Those who know me might be surprised to learn that I am a fan of Project Runway, a reality show featuring aspiring fashion designers. As a theological educator, I appreciate the program’s creative challenges. They motivate participants to consider the interactions between textiles, contexts, resources, audiences, messaging, and the designers’ own talents, growing edges, and points of view.
With that in mind, I am drawn to the fashion forward description of John the Baptist in Mark’s gospel as “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey” (1:6). Original audiences would have made a connection between John’s outfit and the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), signifying the mantle of prophecy they shared. From the perspective of 21st century sensibilities, contemporary audiences may imagine John to be a man with expensive tastes, attired in sartorial elegance and dining on exotic delicacies.
This portrait contrasts sharply with the ascetic John that many of us have inherited, also influenced in part by interpretations of his clothing and diet. We tend to be more familiar with an image like the painting San Juan Bautista by the late 16th century artist El Greco. Gaunt, scantily clad in rough-hewn vesture, Juan confronts us from his wilderness. Beneath his cruciform staff, a lamb rests near his feet, alluding to the Baptist’s role as precursor to Jesus.
John’s fashion sense, however, may have been more practical than ascetical. For an itinerant preacher who spent time in the desert, a camel hair garment would have proven quite versatile. Known for its insulating properties, such raiment provided protection from the elements. Much like sarapes, they were multi-functional, serving as both apparel and blankets. At the very least, the details of John’s clothing indicate an adaptation to his place.
When it comes to food, in his investigation of honey in antiquity, biblical scholar James Kelhoffer offers a similar contextualization with respect to details mentioned in today’s gospel. The source of the wild honey—whether derived from bees or from fruit trees—does not matter. Kelhoffer suggests “the reference to John’s honey has more to do with where John was rather than what he ate…. John’s food is simply a reflection of what was plentiful in his midst: insects and uncultivated honey” (72).
From the beginning of the gospel, Mark makes a point to situate John-in-place, with a subtle re-interpretation of a text from Second Isaiah, that also happens to be our first lectionary reading this Sunday. In that reading, a heavenly voice addresses the prophet and instructs them: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD” (Is 40:3). The gospel version, however, shifts the focus and now it is the prophet who is “A voice of one crying out in the desert” (Mk 1:2-3). It is the prophet, in this case John, calling from a specific place, and the people come from their comfort zones, in the countryside and city, to the edges of discomfort. With the prophet, they are charged to make straight God’s paths, to set relations right, acknowledge their sins, and accept their responsibility to prepare the way.
The problem with cultivating a merely ascetical understanding of the Baptist from details found in Mark’s gospel is that it lets most of us off the hook. The mention of John’s clothing and dietary choices are not incidental. They remind us that prophets arise from particular places and eras, including our places and our time. What do the prophets of our age wear? How do our prophets interact with the resources of our environment? What relations do they call us to set right? How do we participate, individually and collectively, in prophetic ministry from “our place”?
James A. Kelhoffer, “John the Baptist’s ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Honey’ in Antiquity,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 45 (2005) 59–73,
Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández
Professor of Hispanic Theology and Ministry