The Curious Case of the Gnostic Mandaeans

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BFFs Jesus and John

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.

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A depiction of the co-Demiurge Abathur

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.

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Saint Peter (left) and Simon Magus, the original “Man in Black” (right)

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.

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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.

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

12 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Gnostic Mandaeans”

  1. As you know I find this fascinating and am looking forward to you publishing your book. At the same time sometimes I find you struggling to figure out the thinking behind certain actors when they clearly were just making shit up with few constraints upon their imagination. Indeed, where does the back story of the various creator gods come from? Surely people made up something they thought was reasonable and then someone else changed it to make it more reasonable but there was no actual reason involved. It seems a little like sailing a small craft with no goal in mind, little course changes are made frequently even though there is no destination to aim at.

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    1. That’s so funny that you notice that. I tend to assume that few (rather than many) people were purposely lying, particularly in the early stages.

      I might be wrong to assume that, but for some reason, I want to put myself in the shoes of these ancient people, in order to understand them better, and assuming good intentions helps with that .

      From the very beginning, my question has been – how does a person get invented out of thin air?

      I could be cynical and say something like “they needed material, so they borrowed from Josephus”. While I think that is abstractly true, I can’t help but wonder if there was something more to it…for example, was Christianity a mystery religion, and these reworkings of Josephus, rather than blatant material rip-offs, were meant to convey some sort of meta-message. It’s striking that the people who were borrowed from Josephus to construct these fictional messiahs and heretics (Jesus, John, Simon, Judas) show up again in Acts as their original names (ben ananias, Theudas, Simon, Judas of Galilee).

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  2. CE posits that Mandeans are the same with Nasoraeans. Interestingly in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls as translated by Robert Eisenman he identified the ancient role of baptism as well as the term “Nazoraean” where he states:

    “Line 4 of Fragment 1 of the present text actually uses an allusion hinted at in compilations of Messianic proof texts like the published Messianic Florilegium: ‘tinzor Toratecha’ (‘to keep Your Torah’). The use of this expression as a synonym for the Shomrei ha-Brit (‘the Keepers of the Covenant’), the definition in the Community Rule, v.2 and v.9 of ‘the sons of Zadok’, once more confirms the basic circularity of all these usages. It is but a short step from here to the ‘Nazoraean’ terminology often used as a synonym for Jewish Christians in other sources, and perhaps the root of Matt. 2:23’s tantalizing ‘Nazarene’ epithet.”
    -Eisenman, Robert and Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered: The First Complete Translation and Interpretation of 50 Key Documents Withheld for over 35 Years, Penguin Books, NY, 1993

    I know this is a little bit off topic but do you think the business with the Mandeans/Nazoraeans has something to do with the mythicist theory (Rene Salm and Frank Zindler) that Nazareth as a place is absent in the 1st century and that the name Nazarene is a name of a cult within the area? I know someone said (I forgot who) that most of the references of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels is a mistranslation of “ιησους τον ναζαρηνοω” meaning Jesus the Nazarene meaning that Jesus is either a citizen of Nazareth or Jesus is a member of a Nazarene cult.

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    1. I wasn’t aware of the connection between the Mandaeans and the Nazorenes, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The insistence at keeping John the Baptist in the Gospel story is curious to say the least, but it certainly seems to point to a rift between previously connected communities. I do think that Nazareth/Nazarene were the same thing in a sense.

      One idea I’ve kicked around is that, as opposed to a mistranslation of the word, it was done on purpose as an element of Christianity’s mystery. There seem to be a lot of encoded messages, some of which aren’t even decoded yet. Acts of the Apostles (and stories in other “Acts” books) are the best examples of those

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  3. Do you have real proof that Paul was Simon Magus,a Samaritan gnostic who made his one gnostic school (Simonites) ?Marcion lived after Paul and was born in North Minor Asia or Pontus.He was an Antijewish Christian of the Pauline Christian doctrine(He believed that Yahweh was not Jesus’s God but an evil spirit that the Jewish thought he was the real one.He also rejected the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and also some of the New Testament books that had “jewish aspects”.

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    1. It is quite an in-depth argument to equate Paul and Simon Magus; however, please know this isn’t just my lunatic idea – FC Bauer had posited it over 100 years ago. The idea fell out-of-favor among scholars who were by-and-large Christians, but it has recently been resurrected, notably by Robert M Price in “The Amazing Colossal Apostle”.

