Nazarite John

This article deals with John’s integration into the Nazarite tradition.


John the Baptist was raised as a Nazarite.  John would have begun his Nazarite training at the age of fourteen.  He is one of the few consecrated as Nazarite before or at birth (Lk. 1.61-73). The other biblical notables are Samson and Samuel. The Nazarite tradition specifies certain restrictions and services.

Num. 6.1: “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, (2) Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either a man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the Lord; (3) He [or she] shall separate himself from wine and strong drink…” and continues with various prohibitions that lead the individual into, “because the consecration of God is upon his head,” from v. 7.

John is often depicted with a halo (earthly angel, heavenly man), and as one anointed. Below, his birth (angels present), ministry at Jordan (center), and death etched on the right.

Russian Orthodox



Nazarite prohibitions are not to be taken in the negative but accepted as an attempt at self-improvement.   By not eating or imbibing anything of the grape, Temptation is bridled.  By not dealing with the dead, even the mother or father, the consecration is intended to be complete.  Abstention is intended to place the person upon a platform from which to spiritually proceed, much as it is practiced today.

Further, part of the reasoning behind Nazarite prohibitions allows the person to stand aside, yet still participate within society.  The spiritual vision of removal and consecration makes for a powerful combination, but it is of no real value if this vision and knowledge are not shared within a society.  Both aspects of spirituality, knowledge combined with service, allow for the greater consecration before God.  The enlightenment into His spirit as well as this practical dedication will keynote Walking in the Way.

Nazarites were not specifically ascetic.  They may go about their daily work but are also allowed a certain license to travel, visit synagogues, and remove themselves from the retreat.  The Nazarite tradition may be undertaken for shorter periods, a few years or months.  Their final act before reentering normal life was to cut off their hair as a burnt offering.  At that time, other offerings might also be made.  It is important to note that men or women may partake in the Nazarite tradition.

Num. 6.5 gives us a valid reason for the Nazarite tradition.  Simply put, “…until the days be fulfilled, in which he separateth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy.”  The spiritual emphasis here is that any man or woman may engage the journey of holiness.  This process allows for spiritual discovery and would strengthen the core of the Jewish people.  Another way to explain this would be: though led by God and the speaking of the prophets, who indeed are the prophets speaking to?  Are the people merely consigned to being the most common of the most common man?  Surely, God has a provision for the edification of His people, direct.  This provision is delivered within the Nazarite tradition.

For women today, who often feel left out of biblical tradition, participation by women was allowed.  Within Jewish tradition, women were given religious instruction by their husbands.  Therefore, Nazarite participation for women allows for a very different spiritual experience.  Women do not see things as men do, and women have the right to be edified as well.  Further, women tend to weave the elements of society together, and by nature a revelation for them may be quite different than the revelation for men.  Holding an acuteness to the spirit, which differs from men, allows for a more omnibus whole within society.  Spiritual holiness within society cannot be achieved without social wholeness and must include both men and women.  The inclusion of women, although dismissed within Jewish society in the times of Jesus, will be rectified by Jesus with the inclusion of female disciples.  For Jesus’s ministry, women will play an important role.



The connection of Nazarite John the Baptist to Nazarite Samson is somewhat congruent, at least in their early years.  As to Samson, Judges 13.1, the wife of Manoah is sterile and childless.  An angel of the Lord appears and tells her she will bear a son.  She was to remain clean in the Jewish tradition, which also meant no fermented drinks; and ends in v. 5 with:

“Because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head because the boy is to be a Nazarite, set apart to God from birth, he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”  This visitation is much like what appeared to John’s father, Zacharias (Lk. 1.5-7; Lk. 1.67-80).


Scholars interpret Samson’s life as a life of disobedience within the power of God.  This viewpoint is usually argued as settled interpretation, due to Samson’s attraction to Philistine women.  The minority view perceives Samson’s preference for openly sexual Philistine women as God-driven, for it would allow Samson to confront the Philistines in a manner that could not otherwise occur.  For the Philistines, Samson becomes the veritable thorn that cannot be removed.

Note the lion’s head in the foreground.


Samson is designated to set Israel free from the foreign power of the Philistines.  In contrast to Samson, John’s message is not outward-pictured toward the Philistines or the Romans but inward-looking.  John’s message points toward the corrupted religious hierarchy of his day.  He points toward the inner person and questions the standard of righteousness to which each person adheres.  John stands to the question of the coming Messiah, Samson never did.  John’s message would, therefore, seem unusual, if not striking.

Within the Nazarite tradition, the reference to grapes is also significant.  Grapes, or specifically the vineyard, represent stability and permanency in Jewish culture.  We may observe a small family vineyard as quaint, but in that day it was most definitely a step above.  Vineyards also require consistent tending.  So, not eating grapes symbolically removes the Nazarite from the more significant part of settled life and places his portion in the new consecrated life.

