ASK Commentary
September 9, 2004 

John the Baptist in the News

Commentary for September 9, 2004 — It Ain’t Necessarily So

An August 16 Associated Press article “Cave Linked to John the Baptist” reported that a cave was discovered and excavated that claimed artifacts that were related to John the Baptist. The datings of the artifacts and cave writings appear to be of Byzantine (late Roman) origin and the cave was used for rituals of some kind.

I have not commented on this article because I expected more information to come forth from this dig, but nothing else newsworthy has developed.

The cave was near to where John the Baptist was born, according to traditions mentioned in the article. The Bible does not say where John the Baptist’s family lived except that his father, Zechariah was a priest “of the course of Abia” (Luke 1:5). Of course, because his family was from a priestly line, John the Baptist was of the tribe of Levi. When Mary in Galilee traveled to visit Elizabeth, her relative:

“Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.”

Luke 1:39-40

According to the article the newly-discovered cave is just west-northwest of Jerusalem toward Tel Aviv, indeed in the hill country of Judah. Born of priestly lineage (Luke 1:5–7) John the Baptist was approved of by Jesus as the greatest of men ever born of women.
“Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Matthew 11:11

That is quite an endorsement, supported by Luke 1:15: “For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord.”

John the Baptist a Nazarite?

The article also mentions that John the Baptist may have been under a vow as a Nazarite, again more according to evidence of tradition than from biblical proof. The sole point of direct evidence comes from Luke chapter 1:

“For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias [Elijah], to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Luke 1:15–17

Drinking “neither wine nor strong drink” is the only point in life that links John with being a Nazarite. But that was only one of three requirements for being a Nazarite: First, the Nazarite could not drink wine or strong drink, just like John the Baptist:
“He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is made of the vine tree, from the kernels even to the husk.”

Numbers 6:3–4

Second they could not cut their hair during the period of the vow (usually 30 days):
“There shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separates himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.”

Numbers 6:5

Third, there was a prohibition against becoming unclean by touching dead bodies:
“All the days that he separates himself unto the Lord he shall come at no dead body.”

Numbers 6:6

There were also obligations that Nazarites performed at the end of their vows (Numbers 6:13–21). There were two types of Nazarite vow, a temporary vow, usually for 30 days, and then a permanent vow for a lifetime. The lifetime vow would presumably fit John the Baptist, if he was under such a vow.

The Circumstantial Evidence

The other biblical evidence for John the Baptist being a Nazarite is circumstantial. The fact that John went into the wilderness (Matthew 3:1, 3, 11:7; Mark 1:3–4; Luke 3:2–4, 7:24; and John 1:23) to teach and presumably to live, could be construed that he separated himself as a Nazarite. However, separation from society was NOT a requirement for a Nazarite. The separation only was according to the three prohibitions listed above.

The aspect of separation during a Nazarite vow is clearly understood. The Hebrew verb nazar means to “separate” and the word is incorporated in the noun Nazarite. Both are used in the verse where the concept of Nazarite and its meaning are introduced:

“Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, ‘When either man or woman shall separate [a different word, not nazar] themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate [nazar] themselves unto the Lord.’”

Numbers 6:2

Yes, Israelite women could take a Nazarite vow. The person was to separate him or herself from the community by prohibitions, not by distance from society in general. Physical separation from society, say in a wilderness like John the Baptist, was not required or even mentioned. See Numbers 6:1–21 for the complete Nazarite requirements of separation. This is verified in the Mishnah where an entire section Nazir, “The Nazarite Vow,” is dedicated to rabbinical judgments of regulating Nazarite vows. Again, no mention of physical separation from society is mentioned in the Mishnah.

Perhaps because John lived an odd life it is presumed (although nowhere stated in the Bible) that he was unkempt with long hair, like someone under a Nazarite vow. In addition John the Baptist’s strange behavior of wearing a rough camel coat and a leather girdle, and eating locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6) helped call attention to his prophetic message of the coming Kingdom of God — the fulfillment of which began with the ministry of Jesus Christ.

