The Gnostic Society Library

Gnostic John the Baptizer:

by G. R. S. Mead

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I.

JOHN THE BAPTIZER AND CHRISTIAN ORIGINS.

A RECENT STUDY ON JOHN'S SYMBOLISM.

A DISTINCT ray of light has been cast on the obscure background of Christian origins by Dr. Robert Eisler in a series of detailed studies on the movement and doctrines of John the Baptizer. These studies, with other cognate essays, appeared originally in the pages of The Quest (1909-14), and are now available in book-form in an arresting volume, called Orpheus—the Fisher: Comparative Studies in Orphic and Christian Cult Symbolism.1

   By way of introduction and as the most complete contrast to the Mandćan tradition of the Gnostic John, I will set forth in my own way the chief points of these detailed and fully-documented essays in summary fashion. Eisler's main point of view is that John based his doctrines and practices largely, if not entirely, on the Hebrew scriptures—the Law and the Prophets—of which, he contends, he was a profound knower. The John-movement is thus regarded as a characteristic Jewish prophetical reform founded on absolute faith in the present fulfilment of prior prophecy. Hereby is brought out in the strongest possible manner the Jewish conditioning of John's preaching and teaching, and this stands in the sharpest contradiction to the p. 2 Mandćan tradition which claims that John was a Gnostic and not a Torah-man, and declares that the Jews could by no means understand him, but on the contrary rejected his revelation and drove out his community.

   In Eisler we have a ripe scholar in whom the heredity of Rabbinical lore is so to say innate. He has almost an uncanny flair for biblical texts; it is not too much to say that his knowledge of the religious literature of his people is profound, his acquaintance with oriental sources very extensive and his linguistic accomplishments are enviable. Few are thus better able to enter with sympathy and understanding into the idiosyncrasies and depths of the Jewish mind in the various periods of its development, and thus for the time to live in the prophetical, apocalyptic and rabbinical thought-world of the days of the Baptist and share in its old-time beliefs and hopes and fears. Our exponent is thus an excellent advocate of the theme he sets forth. If his wide-flung net has not caught all the fish of the literary and archćological ocean, he has fished most carefully the stream of John the Baptist tradition, apart from the Mandćan, landed a rich catch and shown others how most fruitfully to set about bringing to the surface things about John which have long been hidden in the depths of a buried past.

 

THE JOHN-PASSAGE IN 'THE ANTIQUITIES' OF JOSEPHUS.

   In all reason, apart from Christian testimony, John the Baptizer is a historic character, witnessed to by the Jewish historian Josephus, the courtly Flavian chronicler who flourished in the last quarter of the p. 3 1st century A.D. The famous passage in his Antiquities (XVIII. v. 2, ed. Niese, iv. 161, 162) referring to John is undoubtedly genuine, and has been assailed only by the very extreme doctrinaire non-historical school, who find it a very inconvenient thorn in their flesh. A Christian forger would have dotted the i's and crossed the t's with the pen of his tradition, or at any rate betrayed himself in some way by the prejudice of his thought; but this we do not find. The passage runs as follows as nearly as I can render it:

   Some of the Jews thought that Herod's army had been destroyed, and indeed by the very just vengeance of God, in return for [his putting to death of] John the Baptizer. For in fact Herod put the latter to death [though he was] a good man, nay even one who bade the Jews cultivate virtue and, by the practice of righteousness in their dealings with one another and of piety to God, gather together for baptism. For thus in sooth [John thought] the dipping (in water) would seem acceptable to him (God), not if they used it as a begging-off in respect to certain sins, but for purity of body, in as much as indeed the soul had already been purified by righteousness.

   Now since the others1 were gathering themselves together (or becoming organized),—for indeed they were delighted beyond measure at the hearing of his (John's) 'sayings' (logoi),—Herod, fearing that his extraordinary power of persuading men might lead to a revolt, for they seemed likely in all things to act according to his advice, judged it better, before anything of a revolutionary nature should eventuate from him, to arrest him first and make away with him, rather than when the change came, he should regret being faced with it.

   Accordingly, on Herod's suspicion, he was sent in bonds to Machćrus,2 the above-mentioned fortress, and put to death there. The Jews, however, believed that destruction befell the army to avenge him, God willing to afflict Herod.

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   This statement of Flavius Josephus is sufficiently categorical. It states clearly that John the Baptizer was a very remarkable prophetical reformer of the day and that his following was very considerable. John's 'sayings,' Josephus tells us, had an astonishingly persuasive power over the Jewish populace. Herod fears John's influence and is convinced that he could do anything he pleases with the people. But what interests us most in this unfortunately too short statement is the reference to the nature of John's practice and teaching. His proclamation to the Jews, like that of all the prophets before him, was a strenuous call to righteousness,—they were to practise righteous dealings with one another (love of neighbour) and piety to God (love of God). There was also an external rite of baptism; but it had to be preceded by a cleansing of the soul through the fulfilling of this duty to neighbour and to God. Josephus particularly points out that the public washing or dipping was by no means intended as a magical rite, which so many believed in those days capable of washing away sins. The baptism was not a daily practice, Josephus seems to imply, as among the Essenes and other sects, but a public corporate act; and therefore the historian is clearly in error in regarding it as simply for the purifying of the body. On the contrary, it distinctly conveys the impression of being designed as an outer testimony to some belief—an act of faith.

 

THE N.T. ACCOUNT: THE DRESS AND FOOD OF REPENTANCE.

   And now let us pass to our New Testament information. Without laying stress on the details of the story of John's infancy as given in the third gospel, p. 5 reminiscent as they may be of the Old Testament birth-stories of the old-time national heroes Isaac, Samson and Samuel, not to mention the coincidence that the two heroines of the gospel birth-narratives bear the names of Miriam and Elisheba, the sister and wife respectively of Aaron, the first priest, we may very reasonably believe, as it is stated, that John was of priestly descent; and therefore in every probability he was well versed, if not highly trained, in the scriptures.

   Vowed from his birth to God by his parents, his strange dress and peculiar ascetic mode of life are quite in keeping with prophetical traditions, and thus of the schools of the prophets and of the Nazirs. As the prophets of old, notably Elijah, he wore a skin robe. But in keeping with the spiritual significance of his whole teaching, which will be more fully brought out in the sequel, such an outer sign in high probability had an inner meaning for this great proclaimer of repentance, of the turning back of Israel in contrition unto God.

   Now there were certain Palestinian pre-Christian allegorists or exponents of the scriptures on quasi-mystical lines called Dorshē Reshumōth. According to a Rabbinic legend, going back along this line of interpretation, the ancient myth of Gen. 3:21 was conceived more spiritually. After the fall, the first falling away from God, Yahveh-Elohīm clothed Adam and Eve in coats of skin ('ōr), not because of their nakedness, but in exchange for their lost paradisaical garments of light ('ōr).

   John lived at a time when such mystical interpretations, with a host of prophetical and apocalyptic notions, were in the air. It might very well then be p. 6 that he himself in wearing a skin-robe intended something more than a simple copying of the fashion of the ancient prophets. In keeping with his ruling idea he may have thought it a most appropriate outer sign of repentance, a return to the first garments of fallen man, the proper robe of penitent sinners, and therefore especially of a leader who would show the people a whole-hearted example of turning again to God, thus retracing in a contrary direction the way of the fall.

   So too with regard to food, there must be a return to the primitive law laid down for primal fallen man (Gen. 1:29): "Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat." It was only after the Deluge that men were permitted to eat animal food, according to the Noahic covenant as it is called. Imbued with ideas of penitence and repentance, John would desire to return to the strictest food-regulations of the earliest days of the fall, in keeping with his symbolic manner of clothing. Not only so, but seemingly with a refinement of self-discipline as a means of contrition, John chose from out the many 'fruits from a tree yielding seed' that of the carob or locust-tree, which was considered by the Jewish allegorists the most appropriate food of repentance. For we have preserved from this line of tradition an ancient proverb: "Israel needs carob-pods to make him repent," said to be based on a prophecy in Isaiah (1:20) which the Midrash (Wayikra Rabba, 35) quotes as: "If ye be willing and obedient, the good of the land shall ye eat; but if ye refuse and resist, carob-pods shall ye eat"—where the last clause differs considerably from the R.V., which reads: "ye shall be devoured by the p. 7 sword." Perhaps the 'husks' eaten by the Prodigal in the gospel-parable may in the original Aramaic have been carob-pods (Lk. 15:16). Much controversy has raged round the 'locusts' eaten by John, and early versions are various.

   As for drink,—in addition to water for general purposes, John is said to have in particular sipped the honey of the wild bees. Why is this brought into so great prominence? Again perhaps this custom was determined for John by the same circle of ideas. He probably bethought him of Deut. 32:13: "He made him to suck honey out of the rock," and also of Ps. 81:16: "And with honey out of the rock shall I satisfy thee." From such considerations it may plausibly be believed that John adopted an asceticism of repentance with regard to clothing and food as completely in accordance with the scriptures as possible, and this in addition to the customary discipline of a vowed Nazir, 'consecrated' or 'made holy' as such from birth. The technical term for a Nazir is a Nazirite unto God, or holy unto God, as of Samson (LXX. Judges, 13:7, 16:9),—in brief God's 'holy one.'

 

POPULAR MESSIANIC EXPECTATIONS.

   According to Josephus the great fear of Herod was that the reformatory movement of John would develop into a dangerous political Messianic revolt. The populace was on the tip-toe of expectation; many rumours were afloat as to the nature of the long-expected God's Anointed. Some thought he was to be a Nazir who would free Israel from their present foes, even as in days of old the Nazir Samson had freed them from the yoke of the Philistines. Moreover the well-known prophecy (Is. 11:1) about the 'sprout' from the p. 8 root or stem of Jesse gave rise to much speculation, helped out by that word-play which exercised so powerful a fascination over the imaginative minds of the Jews of that day, and long before and after over other minds in many other lands. Now 'sprout' in Hebrew is neṣer or nezer; and this neṣer was to be the longed-for 'saviour' (again neṣer)—sounding so well together with nazir. Indeed, as was thought, he must needs be a Nazarai-an (Heb. noṣeri, Gk. nazōrai-os). Or again, as others expected, he was to be a carpenter (Aram. bar nasar), this being, according to a Samaritan Midrash, as we shall see in the sequel, in association with the expectation that the coming Redeemer was to be a second Noah, spiritually hewing and preparing the timber for a new ark of salvation.

   All this was in the air and widespread; it is then quite believable, whether John himself made any such claims or no, that there were many rumours current of a Messianic purport concerning the strange appearance and powerful appeal of the renowned Baptizer. His Nazarite vow, his garb and diet of repentance, his confident proclamation of the very near approach of the catastrophic end of this ćon or age or world,—all would conspire to make some, if not many, think that he himself was the great Nazir-Neṣer, the expected 'holy one' of God. By others he was thought to be Elijah returned, as the prophet Malachi (the Book of the Angel or Messenger of Yahveh) had foretold (4:5): "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible Day of the Lord come"; or even, may be, some thought that that prophet of promise like unto Moses (Deut. 18:15) had been raised up in John. John himself apparently made no claim to be any of these; he was a proclaimer of the near approach of the great and terrible Day and p. 9 a powerful exhorter to repentance. It is doubtful even whether he gave himself out to be simply "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" (Mk. 1:3); for such a knower of the scriptures would have been aware that the original of Isaiah 40:3 read: "The voice of one crying: In the wilderness, etc." But apparently John was not only an inspired prophet, he was also a wonder-worker, if certain echoes concerning him in the Synoptics ring true. For there we read that because of his healing wonders Jesus was thought by some to be John returned from the dead, and that the same accusation in this connection of being possessed by a demon brought against Jesus had also been brought against John.

 

THE SANCTIFICATION OF THE JORDAN-WATER.

   However all this may be, John was utterly convinced, not only that the time of the End was close at hand, but also that the prophecies were beginning to be fulfilled. But what of his characteristic baptizing in the Jordan of all places? This is taken as a simple historic fact which requires no explanation by the vast majority; but it presents a serious problem for those who are aware that in those days the brackish waters of the sluggish Jordan were deemed by theologians and ritualists as unfit for purificatory purposes. What then could have induced John to reject this priestly and purist tabū? Tho only feasible motive is to be found in supposing that John was convinced that a remarkable prophetical vision of Ezekiel (47:1-8), where the prophet is addressed as Son of Man, was being fulfilled. In the longed-for time of the Messianic deliverance a mighty stream of holy water from the temple-hill of Zion was to flow down and heal the waters of the unclean Jordan-land, the Arabah or Desert.

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   Eisler has acutely conjectured that this idea of a fount of living and healing water for Israel goes back ultimately to Isaiah 28:16, not however as it stands at present in the R.V. wording, but in its extended form which was well known up to the 3rd century A.D. This reads as follows according to his rendering: "Behold, I lay down in Zion a living stone, a stone of probation, a precious threshold-stone for a foundation. Out of its hollow shall flow forth rivers of living water; he that believeth on me shall not suffer from drought."

   This was naturally taken by the allegorists of the time in a spiritual sense, even as they explained the water miraculously supplied to the Israelites in the Desert as a figure for the Torah or Law. The living water signified the Word of Yahveh, the outpouring of the spirit of God. Thus the Messianic Spring of living water could well be believed to typify an intensification or consummation of the Divine Law, heralding the manifestation of the Sovereignty of God in the Last Days. But spiritual reality and material happenings were never widely divorced in the mind of a pious Jew, and thus there was a literal meaning as well to be given to prophecy.

 

THE PROBABLE SYMBOLIC SIGNIFICANCE OF JOHN'S BAPTISM.

   If all this is well conceived, it is not difficult to understand what Josephus tells us of John's method, though the proper sense of John's motive seems to have escaped the historian. Deeply stirred by the strenuous exhortations of the teacher and the extraordinary power of a proclaimer so utterly convinced of the near coming of the terrible Day, little wonder that the people, just p. 11 as in evangelical revivals of our own day, were filled with an agony of penitence which would find relief only in a public confession of their sins. Thereafter they were plunged in the Jordan, signifying no external washing, but a very drowning as it were of the old body of sin in that now sacred stream to which faith ascribed life-redeeming properties, a regeneration wrought by the saving spring of God's outpouring flowing down from the sanctuary into the desert. If they repented, if they once unfeignedly turned again to God, then would the prophetical promise in Micah 7:19 be fulfilled: "He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us, he will subdue our iniquities. Yea, thou wilt wash away all our sins into the depths of the sea."

 

THE BAPTISM OF THE PROSELYTES.

   But in practising this baptismal rite John was running counter to far more than the priestly purist tabū which regarded the Jordan water as unfit for purification. He was baptizing Israelites, and in so doing putting the Chosen ones on a level with those gentiles who had to submit to a bath of purification before they could be admitted to the privileges of the sons of Abraham. A proselyte or a 'new-comer' (advena) who would join the church or ecclesia of Israel, had to submit to a baptismal rite, the pre-Christian origin of which is no longer disputed. It was a bath not only of purification but also of regeneration in the presence of legal witnesses. The candidate stood in the water and listened to a short discourse consisting of commandments from the Law. Thereon the gentile convert dipped completely under the water, signifying the drowning of his previous impious and idolatrous self. Thereafter he arose p. 12 reborn a true Israelite. And this new birth was taken in a very literal sense, for after the rite the neophyte, or 'new-born babe,' could no longer inherit from his former gentile relatives; not only so, but according to Rabbinic casuistry he could not even commit incest with one of them. This regenerative gentile baptism (tebilah gerīm). was made by the theologians to depend from the promise in Ezekiel (36:25-26): "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit will I put within you."

   But this prophecy clearly applied to Israel only. It could never have been intended as the sanction of a customary rite for converted gentiles. It is thus very credible that a fervent eschatologist, filled with Messianic expectations, such as John, would conceive the promise as foreshadowing a unique miraculous event of the Last Days. Moreover John's insistence on baptism for the Jews, at a time when their religious leaders thought it necessary to impose baptism on gentile converts as a purificatory regenerative rite making them fit to be associated religiousy with the naturally born sons of Abraham, seems clearly to have been dictated by the deeper spiritual conviction that it was Israel itself who required regeneration. For John, from the standpoint of spiritual values, the Jews were no more a privileged people; they had forfeited their birthright; Israel itself was now no better than the heathen. Physical kinship with Abraham could no longer be considered a guarantee against the Wrath to come. To escape the trials and terrors of that Day the only way for them was to repent, and so become members of the new spiritual Israel by submitting to p. 13 a rite similar to that which they arrogantly imposed on the gentiles. What greater humiliation than this could there be to the racial pride of the Jew? But things were so desperate, that it required even this act of humiliation as an earnest of truly sincere repentance and contrition. Unrepentant they were no better than heathen idolaters.

 

ONE OF JOHN'S DISCOURSES AND ITS SYMBOLISM.

   Let us now turn to the first part of the short but powerful address of the Baptizer handed on by Mt. (3:7-10) and Lk. (3:7-9), a most interesting example of those stirring utterances or 'sayings' of his referred to by Josephus.

   Ye out-births of vipers, who hath given you a glimpse of fleeing from the Wrath to come? Make fruit, therefore, worthy of (or sufficient for) your repentance. And think not (Lk. begin not) to say within (or among) yourselves: We have Abraham [for] father. For I say unto you that God is able of these stones (Aram. 'abenayya) to raise (or wake) up children (Aram. benayya) for Abraham. But even now the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree, therefore, which beareth not good fruit, is hewn down and cast into the fire.

   This graphic discourse, contained in Q, begins with the same terrible phrase 'generation' or 'out-births of vipers' which Jesus also uses on several occasions. It may possibly go back to Micah 7:17, where we read, referring to the heathen: "They shall lick the dust like serpents, like those creeping on the earth." And if 'licking the dust' can be taken in the sense of the allegorists of the time, who interpret it as eating excrement, a fate allotted to the serpent-shaped souls of the damned in Sheōl, it becomes all the more strikingly graphic. In vain do they think they will p. 14 escape because they are of kinship with Abraham, or that God cannot repeat the wonder he once wrought, of raising up children out of the barren rock of their forefather. God is able to make a new Israel out of the very stones, just as he had of old hewn, like stones (Heb. 'abanīm), a line of sons (Heb. bānīm) from the once barren rock of Abraham, as Isaiah says (51:1-2): "Look unto the rock whence ye were hewn . . . look unto Abraham your father."

   This for the 'stones'; but what of the 'trees'? There are other passages in the O.T. (e.g. Ps. 1:1, Jer. 17:5-8) which liken the man who delights in the Law and has faith in Yahveh to fruit-bearing trees; but the most arresting verse in this connection is to be found in the continuation of the same vision in Ezekiel (47:1-8) which so graphically depicted the Messianic Source. This reads (v. 12):

   "By the river upon the banks thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade; they shall bring forth new fruit month after month, because their waters issue from the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat and the leaf thereof for medicine."

   The mystical application of this prophetical utterance to the righteous of Israel as the fruit-bearing trees of the longed-for days of the Messiah, would surely strike the imagination of so intuitive a mind as John's; it is indeed all of a piece with his general conception and expectation and fits in most deftly.

 

THE FISH AND FISHERS SYMBOLISM.

   But this does not exhaust the imagery of Ezekiel's striking vision of the outpouring of God's spirit in the p. 15 days of the End, which made so deep an impression upon John. The prophet uses another graphic figure, which also greatly influenced early Christianity and was made much of later on in the symbolic interpretations of some of the Church Fathers. If only we had the mystical exegesis of this figure as conceived in the mind of the pre-Christian Palestinian Dorshē Rashumōth, who anticipated in some ways the Alexandrian Jewish allegorists of Philo's day, we should probably find that they had already given spiritual significance to the following arresting verses (9 and 10) of the vision. These read in Eisler's rendering:

   Wheresoever the river shall come, everything that moveth shall live; and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because the waters shall come thither. . . . And it shall come to pass [that] the fishers stand by it from En-Gedi unto En-Eglaim; they shall be [a place] to spread forth nets [for all fish] according to their kinds."

   En-Gedi and En-Eglaim were two oases with fresh-water springs—the Gedi or Kid Spring and the Eglaim or (?) Calf Spring—on the shores of the Dead Sea or Salt Lake. The former was the chief centre of the Essenes. With such a striking figure before him it would be easy for John, the proclaimer of repentance aud the turning again to God of a righteous remnant, to believe that in the Days of the End there were to be prophets who should be 'fishers of men.'

   Now it is remarkable that we have a number of references to this fishing of souls bound up with echoes of legends of John the Baptizer, which blend into a rich stream of Gnostic traditions which still exists to-day and goes back eventually to very early times. p. 16 The Mandćans, that is believers in the Mandā or Gnosis, or Nazorāyā as they call themselves, known to the Arabs as the Sūbbā's or Baptists, have much to tell us of the 'Fisher of Souls' and the evil 'fishers of men,' as we shall see later on.

   Their saga of the Fisher of Souls is a beautiful conception within the setting of eschatological and soteriological notions, and seems to be an integral element of the syncretic stream of the Mandā which goes back far towards Gnostic beginnings. Now the Mandćan traditions are hostile not only to Christianity but also to Judaism. Many of their notions can be closely paralleled with some of the doctrines of the religion of Mānī, with some of the main elements underlying the scheme of the Coptic Gnostic Pistis Sophia and the two treatises of the Bruce Codex; points of contact may also be found in what we know of the doctrines of the Elchasaites, and in some parts of the Clementine romances which preserve early Ebionite traditions and legends of Simon the Magian, with whom John is brought into connection.

   And here it may be noted that, if it is surprising to find the influence of John the Baptizer spreading as far east as Mesopotamia, it is not out of keeping with the fact that the baptism of John was also practised in the east Mediterranean area far outside Palestine among the Dispersion and indeed among some of the early Christian communities, as we learn from the Acts and Epistles, witness especially the Apollōs incident (Acts 18:24, I. Cor. 1:12).

 

ḪANI-ŌANNĒS-IŌANNĒS.

   No little of mythic notions from old Babylonian, Chaldćan and Iranian traditions is to be found p. 17 immixed in the oldest deposits of this Mandćan stream; there is thus a pre-Christian background as well. Indeed the Fisher-figure cannot fail at once to remind students of the comparative science of religion of the ancient Babylonian fish-clad fisher-god Ḫani-Ōannēs—the archaic Ea, father of Marduk the saviour-god of Babylon who rose yearly from the dead. This primeval God of Wisdom was the culture-god who had taught early mankind all the arts of civilization. Berossus, the Chalćan priest who wrote for the Greeks a history of his people, tells us of no less than six manifestations of Ōannēs in successive periods; and this notion of revelation and saving in successive periods is fundamental with the Mandćans. Ōannēs rose from the sea—the waters presumably of the Persian Gulf, in the old story; but Marduk, his son, descended from heaven.

   It is by no means improbable that the picturing of appropriate ancient myths which floated freely in the thought-atmosphere of Babylonia, may have determined some of the imagery of Ezekiel's visions by the 'river of Babylon,' and indeed may otherwise have psychically influenced indirectly no little of Jewish apocalytic literature, as for instance when the Ezra Apocalypse (at the end of the 1st century A.D.) tells us that the Redeemer of the world, the Celestial Man, is expected to rise from the 'heart of the ocean.' If then, as Ezra IV. permits us to conclude, certain apocalyptists and allegorists, who were probably Jews of the Babylonian or Syrian Dispersion, could conceive of their pre-existent Messiah as in some way associated with the figure of the ancient Ḫani (Ōannēs, Iannēs, Iōannēs), and expected the Redeemer of Israel to arise from the depths of the great waters, it is not p. 18 improbable that in those days, when the interplay of mystical associations was so prevalent and eagerly sought out, some of the most enthusiastic followers of John may have believed that this baptizing 'fisher of souls' was the expected manifestation.

 

JOHN-JONAH.

   Similarity in the sounds of names fascinated men's minds, and Ḫani-Ōannēs-John is not the only name-play we meet with in the Baptist's story. Attempts have been made by scholars to show that 'the sign of the prophet Jonah' (Q—Mt. 12:19f. = Lk. 11:29f.) was perhaps originally connected with John, and that a testimony of Jesus to John has been converted already in Q, the early non-Markan source of matter common to Mt. and Lk., into a testimony of Jesus concerning himself. (On this point see Eisler, op. cit., pp. 156-162, where all is set out in detail.) It is further of interest to note that Jonah in Hebrew means Dove, and that among the Mandćans there was a class of the perfect called Doves. Compare also the Greek Physiologus (xli.): "The Dove . . . which is John the Baptist." The names Jonah and John could easily be brought into close connection, and indeed Jonah is sometimes found as a shortened form of Joḫanan.

   The Jonah-legend provided a very suitable setting wherein to depict the life of a prophet who caused his hearers to repent, and it may be that Jesus referred to John as 'a greater Jonah' (Mt. 12:41). The most striking image in the mythic story is the Great Fish. Now the belly of the Great Fish for the Jewish allegorists, and indeed it is plainly stated in the legend itself, was Sheōl, the Underworld, the Pit. But another mythic Great p. 19 Fish, or perhaps the same in another aspect, was the cosmic monster Leviāthān. And symbolists, allegorists and mystics got busy with this mythic figure. Thus we find that Leviāthān was the name given by the Ophites of Celsus, who are plainly of Syrian Babylonian origin, to the Seven,—that is to the cosmic animal psychē, the hierarchy of rulers and devourers of the animal souls of men as well as of animals proper, each of the Seven being symbolized by an animal figure, probably an animal-faced (lion, etc.) dragon or fish. In the Mandćan tradition the Fisher of Souls takes the Seven in his net and destroys them, even as in the old Babylonian myth the Saviour-god Manduk {sic., read Marduk} catches Tiamāt, their mother, the primeval dragon of the deep, in his net and destroys her. And strangely enough there is an old Rabbinical legend of Jonah preserved in the Midrash Yalqut Yona (§ 1), which relates that, when the prophet was in the belly of the Great Fish, he prayed that it should carry him quickly to the Leviāthān, so that be might catch it with his fishing tackle. For Jonah desired, when once again safely ashore, to make of its flesh a feast for the righteous,—a distinct reference to the Messianic fish-banquet which is to take place in the days of the End.

   The Jewish folk of the Babylonian dispersion, who were surrounded with images of the fish-clad Ḫani-Ōannēs and of his priests, would easily think of them as representing a man swallowed by a fish, and as easily be reminded of the story of their great prophet Jonah, who was fabled to have made the proud King of Ashshur and all the Ninevites repent; and the mystics subsequently would easily associate all this with Messianic notions.

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RABBINIC FISH-SYMBOLISM.

   It has recently been shewn by that acute scholar J. Scheftclowitz from hitherto neglected Rabbinical documents that 'fish' was quite a common symbol for the righteous man of Israel, who lived all his life in the waters of the Torah or Sacred Law. The evidence goes back as early as the times of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, the teacher of Paul, who was therefore a contemporary of John and Jesus. Thus we read in the Midrash Tanḫuma to Deut. 5:32: "As a fish delights in water, even so a master of the scriptures dives into the streams of balm"—the sweet smelling waters of the Law; compare the sweet savour and perfume of the gnōsis and of the heavenly essences and per contra the stench of the evil fishers or teachers of false doctrine in the Mandćan John-Book. Decisive in this connection is the following passage from the Aboth de R. Nathan (ch. 40):

   "The pupils of Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder were divided into four kinds of fish: into clean and unclean [brackish water] fish from the Jordan and fish from the Ocean, according to their high and low descent and to the degree of their learning and quickness of their understanding."

   Though they were not 'fishers of men,' they were fish of Yahveh swimming in the holy stream, the life-giving waters of the Law. It was thus very natural for John, remembering the striking passage in Ezekiel (47:12) about the fish who repented, to contrast with them the unrepentant as a 'generation of vipers,' (cp. the fish-scorpion contrast in Mt. 7:10). Nor could John have been ignorant of the prophecy in Jeremiah (16:16) p. 21 concerning the gathering together of dispersed Israel: "Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them," and have given it a spiritual significance. But of an even more arresting nature is the following from Berešith Rabba (ch. 97):

"As the Israelites are innumerable, even so are the fishes; as the Israelites will never die out on the earth, the fishes will never die out in their element. Only the Son of Man named 'Fish' could lead Israel into the Land of Promise,—namely Joshuah ben Nun ( = Fish)." The Greek transliteration of Joshuah in the LXX. version is invariably Jesus.

 

THE SAMARITAN TA'EB—A REBORN JOSHUAH OR NOAH.

   Now in Samaritan tradition, and it will be remembered that the Samaritans rejected all the Jewish scriptures save the Five Fifths of the Law, their future Redeemer was to be called Joshuah. This Deliverer they called the Ta'eb, the Returner, and they believed he would be a reborn or returned Joshuah. The Ta'eb is the Samaritan 'Messiah.' In this connection a recently translated Samaritan Midrash (B.M. Samaritan MS. Or. 33931) is especially instructive. It understands the title Ta'eb as signifying 'he who repents' or even 'he who makes to repent,' not so much the Returner as the Turner-back of others. It is brought into close connection also with Noḫam, meaning Repenting, and is thus by word-play associated with Noah. Our Samaritan Midrash accordingly brings Noah on to the scene of expected redemption, and becomes a spiritualized version of the Deluge-story, abounding in mystical word-plays. One or two specimens p. 22 of them may now be given, as the ideas behind them are reminiscent of the John-circle of ideas.

   Whereas in the old story Yahveh orders Noah: "Make thee an ark (tebah)," the Midrash makes God say unto the Ta'eb: "Make thee a conversion"—or repentance (Aram. shuba, tubah). And so it continues in many details glossing the original parts of the ark by means of word-play, introducing notions of propitiation, expiation and atonement. A single passage from the original will make this clear, and in reading it we should remember that Samaria was a hot-bed of mystic and gnostic movements of all sorts.

   Behold I bring a [flood of] conversion [and] of divine favour upon the earth, to save Israel and gather it from everywhere under the sky. I shall perform my covenant, which I have set up with Abraham, Israel and Jacob. And thou shalt enter into the conversion, thou and thy house and the whole house of Israel with thee; and take with thee all kind of . . . praying and fasting and purification, which thou performest, and take all unto thee, and it shall be for conversion for thee and for them. And the Ta'eb did everything as God had commanded him.

   The ark (tebah) saved Noah from the flood of perdition, and the conversion (shubah, tubah) will save the Penitent One (Ta'eb) and all the sons of Israel from the [flood of] perversion.

   The 'flood of perversion' is that of 'the cursed ćon.' Among the many Messianic expectations of those days, therefore, was the belief that in the Last Days it would again be as in the times of Noah, as indeed we are expressly informed by Q (Mt. 24:37ff. = Lk. 17:26ff.)

 

JOHN'S ESCHATOLOGICAL SYMBOLISM.

   There are other points of interest in the fragmentary 'sayings' of John and other references preserved in the synoptic accounts, but of these we shall select only p. 23 one as being of special interest. John's expectation of the nature of the catastrophe of the times of the End was somewhat complex. Three phases of elemental destruction haunted his imagination. Similar disasters had already happened in the past at the culmination of certain successive critical periods in the history of mankind. There had been a destruction by water, another by a mighty wind and tempest which overwhelmed the great Tower (to which many a Rabbinic legend testifies), and a destruction by fire in the days of Lot. John's baptism or water-purification may well have been intended as an outer sign of the inner attempt to avert from the righteous the dire results of the great forthcoming world 'trial' by the water of God's Wrath that would overwhelm the wicked. But there were two other 'baptisms' or purifications which he expected a greater than himself to effect in similar fashion and for a similar purpose. There was to be a purification or baptism by fire; and, in Christian interpretation, the third and last and greatest was to be effected by means of the holy 'spirit.' This would not be out of keeping with the belief of John, for it was ever the spirit of God, as water, fire or wind, that would purify and save the righteous. But the graphic figure of the winnowing fan in John's declaration shows clearly that the notion was connected in his mind with the necessary wind without which winnowing was impossible—the mighty wind or spirit of God. For the good this would result in a blessed harvesting, but for the evil it would be a scattering as of chaff.

   Though all these notions may well have come to John within the ambit of the Jewish scriptures, many prophetical pronouncements in which graphically depict all these forms of Divine visitation, it is nevertheless p. 24 not without significance that the rites of purification by water, fire and wind (ventilation) were an integral element of some of the Hellenistic mystery-institutions, and that the periodic catastrophic scheme is clearly to be paralleled in the later Babylonian astral religion, and especially in its blending with Iranian conceptions which centre round the ćon-cult (Zervanism), and all those notions of the Great Year and world-periods, which later Stoicism took over and made familiar to Imperial times. This Great Year had three 'seasons'—summer, winter, spring—each of which was assigned to one of the three most ancient elements: fire, water and wind. As the Great Year turned on itself the constellations returned at the end of the revolution to the same positions they had occupied in a former Great Year. There were thus critical moments in the ćonic movement, and at these cosmic catastrophes occurred.

   It is hardly to be supposed that John had any such 'scientific' notions in his mind: but it is undeniable that many had such conceptions in his day, and indeed among the learned and mystics we find blends of such 'science' with prophetical intuitions. But for the Jewish eschatologist it was a once for all event he expected, whereas for such men as the Stoic thinkers it was a perpetual recurrence.

 

JOHN AND JESUS GENERALLY.

   And what is the outcome of this enquiry? It seems to me that a very important background of Christian origins is here indicated. It points to a wide-spread Jewish eschatological and therefore necessarily Messianic movement prior to Christianity, of which earliest Christianity was at first a culmination, whatever p. 25 modifications and completions were subsequently introduced. It is therefore to be regretted that our information concerning John the Baptizer and his doctrines is so meagre.

   It is quite natural that some of John's adherents should have attached themselves to Jesus on his public appearance as a proclaimer before the martyrdom of their own imprisoned prophet. The suddenness with which Mk., our earliest narrative, introduces Jesus 'calling' the first four of his disciples and their instant leaving all and following him to become 'fishers of men,' is inexplicable without there having been some prior knowledge of the Way on the part of Simon and Andrew, James and John. They may well have already been familiar with John's teaching. Indeed the writer of the Fourth Gospel tells us categorically (Jn. 1:40) that Andrew, the brother of Simon-Peter-Kephas, had been a disciple of the Baptizer.

   But if some of John's actual 'disciples' followed Jesus before any question of Messiahship arose, it is probable that far more of his lay-adherents also did so. Indeed the earliest history of the expansion of Christianity, that is of the Jesus Messianic movement, preserves traces that in some places there was a considerable Johannine influence, notably the continued use of John's baptism. On the contrary, most of John's disciples to all seeming refused to recognize the Jesus Messianic claims, and the echoes of history preserved in the Mandćan traditions declare that they most emphatically rejected them.

   In any case it may well be that some of the great figures, types and symbols used by Jesus in his exhortations and teaching were not original to him, but that he shared them, together with other mystic, p. 26 apocalyptic and prophetical notions, with circles that had been instructed by John. Jesus is made to distinguish John as the greatest prophet who had come before him, nay as more than a prophet; and yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is said to be greater than a John. This can only mean in the Kingdom in its fulness; for surely most of the Christians fell far short of the high virtue of the Baptist. What is furthermore exceedingly probable, if not unquestionably evident, is that the whole of John's mentality was flooded with what we can only call mystic notions and conceits, graphic figures, highly spiritualized, the mentality of a prophet and seer. If John is the forerunner of Jesus, many of the Baptizer's eschatological and associated beliefs are probably the forerunners of earliest Christian general doctrine. And with all this in mind, it is difficult not to believe that Jesus not only knew more of John personally and what lay at the back of him, but used more of his ideas and symbolisms than the gospels would lead us to suppose.

   The Mandćan tradition deserves most careful analysis from this point of view; but before presenting it we may add a few words on the estrangement of the John- and Jesus-movements.

 

JOHN AND THE MESSIAHSHIP OF JESUS.

   Though the Synoptics in some passages are at pains to let it appear as if John recognized the Messiahship of Jesus, and the later and 'correcting' Fourth Gospel emphatically affirms that he did so from the baptism onwards, there was evidently very considerable doubt on the question in the earliest tradition. Q (Mt. 11:3f. = Lk. 7:19f.) lets the reader see that John p. 27 to the end had no conviction, much less prior spiritual apperception, on the subject. For it tells us that just before his end the imprisoned prophet sent messengers to Jesus asking him in complete uncertainty: "Art thou he that should come, or look we for another?" To this unambiguous question no direct answer is given. John's disciple-messengers are bidden simply to report to their master the wonderful healings of which they have been told or which they have witnessed. The proof of Messiahship is made here to rest solely on wonder-doings; any prior spiritual recognition by John of Jesus as the Expected One is unknown to this tradition, nor is it able to report that John accepted the wonders as proof of the fulfilment of his expectation. From this we may reasonably feel assured that, though some of John's disciples followed Jesus when he began his public ministry after John had been put in prison, and continued the proclamation of the near Coming of the Kingdom, the majority refrained. They continued in their own way and discipline; nor did they subsequently recognize the Messiahship of Jesus, for above all they had no authority from their master to do so.

   This is a negative inference; but the positive rejection of the Christian Messianic claim is brought out with sharp polemical emphasis in the Mandćan tradition, which claims to derive from John and regards Jesus as the Deceiver-Messiah. The baptism of Jesus by John is acknowledged, but explained in polemic mystic fashion. There are however signs that, apart from the subsequent bitterness of outer theological controversy, there was originally an inner deeper gnostic ground of division, for Jesus is not represented as unknowing, but on the contrary, is made to answer p. 28 certain test questions of John with profound moral insight. But the most surprising fact of Mandćan tradition is that it preserves no indications of having entertained any belief in distinctive Jewish Messianism at all. Its soteriology is peculiar to itself and the tradition repudiates Jewish prophecy and apocalyptic and in fact the whole Torah, as emphatically as it does Christian doctrine. