Wednesday, September 5, 2012

You Are What You Eat? (Matthew 3:4)

What did John the Baptist eat in the wilderness? Locusts and wild honey.

John the Baptist appears in all four gospels as a forerunner to Jesus (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:2; John 1:6). He is presented as an eccentric. Matthew and Mark include John’s diet among his idiosyncracies (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6).

Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4 NASB)
John subsisted on the seemingly odd combination of locusts and wild honey. Unlike his astringent dress (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6), John’s diet does not constitute an Old Testament allusion. The fact that John’s dietary practices are documented in Scripture is more peculiar than the items he chooses to eat. These provisions were not unusual fare for people living in the desert.

While honey is not an abnormal food to most western readers, locusts are cringe worthy to some. While modern translations almost universally render akris as “locusts” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “grasshoppers” (CEV) there was once a prominent theory that John actually ate carob seeds. Carob seeds were prominent in the period, used as the standard measure of weight for gems and precious metals.

Scientists O.N. Allen (1905-1976) and Ethel K. Allen (1908-2006) explain the connection:

Some commentators are of the opinion that the “locusts” eaten by John the Baptist...were carob pods and not insects. An error is believed to have occurred whereby a transcriber substituted the Hebrew g for the r in the word “cherev”; this changed the word in translation to “locust” from “carob” (Harold Norman Moldenke [1906-1996] and Alma L. Moldenke [1908-1997] 1952). Accordingly, the tree was known as “Johannis brodbaum,” or St.-John’s-bread, in the Middle Ages. (Allen and Allen, The Leguminosae: A Source Book of Characteristics, Uses and Nodulation, 156)
There is now a consensus that John did indeed dine on migratory locusts. W.D. Davies (1911-2001) and Dale C. Allison, Jr. (b. 1950) write authoritatively, “There is no need to speculate that ‘locusts’ might mean something else, such as carob pods or dried fruit (Davies and Allison, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, 39).”

Though John is the only Biblical character explicitly said to have eaten locusts, they are presented as ritually clean food in both the Old Testament (Leviticus 11:22) and rabbinic law (m. Hullin 8:1; m. Ta’anit 4:7). Though wild honey is referenced in the Old Testament, there are no Scriptural regulations regarding its consumption (Genesis 43:11; Exodus 3:8; Deuteronomy 32:13; Judges 14:8; I Samuel 14:25; Psalm 81:16; Ezekiel 27:17).

Locusts are unique in the Levitical law. John Nolland (b. 1947) notes:

Leviticus 11:20-23 distinguishes locusts as the only winged insects not to be treated as unclean. Their use as food is also noted in other ancient sources, notably among other wilderness dwellers at Qumran (CD 12:14). ‘Wild honey’ is presumably that produced in the wild without any role for a beekeeper...Though it is true that locusts did not count as meat (m. Hul. 8:1), any discussion of vegetarianism or oaths of abstinence, or any insistence that John has distanced himself from the sacrificial cult of the temple, is out of place here: Matthew makes no claim here that on principle he refused all food items other than locusts and wild honey. (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 139)
Locusts are still eaten in parts of the world and there are many ways to prepare them. They can be cooked in salt-water, roasted on coals, and are often dried and ground into flour.

R.T. France (1938-2012) examines:

Locusts...are still eaten by those in whose lands they flourish. Pierre Bonnard (1911-2003)...speaks with remarkable authority on the subject: “This insect was highly prized as nourishment, either in water and salt like our prawns, or dried in the sun and preserved in honey and vinegar, or powdered and mixed with wheat flour into a pancake.” (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 106)
John’s food supply was abundant as all of it could be found in the wilderness in which he dwelled. Josephus (37-100) refers to an ampleness of bees in the region and locusts remain an important food source in many regions because they are prevalent even in the most desolate areas.

While many may find locusts unappetizing, William Shakespeare (1564-1616)’s Othello includes the line, “The food as luscious as locusts (Act 1, Scene 3).” Perhaps not surprisingly, locusts do have many health benefits.

