2021-02-16

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.

Disclaimers:

  • 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:

On this score, the most ancient literary evidence goes back to a certain Ariston, bishop at Pella in the second century. The information was then picked up by the ecclesiastical heresiologists and historians of the following centuries, such as Eusebius and Epiphanius, and from that point it entered into all the ecclesiastical histories that came afterward. It was considered to be either true or realistic until only a few years ago, when strong doubts began to be raised in the criticism, whether because there was no corroborating evidence from other sources (Flavius Josephus says nothing about it) or perhaps primarily because Pella was laid waste by the Jewish rebels, because it was a pagan city, at the beginning of the rebellion. It is therefore not easy to determine to where the Christians could have fled.

https://knowhy.bookofmormoncentral.org/knowhy/when-did-lehi-leave-jerusalem

Structurally similar to the flight to Pella appears the exodus of a handful of dissident Israelites before the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar (586 B.C.). The fugitives, led by a prophet by the name of Lehi (of the tribe of Manasseh), reach America (where they find the last Iaredites, who had taken refuge there after events connected to the construction of the tower of Babel and who by that time were almost extinct), and here they develop their own traditions. They divide up into two groups, the Lamanites (from which the pagan Indians descend) and the Nephites, who remain Jahwists and continue to enjoy a special revelation (also the resurrected Jesus Christ arrives in America to visit them and to explain the obscure parts of the New Testament) up until their total extinction (they are massacred by the Lamanites, before the arrival of the Spanish). The book they wrote in mysterious characters was revealed by an angel to Joseph Smith (1805-44) and is the scriptural and historical foundation of Mormonism.

Which leads to the conclusion . . .

[T]he early Christian story of the flight to Pella, the Mormon story of an exodus to America, and the modern Mandaean one of the migration to Mesopotamia are three examples of etiological legends that are useful for our understanding of the historical situation of the religious community or the charismatic head that produced them but that tell us nothing about the actual ancient history to which they refer

(Lupieri, 160ff)

To return to the John the Baptist . . .

I cannot imagine why on earth the Palestinian disciples of John the Baptist would have sought the pagan deity who was protector of the Hyspaosinnidics without even glancing at their venerable master.

In the more ancient literary contexts [John] does not act as a prophet, nor is he called one, except in an anti-Islamic function. The only prophecy that is recorded for him concerns the coming of Muhammad. We can therefore argue that his prophetic aspect was consolidated within the context of the polemic against Islam.

Characene 141 BC–222 AD (Wikipedia)

In addition, for the Mandaeans John is not the Baptist par excellence (indeed, he is not even called “baptist,” except in just one of the many passages that speak of him) since he was not the one who invented baptism. This was revealed to Adam by Manda d-Hiia, and so Adam is the initiator of the Mandaean ritual baptism on the earth, and John learned it, as a child, from Anuš ‘Utra during the course of his instruction on Mount Paruan. According to Haran Gauaita, he was baptized as an infant at the hands of a certain Bihram, brought to Paruan by Anus himself . . . . This Bihram, or Bahram, is an important character, being the eponym of Mandaean baptism. The Mandaeans define their baptism as “baptism by Bihram the Great” (not by John). In Mandaeanism, therefore, beside the idea that baptism was revealed by Manda d-Hiia, there is also the idea that it was in some way initiated by Bihram, who is the Semitic outcome of Verethraghna, the name of an Indo-Iranic divinity present in the religions of ancient Persia and India. The most interesting aspect for us here is that Verethraghna-Bihram, identified with Heracles, was the divinity who protected the Hyspaosinnidic dynasts . . . who governed Mesene/Characene as a vassal of the Persians . . . . This means that the Mandaeans considered the one who established their baptism to be the protector deity of the sovereigns of Characene during the Arsacid Empire . . . .

This also means that the Mandaeans must have been living in Characene in such a very ancient epoch of their history that they could choose Bihram as eponymous deity of their baptism. I cannot imagine why on earth the Palestinian disciples of John the Baptist would have sought the pagan deity who was protector of the Hyspaosinnidics without even glancing at their venerable master.

Why, then, would they have adopted John to become a renowned restorer of the Mandaean faith?

