Sunday, March 15, 2009

Was John the Baptist a Nazirite?

Luke 1:15
15 for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.

naz'u rit [ryzn, one consecrated, devoted, separated, from rzn, to consecrate (cf. rdn, to vow); LXX nazirai'on, nazir, nazirai'ov, nazirai'oi, words derived from eu[comai (to vow) and aJli"azw (to consecrate)]. One who marks his status of special sanctity or his vow of self-dedication by letting his hair grow and abstaining from wine and strong drink.
Historically the Nazirite was a sacred person. In later times he acquired his special status by a vow he made himself, but in the beginning he was a charismatic by virtue of a mysterious divine endowment and/or the vow of his mother. In a Nazirite's status the motif of consecration predominated. He was a devotee who separated himself, or found himself "separate," to God (Num. 6:2, 6-8, 12; Judg. 13: 5, 7; 16:17). The consecration is not an ascetic separation but an expression of loyalty to God in which forms of abstinence are illustrative rather than constitutive.
References to Nazirites span all of OT history and extend into the early Christian period. At first the commitment was spontaneous and lifelong, expressing the charismatic gifts of the individual. Later the institution was standardized and regulated by law, so that any person who made a vow to observe a specified pattern of conduct could become a Nazirite for a temporary period. Thus the Nazirite was no longer primarily a sacred person because of a special endowment, but a person vowed to perform a sacred duty. The transformation was probably very gradual. It seems to have gained momentum in the era of the later monarchy; but, for want of adequate materials, it is not possible to document its progress in detail. Eventually, because of the transformation, the offering at the termination of the vow became the most important part of a Nazirite's dedication.
1. The Nazirite as a sacred person. In early Israel the holy man played a very large role. This was also true in the non-Israelite Near East (and elsewhere); what is unique in the OT is its theocentric way of understanding him. Holy men were under the power of the Spirit of the Lord. Holiness was manifest in psychic and physical forms rather than in ethical qualities. Invariably, spontaneity, expressed in ecstasy and enthusiasm, characterized these sacred persons. Early prophets and warriors were of this order. Saul and the prophets he joined (I Sam. 10: 9-13) played an involuntary, spontaneous role. Likewise, when he heard of the siege of Jabesh, Saul was brought to holy fury by the "spirit of God," so that he became a warrior (11:5-11). The early Nazirite seems to have been a holy person in this sense. He stood in a peculiar relation to God by virtue of the gifts at his disposal.
There are many affinities between the Nazirite and the warrior. Samson, who is called a Nazirite, was a holy warrior much like Saul. The "Spirit of the LORD" (Judg. 14:19, etc.) gave him special physical power. He was a charismatic figure with long hair. War in early Israel was a holy enterprise, and while on active duty the warrior was in a state of sanctity marked by a special pattern of conduct (Deut. 23:9-14;I Sam. 21:4-6;II Sam. 11:11-12). The Naziriteship of Joseph (Gen. 49:26; Deut. 33: 16) in relation to the other tribes may rest on the military prowess of that tribe in Israel's early history in Canaan. Princes may have been Nazirites (Lam. 4:7) in the sense that they were warrior chieftains.
Amos mentions the prophet and the Nazirite together as persons with a special vocation whose role has been frustrated (2:11-12). God had called both; beyond this we lack evidence to describe the relation between the two. Samuel was a prophet and a Nazirite, to be sure. But Samuel was also a priest and one for whom residence in a holy place had displaced the ecstatic sanctity of prophet and warrior. His hair was uncut I Sam. 1:11), which may not have been true of priests later (Lev. 21:10); and the LXX adds that he abstained from wine I Sam. 1:11). Like the early Nazirite, Samuel was a lifelong devotee. In many ways he was the figure who served as the bridge by means of which the transformation of the Nazirite from a spontaneous devotee with special gifts to a man under a voluntary vow completed by an offering was facilitated.
2. The law of the Nazirite. All the prescriptions in the Pentateuch concerning the Nazirite are found in Num. 6:1. This law indicates that the charismatic aspects were subsiding in favor of a standardized communal control. It assumes that a man or woman became a Nazirite by a voluntary vow for a specified term (vss. 2, 5). The Rechabites (Jer. 35:1), who exhibit many of the features of the Nazirite, combined the voluntary vow with a hereditary and lifelong commitment. But with the exception of their founder, they were not charismatics. Amos said God "raised up" (2:11-12) Nazirites. Samson was so designated by the angel, and Samuel lived under his mother's vowI Sam. 9:1-11). The law makes no provision for such; we cannot even be certain that this type still continued. The reference in Amos makes improbable the suggestion of some that charismatics did not originally bear the title Nazirite but that it was applied to them by later writers.
In the law of his consecration the Nazirite was bound by three provisions that became marks of his sanctity: (a) he must avoid wine, strong drink, and all "that is produced by the grapevine" (Num. 6:4); (b) for the duration of his separation his hair might not be cut; and (c) he must avoid the presence of the dead, even of his parents. It seems doubtful that all these were observed by the older Nazirites. As noted, samuel's abstinence from wine is mentioned only in the LXX. Samson's mother reportedly did abstain, but this may be a later interpretation; in any case it is unlikely that Samson did so (Judg. 13:4; 14:10). The practice of avoiding the presence of the dead is never mentioned in the older accounts. In its strictness it places the Nazirite in the same sphere of sanctity as the high priest (Lev. 21:11), ahead of the other priests (vss. 1-10). This provision may be evidence of an accommodation to the role of the priesthood in the law of the Nazirite.
The practice of not cutting the hair is present throughout. But it must be noted that, while in the earlier Nazirite the main thing is the lifelong growth of the hair, in the law of Num. 6:1 the focus is upon the cutting and offering of the hair at the completion of the vow (vs. 18). Like blood, hair symbolized the life of a person. Hair offerings as a form of self-dedication were common in the ancient Semitic cultus and elsewhere. Though crowded by the offerings of Israel's own cultus in Num. 6:1, the hair is still put on the fire; and the Mishna calls it an offering (Naz. 4.7). Further, it provides that in the case of one whose vow has miscarried (6.9-12), the hair must be buried rather than put on the altar fire (Ter. 7.4). In the case of a permanent Nazirite such as Samson, the hair is not a symbol of a person's life but of the charismatic divine power with which he is endowed. While this function of the hair also has pre-Israelite roots, the meaning is very different. We must conclude that the law prescribed for the Nazirite had drawn on and assimilated a wide range of antecedent forms. Likewise, abstinence from wine is often explained as nomadic reaction against the social patterns of agricultural Canaan. But in many cults, and also in Israel (Lev. 10:8-9), the priest performing his ministry avoided wine. The sources for the provisions in the law of the Nazirite were numerous and complex.

