Thursday, August 13, 2020

Why did John the Baptist wear a black belt and camel hair garment?

John the Baptist and the Black Belt business

John the Baptist,
by Brueghel the Elder
Among the score of surviving manuscripts in Hebrew of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3, all manuscripts are unanimous about describing John the Baptist.
He wore a black belt.
Thanks to the tireless work of Nehemia Gordon and his team, some 21 Hebrew manuscripts have been found and checked in Museums like the British Museum, Israel and even in the recesses at the Vatican. Those derived from the Hebrew Matthew manuscript of Shem-Tov, known as 'the Ancient', a fourteenth century Jewish polemicist, repeat one word:

The Greek and the Latin Vulgate do not say that. Nor do other translations. The Greek Matthew and the KJV say that John wore a coat of camel hair and was girded with a leather belt. It says nothing of the color.
So why are the Hebrew versions so adamant on the color being black?
History records that Matthew wrote his gospel first in Hebrew. What we have today are a variety of documents, but none of them are originals from the first century. They are either copies of copies etc of the originals with variations and mistakes or some may be translations from the Greek for use in the grand and dangerous debates between Jews and Roman Catholics. In these debates the Jews had to maintain a position without contradicting Catholic doctrine. A difficult and sometimes lethal game of words.

But whoever wrote these multiple documents, whether free or persecuted, careful or not, they all wrote a word that is not found in Greek: black.

What is the significance of the black belt? Black belt has a special connotation today: martial arts. Obviously this black belt does not relate to Judo. What about Judah? Hebrew descriptions must have something to do with Jews!  Why do all the Jewish scribes writing over several centuries and in different countries and cultures, emphasise black? How could it be coordinated so widely and accurately?
But does it really even relate to Jews? Is there a deeper, traumatic story about Israel that no one could forget? Why was the 'black' belt not relevant for Gentile/ Greek Christians who had the Greek NT?

Rabbi John the Baptist
John is called a Rabbi in the Greek NT, John 3:26. This has nothing to do with a modern Jewish synagogue rabbi – the NT and other writings use another term for the ruler of the synagogue, ‘archon’. ‘Rabbi’ in the first century meant a member of the Council of the Temple, or perhaps the Great Council (sanhedrin). It was most likely the anointed head of the Temple Council. Only two people in all the NT are called rabbi: John and Jesus. Paul is not called a rabbi.
This restricted sense of Rabbi as an anointed post is confirmed by the Hebrew version of Josephus’s ‘Jewish War’ known as the ‘Destruction of Jerusalem’ by ‘Josephus ben Gorion’. Flavius Josephus said he wrote his first account to his countrymen, that is Israelites, and identified them as Scythians, Parthians and Kelts. They spoke many languages with Hebrew and Aramaic as a common tongue. Despised and feared by Romans, Latins and Greeks, who called them ‘the Upper Barbarians,’ they lived and roamed across the whole earth North of Rome from the Steppes to Northern Europe.
With the rise of biblical scholarship, this Hebrew Destruction of Jerusalem was translated and first printed in English in 1558 by Peter Morvyn. Many reprints followed. Thus it predates the English translation of the Greek Flavius Josephus. It was much better known until Whiston's translation of the Greek became a standard in Christian homes alongside the Bible.
The Hebrew version, known as Josippon, has some surprises.
In it John is not only called Rabbi but ‘Rabbi John Baptist the High Priest.
High Priest!
The real Rabbi
First what did Rabbi mean? Historically the word ‘rabbi’ appears in writing first in the NT. At that time it may have been an Aramaic title—it means ‘anointed’ in Aramaic.
It is not in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In the first century it was later confused by Christ's enemies with Hebrew for ‘my master’, as Jesus says, Matt 23. The scholars  'have sat down on' or placed themselves falsely on 'Moses's seat' (took it over). They act holy but are hypocrites. They prostrate themselves in the streets, then shout ‘my master’ to each other in the market place, hoping the common people would understand it as Aramaic ‘Anointed One’.  (The scholars were NOT anointed.)
Jesus told the disciples not to call each other Rabbi = Christos or Messiah.
Did the false scholars stop? Obviously not.
Rabbi’ became a common term in the Talmud, (2nd/3rd century) synagogues or among Jewish scholars of the Pharisaic persuasion. Some Jews including Karaites objected to this title. They dismissively called such people ‘rabbinites’.

Black Belt
So what of the black belt? Why do the Jewish MSS insist on it? Simply because the high priest did not wear a black leather belt. He does not wear any leather. In the Temple he wore linen and no leather, not even sandals. In the synagogue pious Jews do not wear leather, especially on fasting days such as the Day of Atonement. They don't even wash. Yet the Torah scrolls themselves are made of leather.
As for camels, a single camel hair might render a priest ceremonially unclean.
The High Priest’s dress is specified in the Bible, Ex 28. No camels, no leather!
The Jewish versions are trying to insist that John was not a regular high priest. The NT is also shouting this out.
Why did John have a black leather belt? A priest has a white linen girdle. The Pharisees might say:

Imagine that! Black leather! Is he really an Aaronic high priest?

