Gnostic John the Baptizer

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Gnostic John the Baptizer

By G. R. S. Mead


THE legend-Like Mandæan tradition concerning the person of John and the distinctive gnostic type of doctrine which it associates with him could by no means have been deduced from, or expanded out of, the bare external historical facts reported by the classical Josephus; it differs moreover in many ways from the more detailed story of the Gospels and their perspective of his doctrinal and prophetical activity. As to the graphic picture of the Gospels, which suggests the sudden arising of a solitary wild figure unconnected with any community or order, a feature so strongly stressed also by the Slavonic Josephus,—the Mandæan handing-on is completely silent. It gives no hint of any peculiarity of this nature in John's dress, much less of any uncouthness in his appearance; indeed, though it makes no statement, it would lead us to infer that John was clad in white, and in all other respects presented little of the wild features of a desert-bred, skin-clad eremite. The classical Josephus is also silent on this popular trait. That John was a prophet, all these accounts are agreed; that he baptized, all are agreed. That he suffered a martyr's death, Josephus and the Gospels are agreed; but strange to say, the Mandæan tradition has not a word on so important and tragical an event. It is difficult to believe that the Mandæan Nazoræans could have been ignorant of the way in which their great prophet met his end; for had they believed he was not executed by Antipas, p. 129 they would in all probability have contradicted in their own fashion the report of the Jews and Christians in this respect.

   This omission of all reference to the death of John would be incomprehensible, did we not reflect in the first place that no attempt is made in the existing Mandæan documents to give anything that could be called a 'Life' of John, and conjecture in the second that in all probability nothing of doctrinal importance was attached to the way of his ending as it was in the case of Jesus. It is of course supposable that there may have been at one time documents of greater detail and more historical value relating to John, which have since fallen into oblivion owing to the focussing of interest on the more plastic material of psychical legend and mystical reverie; but conjecture cannot restore them.

   Though in the present restricted exposition no attempt is made to treat the comparative side of the subject, owing to the regrettable fact that we are still without the scientific translation of the main and oldest deposit of the Mandæan scriptures, it may be noted that there are fragmentary traditions on other lines that would make both Dositheus and Simon the Magian disciples of John. Now Dositheus (Dousis or Dosthai) was the precursor of Simon; and the latter was held by the heresiological Church Fathers to be the fons et origo of gnosticism, which he certainly was not, but only one of many of the time with already a long heredity behind them. It is to be further noted that the distinctive Simonian school or tradition, which was in no sense Christian, continued at least well on into the third century, and that the Dositheans, who were equally non-Christians, are known of as p. 130 being numerous even in the sixth century.1 By the rumour that these Gnostic teachers were 'disciples of John' we must understand in general, I believe, that there was simply in some respects similarity of doctrine betwen them. These Dosthai-Simon legends and reports are associated with early Ebionite controversies (underlying the Pseudo-Clementine romances), and the doctrines involved in them link up with similar notions found in the wide-spread pre-Christian syncretisms, and even universalizing attempts, of many kinds of saving-cults of both a popular and restricted apocalyptic and gnostical character, common to such plainly distinguishable types as the Persian, Chaldæan, and Aramæan religious complexes of the early Hellellistic period. The mass of detailed research work which has been done chiefly in the last generation on Babylonian, Iranian, Syrian, Aramæan, Egyptian and East Mediterranean religious endeavours, whether Hellenistically tinged or otherwise, which flourished so luxuriously during the three centuries before our era and continued to do so in their various ways for the following three centuries and some of them far later, is beginning to make an impression outside the ranks of the specialists, and compelling the attention of the general historian. It is coming to be seen that the unprejudiced evaluation of these many endeavours and movements and the getting of them into a proper perspective constitute an indispensable task for those who would trace the religious features, phases and fortunes of 'world history' in the main moments of its development, and especially those of them which most strongly influenced Western culture in its later formative periods.