Courtesy of the Zion Research Library
9. Neapolis (modern Kavalla), the port of Philippi
3. Later developments. The duration of a Nazirite's consecration was normally indicated at the time he made his vow. The Mishna says that it is to be for thirty days if such specification is lacking (Naz. 1.3). The brevity indicates that, increasingly, the offerings became more important than the status itself. In time it became a virtuous act for non-Nazirites to assume the expenses for the one who was and for whom the cost of release was burdensome I Macc. 3:50; Jos. Antiq.; Acts 21:24). Aside from the fact that the days of his consecration had to be repeated in full, the real burden incurred by a Nazirite polluted by the dead (cf. Num. 6:9-12; 19:11 ff) was the cost of the additional sacrifices. Gentiles could not become Nazirites (Naz. 9.1), but women and slaves could, though under certain circumstances a father or husband could void a woman's vow, and this seems to have occurred mainly for economic reasons (cf. Num. 30:1).
There are many elements of similarity between the Nazirite's vow in its later stages and the vow of Ihrâm made by Muslim pilgrims. In both, the abstinences are preparatory to the fulfilment in the offering, which is to take place at a specified place and includes the cutting of the hair. In both, remnants of very ancient ritual forms, descriptive of a sacred state indicated by spontaneous charismatic gifts, have been recast to serve as rules governing the performance of a sacred duty.

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