James A. Kelhoffer (b. 1970) catalogs:

Although perhaps unknown to the eaters, maybe the most significant benefit of eating locusts (and many other insects) is that they are a rich source of protein, and therefore plentiful in calories as well. Dried locusts comprise “up to 75 per cent protein and about 20 per cent fat; 100 grams of locust, when analyzed, showed the presence of 1.75 mg. of riboflavin and 7.5 mg. of nicotinic acid (vitamin B2 complex), demonstrating that they are also of value for their vitamins.” Such a high protein content, even in uncooked grasshoppers (7.6 grams/ounce), compares favorably with the level of protein in many meats—including blood sausage (4.1 grams/ounce), smoked ham (5.1 grams/ounce), and moose liver (6.9 grams/ounce)—which many poorer people cannot afford, or choose not, to consume. (Kelhoffer, The Diet of John the Baptist: “Locusts and Wild Honey” in Synoptic and Patristic Interpretation, 112)
Though John’s diet is limited, it is nutritious (all natural and relatively balanced) and readily available. Jesus will later compare John’s lifestyle to his own (Matthew 11:18-19; Luke 7:33-35).

Who can you think of who is known for their eating habits (e.g. Cookie Monster)? Have you ever eaten a locust? If your diet was described by two foods, what would they be? If you had to eat the same meal every day, what would you choose? What, if anything does your diet say about you? If you are what you eat, what does that make John the Baptist?

Since ancient times, much has been made of John’s eating habits. For Epiphanius (320-403), John’s diet was even an important factor in presenting him as the long promised Elijah (The Gospel of the Ebionites Panarion 30.13.4-5). A sect known as the Ebionites changed John’s diet to “honey cakes” to make him a vegetarian.

John’s eating habits have also fueled speculation that he was a member of various groups, most commonly the Essenes. In his article, “John the Baptist and Essene Kashruth”, Stevan L. Davies (b. 1948) admits that if John were an Essene he would be “required to eat only certain herbs and locusts and wild honey” in order to maintain Essene purity vows in the desert (NTS 29 [1983] 569-71). In arguing that John’s motive is ritual purity rather than asceticism, Davies counters that any Jew residing in the desert would have been forced to do so as it was all that was readily available. Like all human beings, John’s location in many ways dictates his diet.

Joan E. Taylor (b. 1958) adds:

It should be remembered that the Essenes are described by Josephus as eating bread loaves (War 2.130). The Community Rule describes the communal meal as being bread and wine (1QS 6:4-6; cf. 1QSa 2:17-21), and according to Luke bread and wine were precisely what John did not eat (Luke 7:33-34; cf. Matthew 11:18-19; Luke 1:15). (Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism, 34)

Daniel S. Dapaah concludes:

The description of John’s frugal diet of “locusts and wild honey” is reminiscent of the religious and philosophical ascetics of the ancient world, such as neo-Pythagoreans, neo-Platonists, vegetarians, magicians, and mystics, who abstained from meat, wine and sexual activity to rid themselves of ritual purity and defilement. The simple diet of locusts and wild honey (also eaten by the Qumranites, CD 12.14) was common among ascetic groups that roamed the Palestinian countryside (cf. War 2.143). The Qumran community was not the only ascetic and celibate group during the time of John...Several marginal Jewish groups and authorities (e.g., the Egyptian Therapeutae) practised celibacy and attracted disciples...Therefore, the possibility must be left open that John could have associated with any of those groups or individuals. (Dapaah, The Relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth: A Critical Study, 51)
Many have seen John’s diet as a desire to remain ritually pure, perhaps in keeping with a Nazirite vow (Luke 1:15-16). Locusts and wild honey not only indicate a sparse diet but also a holy diet. Locusts insured that John ate no food from which blood had been drained and the honey meant that his life was devoid of wine, as honey is sugary like wine but nonalcoholic. John’s diet also insured that he be totally reliant upon God for his sustenance.

