Locusts and Wild Honey

Last month David B. Capes (HBU) suggested on his blog that we might consider revisiting the depiction of John the Baptist in Mark 1.6/Matthew 3.4 wherein he is said to have eaten locusts and wild honey. He observed that this sounds like it may be a description of what scholars call prophetic symbolism, i.e., when a prophet acts out his or her message rather than merely proclaiming it. I recommend reading his full post: Locusts and Honey (duplicated at HBU's School of Christian Thought blog and mentioned by Andrew Wilson at the Think Theology blog). In James A. Kelhoffer's "Did John the Baptist Eat like a Former Essene? Locust-Eating in the Ancient Near East," Dead Sea Discoveries 11.3 (2004), 293-314, he concludes after examining the evidence for the consumption of locusts in the Levant that this diet "belongs to a cultural heritage shared for centuries by many Jews" and "other people from the Ancient Near East" (here, 314). If this is so, it would seem to indicate that John's diet isn't that strange. Also, he makes a very important point (contra J.H. Charlesworth) that Mark doesn't say John ate only locusts and honey, but that he ate locusts and honey (Matthew's rendering may move things toward an exclusive diet of locusts and honey, see Kelhoffer, 293-295). 

Kelhoffer has written a book titled The Diet of John the Baptist (WUNT 176; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005) that I have yet to consult, but in his article he doesn't pursue anything like the hypothesis suggested by Capes. So, on the one hand, it seems strange that if there is anything to be said for it Kelhoffer wouldn't mention it. On the other hand, it may be common place that this refers to diet rather than preaching, so the thought didn't cross Kelhowfer's mind. Whatever the case, I am presenting a paper for the Trinity College Postgraduate Research Conference in late June (Bristol, UK), so I chose to do it on this subject. This is the short (299 words) abstract I submitted today.

Recently, David B. Capes has proposed that the description of John the Baptist eating locusts and honey may have less to do with diet and more to do with preaching. In other words, Mark (1.6; cf. Mt. 3.4) was less interested in telling his readers what it was that John ate for lunch and more interested in telling them something about John’s message. There is precedent for this behavior among the Hebrew/Jewish prophets: Isaiah preached in the nude for three years to make a point about shame (Is. 20), Ezekiel laid on his side for days at a time to depict the punishment due to Israel and Judah and cooked his meals over dung as a rebuke for their impurity (Ezek. 4), etc. But scholars have not interpreted this description of John as having to do with prophetic symbolism. James A. Kelhoffer’s 2004 study “Did John the Baptist Eat like a Former Essene?” concluded (contra J.H. Charlesworth) that the eating of locusts/grasshoppers “belongs to a cultural heritage shared for centuries by many Jews” and “other peoples of the Near East,” seemingly indicating that John’s diet was not all that unique. While this would seem to settle the matter—John was eating what anyone might eat in his day—it does lend support to Capes’ curiosity, i.e., if this diet wasn’t all that strange, why present it as a central and defining characteristic?

”In this paper we will investigate whether Capes proposal has any merit. This will include (1) a survey of prophetic symbolism; (2) an examination of locusts and honey as food; and (3) exegetical inquiries into the literary presentation of Mark and Matthew on this subject. We will aim to answer the question, ‘Was locust and honey the diet of John or the prophetic symbolism of his preaching?’

If anyone has any insights to share feel free to comment. I think this will be a fun study to undertake. The paper presentation is something like 25 minutes long, so it won't be exhaustive, but I do hope to get a general idea in my own mind as to whether I think the tradition understanding of "locusts and wild honey" makes the most sense or if Capes' suggestion should force us to rethink the point(s) being made by Mark and Matthew.

[I'm going to Israel this summer. Are you interested in sponsoring me?]

[Interested in learning more about John the Baptist? Here are some events to attend.]