from grain brought in sacrifice while on rotation in the Temple, as required by Torah.
  • When not working in the Temple, he abstained from bread. This could be from all bread or only from leavened bread (chametz).

From the gospels and the Torah we learn about several restrictions on the diet of Yochannan (John) the Baptist.

First, as for any Jew, he had to follow the laws of clean and unclean foods. Both locust insects and natural bee honey are considered kosher today in mainstream Judaism. The law permits eating locusts specifically (Leviticus 11:22) but not other "creeping things". Bee honey was ruled kosher by the elders and this conclusion is now Rabbinic tradition.

However, these foods, "locusts and wild honey" that John ate could also be widely misunderstood. These foods, plus his "camel hair" (sackcloth) clothing, are often used to style John the Baptist as a crazy hermit; but I object to this characterization.

There are indications that 'locusts' actually refers to Carob fruit. The word translated "locust" in Latin is locusta, in Greek akrides and in Aramaic qamsa, all literally meaning the locust insect. But this still could just be the nickname for a fruit that does rather resemble a locust - judge for yourself. There is also the question of when live locusts, or carob fruit, would be available. I have no idea.

Regarding honey, even though Rabbinic tradition (codified in the Mishnah, the "oral Torah") holds that bee honey is kosher, the written Torah does not say this explicitly. The elders inferred this through interpretation. Jesus, by contrast, taught that the traditions of the elders are not the inerrant Word of God (Mark 7:1-12) - though in some cases he followed the traditions, such as in the Passover meal. John seems to have believed the same as Jesus did regarding the traditions. However, there are references to bee honey in Tanakh that seem to imply it is not unclean. Perhaps most definitive is Psalm 19:9-10:

The decrees of the LORD are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.

It would be strange to liken God's decrees to a substance unclean for food. And how does the psalmist know how honey from the honeycomb tastes, if it is unclean?

I believe that the apostles referred instead to date honey for John's diet. Roman-occupied Judea was famous for its dates in that time and even featured date palms on coins. So dates would have been available. In the Aramaic text of Matthew 3:4 we see ve'devsha d'bara translated as 'and wild honey'. I'm no Aramaic expert, but devsha [DBSA] is spelled almost exactly like modern Hebrew dvash [DBS] which is the word for date honey according to Wikipedia. Looks like a match to me. Also, in the Torah the famous description of the Promised Land, "flowing with milk and honey", referred to date honey not bee honey.

I fancy that "locusts and wild honey" may have been his favorite food - carob chocolate with date honey on top. Sounds yummy! Definitely not the choice of a crazy hermit. Maybe I'll get the chance to try it myself someday! But that's only my own conjecture of course. The point of all this is, whether his favorite food was locust insects covered in bee honey (which I will NOT be trying myself), or carob fruit with date honey, Yochannan ate kosher.

Secondly, Yochannan was a priest. This is known because his father Zakarya (Zechariah) was a priest of the order of Abijah (Luke 1). There are some additional dietary laws specific to the priestly order, mostly concerning the eating of meat and grain brought in sacrifice.

Thirdly, Yochannan lived under a Nazirite vow from birth until at least the day he baptized Yeshua (Jesus) in the Jordan river. This is clearly implied by the instructions given by the Messenger (angel) to his father Zakarya in the Temple, that he should not partake of grapes (Luke 1). So anything containing grapes or any product of grapes was additionally forbidden to him. The messenger actually said, "wine or strong drink", implying other forms of alcohol were also forbidden to him, even though Torah does not explicitly require this for the Nazirite.

But these are only the restrictions in law. It could also be asked, why not eat fish, which are perfectly kosher? Or why not eat the unharvested grains in the farmers' fields, as allowed under the law (and which Jesus and his disciples are known to have done)?

I humbly suggest that these mentions of what he ate should not necessarily be interpreted to mean that Yochannan ate only these foods exclusively. Rather, this description relates what he was known for eating. It became part of his public image, so to speak.

While in service in the Temple, he would have eaten whatever meat and grain was brought in sacrifice, as well as the Temple bread. The law requires that, in fact. And we know he was in active service and on the Temple rotation because he, like Yeshua his cousin, had recently reached the age of thirty, when priests are commanded to enter full duty (Numbers 4:3).

It must be mentioned that multiple resemblances between Yochannan and the prophet Elijah are evident and were called to attention by Yeshua. He wore sackcloth ("camel hair") as Elijah did, symbolizing repentance. He came to the river Jordan in possibly the exact place where Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire. His diet of "locusts and wild honey" may also have reflected Elijah having relied directly on God to provide his food in the wilderness day to day, living off the land when not serving in the Temple.

Finally, in Luke 7:33 we learn indirectly that Yochannan did not eat bread. The Aramaic text has chama here which resembles the Hebrew for leavened bread (chametz). The same root word is used in the parable of the leaven in Luke 13:21, but not in Luke 22:1 "the feast of unleavened bread". So this seems to have been an abstinence specifically from leavened bread. This abstinence is mentioned by Jesus only in making another point, so he did not clarify whether this was a lifelong abstinence, or seasonal (only while he was baptizing perhaps), or for some other temporary purpose.

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Prophets speak both with words and with their persons. The people came to see John in the wilderness expecting to see him in fine clothes and speaking comforting words, denoting God's approval of Israel. After all, He had brought Israel back from exile. Instead they saw him in a condition that spoke of God's continuing disapproval of Israel, expressed in sparse clothes and a spare diet. The Jews should not have expected any better, because children having approval don't live in the wilderness, they live in fine palaces.

Matthew 11

7As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8“But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! 9“But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet.

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The history of the reception of the NT in the Syriac-speaking world begins with the Syriac translations of the Greek text of the Gospels. These translations introduced (or perhaps preserved) interpretations of the Gospels that are no longer found (or were never found) in the Greek text. For example, Tatian’s Diatessaron (2nd cent.) reports that John the Baptist (Mark 1:6) consumed milk and honey (not locusts and wild honey), which links his diet to the foods of the Promised Land (Deut. 6:3). Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition . An textual discrepancie between manuscript of the greek text, and Aramaic and Syriac?

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  • Tatian's Diatesseron was almost certainly written in the 2nd century as you say, in one of the Aramaic dialects, but the oldest surviving manuscripts are in Latin and Arabic. Therefore it is subject to certain translation inaccuracies, which "milk and honey" may well be an example of. None of the Scriptural manuscripts to my knowledge, in Aramaic or Greek, have this.
    – wberry
    Sep 21 at 5:42
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This MAY help you, in addtion to his food, as you did not mention not drinking "alcoholic drink" the following text:-

NWT Luke 1:13-16 "However, the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your supplication has been favorably heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to name him John. 14 You will have joy and great gladness, and many will rejoice over his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of Jehovah. But he must drink no wine or any alcoholic drink at all, and he will be filled with holy spirit even from before birth, 16 and he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to Jehovah their God."

Not consuming alcoholic drink would make John a "Nazirite":-

NWT Numbers 6:1-4 "Jehovah spoke further to Moses and said: 2 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘If a man or a woman takes a special vow to live as a Nazʹi·rite to Jehovah, 3 he should keep away from wine and other alcoholic beverages. He should not drink the vinegar of wine or the vinegar of anything alcoholic. He should not drink any liquid made from grapes, nor eat grapes, whether fresh or dried. 4 All the days of his Naziriteship he should not eat anything made from the grapevine, from the unripe grapes to the skins."

He was born to be a Nazirite as in the above and commanded to be so by God. Just a thought.

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