In particular, for the male Nazarite, this freedom from the vineyard lends itself to travel, for a vineyard requires year-round attention.  Thus, as an extension of the religious community, the Nazarites are free to assist in other villages and as motivated to do good works.  This might give us a better-defined way of looking at the Nazarite, as opposed to asceticism.  Samson, however, was known to break his Nazarite vows, and for his indulgence, he paid a heavy price.

Nazarites were not hermits.  The separation unto God was usually for a proscribed time and alluded more to extra prayer and seeking than it meant separation from the village, as a hermit might do.  John probably lived all of his youth in the Nazarite tradition, and if this is accurate he would have entered into the priesthood at age fourteen and could begin an open ministry at age thirty.


Jesus Travels

Jesus would also have had an early entrance into the priesthood, even though this age remains uncertain.  Both Essene divisions, Nazarene and Ossaean, required seven years of priesthood training, even though either man could have pursued further study, whether through revelation or experiences.  Many scholars believe his priestly training would have accounted for Jesus’ lost years.

Briefly, and as to Jesus and his travels.  Many believe Jesus traveled to India.  His encounters with Buddhist monks are recorded in Buddhist records.  The report also includes Jesus finally disdaining them.  Buddhists did not at that time allow women into the priesthood, nor were common citizens yet to enter the priesthood.  Jesus’ ministry later countermanded these obligations and allowed both women and common people to participate in his ministry.  Also, Jesus may have taken issue with Buddhists concerning a personal God.  Jesus called the Father, ‘Daddy’ (Abba).  There seems no personal attribution to God within Buddhism.  Spirit, they perceived, remained impersonal; for Jesus, God (God is a spirit) within him resided as very personal.

Many outside of Christianity have assumed that Jesus borrowed his teaching from India.  They are not aware that an integrated enlightenment teaching within Judaism was already in place, known as the Way.  His journey into India would acquaint him with the caste system and those deemed ‘untouchables’.  Jesus would also set this viewpoint aside.  Forced to run for his life from the Indian mystics, Jesus barely escaped, some reports say.  He probably condemned their caste system.  Each person may accept this report as they will.

It must also be considered that Alexandria might have been visited by both John and Jesus, where a well-established and well-educated Jewish community existed.  Jews also occupied Elephantine Island, mixed in with other religious and social groups.  In short, several different destinations may have flavored each one’s spiritual development.  Discussions with the multiplicity of Jewish sects alone would have sharpened both men in matching wits and conversation.  Both John and Jesus absorbed a broad-based spiritual discipline.



Lk. 1: 80, “And the child grew, and waxed strong in the spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.” Mt. 3: 1, “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness [desert] of Judea.”

The reference to “in the deserts” would refer to desert areas. Villages near the Dead Sea are known to have large Essene populations.

En-Gedi is well watered. Once leaving
this area the desert turns severe.



One view of Tekoa Wilderness
Less verdant area of Tekoa


Areas like the Tekoa Wilderness might be sought out for a retreat mission.  Matt. 3.4, “his meat was locusts and wild honey.”  His diet may have been sparse during periods of retreat, but otherwise, his diet would have been traditional.  He would have lived among the people and assisted as might be needed.


As to John’s movements, who exactly is he preaching to in these wilderness areas?  Is he traveling from village to village, assisting and speaking to Essenes located there?  Undoubtedly, he would have.  Below the age of thirty, John would not yet be old enough to read or comment in the Essene synagogues.  However, as a Nazarite, John continued to his destination and purpose. His proving out as a preparer counterposes the vision of a wandering ascetic.  In short, walking a mile or two into this desert wilderness provides plenty of isolation, and no pressing need to spend weeks or months in this vacuous land.  Along with these brief clues, the author, Matthew, assumes anyone else would know who and what exists in the wilderness of Judea.  Many small villages would accommodate John’s travels.


The wilderness stretches to each side of the Jordan, particularly eastward, the Jordan stretches up to the fertile southern tip of the Sea of Galilee.  There were many travelers along the Jordan.  John may have traveled to Egypt to visit and learn from Jews in Alexandria, something almost no one mentions.  As he traveled northward along the banks of the Jordan he would enter the Galilee and the Hauron, lands of the northern Essene, the Nazarenes, the land of his cousin Jesus.

In Mt. 3.5-6, we have, “Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the regions round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.”  So, from the above scripture, it seems John is well enough known when he begins his formal ministry.  Many people already knew John or had heard of him and came to hear his pronouncements.  Some may take contention with this description, but as mentioned, Nazarites spent time in desert retreat but were not required to be isolated or completely removed from society.


