How and Why the Mandaeans Embraced John the Baptist

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by Neil Godfrey

The Mandaeans live on the banks of the Tigris [see Ancient Whither for an update since Iraq war]. They must live near running water where they can practise their continual baptismal rites. When they were first discovered by [Roman Catholic missionaries] in the 17th century, and it was found that they were neither Catholics nor Protestants but that they made much of baptism and honoured John the Baptist, they were called Christians of St John, in the belief that they were a direct survival of the Baptist’s disciples [such as are mentioned in Acts 18:25ff].

(F. C. Burkitt, 1928, [1931])

Last month I posted links to recent works from a symposium on John the Baptist and expressed appreciation for a reminder from James McGrath that it might be worth taking a closer look at the Mandaean sources when searching for glimpses of “the historical John the Baptist”. This post shares what I have found of interest in my very early follow up reading.


  • What follows draws upon what only a handful of scholars have written about the relationship between John the Baptist and the Mandaeans. The views are debated.
  • I have not read the Mandaean literature, not even in translation, but am relying upon what scholars have written about that literature in summary.
  • What I write today may be (and probably will be) different from what I write another day.

Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley argues in favour of the strong likelihood of a historical link (even if that link is indirect) between John the Baptist and the Mandaeans in The Great Stem of Souls: Reconstructing Mandaean History and in her contribution to A People’s History of ChristianityOf one scholar who does not accept a historical connection Buckley writes:

Shimon Gibson’s The Cave of John the Baptist (New York: Doubleday, 2004) is much too facile in its summary dismissal of the Mandaeans as being of any possible relevance to the historical John (325-26). The idea that John was imported into Mandaeism in Islamic times is untenable.

(Buckley, Turning the Tables on Jesus, 296 – my emphasis)

Before I set out Buckley’s case let’s look at the one she protests is “too facile a dismissal” of a Mandaean association with a historical John the Baptist. Shimon Gibson asks and addresses the key question in The Cave of John the Baptist:

Could these Mandaeans be the descendants of the original followers of John the Baptist? And would it be possible to reconstruct the writings of the first followers of John based on an analysis of Mandaean literature?

Unfortunately, the answer is a negative one: they are definitely not the descendants of the original baptists. The name of the sect is derived from the Aramaic Manda d’Haiye, which means ‘the knowledge of life’. . . . 

The excitement of early researchers suggesting possible links between disciples of John, who had in some fashion preserved his heritage, and Mandaean religious writings was quickly dashed by the scholar F. C. Burkitt who was able to show that there is nothing in the Mandaean literature that could actually predate the fifth to seventh centuries AD. Moreover, those Mandaean writings pertaining specifically to John the Baptist must reflect adaptations from the Gospels and are not alternative writings on John. . . . Some of the Mandaean writings are notably hostile towards Christianity and Jesus, who is described as the ‘prophet of lies’, as well as towards Judaism [note 10.81].

(Gibson, Cave, 325f. Note 10.81 points to Albright’s From the Stone Age to Christianity that also directs readers to Burkitt, and to Lietzmann’s The Beginnings of the Christian Church.)

And so our journey begins. Next stop, some of the comments of F. C. Burkitt:

And a very little investigation makes it quite clear that the Mandaean hostility to Eshu mshiha[=Jesus Christ] is hostility to the fully developed post-Nicene Church. In several places ‘Christ’ is actually called ‘the Byzantine’ (Rumaia), and further we are told that the disciples of this Christ become ‘Christians’, and turn into monks and nuns who have no children and who keep fasts and never wear white clothes like the Mandaeans . . . . In a word, it is not the Christ of the Gospels, but the Christ of fully developed ecclesiastical organization and policy to which Mandaism is so hostile.

(Bukitt, 1928, 229)

An example of Manichean influence: The Mandaeans, then, rejected the Christ of the Catholic Church, born of a woman and crucified, but they accepted the Stranger who appeared in Jerusalem in the days of Pilate, who healed the sick and taught the true and life-giving doctrine, and who ascended in due course when his work was done to his own place in the world of Light. This Personage is called the Stranger, but he is no stranger to the modern student of Christian antiquity : it is clearly the Manichaean Jesus, a personage adopted by Mani from the Jesus of Marcion. In other words it is no new controversial figment of the Mandaeans. (Burkitt, 1928, 231)

What did the contemporary Churchmen say of the Mandaeans? Burkitt in Church and Gnosis:

We have now . . . an account of the Mandaeans by an ancient Mesopotamian writer, writing in the year A.D. 792. He tells us that their founder was a certain Ado, a mendicant, who came from Adiabene, i.e. from the district just north of Mosul. He further tells us that his teaching was derived from the Marcionites, from the Manichaeans . . .