Craig A. Evans (b. 1952) notes:

John’s peculiar diet has occasioned...speculation...that his personal food law (or kashrut) was so strict that he could eat nothing prepared by human hands...According to Josephus, one Bannus, a desert hermit (c. 56 A.D.). “dwelt in the wilderness, wearing only such clothing as trees provided, feeding on such things as grew of themselves, and using frequent ablutions of cold water, by day and night, for purity’s sake (Life 2 §11). We read in the first-century pseudepigraphal work Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah (Mar. Isa. 2:10-11): “All of them were clothed in sackcloth, and all of them were prophets; they had nothing with them, but were destitute, and they all lamented bitterly over the going astray of Israel. And they had nothing to eat except wild herbs (which) they gathered from the mountains.” (Evans, Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Matthew-Luke, 66)

John’s spartan diet is certainly consistent with his message, a crude diet for an austere man. His eating habits are a reflection of his discipleship. Some have even seen John’s diet as a sign of his asceticism, underscoring a life of renunciation. George T. Montague (b. 1929) reminds, “A diet of wild honey (which could also be various types of tree sap) and locusts suggests desert life but not necessarily extreme asceticism, since an Assyrian bas-relief shows a servant offering the king a shish kebab of locusts as a delicacy (Montague, Companion God: A Cross-Cultural Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 38).”

John did not get distracted by the desires of the world and his diet is an exemplar of his singular focus. Warren Carter (b. 1955) comments:

John has good company in not letting food distract him from serving God: the levitical purity laws, the Nazirite refusal of strong drink (Numbers 6:3; Judges 13:4-5), heroes and heroines who maintained faithfulness to God in not eating meat (Daniel 1:12, 16; Judith 10:5, 12:2-4, 17-20), and the Rechabites, who renounced wine, houses, and agriculture (Jeremiah 35). Among Gentiles, Apollonius renounces a flesh diet and wine in favor of dried fruits and vegetables since flesh was unclean, gross, and endangered mental balance (Philostratus, Apollonius 1.8). Dio Chrystostom provides parallels with Stoic-Cynic philosophers (Disc 1.61-61, 4.70, 6.12, 12, 13.10-11, 60.7-8). Even John’s unusual food, then, attests a different way of life centered on faithfulness to God. It presents a critique of the economic extravagance of the powerful elite, who maintain their own abundance at the expense of the poor (see Matthew 11:8, 12:1-8, 14:13-21; for his critique of fine clothing and the palaces of the wealthy and powerful, see Matthew 11:9). (Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 95)
John is not overly concerned about what he will eat (Matthew 6:31; Luke 12:29), what we might call “quality of life”. He is clearly not in ministry for its material benefits. He is too preoccupied with the kingdom of God.

Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) expounds:

John’s diet...provides Matthew’s community a model of commitment. Some other poor people in antiquity also ate locusts...but locusts sweetened with honey constituted John’s entire diet. The sort of pietists that lived in the wilderness and dressed simply normally ate only the kind of food that grew by itself (II Maccabees 5:27; Jos. Life 11). In the wilderness, both refugees (Qoh. Rab. 10:8, §1) and pietists with special kosher requirements (CD 12.14; 11QTemple 48.1-5; cf. Davies 1983) might subsist on locusts. Matthew is explaining that John lived simply — with only the barest forms of necessary sustenance. This was not the only lifestyle to which God called his servants, but Matthew believed that God called some disciples to it (Matthew 11:18-19), and their lifestyle challenges all disciples to consider whether hey have staked everything on the kingdom (Matthew 13:46; cf. The emphasis in Luke 3:11, 12:33, 14:33; Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35). (Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 118-119)
In an era where prominent pastor Joel Osteen (b. 1963) claimed, “God wants me to be rich!”, it is worth asking, how comfortably should a Christian live? Does your lifestyle reflect your discipleship? Is one’s diet a spiritual issue? How much do you need?

“It is easier to change a man’s religion than to change his diet.” - Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

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