The reason can be discovered if we analyze how Mandaeanism has dealt with all well-known biblical figures, whether from the Old or New Testament.

  • The founders of hostile or enemy religions, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, are turned into demons.
  • Their predecessors, from Adam to Shem in the Old Testament and John and his parents in the New, are transformed into Mandaean figures.

In this way Judaism and Christianity can be considered a deviation from a preexisting Mandaean reality. Paul does something of this kind when he goes back to Abraham, whose faith saves, thus going over the head of Moses, that is, the Law and its observance. Still more similar is the operation Muhammad carries out when he presents Abraham as the first Muslim of history, thus going over the head of Moses and Jesus, Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad, however, wishes to remain within the tracks of Judaic and Christian tradition, whose Scripture he recognizes in some way, in order to present himself as the concluding or perfecting “seal” of a prophetic line that starts with the Bible. Like Paul, he goes back to the origins of the religious tradition from which he derives. Yet this is what a religious reformer usually does: think of Luther, who goes back to the Scriptures, thus going over the head of the Catholic ecclesiastical tradition. Mandaeanism goes one further since it is a new religion, hostile to Judaism and Christianity. It therefore does not turn the founders into Mandaeans, but the protagonists who preceded them. John becomes a Mandaean in the same way and for the same reason that Adam, Abel, Seth, Enoch, Noah, and Shem become Mandaeans. This also demonstrates that Judaism and Christianity, with their Scriptures, already existed when Mandaeanism was formed.

(164 f. My formatting)

That last sentence seals the argument against the Mandaeans owing their origins to a historical John the Baptist.

Next, we will turn to Buckley’s opposing arguments.


Buckley, Jorunn. The Great Stem of Souls: Reconstructing Mandaean History (Gorgias Mandaean Studies): 1. Gorgias Pr Llc, 2010.

Burkitt, F. C. “The Mandaeans.” The Journal of Theological Studies 29, no. 115 (1928): 225–35.

Burkitt, F. Crawford. Church & Gnosis: A Study of Christian Thought and Speculation in the Second Century. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2007.

Gibson, Shimon. The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery That Has Redefined Christian History. New York : Doubleday, 2004.

Lietzmann, Hans. A History of the Early Church. London : Lutterworth Press, 1961.

Lupieri, Edmundo. The Mandaeans: The Last Gnostics. Translated by Mr Charles Hindley. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001.


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2 thoughts on “How and Why the Mandaeans Embraced John the Baptist”

  1. A more recent (2008) overview of Mandaeans by Lupiere is here:
    https://iranicaonline.org/articles/mandaeans-1
    An early M. interest in John Baptist seems possible to me.
    The claimed connection of the cave with John the Baptist is not certain.
    The flight to Pella not only seems possible, but a prudent move, and possibly has (in Epiphanius) some support, if one sees different uses of the name Nazarenes (in various spellings as in the Anchor Bible Dictionary article).

  2. The Mandaeans of the lower Euphrates, modern followers of John the Baptist, refer to themselves (or rather, their priests) as Nazoreans. Their literature was translated by Lady Ethel Stefana Drower in the 1930s-1950s. I have read all their texts and lots of secondary literature on the same through the 1990s. They adhere to many Gnostic beliefs, and special rituals of baptism are central to their practices. There are many references in their texts and religion to the river Jordan. The Haran Gawaita indicates they emigrated to Mesopotamia under the Persian king Artabanus II (11-38 CE), I would say likely in 36-38 CE, which fits the NT chronology. I find the preservation of this specific historical context for their migration impossible to account for if not authentic. If they are a cultural survival of the early first century Nazoreans, as seems likely, this suggests that the Nazoreans may possibly have been the name of the John the Baptist’s movement. This might shed light on the use of the term Nazorean in the NT and may have other historical ramifications. I do not view their negative traditions about Jesus as ancient or authentic. This aspect of their literature seems to have arisen as a result of later interactions with Christians found in Mesopotamia. Secondary literature that discounts their original connection with John the Baptist due to their later traditions about Jesus seem to miss this obvious explanation. I consider their acquisition of Gnostic beliefs to be an unsolved problem, but maybe some of the later literature sheds light on this.

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