Your editorial “One Man” in the issue of May, 1970 prompts me to rise to the defense of a friend of mine, viz., John the Baptist.
Your word picture of the man is entirely foreign to anything we read in the gospels.
You write, “He is of average height, with a long, sandy, uncombed, vermin-filled beard. His body is totally covered, to all appearances perpetually covered, with the grime of the desert; and it would be difficult to say if he had ever bathed. The man is preceded and followed by the offensive odor of unwashed body and rotting teeth, mingled with the stench of lice-filled skins with which he is negligently clothed.” Again, in paragraph 6, “This filthy Nazarene was John the Baptist.” Later in the same paragraph, “Yet many could not see past the lice crawling in his beard, many could not understand through the odor surrounding his body. Many hearts would not be touched by a creature so lowly.”
In harmony with the rest of your article, you should have ended the last named paragraph with the word “vile.” Lowliness can be a Christian virtue; physical uncleanness is never that.
Scripture, however, gives us an entirely different picture. It is very unlikely that the Pharisees would have come to John if your picture were real. These were physically clean far beyond the demands of the law. Besides, we get the impressions that John’s visits to King Herod’s court were not at all unusual. He must have frequently rebuked the king for living with his brother’s wife. These admonitions were the real cause of john’s death. We also read that in spite of all this Herod heard him gladly. See Mark 6:16-29.
Furthermore, what exactly is the message you wish to convey to your readers? Perhaps the weeds prevented me from seeing the flowers.
With Christian greetings,
Contemplating the editorial, “One Man” (Beacon Lights, May 1970), I felt compelled to express what I believe is a more acceptable description of that beloved saint, John the Baptist, whom the editorial portrayed as a “filthy Nazarene.”
First, our conception of John the Baptist must be a biblical one and not that f modern day mockery. The image of John set forth in the editorial mentioned above is strikingly similar to that picture of our Lord Jesus Christ painted by the national Council of Churches, modern day evangelism and certain hippies.
In the second place, I point out that John was not a Nazarene (there is no indication he came from Nazareth), but rather a Nazarite.
Thirdly, the fact that John lived a separate and holy life (being a Nazarite), clothed himself in camel’s hair, ate locust and honey, by no means implies that he lived like or looked like a modern day American hippy. Our Lord Himself testifies that John was a shining light (John 5:35). No man “with sandy, vermin-filled beard,” “Followed by the offensive odor of rotting teeth” can be a shining light! Moreover, he was not “a man of vague qualities,” but a man of very definite high and holy qualities – not a ragged, wind-driven reed, but a rock; more than a prophet; none greater!
Jesus says John “bore witness of the truth” (John 5:33). Now the truth is that the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). In the light of this, why is he described as a mind-bent, freaked-out, stinking wanderer, crazily “muttering constantly to himself”? One who is filled with the Holy Spirit certainly must conform to God’s standard of propriety! Moreover, each Christian is held responsible to glorify God in his body (I Cor. 6:20).
In the fourth place, Scripture bestows a great deal of honor upon John the Baptist, indicating that he was definitely qualified as the Messenger of the Refiner and Purifier. This Purifier once said to John, “Suffer it to be so now,” requesting His baptism by John. Baptism signifies a washing, a cleansing. Would he be qualified to administer the sacrament when it is “difficult indeed to say if he had ever bathed”?
Our young people must not get into that popular modernist viewpoint of Christ’s physical appearance. This modern liberalism, which erupts from the college campuses, tries to persuade us that we had better not criticize the grimy, grubby hippy because he is really an intelligent person, a Child of God, and, after all, he looks like Jesus more than any of us!
John deems himself friend of the Bridegroom, as the bride. He thinks of Christ in terms of the Song of Solomon. But picture the hippy wedding couple. Groom a wobbly, bean-pole of a shaggy-headed rag-bag – the bride a sad-sack, lank-haired, bare-footed squaw, hand in hand, uttering her toothless, “My beloved is mine and I am his.” The Editor’s “John” is incongruous and impossible.
As for John’s dress, it was plain, simple, neat, and not at all inharmonious with the standard of Christian dress we have in Jesus’ words, “Consider the lilies how they grow…yet I say unto you that Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these.” Our dress standard is the beauty and glory of God’s creation, the delicacy and purity of the lily. “Shall He not much more clothe you?” Then Christ’s faithful followers (and John must have been self-consciously among them) are expected to dress according to that pattern!
It is always interesting and exciting to hear from our readers. It means that someone is reading what we have to say! And in this case it means that our articles are being discussed too, and this is what they are intended to be.
In response then, to your observations regarding the editorial let us take a second look at what was written:
The setting is the desert of the Jordan. You will recall that John the Baptist was in the desert from his childhood until his showing to Israel. At any rate, John is walking through the desert toward the watercourse of the Jordan. The desert, according to Webster’s, is, “an arid region lacking moisture to support vegetation.” So then, we can assume that the desert where John walked was sere, deserted and sandy. Assuming the absence of any appreciable amount of moisture, clouds of dust would be raised by anyone moving about.
