Baptist's locusts

Frederick J. Peabody fpeabody at SUNFLOWR.USD.EDU
Thu Nov 16 10:14:19 CST 1995

Recently a message appeared on this medium that proposed that the locusts
refered to in the New Testament as the food of John the Baptist were not
the insects, but rather the fruit pulp and seeds of the carob (Ceratonia
siliqua).  The discussion of what exactly John the Baptist ate in the
desert, i.e. insect locusts or leguminous locusts, has been discussed
among biblical/biological scholars of the past.  A few years ago I read
some commentary (sorry, but I don't have the reference, but it was
something like Plants of the Bible, or some such thing) that upheld the
notion that insect locusts wewe, indeed, what was eaten by this messianic
precursor and not the carob.  Being a legume taxonomist myself (and a
practicing Christian) I would have prefered that is was the sweet pulp
and seeds of the carob that sustained John the Baptist (just another one
for the legumes, I guess).

If one examines the the "original" Greek rendition of this reference one
finds that the word used to describe "locust" in this sense is (and I am
sorry that my PINE word processor is not able to duplicate Greek
letters) akris (or translitterated to English) acris.  For those of you
that are interested the Greek is: alpha, kappa, rho, iota, sigma, with a
smooth breathing on the alpha and an accent grave on the iota.

In total there are 22 other references to "locust" or "locusts" in the
Bible.  Without exception these refer to the locusts of insect type.  You
will possibly remember one of the plagues of Egypt.  I do not have access
to Hebrew texts to determine the word usage, but it would seem to be
clear that insects were the intent here.

The eating of insects was not uncommon among the children of Israel.  In
fact, some of these other 22 Old Testament references specify which
insects can and cannot be eaten.  "Locusts" and "Bald Locusts" were among
those sanctioned for human consumption.

The word "locust" as applied to plants is probably a modern association
that postdates New Testament times by many centuries.  This is only an
hypothesis which would take some additional etymological substantiation.
>From my work in the genus Robinia (Ph.D. dissertation at Iowa State) I
became aware of the pre-Linnaean name "Locusta Virginiana Arbor" which
was applied to the common black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia L.) by John
Tradescant (famous 17th century English botanist) and by the
father-and-son team Jean and Vespasien Robin (famous 17th century
botanists to the King of France, and who planted a specimen of this
"locust" in Paris in 1636).  By the way, this venerable specimen is still
growing in Paris (see my article in Castanea 47:99-104).  Apparently many
different leguminous taxa of old world origin with imparipinnately
compound leaves and racemose inflorescences were called "locusts."
This pattern continued through the time of new world exploration during
which many tropical and temperate species were placed in the genus
Robinia and commonly called locusts.  I have not researched the earliest
use of the word "locust," however.

Even though it would be gratifying to think that John the Baptist ate
leguminous products and not insects, the evidence seems to contradict
such a notion.

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