Luke 3 opens with the period in history (15th year of Tiberius Caesar) in which

“the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.” (NASB)

At this point, John had lived in the wilderness for years (Luke 1:80). What was John doing in the desert all those years before the word of God came to him? Or was this not the first time God spoke to him, and he was being trained throughout this period?

  • 1
    We do not and cannot know.
    – Dottard
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 7:12
  • Probably the same as Paul (Galatians 1:17).
    – Lucian
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 10:01
  • 1
    Good question and it is answered in scripture. (Up-voted +1.)
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 9:20
  • It could be the Dead sea wilderness where the Essenes lived, however scholars say John was not one of them, as his diet was different, but it's not necessary that its true. He could still be one of them. They are the only candidate for him.
    – Michael16
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 14:30

2 Answers 2


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. [Matthew 3:4 KJV]

John's way of life and especially his years in the wilderness are hinted at in the very brief description giving by Matthew of John's clothing and diet.

The word for camel, gamal, in Hebrew is a homonym and refers to both a camel and a new born baby the concept being shared in those meanings of both camels and babies to drink copiously. The camel features prominently in Genesis 25 in association with the finding of a bride for Isaac, the whole incident an allegory of Christ and the Church, even down to the astonishing detail of camels, dropped from the narrative and (as it were) becoming eleven men whose feet are washed.

Thus the whole association of the camel is an association with John's ministry, the baptism of repentance wherein (as John the apostle accounts of it) the stone waterpots of Israel are filled up to the brim, whence the contents become wine fit for the "chief of three who reclines, archetricline".

Thus the filling of camels with water, an association in Genesis, and the filling of water pots to the brim are an integral part of the ministry John was sent to fulfil, the preparing of the way (by repentance) before the face of the Lord, Malachi 3:1-4.

That John wears a leathern girdle about his loins indicates that he does not go to others for his clothing. He is able, from resources separate from civilisation, to supply himself providentially.

This also for his diet. Locusts and wild honey are about the only thing available in a desert. And thus John survives, without the company of men, or women. He survives alone and he is supported by providence.

And such a man comes forth with a unique ministry.

Jesus says of John that no other begotten of woman is greater than he. (It is important to be aware of the wording regarding Jesus' birth which excludes Jesus from this category, the 'begetting' being within the virgin prior to delivery, unlike the other mentions in scripture where delivery results in begetting.)

No other begotten of woman was greater than this man who came out of the desert, supported only by God and his providence, to speak a 'thus saith the Lord' to all of Israel.

And the result ?

Multitudes flocked to the baptism of John. All Judaea and its environs came out. Fishermen left their businesses in Galilee (John and James, Peter and Andrew) to follow John, thence to be led to Jesus.

This was the result of a total dedication, a complete separation. John was, as the prophets of old - Isaiah, Daniel, Enoch, Samuel and all the prophets - separated by God from a corrupt and fallen Israel, and given a word to speak to them that was uncompromised, completely separate, untainted by either fear or favour, and was wholly of God alone.

And, not long after his showing to Israel, he was decapitated for his faithful witness to Herod 'It is not lawful for thee to have her.'

  • Can you explain your "delivery results in begetting"?
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 12:03
  • 1
    @C.Stroud Yes. Just compare Mat 1:20 'gennethen ek pneumatos estin agion' and Luke 1:35 'to gennwmenon agion (both speaking of begotten, whilst in the womb, that is to say a reference to an eternal begetting) and compare the account of John's birth Luke 1:57 when she brought forth tikto and beget egennesen. Also compare Jesus' words John 16:21 'the woman delivers tikto , grief, but when she begets gennese , she rejoices. Natural birth is delivery then begetting when the child is an independent enttity. Jesus' birth was a begetting when it was in the womb.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 12:15

The New Testament is silent on this question, but many scholars have argued from John the Baptist's traits and teaching that he may have previously been a member of the Qumran community (the Essenes), for reasons such as:

  • Prevalence of apocalyptic tone and language, judgement of the world by fire
  • Similar emphasis on purification by ritual cleansing in water
  • Common interpretation of scripture, such as Isaiah 40:3, “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” used to interpret their roles as God's preparing influences in the wilderness.
  • Common language of the Pharisees as a "brood of vipers"
  • John ate wild honey and locusts; the Qumran community had vows not to accept food from those outside their group

However, there are many other characteristics which set the two apart - I think it's more the reflection that of the various religious groups present in Jesus' day, John is far closer to the 'Essene' end of the spectrum than any of the others. And so if we assume that he had some degree of religious training, it most likely came from that direction as well.

It therefore seems most likely that John the Baptist spent his adult years with the Essene community up until the point when he began his ministry.


  • 1
    @NigelJ - Are they mutually exclusive? Many of the prophets seem to have learned their habitus from the "company of the prophets", it seems unlikely to me that many of them were instructed specifically by God, save perhaps Ezekiel under his special conditions. Being a prophet doesn't mean that you never receive any real world discipleship or instruction.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 21:54
  • @NigelJ - All such men I have met learned this habitus from others. Most of the prophets in the biblical scope learned their 'dedicated/devout/separate' habitus from other people. Elisha, from Elijah. Joshua, from Moses. Samuel, from Eli - albeit he obviously improved on the example. Isaiah married a prophetess and seems to have benefited from or created a prophetic tradition which survived beyond him. Jeremiah and Ezekiel are special cases, as pretty much all the other prophets of YHWH had died out by that point. The Hebrews were most often a communal people, and their prophets no less so.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 8:29

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