As John walks toward the Jordan he is observed. This observer makes no commitment to ideology or faith, nor is he aware of the personage whom he describes, but rather describes him as a stranger, from a distance, and completely through outward appearance. This is what he observes, and why:
He sees first of all a man walking toward an apparent, though presently invisible watercourse.
He sees a man of average appearance. The prophets were spiritual giants through the hand of Jehovah, not necessarily physical giants in any way. Remember the words o the prophet spoken of the Christ: “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” Isa. 53:2b
Our observer saw a man with a long, sandy, uncombed, vermin filled beard. As a Nazarite his beard was of course of a goodly length. Walking in the desert as he was it would have been difficult indeed to keep the dust and sand out of his bear, or to keep it neatly combed. Of all the tools for grooming he would have been able to fashion and use as a recluse in the desert the comb would have been the most difficult to successfully make and one of the most crude. Attempts at grooming would have been something less than successful. In addition, as a man in a hurry – as a man with a heaven-sent mission, it would be very doubtful whether he would have taken the frequent and lengthy pauses necessary to completely acceptable grooming.
This would also have encouraged the presence and the proliferation of vermin. Lacking the abundance of water for frequent washing, and scented oils for adequate grooming, the presence of vermin was almost inevitable. As today, only the most scrupulous cleanliness frees bearded men from the presence of vermin. In the day of John the Baptist, it was a rare and rich man who could completely rid himself of the ever-present vermin.
He observed a man with an unwashed body. John had been living in the parched desert for a long time. It would have been impossible for him to wash frequently enough to avoid body odor. In addition, he had been walking in the desert. Even had he walked only a short distance, the heat of the day and the exertion of the journey would have encouraged the growth of bacteria with accompanying results.
When John spoke, listeners were assaulted with the odor of rotting teeth. Until our own generation, rotten teeth were a major health problem. It was a rare person in the age of the Christ whose teeth were wholesome. Few were the men or women seen without a scent cloth to cover the mouth when speaking. John would hardly have been seen in camel’s hair clothing with a scented handkerchief. John would have even been hard put to find a decent stick to chew on in order to clean his teeth.
The man was observed wearing lice-filled camel-hair clothing. It would have been as impossible to keep John’s clothing clean and free of vermin as it was to keep himself perfectly groomed. Over a time of wear and with a limited supply of water and scenting oils John’s clothing would have absorbed body odors and oils, making it a natural home for preying lice and other vermin.
This then was the John the Baptist observed walking through the desert. Doubtless, given the opportunity for good grooming, he would have been more acceptable to the eye, but this was the John who could have been coming from the desert for his first rendezvous with God’s chosen people.
This was a man with a mission…talking to himself as he walked. He looked like what he was muttering was crazy, but that was the error of appearances, for the Lord was speaking through his mouth. It is difficult to judge when all one can see is the outward appearance.
This inability to judge from outward appearances is precisely the point this editorial was trying to make. Whether John actually appeared as his description above indicates is secondary to the fact that he was rejected by some because he was different in appearance. It was the soul of the man that was important. It was the message he carried which mattered, not his outward appearance. But many could not see the soul for the body; many could not hear the message through the odor which assailed their finicky nostrils.
Unfortunately, Christians tend to judge each other in the same way. We say that because a man’s hair is long, therefore he is a hippy and not a Christian; because someone is not clean, therefore his soul is also dirty. Of course, to be consciously dirty when cleanliness is available is a sin. To rebel against decent, Christian attire and habit is also a sin. But to label, to judge our brethren because of outward appearance would make us more guilty than the hypocrites who laughed at John the Baptist. As Christians it is our duty to judge a man by his soul more than his body. Christ saw His children even in the bodies of publicans and sinners. If Christ did not judge by outward appearances, how much less must we?
I do not recall saying, or even implying, that John the Baptist was a hippie. A hippie is one in rebellion against God and man, and in the active state of rebellion cannot be called brother. The statement that the John in our description was a “mind-bent”, freaked-out hippie was yours. Perhaps the tendency to judge by surface, cursory appearances and extra, uninvolved reading rather than by the soul – both of the person described and the article written (soul being heart in an editorial sense) is a tendency more subtly pervasive than we realize.
Perhaps John the Baptist was no dirty as he came from the desert. Perhaps the Lord protected him from the wear of the elements present and kept him clean and shining. Perhaps his teeth weren’t rotting, perhaps he was appealing physically and drew admiring crowds, perhaps he did “fit”. But whether he did fit and was acceptable or not – God did not judge him by that. There are many giant souls among us today who go unnoticed, unloved and unheard because of some physical unacceptability. This was the point of the editorial: We are not wise enough to judge our fellow Christian by his physical appearance nor are we perfect enough to see the soul in the body. But as Christians it is our duty to search the soul of our brother. If he is a Christian in truth regardless of his appearance, Christ is there.
Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 5 August September 1970