The Mandaeans, who in late centuries lived mainly along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq and in Iran (though in recent years they have been more widely dispersed), have a liturgical practice which centers on baptism. They baptize only in running water (which they call "jordan"), and in their travels have kept near sources of running water. Their texts refer to John the Baptist, and also (usually in hostile terms) to Jews and Christians. Their religion at present is plausibly considered Gnostic, in that they envision aeons or powers lying between the soul and its proper destination in a higher realm of Light. They are not however ascetic, and indeed require marriage. Their written tradition, which is very extensive, comprises many rituals, prayers, legends, and priestly commentaries. It has been disputed among the experts whether the Mandaeans are (1) an eastern religion (based on Persian dualism) which adopted John the Baptist and a myth of Palestinian origins as a cover, in order to gain the status of a recognized religion under Islam, or (2) a distant and much evolved survival of a John the Baptist movement which at first was in contact with both early Christianity and contemporary Judaism, and eventually rejected both, migrating northward to escape persecution. The question would appear to turn on the age of the Mandaean texts and (separately) of the material which they contain; it is generally conceded that traditions of different ages are mixed together in many of the texts. Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, through her work on the scribal colophons in the numerous Mandaean texts, seems to have shown that the scribal tradition itself goes back to pre-Islamic times, and that the earliest of the series of scribes mentioned in the texts can be dated to approximately 200. Then the John material in the Mandaean texts cannot be dismissed as a late and self-interested inclusion; it goes back to an earlier period. The question is, how early.
The Book of John, which contains many of the Mandaean traditions concerning John, is currently being translated into English by James McGrath (Butler) and Charles Häberl (Rutgers); this will make this highly relevant material more widely available. For part of that translation, click here.
The Mandaean tradition of departure from Jerusalem involves settlement in Parthian territory under the rule of Ardban (Artabanus); unfortunately, several Parthian rulers had the name Ardban. Which one is most likely correct? The reality of the migration tradition, and the time to which it most likely refers, are important in determining whether Mandaean tradition has any relevance for early Christian or other 1st century questions. We conclude that the tradition is not implausible, and that the likeliest Parthian ruler is Ardban III (r c79-81), rather than (as Buckley has suggested) the earlier Ardban II (r c11-38). For that argument, click here.
The other side of the question is whether, in addition to elements in Christianity which were evidently inherited from the mainline John movement (for which see the John page), there are elements in the Mandaean tradition which might represent otherwise undocumented Baptist concepts which are echoed or developed in the early Christian texts. Among topics of interest are these:
- Sons of Adam
- Elizabeth (Nisbai) and the Birth of John
- John as a Prophet
- The Ascent of John
- Jesus as a False Messiah
- The Christian Holy Spirit (Ruha) as an Evil Influence
- The Hemerobaptists denounced by Epiphanius
Some of these (perhaps most convincingly the elaborate description of the Birth of John in Luke) have separately been suspected as being Johannine elements taken into evolving Christian legend. All told, there seems to be a strong case for Baptist formative influence on Christianity. There seems also to be a case for the Mandaeans as preserving traces of one version (albeit a heretical Gnostic version) of Baptist tradition. Given the strong disapproval in some 1st century Christian texts (and the unmistakable acceptance in other 1st century Christian texts) of what looks like a version of Gnosticism, the opposition to which the Mandaean departure bears witness may well be historical. If our view of the Baptist movement in the 1st century can be enlarged by careful consideration of elements still preserved in Mandaean tradition, our investigation of Christian/Johannine relations should be greatly enhanced.
A related question is the Thomas Gnostic tradition, and the perhaps related claim of Thomas preaching in India. We note in passing that the area to which the Mandaeans relocated themselves after leaving Jerusalem borders on the Indo-Scythian area, one of whose kings (Gundaphorus) figures in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas.
22 Jan 2012 / Contact The Project / Exit to Alpha Home Page