Gnostic John the Baptizer:
by G. R. S. Mead
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THE main materials contained in these pages will certainly be new for the vast majority of readers. Moreover the Mandĉan narratives, legends and discourses are not only interesting because of their own distinctive matter and manner, but they are also arresting; for they raise a number of problems, some of which are far-reaching and one is fraught with implications of immense importance. The definite solutions of these problems, however, lie in the future, and the most important of them will perhaps never be reached; for, in the absence of straightforward historical information, general agreement on any subject that concerns Christian origins immediately or even indirectly is now well-nigh a psychological impossibility.
The writer's intention in publishing these selections is not to speculate about the problems, for we are not yet in a position to state them with sufficient accuracy, but the very modest undertaking of making accessible for English readers some specimens of narrative and doctrine from one collection only of the traditional gnostic material which the Mandĉan scribes have preserved to our own day through centuries of copying, and which hands on an early literature purporting at least in part to go back to times contemporaneous with Christian origins. For I think it will be of service for them, as a beginning, to read for themselves what the Mandĉans have conserved from the past of the now legendary story of their great prophet, John the Baptizer, and some of the most characteristic notions and doctrines ascribed directly to him,and that too in their full native setting and not in the form of brief summaries or isolated sentences, which is practically all they will meet with in the very few articles on the subject which have yet appeared in English,and in articles only, for of books there are none.
Moreover it has been impossible to do even this previously; p. vi for it is only quite recently that we have had put into our hands a reliable and complete version in German of two of the three main collections preserved to us; and we are still awaiting the translation of the most important deposit, without which it is impossible to survey the whole field thoroughly and so make really reliable inferences. All prior attempts at partial translation have been tentative at best and for the most part erroneous. But though we are still without a scientific version of the Treasury, it is nevertheless already possible to give almost a complete setting forth of one topic; for the selections from the John-Book here presented include practically all the matter that refers directly to the prophet, seeing that the Treasury makes only one brief reference immediately to him.
In this material a figure is depicted which in many ways differs greatly from the familiar picture sketched in the gospels and briefly referred to in the classical Josephus. The interest of the Gnostics has never been in external history, so that for the most part we are either in complete ignorance of, or lamentably uninformed about, the persons of their great teachers and writers. Their interest was rather in inner or psychic story and the imaginative history of ideas. Consequently the Mandĉan picture of John is the prophetical and intimate aspect it presented to those within the mystic atmosphere of the community and to the fond memory of an esoteric tradition. No external view is preserved. I have deliberately brought out this contrast as strongly as possible by setting the Mandĉan story in the midst between two studies of traditions which make much of John's wild appearance and strange dress, a popular external element which would at first sight suggest an equally primitive quality of his thought and action. This has been done to enable the reader to realize as strongly as possible the difficulties surrounding the fundamental problem of historicity, though the sharpness of the contrast is already somewhat modified by the doctrinal considerations brought out in the first study, which may theoretically help to bridge over to some extent the gap between the crudest features of the popular external tradition and what claims to be an internal tradition, no matter how it may have been sublimated in the form in which it has reached us. The second study, on the Slavonic Josephus' account of the Baptist and Jesus, though throwing no, or scarcely any, light on doctrine, p. vii is, in my opinion, of importance from the point of view of possible external popular tradition, and in any case will be a novelty for most readers.