      I won’t go into the whole argument, but I’ll give a couple seeds to the idea.

      I would argue that the Simon Magus in Acts 8 (and Recognitions and Acts of Peter) was a reworking of a historical character described in Josephus’ Antiquities XX, who was a friend of the Herod-friendly Judean procurator Felix, and was recruited to convince (probably with love potions and other magic) the Herodian princess Drusilla to marry him. Early Christians seemed to have a penchant to re-work Josephus characters and integrate into their texts (ie Saulus, Joseph and Mariamne I, Jesus ben Ananias, Theudas, Jewish high priest Zacharias).

      There are many parallels between Simon Magus and Paul:
      1. Paul describes a conflict about Cephas in Galatians 2, and he was encouraged to “remember the poor”. This parallels Simon’s attempt to buy the spirit in Acts 8
      2. Recognitions describes a situation where Peter grapples with whether to eat with Simon, a detail remarkably similar to Paul’s version in Galatians: “For I should wish to know of what character and of what conduct he is. ..that we may eat with him, how much more is it proper for us to ascertain who or what sort of man he is to whom the words of immortality are to be committed! ”
      3. Acts 13 describes a re-telling of the Simon Magus story, where, this time the sorcerer is a Cypriot, just like Simon in Josephus; Acts 13 also refers to a Lucius of Cyrene – I believe this is a garbling of names and texts that were important to practitioners of Marcan and Lucan Christianity, as Lucius seems to be a reference to Marcion’s Gospel of Luke, and Cyrene seems an obvious reference to Simon of Cyrene, who early adoptionist-Docetic Christians posited that Simon received the Spirit as he bore Jesus’ cross
      4. Any invocation of Simon Magus seems to be one injected by Ebionites – the pseudo-Clementines are clearly Ebionite. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies i.26.2) the Ebionites hated Paul
      5. The Ebionites rejected claims of the virgin birth, and gave that attribute to Simon Magus in Recognitions. I discuss this more in my most recent post – https://timsteppingout.wordpress.com/2016/12/26/the-virgin-birth-part-three-paul-simon-and-the-paraclete/
      6. Simon Magus, in Acts of Peter, sounds remarkably like Paul

      Lots more to say, but this is my “Reader’s Digest” version of it…

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  4. Many scholars agree about a baptist movement’s fierce opposition to or struggle against the Jewish first Christians. How was that movement possible if JTB was only a fiction made up along Theudas?

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    1. It’s been a while since I wrote this post, but I do still believe John the Baptist was Theudas (economically, of course, we might say that Theudas and John the Baptist shared similar traditions).

      I think what is captured in Josephus are inklings leading up to Christianity – this includes Theudas, Jesus ben Ananias, the Egyptian, the Samaritan, etc. I believe all these people emerged from Nasarene traditions, and I believe those Nasarenes were described fairly accurately by Epiphanius of Salamis in his Panarion, when he described them as (essentially) a Jewish mystery cult – they lived amongst the Jews and practiced their customs, but believed scripture, particularly Moses’s writings, had been corrupted. I take that a step further, and isolate this corruption to Josiah’s Deuteronomic Reform. It was out of this tradition that came the notion of underlying Spirits which represented the temple and the holy city.

      One giveaway of the link between Theudas and John the Baptist was in Clement of Alexandria’s Stromateis, where he claimed there was a teacher/student relationship between Paul and Theudas. As Clement described it, Theudas was a student of Paul, and Theudas then taught Valentinus; rather, I believe Paul was a student of Theudas. In other words, attributes that Jesus got over the course of the next hundred or so years were gotten directly from Paul, who “received” the Christ Spirit, similar to the Basilidean claim that the Christ hopped from Jesus to Simon of Cyrene prior to Jesus’s crucifixion. Simon of Cyrene, as described in Acts, proselytized in Antioch and hung out with Barnabus…similar to Paul. Indeed, I think Simon of Cyrene was a doppelganger for Paul, who later opponents of Paul merged with the Herodian ally Simon the magician, who became fictionalized as Simon Magus in various later traditions, including Acts 8 (and Acts 13 as bar Jesus) and Acts of Peter, along with the pseudo-Clementines.

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