There is no reason to reject the evidence of Theodore bar Konai. . . . It is important to consider how much his evidence comes to. There is a good deal in the Mandaean literature that recalls Marcionite and Manichaean teaching . . . .

(Burkitt, 1931, 102)

And that other cited reference in Gibson’s The Cave of John the Baptist?

The numerous writings of the Mandæans bear witness to the continued existence of the disciples of John for several centuries and perhaps the baptist sect in southern Babylonia at the present time, is the direct heir of John’s work in the days of the Herods. That is asserted nowadays by many weighty persons, and anyone who regards the Mandaean literature as sources can draw an attractive picture of the spiritual power which proceeded from John, and which influenced the religion of Judaism, and especially that of Jesus and His disciples. John’s circle then appears as the nursery of an early gnosis, which united Babylonian, Persian, and Syrian elements in a many-coloured mixture on a Jewish background, and grouped the whole round the ancient Iranian mythology of the first man, that redeemer who descended from heaven in order to awaken the soul bound and asleep in the material fetters of this world, and to open up for it the way to heaven.

This is very intriguing, and gives quite unthought-of perspectives, leading possibly to a new understanding of primitive Christianity; nevertheless we must put it firmly and entirely on one side. It can be shown that the Mandaean literature consists of various strata which come from widely different periods. And the latest of these strata, belonging to the Islamic era—i.e. at earliest, in the seventh century—are those which preserve the notices of John the Baptist; they are modelled on the basis of the gospel records, and distorted till they are grotesque. In the same way, the many sallies against Jesus and Christianity are quite clearly directed against the Byzantine church, and have not the least connection with primitive Christianity. The fragments of the earlier strata belong to a rank oriental gnosis which has run to seed, and have no bearing on the historical John and his disciples.

(Lietzmann, 1961, 43f)

To turn now to a more recent scholar and one whom Buckley engages in some depth (pp 326-330 in Great Stem), Edmondo Lupieri, author of The Mandaeans, the Last Gnostics.

One detail in Lupieri’s work that Buckley disputes that attracted my attention concerned the Mandaean account of their ancestors having migrated from Palestine to Mesopotamia. I was unaware of such an event being a literary trope that can be traced back to the flight of Aeneas with his family from Troy immediately prior to its destruction. That a narrative is a trope does not necessarily mean it cannot also be a historical event, but if a literary-ideological pattern alone offers an explanation for a narrative and there is no independent supporting evidence for historicity then we have no need to go beyond the most economical explanation. Lupieri writes

From the point of view of a comparative analysis it means also that Mandaeanism has aligned itself with those religions that allocate a flight to their beginnings, following upon a persecution. In backgrounds linked to Judaism, this flight or original migration is characterized by a flight from Jerusalem before its destruction,53 which is then explained as a divine punishment.54 The motif is well represented in Judaic traditions — for example, in the so-called “Second Book of Baruch” — but it is above all in Christian or post-Christian traditions where it has found the most ample scope for its development. Already in the Synoptic Gospels there is Jesus’ exhortation to flee to the hills, leaving Jerusalem and Judaea to their destiny of death,55 but most important of all was the legend of a flight of the entire Christian community in Jerusalem from the Judaic capital to Pella, a pagan city beyond the Jordan, shortly before the arrival of the Romans.

53. The event was so traumatic that it exercised a remarkable influence on the belief of all the religions arising from or in some way deriving from Judaism. The legends on the flights from Jerusalem are the religious parallel of the “secular” legends on the original flight-migration from a famous city of the past, afterward destroyed. This is the legend of Aeneas, of course, and of many analogies to be found here and there in virtually all cultures.

54. Also within Judaism, the only way to save the faith after the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem is to consider the catastrophe a punishment decided by one’s own God for sins committed; outside of Judaism, and in particular in Christianity and in Islam, it will be the God of each one (whether thought to be the same God as the Jews’ or not) who punished the Judaic sins.

55. Mark 13:14-27 and parallels.

Lupieri casts light on the problems that arise if that Pella flight actually happened: Continue reading “How and Why the Mandaeans Embraced John the Baptist”