John the Baptist Was a Nazarite? Let's Look at the HIstory
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman
Many wonder if John the Baptist was a Nazarite (also spelled “Nazirite”). I am writing a series of articles about John the Baptist, and this is one of the many questions people are asking.
In this post, I’ll address who the Nazarites are and tackle whether John the Baptist was a Nazarite.
I genuinely enjoy exploring different angles of this truly exceptional historical figure.
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Were Nazarites a Sect of Judaism?
There were many sects of Judaism in John the Baptist’s time. You may be familiar with the Pharisees and Sadducees. You may also have heard of the Essenes. However, Nazarites weren’t a sect at all. They could come from any sect of Judaism.
Being a Nazarite was a religious practice. Megan Nutzman writes that this practice “was available to all Jews—men and women, rich and poor. It allowed one to express particular devotion to God, whether in response to an answered prayer or out of a sense of spirituality.”
As Stuart Chepey notes, the word “Nazarite” is derived from the Hebrew word “nazir,” meaning set apart or consecrated. Nazarites took a special vow to dedicate their lives to God.
Requirements of the Narazrite Vow
The requirements of this vow are first outlined in the Hebrew Bible in Numbers 6:1-13.
First, “they shall separate themselves from wine and strong drink.” In fact, a Nazarite is prohibited from consuming grapes, whether as fruit or wine. The text also prohibits drinking vinegar.
Second, “all the days of their Nazarite vow no razor shall come upon the head.” In other words, Nazarites could not cut their hair until their vow was fulfilled.
Third, “all the days that they separate themselves to the Lord, they shall not go near a corpse.” This was an issue of ritual purity, a significant concern in Judaism. If Nazarites did come into contact with a corpse, they underwent a complicated ritual to renew their state of purity.
Finally, at the end of the vow period, the Nazarites offer an animal sacrifice and cut off their hair, burning it as a sacrifice.
We know that some people chose voluntarily to fulfill the Nazarite vow. Others, however, were committed to it by their parents before birth. To understand this practice better, let’s look at a list of Nazarites in the Bible.
Nazarites in the Hebrew Bible
In Judges 13, we read the story of Samson. Samson’s mother can’t have children. However, an angel appears and tells her she will have a son. The angel says that during her pregnancy, she is never to drink “wine or strong drink.” He tells her that once her son is born, “no razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a Nazarite to God from birth.”
In Samson’s story, the vow ultimately gives him his impressive strength. It’s both a marker of his identity and his power.
When Delilah has Samson’s head shaved, it invalidates his vow, allowing his enemies to overpower him. His strength doesn’t just come from his hair but from a sacred vow dedicating his life to God.
In the book of 1 Samuel, the prophet Samuel is also dedicated to God through a vow made by his mother. His mother is like Samson’s mother, unable to have children.
She, therefore, makes a deal with God. If he grants her a son, she will “set him before you as a Nazarite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” God grants her request, and Samuel indeed lives a life dedicated to God.
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It is also possible that the prophet Elijah was a Nazarite. In 2 Kings 1:8, a messenger describes Elijah as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” While the Hebrew word for “hairy” could mean body hair, it could also refer to long hair and beard.
This might indicate that Elijah took a Nazarite vow. In addition, as a highly significant prophet, it is entirely likely that he was a Nazarite.
Later, I’ll discuss the connections between Elijah and John the Baptist.
Nazarites in the New Testament
In the book of Acts, there are references to Paul participating in a vow that is probably Nazarite.
In Acts 18:18, Paul goes to a city called Cenchreae, where he “had his hair cut, for he was under a vow.” This could very well have been the end of a Nazarite vow that Paul undertook. Given Paul’s fierce dedication to God, it is certainly conceivable.
Later, in Acts 21:26, Paul is sent by the leaders of the Jerusalem church to the temple. Then, “having been purified… [Paul] entered the temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification.” This is likely a reference to Paul’s Nazarite vow.
Was John the Baptist a Nazarite?
Finally, we come to our original question: was John the Baptist a Nazarite?
Luke is the only Gospel that talks about John the Baptist’s birth. In Luke 1, we see many similarities between the pre-birth stories of John the Baptist and those of Samson and Samuel.
John’s mother, Elizabeth, hasn’t been able to have children and, at the time of the story, is quite old as well.
When John’s father, Zechariah, is doing his priestly duties in the temple, an angel appears to him, telling him that his wife will bear a son. However, the angel gives one important instruction on how to care for his son: “He must never drink wine or strong drink.” This is, of course, one of the principal directives of the Nazarite vow.
But there is more evidence.
Note: Was John the Baptist a Nazarene?
“Nazarene” simply means “a person from the town of Nazareth.” Jesus is rightly referred to in the New Testament as a Nazarene since he was raised in Nazareth. Even after his death, his followers are sometimes referred to as “the Nazarene sect.”
Was John the Baptist a Nazarene? The answer is no since scholars don’t believe he was born and raised in Nazareth.
John the Baptist and Elijah
1st-century Jews believed that Elijah would come before God renewed the world, according to the Gospel of Matthew.
In Matthew 17, Jesus’s disciples ask about this prophecy. Jesus answers that Elijah already came. In case there is any doubt, verse 13 says, “the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.” In other words, some early Christians identified John the Baptist with Elijah, viewing both as important prophets.
While describing John the Baptist, the Gospel of Mark refers to the description of Elijah from 2 Kings. Elijah is called a “hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” Mark says, “John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist.” Here it’s the clothing rather than the body or head of John that is “hairy.” However, Joel Marcus says the wording of the two passages is so similar that Mark must be comparing them deliberately.
If Elijah was a Nazarite, these comparisons between John and Elijah make it likely that John was also a Nazarite.
Summing Up: Was John the Baptist a Nazarite?
Nazarites were ancient Jews who took a special vow to dedicate their lives to God. This vow included avoiding wine and “strong drink,” not cutting the hair, not coming into contact with a corpse, and sacrificing both an animal and one’s hair to finalize the vow.
Many important biblical figures, including Samson, Samuel, and Elijah, were Nazarites. So too, was Paul the Apostle and probably John the Baptist. While we know many interesting facts about John the Baptist, his status as a Nazarite is not always acknowledged.
John, according to the Gospel of Luke, was dedicated to God by his parents on instructions from a messenger of God. He lived the life of a prophet, took no wine or strong drink, set himself apart from society, and dedicated his life to God. John the Baptist was probably a Nazarite.
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