It is a remarkable and somewhat saddening reflection that now, when after long years of waiting we are at last obtaining adequate versions of these so faithfully preserved Mandĉan gnostic scriptures, their handers-on themselves are dying out, and those of them who remain do not seem to be sufficiently instructed or to possess the general education to throw light on the problems which their documents present to scholars. They do not seem to have any notion of the history of religion or the critical power in any way to analyze their own scriptures and compare them with parallel developments in the past. What I do not quite understand, however, is why, with regard to the philological side of the subject, no attempt, as far as I can ascertain, has been made by any European Semitic scholar scientifically to study Mandĉan with the Mandĉans themselves, and so collaborate with them in translation. They all speak Arabic as well as their native tongue; and it is somewhat puzzling that neither Brandt nor Lidzbarski, who have, after the pioneer work of Nöldeke on the language, busied themselves so sedulously with the documents, should not have visited them. They are accessible; and indeed do not seem in any way to be averse from giving information, as is seen from Siouffi's informant in the eighties of last century and quite recently from the account of Miss E. S. Stephens (now Mrs. Drower). The latter has made great friends with the Amara community and gives an entertaining chapter about them, under the heading 'A Peculiar People,' in her brightly-written travel-book, By Tigris and Euphrates.1 It is the description of an intelligent and deeply interested observer, but of one unaquainted with the literature of the subject, and therefore not in a position to press for information on points of importance, if perchance it could be obtained. The account deals with externals, but it may be of interest to our readers to reproduce what Mrs. Drower was told about the shalmono and the masseqtā-ceremony, or rite of the making of a 'perfect' in this connection.
"There is a way . . . in which a Subba may reach a state p. viii of holiness akin to that of the dweller in Mshuni-Koshto [the M. Abode of the Blessed], and this strange and unworldly people often resort to it. To achieve this state a man must renounce worldly desires and the delights of the flesh, but his path is harder than that of the Catholic monk in that he continues to live among men, a layman, and amongst his family without being able to partake of the joys of family life. In fact, after the ceremony of renunciation has taken place, the funeral service is read over him and he is, henceforth, no more than a living ghost.
"He may carry on his trade of farmer, boat-builder, or silversmith as before; but his personal life is one of renunciation, deprivation and self-mortification. He may not smoke, drink wine, coffee, tea, or any drug. He may not give an order, or express a desire. Should he need anything, he must procure it himself, or do without. His detachment from worldly things must be so complete that if a fire were to burn his house, destroy his goods and suffocate his wife and children he must show or feel no trace of emotion. . . . 'A permanent gaiety must be shown in his face.'
"The ceremony which separates the 'shalmono' from the world of the living is called the 'Massakhto.' The applicant goes to the bishop, who questions him closely as to the seriousness of his intentions, and impresses upon him the irrevocable nature of the step he wishes to take. After seven days' preparation with the bishop, if the applicant's desire is unshaken, he spends seven days and seven nights in a church [?] or place apart.
"Every day the bishop and priests come to him, and for food the postulant eats three tiny flat loaves of sacramental bread, about as large as an Osborne biscuit, daily; also part of the flesh of a dove. . . .
"At the end of the week a feast is prepared to which the new 'shalmono' is invited, usually in the house of the bishop. At the end of the feast all the priests who have eaten arise, with a last mouthful of food in their hands. Solemnly, then, the Prayer for the Dead is recited for the 'shalmono,' and, just as for a dead man, the last mouthful is eaten, the last mouthful which is supposed to stay the departed soul on its journey through purgatory. . . .
"The life of a 'shalmono' is harder than that of a priest, for priests and priestesses may marry; indeed, marriage is obligatory."
The last sentence suggests that the shalmono is a celibate from the start, but Mrs. Drower has already spoken of his wife and children and quotes Siouffi to the same effect, and the documents lay it down expressly that celibacy in no case whatever was approved, not even in that of a prophet.
It is evident that we have in this indication of a present-day class of 'perfect' separated out from the mass of the faithful, a subject for sympathetic enquiry, with the object of ascertaining whether among them there are any who enjoy mystic experience, and if so what is its nature, and whether it throws any light on the spiritual phases of the tradition.
Mrs. Drower is happy in choosing for the heading of her account 'A Peculiar People' and not 'A Strange Sect' or some such title. For one of the great points of interest is that the Mandĉans show all the signs of being a race distinct from their neighbours. They make no converts and seem for many centuries to have kept themselves to themselves. They are not Arabs or Jews in type, but (?) 'Babylonians,' 'Chaldeans,'a problem for the ethnologist to decide.
Next: I. John the Baptizer and Christian Origins
1 London, Hurst & Blackett, 1923, pp. 204-219.