Yes, he was.
An additional fact supports the case. The Romans' economy required leather in large quantities. Their tanning process produced brown cow leather in large amounts, but outside towns and cities. The tanning process caused bad and persistent smells.
This leather was not only for belts and clothes but for military tents. If leather was tawed with alum it became softer and had a lighter tone but could then be dyed. Sheep leather is also softer; goat leather may be tougher. Softer leather is not best for a testing environment like a desert. So if it was dyed black by the Roman process it would be too soft for a sturdy belt. Roman leather was typically brown. A brown belt would be normal in a Roman context.
Black was unusual for Romans. Did it identify the wearer as coming from Parthia? Methods of curing leather vary with social cultures. East of the Roman Empire smoking and the use of special green leaves and fats would have produced a different-looking product.

This character, Rabbi John the Baptist the high priest, was wearing clothes that were not typical of Jews, certainly not of high priests like Annas, and not of Romans.

The Camel Superpower
The further clue is in the other part of his dress: a garment of camel hair. This was even more removed from the Torah's byssus, sparkling white linen, from the flax plant. More so, camel hair was foreign and, to some, inappropriate and even unclean.  The camel was not a sacrificially pure animal. Moreover it was so basically foreign, no Jew in Israel would wear it.
Camels today are associated with regions like Arabia. In the first century they were a symbol of powerful lands further East like Parthia and Bactria. (The Bactrian camel famously has two humps.)
Parthia was the great superpower rival of the Romans. Compare the rivalry to that of USA and USSR. But Parthia was not a military dictatorship like Rome, but a freer mercantile confederation, run by a royalty that had been formerly transported as slaves under the Assyrians. It had links as far away as China.
It was mighty in battle too. It had defeated Roman legions several times and even liberated Israel from Rome. It installed its own high priest there.
Parthia, under its Semitic kings, the Arsacids, with major populations of Israelites and Jews, was intimately involved with the priesthood.
So the NT is saying that John came from those many worshippers in Parthia (as mentioned in Acts 2:9, and the Parthian Magi of Matt 2).
Phraates IV, defeated Mark Antony.
Augustus made a peace treaty with him.
Parthia had made a peace treaty with Rome around 20 BCE so the Temple could be rebuilt and glorified in peace. The Magi were the powerful priestly class of Parthia who selected, elected and deposed their kings. The commander, the surena, traveled with a personal entourage and personal baggage train of 10,000 camels, Rawlinson's Parthia, p94.

Who did John proclaim to?
The KJV says that John proclaimed the coming of God's ruler, the Messiah, and his Kingdom of the Heavens at the Jordan river. Why not Jerusalem? Why not elsewhere?
Those who came to him came from 'Jerusalem and all Judea and all the country around about the Jordan.' KJV. 'All the adjacent region' is somewhat vague in Greek and may have been so phrased with political sensitivity as the Greek text was read by Romans and Gentiles.
But the Hebrew says much more. It is not just the countryside that is mentioned in the Hebrew, or the cities.
It says they came from 'all the kingdom around about the Jordan.'
Legally speaking only Herod had been proclaimed a king, that of Judea, by the Romans. Is that what is meant? Judea is already mentioned without the name of the hated Herod. So 'kingdom' must be elsewhere.
The Hebrew Malkhut can be translated 'kingdom' but also 'Empire'.
For those in the East of Israel that was an unmistakable reference. Israel was living next to the big superpower of Parthian Empire and its satellite kingdoms. These were part of the Israelite 'family business' -- members of the Arsacid dynasty as distinct from Rome where the most powerful military leader became the Caesar. Israel was a small State captured by Rome next to a huge empire. Imagine being occupied by the Soviet Union with a major superpower just across the borders!
So those who came to hear John herald the coming Kingdom of Heaven would know that
(a) John was speaking about a regime change of both Rome and Parthia and everyone else.
(b) John's dress showed he knew what he was talking about when it came to Parthia and military power.
(c) the Roman-Parthia peace treaty and the Temple was the start of something really BIG. 

Preserving the Aaronic line
John as an infant may have been taken in Parthia for safety after the turmoil around the death of Herod and the bloody civil and religious war and the subsequent Roman war of Varus against Jews, which devastated the country. Two thousand people were crucified. Jesus was taken to Egypt for safety.
Later in the same condemnation of Matt 23, Jesus denounces the cultic high priests (the sons of Annas, the son of Seth) and Pharisees who had taken over the high priesthood. He says they were hypocrites taking control of holy things while being responsible for the death of Zacharias (the father of John?), slain between the Holy Place and Altar.
The key fact that is often forgotten is that John’s mother and Mariam, the mother of Jesus, were cousins, Luke 1:36. Both were registered in genealogical archives not only as being of the priestly Levitical tribe but direct descendants of Aaron, Luke 1:5. That made their sons far more legitimate than Annas, Caiaphas and the later sons of Annas, who claimed the office.
Both women gave birth, one to John, and Mariam to Jesus, in their old age (Greek, gera. Luke 1:36 Elizabeth has ALSO conceived a son in her old age.) There is no evidence that Mariam was 14 years old. The NT says the opposite. These names reflect back to Miriam, the sister of Moses, who also gave birth in her old age, and Elizabeth = Hebrew Elisheva, the Jewish wife of Aaron.
John became the true Aaronic priest at 30 years.
Outside the Temple, authentic high priests do not have to wear white linen garments, as some Pharisees might have said. He can wear a black leather belt and also camel hair garments like the Magi from Parthia.
If John had been living in Parthia, he would have known from the Magi that they had proof that the Messiah of royal David descent had been born in the Davidic city of Bethlehem. His genealogy was confirmed not only in the Jewish archives but by the Roman authorities who had demanded the registration of families.