Animals, Animality, and John the Baptist

The study of animals in the Bible has recently developed out of a few different streams of reflection and activism: animal ethics, ecological ethics, and posthumanism. While I have been trying to read through these interrelated streams, my starting point is elsewhere: my students.  I have developed a course to support Illinois College’s AgriBusiness program called “Religion, Agriculture, and Ecology.”  Because of the success of this program, even in my other religion classes (such as my Bible courses), I get many of its majors. Many of my students – whether AgriBusiness majors or not – come from farming families and will farm or join some part of the ag industry after they leave college.  What’s arresting when one reads the gospels with an agricultural lens is the surprising lack of animals where we would expect to find them – yet throughout the centuries, beginning already in the second century, readers imaginatively fill in these literary gaps.  

Did the centurion ride a horse?  Did the Magi use camels?  Did Mary ride a donkey to Bethlehem?  The gospels are silent.  Animals must have been there, but they are taken-for-granted-daily reality.  Because they are taken for granted, we must pay attention to why the gospel writers bring them up when they do.   

I have begun to read with a heightened sensitivity to the physical interrelations between humans and other animals, how humans represent animals, and how the representation of animals often reflects ancient ways of viewing other humans.  I have begun to think more about things like the various animalizations of humans that occur in the gospels: negative “out-group animalizations” by calling human beings by names of animals (vipers, fox, dog) and positive in-group animalizations – “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). There are parabolic animals. There is, of course, the consumption of animals (especially fish); the use of animals for clothing and other elements; working animals that one rides (especially donkeys); the phenomenon of divine animality (the holy spirit appearing as a dove); and, of course, animal sacrifice. We can also, running throughout these categories, divide things up between wild and domesticated animals.

One thing I have recently noticed is how many of these categories of thinking with and through animals as well as representing animals occur in the pericope of John the Baptist. I will focus on “out-group animalizations,” conspicuous clothing, conspicuous diet, divinanimality, and sacrifice.

“Brood of Vipers” (Matthew 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9): One of the first things that comes to my mind in terms of animals and John the Baptist is his use of animals in name calling, or what I will call “out-group animalizations,” when he calls groups who have come to be baptized by him a “brood of vipers.”

Out-group animalizations use animals to characterize someone of a different group, to delineate the difference between “them” and “us,” of course at the other group’s or person’s expense. The use of animals in name-calling is meant to dehumanize, usually with an animal that connotes negative traits in that particular culture. Racialized out-group animalization occurs all the time, but such animalizations do not have to be racial; they can be class-based, gender-driven, or ideologically-driven. In this case, John the Baptist calls the “out-group” a “brood of vipers.” There is not a difference of gender and race; there may be some issues of class, here, depending one which gospel one focuses on, and definitely one of ideology.

What might a “brood of vipers” connote? If there is inner-biblical resonance, perhaps the serpent from Genesis, who was cunning. Is John the Baptist calling out their shrewdness? Or is it poisonous, figuratively speaking? A forked tongue could also connote hypocrisy. Of course, all of these traits are interrelated.

This name calling does not occur in all the gospels. Neither Mark nor John brings it up at all, for example. Both Matthew and Luke include a nearly identical pericope; thus, those who follow the traditional source criticism of the synoptic gospels would mark it as “Q.” Matthew identifies the “brood” as Pharisees and Sadducees. Interestingly, these Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to John for baptism! But then he tells them off, signaling the primary “out-groups” of Matthew, and, therefore, more in Matthew than in Luke, the connotation of hypocrisy is being activated, since he directly calls the Pharisees hypocrites in chapter 23. Oddly enough, however, Luke says it was simply the “crowds” that John called a “brood of vipers,” expanding the category to all who come to him, suggesting all have a level of cunning, shrewdness, or hypocrisy? In both cases, the pericope is nearly verbatim the same, except for the identity of the vipers: Pharisees and Sadducees or crowds. Matthew does have a much heightened antipathy towards Pharisees than any other gospel.

“Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6; Matthew 3:4): Perhaps the most conspicuous elements of John the Baptist’s story in the gospel accounts are what he eats and what he wears. Food and clothing are the areas of life in which humans rely upon animals the most. Again, this only shows up in two accounts: Matthew and Mark. Luke doesn’t mention it. Neither does John.

Biblical characters’ clothing is rarely mentioned, unless it relates to plot (as in the case of Joseph’s coat), or has some other important symbolic quality (like the high priest’s clothing). In this case, John’s clothing resembles Elijah’s, who also wears a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8). It does not say Elijah wore a hair shirt, but it does say he was very hairy. Wearing the clothing of Elijah on the edge of the Judean desert next to the Jordan River would have strong resonances with Elijah, especially at the beginning of 2 Kings. While dromedaries had long been domesticated, a camel-hair shirt sounds a bit eccentric – literally outside the norm. It does not say camel skin, but just the hair, though his leather belt would indicate skin of course.

What of his diet? Locusts and honey are both an animal and an animal product. Neither are domesticated, but they are kosher – Leviticus 11:20-23 specifically states that eating a locust is fine. Nonetheless, the use of eccentric clothing, even of a domesticated animal, and the consumption of wild animals (locusts) and animal products (honey) suggest someone on the edge of civilization, neither fully in nor fully out. This would be confirmed by his location as well.

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10; Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32). Divinanimality is a term coined by Jacques Derrida to discuss the relational similarity of animals and the divine to humans as Other. And, indeed, divinities are often attributed animalistic qualities in ancient literatures, including Israelite literatures. All four gospels include this account, the only different being that in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist relates it as a past occurrence rather than happening in the literary present as the other gospels. All four gospels also are careful to keep it as a simile: they never say the Spirit is a dove, but alighted upon Jesus like a dove. There would be a connotation with Genesis 1, in which the Spirit hovers over the primordial waters in avian language. The hovering, alighting Spirit connects, therefore, the primordial waters of the creation account with this new creation of Jesus’ baptism. Afterward, this same spirit leads him to the wilderness (a place of undomesticated, wild, feral animals, something emphasized especially in Mark) in the next chapter. The Spirit – I think – is wild and the wildness is both creative and dangerous. It is Jesus’ initiation before returning to civilization (in a strikingly three-part pattern that van Gennep would approve of leaving, threshold, and reintegration).

Sacrifice: Finally, as I discussed at the most recent Central States Society of Biblical Literature (March 2020), the sacrificial system hums in the background of the gospel accounts, often vaguely alluded to in often strikingly oblique ways. One oblique way could be the very fact of John’s baptism, which was for the “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3) or, in Matthew’s version, repentance and confession of sins (Matt 3:1-12); that is, it encroached upon the function of the temple, where one would give a sin offering.  Is John the Baptist offering an alternative to or perhaps critique of sacrificing in the temple?[1]  If this is the case, then a critique of sacrifice may stem from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but, then again, Jesus didn’t always follow through on John the Baptist’s abstentions – e.g., the fasting of John the Baptist versus the feasting of Jesus (cite).

In short, the story of John the Baptist, at the very beginning of the canonical gospel accounts, provides a précis of most of the ways in which the gospels and the New Testament books as a whole, represent animals and, through them, other humans, and even the divine.

[1] This idea came from a conversation with James McGrath in passing at the book exhibit at the 2019 SBL.


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