2008-10-26

John the Baptist according to his followers today (the Mandaeans)

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by Neil Godfrey

Another recent gem on Australia’s Radio National program, Encounter, 5 October 2008, were interviews with Mandaeans (followers of John the Baptist) describing their lives and challenges since the invasion of Iraq. Mandaean scholars also discussed some of the Mandaean beliefs about their own origins and practices.

The transcript of the program is available
here.

According to the Encounter transcript, Mandaean belief is that John the Baptist:

  • was not Jewish, but originated among Medean (think Medes, near Iran/Persia) immigrants in Palestine
  • was whisked back to Medea at his birth by angels in order to be enlightened
  • returned to baptize at the Jordan
  • baptized by day and preached by night for 42 years
  • not in the transcript, but from the wikipedia, Mandaean literature has John dying at the moment he touched an angel

This is according to the Haran Gawaita, a Mandaean text dating at least from the 6th century, and possibly from the 3rd century.

Of course this historical view leads to interesting questions:

  1. some have given reasons to think that the John the Baptist references in Josephus were no more original than the Jesus references (e.g. Zindler);
  2. if there was a John the Baptist who was executed around the period of Jesus, and he had been at work 42 years, then we may have an(other) explanation for some of the earliest Christian art depicting John the Baptist as an old man when he baptized a very young Jesus;
  3. or if there was a John the Baptist who had been at work 42 years, much of that time post-Jesus, then we have another reason to date the gospels very late, well beyond living memory of such;
  4. we have an analog to Matthew’s story of enlightened individuals coming from the East to welcome the Christ;
  5. or best of all, maybe we begin to find an answer to Joseph Campbell’s question about the coincidence of finding at Jordan an individual who bore the name of the Mesopotamian god (Ea of Water, Oannes) associated with the ritual he taught.

Some late Christian literature (the Pseudo-Clementine — also from 3rd century) is also consistent with the Mandaean belief that John the Baptist was a gnostic teacher.