The excitement of John’s ministry grew, and it seems people felt part of something new.  The hunger of the people is undeniable.  It is obvious the Pharisees are aware of this growing ministry, and the counsel of the Great Sanhedrin is aware as well.  Where do all of these people come from that they should listen to the ‘wild man of the desert’?  Where does John sit with the people that so many would want to hear his words?

Many Christians have the image of John roaming around the desert for some odd number of years with nothing but camel skin and a pair of sandals.  It is amazing they even give him credit for having sandals.  The Essene supplied support groups throughout Judea and to the north into Israel.  This fact is well known.  Fellowship is necessary while alternating periods of retreat.  Gaining wisdom from older teachers is critical.  Remember that the Essene felt the compunction about spreading their message as well.  John would do that, so undoubtedly they would have wanted to help him.  There is no real reason to believe he would have to do without unless fasting by choice.  For this reason, Essene communes south into Judea would be familiar with John.

                                                                                                                                                    Elijah slaying the priests of Baal.

An essential sign for the people would be John’s prophetic dress reflecting Elijah.  “…and John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his loins,” and Elijah did wear a garment of skin or camel hair with a leather girdle.  So there is no denying John’s representation, as his appearance is a clear and exalted reference to Elijah.  In the times of Jezebel and Ahab (874-853 BC), Elijah turned Israel (northern kingdom) from Baal and Asherah worship.  John seems to be about the same business, but John perceives the threat as internal.  John’s representation of the Reformer Elijah would pose a threatening sign to those in Jerusalem.


In the course of events, a much more likely scenario of John’s ‘ascetic’ life appears.  First, he would take some or perhaps most of his priesthood training at the Essene retreat at Qumran or En-gedi.  We accept this at the moment due to John’s overall message—against the Sadducees and Pharisees, combined with a strong repentance message.  John lived within a structured religious environment, one that would require him to assist others, remain studious as to the law and the prophets, and due to being an Ossaean, he would remain celibate.

As to other travels, roadways skirt the length of the Jordan, and these roads naturally become trading thoroughfares.  Orthodox Jews would also use these roads to avoid entering Samaria.  This traveling roundabout would require an extra day journey, either north or south.  Thus Jericho would play a prominent role as either the beginning or the end of this journey.  Jericho is a busy trade city blessed by artesian springs and thus becomes a fertile ground for preaching.  Later, Jericho would be one focal point of John’s ministry.

As John walked throughout Judea, many Jews would have met John and assuredly had spiritual or religious conversations with him.  As a Nazarite, John’s reputation would be of great interest and taken seriously.  His words would have weight, and his later acceptance as a prophet by the people is not surprising.  Scripture indicates isolated times of prayer, Lk. 1.80, “lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.”  But this brief scripture has a double meaning.  It tells us he had also removed himself from the ‘Jerusalem crowd’ of Sadducees and Pharisees.  John is altogether something other, a kind of prophet not seen before.

The mystic tradition weaves throughout the root of Judaism.  It is unlikely Abram would have left Sumeria without the urgency of the mystic calling.  Nor does revelation emerge out of mundane religiosity.  The dulled religions of idol worship leave no room for Revelation God, nor the calling into the spiritual promised land—the enlightenment into the spirit of God.  John’s time of priesthood training, as well as his times of isolation, promotes the mystic nature of Judaism and the mystical presence of God to run full force through him.  John’s mystic vision is undeniable and witnessed as he finally brings forward his ministry.  Convicted and sure, John’s background indicates a sound religious and spiritual study.  With the accolades of the people and his participation with them, John completes his prophetic calling.

If any of the above is true, John begins to establish ministry whether he consciously knows it or not.  Matt. 3.5:

“People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. (6) Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan river,” also, John 3.23, “Now John was baptizing at Aenon near Salim*, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized.”  As the Jordan is a regular route of travel, this would assist the Essene message and allow him to preach to Essene believers or those who might convert.

*Salim is a natural crossing or fording area for the Jordan. Jesus most likely met John at this location.

In closing, the idea of John stumbling out of the desert shouting “repent,” followed by Jesus cutting a similar figure, is untrue.  Support groups are critical in harsh environments, not counting mission statements for both John and Jesus as the extra burden.  It seems Jesus knew more than a few people, Lazarus being the most notable.  And, we must ask again, where did all of these people following John suddenly come from?  Essene communities were not far away, with the crowds coming from Jerusalem and other locations as the word spread.

John’s assumption of the spirit of God would occur under the tutelage of the priests of his day.  This development requires an intellectual and spiritual community—John would have known many people.  All of this contributes to bringing John’s ministry life into fulfillment.  Even though set aside, John lived the life and times of his people, as opposed to hermetic existence.


God Bless!

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