Way of Essenic Studies
A section of the Gospel of the Ebionites, quoted by Epiphanius of Salamis, reported that John the Baptist ate "Pancakes," not "Locusts."
The description of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4) as subsisting on “locusts and honey” presents a problem for vegetarians who claim Jesus and John as their inspiration. How could John, the Essene vegetarian, ingest any living thing? The answer to that question may be found in the Gospel of the Ebionites, as quoted by the church father Epiphanius of Salamis (ca. 315-403).
Epiphanius’ quote is from ca. 375, but most scholars agree that the original Ebionite texts were probably composed in the first half of the second century(1). Epiphanius was critical of what the gospel of the Ebionites reported:
“It so happened that John was baptizing, and Pharisees and all Jerusalem went out to him and got baptized. And John wore clothes made of camel hair and had a leather belt around his waist. 'His food,' it says, 'consisted of raw honey that tasted like manna, like a pancake cooked with oil.' Thus they change the word of truth into a lie and instead of ‘locusts’ they put ‘pancake cooked with honey.’”(2)
It’s clear Epiphanius was distressed at what he considered to be a corruption of the “truth” taught by the early church: that John ate locusts. But the Ebionite’s version of what John ate has support from an unexpected source: the Old Testament story of Moses and the children of Israel.
Numbers 11:7-8: “Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin. The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil.”
Exodus 16:31-32: “The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. Moses said, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
The Greek word for locusts is akris; the Greek word for pancakes is egkris. There is a strong possibility that a scribe inadvertently used the wrong word as he transcribed the texts that eventually became the gospel of Matthew. If so, his error has led to a two thousand year old misconception: that John ate locusts, when in fact he ate the same “manna,” prepared in the same way as that which sustained Moses and the children of Israel during their forty years in the wilderness.
It was a common practice for gospel writers to draw from stories in the Old Testament, applying them to their own lives and explaining their rituals. Moses “went into the wilderness of Shur” (Exodus 15:22), and the word wilderness is repeated throughout the story of the forty-years of wandering. “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea.” Matthew 3:1 serves as a reminder that John is of the lineage that leads back to Moses and the Israelites. Exodus 16:32 contains the instruction that “an omer of it (manna-cakes) be kept throughout your generations . . .” Matthew attempted to show that John the Baptist was a descendant or messenger of Moses; the proof was
that he was sustained by the same food during his similar existence “in the wilderness.”
Combining this common tactic used by the gospel writers with the similarity between the Greek words for locusts and pancakes presents a very strong case for the Ebionite version of John’s diet, thus preserving the Essene tradition and teachings that John and Jesus, the Nazareans, were vegetarians.
1 Miller, Robert J, editor, The Complete Gospels, First HarperCollins
paperback edition, 1994, page 438.
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