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This topic is collecting teachable Bible Background Info on John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus for Sunday School.

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John the Baptist's hairy coat was not "scratchy"

If you're like me, you grew up with the misconception that John the Baptist was a "wild and itchy" guy dressed up in hairy camel skins like some sort of Bible caveman.

Artist without much biblical knowledge (or care) have often portrayed him as such, and it fed into a certain "wild and penitential" view of prophets as a group of aesthetic monks "doing without" things like decent clothing and "subsisting" on locusts and honey while their scratchy hair tormented them all day as an act of penance.

But that image is not only probably wrong, it misses the scriptural connection between John the Baptist and Elijah, and the purpose of the prophet's cloak.

Thing is... Camel's hair is not necessarily SCRATCHY and in fact, can be quite soft. Technically speaking a camel has two kinds of hair, an outer thicker hair called "guard" hair, and an inner "undercoat" hair which is shorter and softer. Both can be processed and blended with other hair (like wool), and together they make a fine garment that's especially good at shedding the rain and insulating against the cold.  Read more about Camel's hair.

The Gospels actually describe John the Baptist as wearing an "outer garment" made out of camel's hair, not a "hair shirt." In other words, he had a camel's hair coat. The Greek word used in Matthew 3:4 to describe his coat is "enduma" -- meaning "garment, raiment, cloak, an outer garment." Here's the Greek reference.   

And nobody in Jesus' day would have mistaken the symbolism of John's camel's hair garment, because it was what prophets wore; prophet's like Elijah who started the tradition in 2 Kings 1:8...

“He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.”

Other travelers would have worn camel's hair too, especially in the rainy or cold months in Israel. The camel's hair coat or cloak or would have been worn over a robe or undergarments. Here's an excellent article about clothing in biblical times.

It's even possible that Jesus had a camel's hair cloak when he traveled. We are conditioned to imagining him in a roman robe or simple garment, but when he was traveling, an outer garment would have been a necessity. It would have made a nice bedroll too.

Just like any article of clothing can be "tailored" to send a message or become a uniform of sorts, so too a prophet's mantle could be an unmistakable message to those who could read the sign. They were a calling card like a pastor's robe or doctor's lab coat. Wear them and people took notice of you, even Kings who might otherwise not want to listen to you. Indeed, in Zechariah 13:4 we read about "false" prophets no longer being allowed to deceive the people by wearing their hairy mantles.

Matthew 3:4's description of John's "hairy" coat also preserves a humorous Hebrew "double entendre" about Elijah.

In both the English and Hebrew languages, the word for "hairy" can be understood both literally and figuratively. Literally as in "covered with hair, or made of hair" (se`ar). And figuratively as in "wild, bristling, or tempestuous" (sa-`ar)—which the prophet's appearance and message would often convey. 2 Kings 1:8 LITERALLY calls Elijah a "hairy man."  And some translators use that literal wording too. But perhaps "hair-wearing & hair-raising is a better explanation of both Elijah and John's mantle and mission.

The Gospels' Greek word for "hair" (thrix) seems to be simply literal because the writers were Greek and had a Greek copy of the scriptures, and thus, maybe didn't know about the "hair-raising" interpretation.

But to John and the disciples, there was no confusion!

John was dressed like Elijah, the great prophet
who was expected to return when the Messiah was about to appear.
In fact, people asked if John was Elijah returned!

When asked "who is John the Baptist," Jesus replies, "he is the Elijah who was to come." (Matthew 11:14. also, Mk 9:14).  Now oddly enough, according to John 1:19, John said he was "not Elijah." This undoubtedly gave rise to the understanding that John was, as Luke 1:15-17 says, "in the spirit and power of Elijah."  This also proves that Jesus wasn't a literalist when he referred to John as Elijah.

The Misconceptions About "Locust and Wild Honey"

The "locusts and honey" John is described as eating in Matthew 3:4 are also probably not what we have casually believed they were, i.e., what a "half-crazed desert prophet" would have subsisted on. Instead, that description too was a sign, a sign of the Kingdom.

According to NT scholar James Tabor...  John was not eating bugs.

The Greek word for locusts (akris/ἀκρίδες) is very similar to the Greek word for “honey cake” (enkris/έγκρίς) that is used for the “manna” that the Israelites ate in the desert in the days of Moses. "Locusts" thus refers to a kind of cake cooked in olive oil. This “bread from heaven” is described as “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:8).

This kind of “manna pancake” baked in oil and sweetened with honey was a sign to the reader about the miracle in the wilderness that God had already and was again going to bring forth. It should not be lost on us that recorded in all four Gospels is the story of Jesus himself multiplying the loaves and fishes in the wilderness to feed the 5000. No honey, but pretty sweet nonetheless.

John's symbolic food of "locusts and honey" was a sign that the Kingdom of God was at hand, which not so coincidentally was what he was preaching, and was the same sign Elijah used in Zarephath, and Jesus used in Galilee.

John's camel's hair mantle and locust and honey were "voices crying out in the wilderness" to those who knew their Bible and were listening.

The truth here is better than the strange fiction of the wild and itchy man we grew up imagining.

<>< Neil MacQueen

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Last edited by Neil MacQueen
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About the story of John the Baptist and his ministry

Kids should know that:

1) God called John into existence for a special purpose, to turn people toward God and to prepare them for the coming of the Lord. They should know that they too are called to prepare for God entering our lives.

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1: 13-17)

2) John recognized Jesus as part of God’s special plan for His people even while he was in the womb. Children should know that God has a plan for them too, since before they were born.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1: 41-45)

3) John lived a simple life in the wilderness to prepare himself for the ministry that God had chosen him for. Children should know that they are called to clear away the clutter in their lives so that they can hear and obey the message of God.

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:80)
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matt 3:4) (Mark 1:6)

4) John’s mission for God was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus by urging them to repent, be forgiven for their sins, and to lives worthy of God’s salvation. Children should know that they are part of that mission, to both ASK for forgiveness, and GIVE forgiveness to others.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt. 3:2) John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4) John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:7-8)

5) God used John to announce the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the baptism of our Lord. Children should know that they are called to look for Christ, and call others to be baptized in his name.

John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16)
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:13-17)

6) Following God’s call resulted in John’s imprisonment and death. Children should learn that following God's call is not always easy and calls us to make difficult choices.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matt. 11: 2-6)

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good new of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
(Mark 1:14)

Herod sent and had John beheaded in the prison. (Matt: 14:10)

(some life application notes have been added above as well)

  • Children will know that God has called them into being (existence) and has a unique purpose for each of them.
  • Children will see the importance of John’s wilderness experience as a way to simplify their lives and listen for God’s call.
  • Children will know that God calls them to repent from dishonest, disobedient and sinful lives.
  • Children will know that repentance means to turn away from sin and to seek to live honest, obedient and helpful lives.
  • Children will know that baptism is the sign and seal of God’s grace and covenant in Christ.



This fine set of teaching objectives comes from Desoto Presbyterian Church


A representative of reformatted this post to improve readability.


Last edited by Lesson Forma-teer

In reading through the above background I was fascinated with the great information provided. The reference to Elijah's appearance caught my attention. In looking up the reference quoted I realized the text should be referring to 2 Kings 1:8.  I copied the reference for you to help make the corrections easier.

"In fact,  John's "hairy" description matches ELIJAH's description in 2 Kings 1:8 "He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt round his waist."

Thanks for all the inspiration you are providing. God bless.

Last edited by Neil MacQueen

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