According to the traditional Christian narrative, Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptist, a (perhaps) disillusioned Jew who was looking for an improved atonement solution, and found it with river baptism. Depending on how you decide to interpret it, the spirit either entered Jesus, was activated within him, or he decided to manifest it. After overcoming nearly 6 weeks of tremendous temptation, Jesus proceeded to minister around the Sea of Galillee before going to Jerusalem, where he was staked to a wooden cross at the approval of the Judean Governor, Pontius Pilate. This indignity occurred sometime in the early 30s, during Pilate’s tenure.
Given this background, one wonders how later Docetists and Gnostics managed to create such curious tales about Jesus’ prior life beyond the stars, and ongoing tensions between he and the “rulers of this world,” (1 Corinthians 2:6) namely, the world’s craftsman, Yaldabaoth.
This traditional story is made even more puzzling by the evidence we glean from the John the Baptist sect, which (believe it or not) still exists today between Iraq and Iran. This group is called the Mandaeans.
If we were to put on our “predictive modeling cap”, and begin with no prior knowledge about who the Mandaeans are or what they believe, what would we imagine they are like? What would we think they believe?
Before I learned anything about the Mandaeans, my first assumption was that their religion should look something like how Christianity remembers John the Bapist. In other words, the Mandaeans ought to look Jewish, have Jewish notions about how creation occurred, and the religion should be free from the Docetic and Gnostic shenanigans so prominently featured in pre-Orthodox Christianity (see Irenaeus).
I was wrong. My assumptions were not true. Mandaeanism has significant Gnostic underpinnings.
For example, Mandaeans believe there is a supreme God, and like in Zoroastrianism, there is a division between light and dark.
The Mandaeans also have an analog to the Gnostic Demiurge. Like in Gnosticism, the Mandaean ruler of darkness is equivalent to the creator of this world; Ptahil, along with two other rulers, Yushamin and Abathur, serve as a barrier between humans and the “King of Light”. This is comparable to the Gnostic notion of the barrier between the Earth and the high God, where the archons live between the Earth and the highest heaven. Another swirling similarity is that the Logos (Jesus/God’s Word) was said to have been emanated from the light in various Gnostic iterations.
One of the emerging themes in early Docetic and Gnostic Christianity was that Abraham and Moses were demoted. Since they were attached to the God of the Old Testament, the Jewish prophets served a lower God. This view of the demoted prophets remains in Mandaeanism, which likewise saw them as inferior and obsolete prophets.
But if John the Baptist was originally represented as a law-abiding Jew, how did his sect change from a seemingly Jewish view to one with such anti-Jewish sentiments and Gnostic and Zoroastrian influences?
One simple solution to the Mandaean creation story is their geography. The Mandaeans have been in Mesopotamia for centuries, and probably took cultural and philosophical influence from local Zoroastrians.
But another solution, and one that I think is quite likely in Mandaean evolution, is that the John the Baptist sect never really were law-abiding Jews; rather, they (like the earliest Christians) formed as a response to an increasingly persecuted and unattractive Judaism.
I have speculated in a previous post that John the Baptist probably did not exist. The more likely solution, at least in my mind, is that Mandaean origins followed an abstract trajectory similar to that of the Christians; more specifically, early theologians selected a 1st century anti-Roman activist described by Josephus, and transformed him into a more perfect prophet worthy of reverence to act as a proxy between them (and the imperfect material realm) and the high God, who was far above the visible stars.
In the case of Christianity, this 1st century activist was Jesus ben Ananias, who died around the year 65 after being struck in the head by a 70 pound Roman catapult stone.
But in the case of John the Baptist, the activist selected was Theudas, who was active around the Jordan River, had a small, fanatical following, and was beheaded. Josephus also called Theudas a magician.
A cynical person might wonder if the author of Acts 5:35-36 was aware that the John the Baptist sect had employed a similar Josephus-borrowing strategy as early Christians did when he wrote the following polemic:
Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.
There are extra-biblical accounts which add plausibility to my speculation. For example, consider Simon Magus, supposedly the earliest Christian heretic who was opposed by John and Peter in Samaria in Acts of the Apostles 8. Simon Magus is considered by many skeptics (myself included) to be the same historical person as the Apostle Paul. I would go so far as to say that Simon Magus, Paul, and Marcion were roughly the same person, although with Irenaeus’ introduction of Mendander, I am open to the idea that there were hierarchies and multiple generations within this group.
Like Jesus Christ and John the Baptist, a historical anchor for Simon Magus (the magician) can be found in Josephus (Antiquities 20.7), as Simon, the friend of Judean governor Felix, who also “pretended to be a magician”.
The link that connects these stunningly similar theological fairy tales is a Gnostic named Dositheus. Dositheus, like Simon Magus, was a Samaritan. What makes Dositheus and Simon’s claimed origins more intriguing is the cooling of tensions we see throughout the gospels between Jews and Samaritans.
For example, in Matthew 10:5 Jesus told his disciples not to go into any Samaritan cities. But in John 4, the relationship between Christians and Samaritans is mutually hospitable. For some Christians, particularly those who exclusively used the Gospel of Matthew (ie The Ebionites, or as Galatians refers to them, “Men from James”), the term Samaritan was a dirty word. For Christians who were more attached to the Apostle John (prior to Irenaeus in 180), hatred towards the Samaritans was less detectable.
According to Pseudo Tertullian:
Dositheus the Samaritan, I mean, who was the first who had the hardihood to repudiate the prophets, on the ground that they had not spoken under inspiration of the Holy Spirit
In other words, Dositheus held the same view that the Mandaeans hold, and likewise, the same view that early Christian heretics, like Marcion, held. Jean Danielou in “The Dead Sea Scrolls and Primitive Christianity”, writes that “Simon was the disciple of a certain Dositheus”.
According to the Pseudo-Clementine literature (Book 2 Chapter 11) there was a violent confrontation between Simon and Dositheus, who were seemingly in competition for control over the John the Baptist sect:
Dositheus, when he perceived that Simon was depreciating him…moved with rage, when they met as usual at the school, seized a rod, and began to beat Simon; but suddenly the rod seemed to pass through his body, as if it had been smoke. On which Dositheus, being astonished, says to him, ‘Tell me if thou art the Standing One, that I may adore thee.’ And when Simon answered that he was, then Dositheus, perceiving that he himself was not the Standing One, fell down and worshipped him, and gave up his own place as chief to Simon, ordering all the rank of thirty men to obey him; himself taking the inferior place which Simon formerly occupied. Not long after this he died
A less violent, John/Jesus parallel comes in The Mandaean Book of John, when John chastises Jesus for being dishonest to his followers:
Thereon Yahyā (John the Baptist) answered Yeshu Messiah (Jesus Christ) in Jerusalem: “Thou hast lied to the Jews and deceived the priests. Thou hast cut off their seed from the men and from the women bearing and being pregnant. The sabbath, which Moses made binding, hast thou relaxed1 in Jerusalem. Thou hast lied unto them with horns and spread abroad disgrace with the shofar.”
To John’s claim, Jesus replied:
“If I have lied to the Jews, may the blazing fire consume me. If I have deceived the priests, a double death will I die. If I have cut off their seed from the men, may I not cross o’er the End-Sea”
The thing I cannot help but notice in Jesus’ response is that Jesus implies that the proper post-death action is to cross over the End Sea. If Theudas was indeed the historical root for John the Baptist, might his compulsion to take his followers to the Jordan River have been for the sake of some ritual which included post-death depictions of crossing the water? Likewise, was Jesus placed on the Sea of Galilee in early Christian literature for the same purpose? “Living Waters” and water rituals were quite pervasive across both of these religions, over very wide geographies.
After John baptized Jesus in The Mandaean Book of John, allusion is made, like in the Docetic view, to a dove:
Then Ruha [who functions as this world’s spirit — a sort of mother earth, similar to the Gnostic Sophia] made herself like to a dove and threw a cross over the Jordan. A cross she threw over the Jordan and made its water to change into various colours.”O Jordan,” she says, “thou sanctifiest me and thou sanctifiest my seven sons.”
The connection between Simon Magus (AKA Paul) and Marcion (who held a Docetic view, which would have found Dove imagery meaningful), along with the subsequent link between Simon Magus and Dositheus, puts a spotlight on this Docetism, and how it was rejected by the Mandaeans in what appears to be a fallout between them and other Christians.
The curious parallels between heretical Christian sects and the Mandaeans are not coincidences. The reason Irenaeus had to call out so many early heretics is the same reason why similar heretical views are elemental to Mandaeanism: because they were original tenets of these religions.