> Sorry for the long quote, but this particular passage really hit me when I read
> it and I longed to contribute something of substance to the conversation.
Apologies unnecessary, Hope. Your research has saved me a trip to the
NBTS Seminary library this weekend.
While I usually have due respect for the learning & intuitions of my
neighbor, Jim Charlesworth, this it one case where I think his argument
sounds like one of my off-the-top-of-the-head brainstorms at 2:30 a.m.
in responding to a XTalk post. It sounds ingenious, but I'm afraid it
will hardly stand up to rigorous historical examination of the data.
Charlesworth is here taking several gospel assertions at face value &
out of context, blending them with unrelated tidbits from the DSS &
concluding that his speculation is historically probable because a
question occurs to him for which no historically verifiable answer is
possible. This is exactly the sort of thing I was referring to when I
commented in my previous post that a "plausible" reconstruction can be
considered historically *possible* only if it rests on a base of
historically *probable* data. Otherwise it is simply spinning fantasies
out of vapors.
First of all, Charlesworth assumes that Mark's description of JB's diet
& dress is a literally accurate description of the historical Baptizer
rather than part of Mark's obviously christologically motivated attempt
to portray JB as Elijah returned [cf. 2 K 1:8]. Secondly, apparently
influenced by medieval European graphic misinterpretations of the TRICAS
KAMHLOU of Mark 1:6 (// Matt 3:4), he misrepresents JB's clothing as
being "animal skins" rather than a rough cloth garment woven of camel
hair. Anyone clothed in animal skins in the Judean wilderness would not
survive very long; but a loosely woven garment of camel hair is ideal
for that environment. Such garments breath in the brutal heat of the
day & insulate from the chill of the night; & they are tough enough to
withstand sandstorms & the wear & tear of life in a rocky wilderness.
Eminently practical. Just ask any Bedouin.
As for living off locusts & wild honey: that is just resourceful.
Boyscouts are -- or at least used to be -- trained to do this & similar
diets are part of the survival skills of many tribes. In fact, in parts
of Africa locusts are considered a delicacy. And they are eminently
healthful. High in protein, no fat or cholesterol, crispy crunchy when
roasted or fried. (Try it, you may like it -- I did). Acc. to Josephus,
his ascetic tutor Bannus lived on a similar Spartan diet out of choice
rather than necessity. Also acc. to Josephus Essene *novices* were sent
out into the wilderness with only an axe, loincloth & nothing more to
test their devotion & obedience in preparation for the second
preliminary stage before initiation into the community [JW 2.137 -- see
my *Into His Own* #86 URL:
So I think it is far from evident that JB was an excommunicated member
of the Essene/Qumran community "because of the food he ate and the
clothes he wore." And I certainly do not find any evidence in either
Josephus or the gospels to conclude that JB shared the "wretched life" &
near death starvation of those whom the Essenes excommunicated. Quite
the contrary, he must have cut a figure of a rugged robust charismatic
leader to attract the crowds that both the gospels & Josephus claim
responded to his preaching.
Now for Charlesworth's rhetorical questions: "Why did he not accept food
from those who came by the hundreds to be baptized by him? Why did he
not accept clothing from others?" My question in return is: Where do you
get the idea that anyone thought to offer him more civilized food or
clothes or that he refused them? Is this a speculative interpretation of
the Q children in the marketplace saying where JB is characterized as
"neither eating (bread) nor drinking (wine)"? Isn't it more probable
that JB's rejection of food associated in the OT with pagan agricultural
cults of Canaan was part of his extreme Nazirite agenda of renewal of
the covenant in the wilderness (where neither wine nor bread were
produced)? Besides, Charlesworth again seems to take the exaggerated
rhetoric in the Q JB sayings literally rather than as hyperbole to
dramatize contrasts. Does he also think that Jesus was literally a
"glutton & a drunk"? After all, these descriptions are part of the same
Finally, Charlesworth's brilliant brainstorm that is the basis of his
claim that JB was probably an ex-Essene: "Is it [i.e., his refusal to
accept more civilized food or clothes] because he had promised God that
would keep his vows made in the Community?" Now let's see. Acc. to
Josephus one of those vows was "he is neither to hide anything from
party members nor to disclose anything of theirs to others, even if
tortured to death" [JW 2.142]. If JB was really concerned to keep his
alleged Essene vows he probably would have hesitated to break this most
solemn one of all. For to break this could cost him his life. Then how
is it possible that scholars find so many parallels between our meagre
accounts of JB's public career in the wilderness & the accounts &
documents of the secretive Essene/Qumranite sect(s)? Does Charlesworth
ever stop to consider the public scorn & vitriol that is showered on
anyone who violates the oaths of secrecy of any fraternal order -- be it
Jewish Kabbala, Eleusian mysteries, Knights Templar, Freemasons, or
college fraternities. Since there are obvious parallels in our records
between JB & the Essene/Qumran communities, I think it is also fairly
obvious that JB never took a vow to keep these matters secret.
But if JB did not take that vow, is it likely that he felt bound by his
vow not to "partake of a meal with others" [JW 2.143]? Isn't it more
likely that *if* JB had any association with the Essenes (or Qumran) it
was more likely analogous to that of Josephus, who obviously was not
constrained by vows of either secrecy or refusal to dine with others.
So much for Charlesworth's "probable" ex-Essene.
Mahlon H. Smith, http://religion.rutgers.edu/mh_smith.html
Department of Religion Virtual Religion Index
Rutgers University http://religion.rutgers.edu/vri/
New Brunswick NJ
Into His Own: Perspective on the World of Jesus
A Synoptic Gospels Primer
Jesus Seminar Forum