John’s actions and lifestyle also separated him from the ordinary community life because he lived in the wilderness. This is certainly true. However a Nazarite did not need to separate himself from community life. Samson certainly did not do so. In fact, he associated with Gentiles and did not violate his vow (except that he killed many men and thereby came in contact with dead bodies).

Alfred Edersheim considered the biblical evidence to be strong for thinking John the Baptist was a lifelong Nazarite along with Samson and Samuel. Christian tradition even included James, Jesus’ half-brother to be in that category:

“Scripture mentions three Nazarites for life: Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist, to which Christian tradition adds the name of James the Just, ‘the brother of the Lord,’ who presided over the Church at Jerusalem when Paul joined in the Nazarite offering. In this respect it is noteworthy that, among those who urged upon Paul to ‘be at charges’ with the four Christian Nazarites, James himself is not specially mentioned. (Acts 21:20–25)”

Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1997), p. 242

Edersheim footnotes the church historian Eusebius who himself quotes Hegesippus’ in book 5 of his Memoirs written in the 2nd century about the death of James:
“He was called ‘the Just’ by everyone from the Lord’s time to ours, since there were many James, but this one was consecrated from his mother’s womb. He drank no wine or liquor and ate no meat. No razor came near his head, he did not anoint himself with oil, and took no baths.”

Eusebius: The Church History. A New Translation with Commentary, trans. By Paul L. Maier (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publ. 1999), 2.23.3, p. 81

According to Edersheim John the Baptist was a Nazarite and so was James the Just. However, the Biblical record is not so clear in its assertions.

Prophets and Nazarites

The Prophet Samuel is supposed by many to have been a lifelong Nazarite because when the angel announced his birth she was commanded not to cut his hair (1 Samuel 1:11). The other two prohibitions are not indicated in this passage, so his Nazarite status cannot be confirmed.

John the Baptist was, however, an antitype of Elijah the Prophet, but there is no mention in Scripture that Elijah was ever under such a Nazarite vow. Jesus acknowledged that John the Baptist was “A prophet? yes, I say unto you, and more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9 and Luke 7:26). In the Book of Amos prophets and Nazarites are also seemingly linked in persecution. God judges Israel with regard to the treatment of both prophets and Nazarites:

“And I raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for Nazarites. Is it not even thus, O you children of Israel? says the Lord. But you gave the Nazarites wine to drink; and commanded the prophets, saying, ‘Prophesy not.’”

Amos 2:11–12

Connection between prophets and Nazarites in this verse is tenuous except that both are abused minorities according to Amos chapter 2. To state that John the Baptist was a Nazarite is also tenuous and unproven at present.

Other than the example of Samuel (who MAY have been a Nazarite and WAS a prophet) and John the Baptist (who MAY have been a Nazarite and WAS a prophet), and this verse in Amos where prophets and Nazarites are mentioned together (although not equated), the connection is circumstantial.

One strong prohibition for a Nazarite was not to go near a dead body (Numbers 6:6–9). While the baptisms that John performed symbolized death to sin, there is nothing in the ritual and symbolism of baptism would prevent a Nazarite from performing baptisms.

To me the evidence at this point indicates that the assertion that John the Baptist was a Nazarite is unwarranted. The connections that can be made are based on the fact that he was not to taste wine or strong drink, and the assumption that John’s strange appearance and actions would fit with a perceived religious concept of long hair of the Nazarite vow.

So what is the biblical evidence? Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist each had their birth announced beforehand by supernatural means. Each was consecrated to perform a service for God. Each was a great man. Each of them was forbidden to consume the fruit of the vine in any form. Samuel and John the Baptist were prophets. Samson was not a prophet.

However, in spite of what tradition says, for me unless the text specifically says that John the Baptist was a Nazarite under vows I feel free to believe that something else may have been going on other than a Nazarite obligation.

However, make your own decision. The issue is not crucial. And no Jew today can legally take a Nazarite vow because no sacrifices can legally be done to end the vow. There is no sanctuary.

I hope that in the future much information is found that confirms the biblical account of John the Baptist, but the findings discovered thus far do not do that.

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