   We have recently had presented to us an arresting, if provocative, attempt of this kind in Oswald Spengler's Downfall of the West. Its two stout volumes of some 1,200 pages have been very widely read in Germany and by knowers of German, and the work has been much discussed and criticized. For naturally specialists and authorities cannot easily brook the incursions into their distinctive territories of a free lance with a knack of, or even genius for, recognizing underlying similar tendencies where previously for the most part the more superficial distinctions have been stressed into fundamental differences. It is true that where so wide a field is surveyed, it is not difficult to catch up such an historical innovator on numerous points of detail, but on the other hand his method certainly does at times enable the reader to fix his attention on the wood rather than on the trees and on the great rivers rather than on the streamlets. We do not, perhaps naturally enough, see eye to eye with Spengler throughout, but here we are not considering his work as a whole. He is referred to because he is the first general historian and philosopher of history who has brought the Mandæans into the picture; and in this he seems, in our judgment, to have got them into a tolerably proper perspective. It may be mentioned also that it was only after the whole of the preceding matter had been written that I read Spengler's work, and that for many years I have been regarding the phenomena of pre-Christian Gnosticism and allied movements from more or less the same angle. It may then be of interest to reproduce Spengler's boldly sketched picture of the conditions in which the heredity of the pre-Christian Gnosis is to be sought and of the apocalyptic eschatological p. 132 expectations and hopes of salvation that preceded the birth of Christianity.1

   "What lay in the prophetical religions (Persian, Chaldæan, Jewish) as a presage or presentiment, what at the time of Alexander the Great emerged in metaphysical outlines, was now brought to completion. And this completion aroused in tremendous strength the primitive feeling of nervous dread. It pertains to the last mysteries of humanity and of free-moving life in general that the birth of the I and the birth of world-dread are one and the same; that a macrocosm is spread out before a microcosm,—vast, overwhelming, an abyss of foreign, light-shot being and activity that makes the tiny, solitary self shrink back timorously into itself. Such fear of their own consciousness as from time to time suddenly overwhelms children, is experienced again by no grown-up even in the darkest hours of his life. This deadly fear, however, oppressed the dawning of the new culture. In this morn of the 'magic' world-consciousness, that was faint-hearted, uncertain, obscure about itself, a new glance was taken at the near end of the world. This is the first thought with which up to now every culture has come to consciousness of itself. A downpour of revelations, wonders and peerings into the primordial ground of things swamped every deeper mind. They thought, they lived, only in apocalyptic images. Reality became appearance. Strange and awesome sights were recounted from one to another, read out of confused and obscure scriptures and at once seized on with immediate p. 133 inner certainty. From one community to another, from village to village, wandered such writings, of which it is impossible to say that they belonged to any one single religion. They are Persian, Chaldæan, Jewish in colouring; but they have all taken up what was at that time circulating in men's minds. The canonical books are national; the apocalyptic are international and literally so. They come into existence without any appearing to be their authors. Their contents mingle and melt together; they read to-day one way and to-morrow another. But they are anything but poësy, fiction (Dichtung). They are like the fearsome figures round the doors of the Romance cathedrals in France, which also are no 'Art,' but Dread turned into stone. Every man knew these angels and demons, these heaven-ascending and hell-descending numinous beings,—the Primal Man or Second Adam, the Messenger of God, the Saviour of the Last Day, the Son of Man, the Eternal City and the Final Judgment. In the foreign cities and in the high-seats of the powerful Persian and Jewish priesthood there had to be a conceptual fixation of distinctive doctrines; but here down among the folk there was hardly any particular religion, but rather a general 'magic' religiosity which filled all souls and fastened upon sights and shapes of every conceivable origin. The Last Day had drawn nigh. They expected it. They knew that 'he' must now be manifested, 'he' of whom all revelations spake. Prophets arose. People banded together into ever new associations and circles in the conviction of having now come to better knowledge of their native religion or of having found the true one. In this period of tremendous and yearly increasing tension, in the years hard by the birth of p. 134 Jesus, alongside numerous other communities and sects arose the Mandæan religion of salvation. Of its founder or origin we are in ignorance. In spite of its detestation of the Judaism of Jerusalem and its marked predilection for Persian settings of the notion of salvation, it nevertheless seems to have stood very near the popular belief of Syrian Jewry. Of its marvel-filled scriptures one piece after another now comes to light. 'He' is everywhere,—the Son of Man,1 the Saviour sent into the deep, who must himself be saved, the goal of the expectation. In the John-Book the Father raised on high in the House of Perfection, surrounded with Light, speaks to his only-begotten Son: My Son, be for me an Envoy—go unto the world of the Darkness, in which is no Light-ray. The Son cries on high: Father of Greatness, what sin have I done that thou hast sent me into the deep? And at the end: Without faults I ascended, and fault and defect were not in me.

   "All the traits of the great prophetical religions and the whole treasury of the deepest insights and figures which have since been assembled in apocalyptic, lie here at the bottom in common. But of 'antique' (? = Hellenic) thinking and feeling not a breath has penetrated into this underworld of the 'magic.' The beginnings of the new religion are, it may well be, for ever lost to memory. But one historical figure of Mandaism comes on to the stage with arresting clearness, tragical in its striving and ending, like Jesus himself: it is John the Baptizer. Scarce still belonging to Jewry, and filled with strong detestation . . . of the spirit of Jerusalem, he proclaims the End of the p. 135 World and the Coming of the Barnasha, the Son of Man, who is no longer the promised national Messiah of the Jews, but the Bringer of the World-conflagration. To him went Jesus and became one of his disciples. Jesus was thirty years old when the awakening came upon him. The apocalyptic and in particular the Mandæan thought-world from now on filled his whole consciousness. The other world of historic reality lay round him as in seeming only, strange and unmeaning. That 'he' will now come and put an end to this so unreal reality, was Jesus' great certainty, and for this certainty he came forward as announcer like John, his teacher. The oldest gospel-accounts taken into the New Testament still let some glimmer of this period shine through in which he was in his consciousness no more than a prophet." It was later that the conviction came upon him: Thou art thyself 'he.'

   This is a boldly sketched outline bringing into special prominence the dominant eschatological feature of the picture, but with no indications of the particular Mandæan colouring or shading that must be used in the completed canvas. For this, however, we cannot reproach Spengler, seeing that we find ourselves compelled to refrain from any such attempt. And the reason for this abstention is quite simple. Lidzbarski's substantive and scientific translation of the John-Book and Liturgies enables the student at first-hand to become so exhaustively acquainted with this part of the material, that much in it reads differently, and the whole atmosphere savours differently from the general impression produced even by the most attentive perusal of Brandt's praiseworthy and painstaking pioneer labours. It seems therefore naturally to follow that, when we get the full translation of the remaining p. 136 and earliest deposit, the Genza, from Lidzbarski, and can then survey the whole of its matter in detail, and so review in their native settings and contexts the selected features of it sketched by Brandt and in reliance on him utilized by Bousset and Reitzenstein, for instance, we shall be enabled to appreciate the whole tradition more understandably and analyze it more accurately. We shall then be in a position to trace, for instance, the development of the meaning attached to the figure of the victor and of the formula 'the Man who has come hither,' and also the modifications of eschatological notions within the Mandæan scheme of reference and much else.

   Meantime it is already evident that the Mandæan Nazoræan tradition preserves traces of doctrine and endeavour and other features of very great value for recovering long-lost indications of one of the most important backgrounds of Christian origins and of a subsequent parallel development of religious faith. In any case the study of the Mandæan documents cannot fail to come to the front as an indispensable task in the elucidation of the characteristic Gnosis as an integral and widely-diffused factor in the general history of religion in the critical centuries in the Near East and Mediterranean West before and after the beginnings of the present era. And this study, were it necessary where so much similar recent research has already made it certain on all hands, gives the final death-blow to the old misleading view that Gnosticism was of interest solely as a Christian heresy, and was to be evaluated as such and comfortably disposed of in the good old cavalier Patristic fashion.


   It is pleasant to think that new light will be p. 137 thrown, directly or indirectly, on our subject by a number of important studies which are in hand or which have been already made public in lecture-form. Among them may be mentioned the Lectures on Manichæism by Prof. F. Crawford Burkitt and the long-expected work on the same religion by the veteran Iranist Prof. J. Williams Jackson, and also the arresting Schweich Lectures of this year on the Samaritans by Dr. Moses Gaster, whose researches into their little-known literature, based on his unique and famous collection of MSS. that has just been acquired by the British Museum, open up quite new vistas of O.T. study and also supply indications of a new and hitherto unsuspected background that may be brought into line with Mandæanism and hence with general Christian origins.

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1 See my Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (London, 2nd ed., 1906), pp. 162 ff.

1 Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Untrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte, Band II. Welthistorische Perspectiven (München, 1923, revised ed.), pp. 258ff. The work has now run into upwards of 50,000 copies, a proof of very widely extended serious interest, for it is not a 'popular' exposition. It may be stated that Spengler shows by his references that he is acquainted with the most recent Mandæan studies.

1 The Mandæans do not use this idiom; it is ever simply the Man.—G. R. S. M.



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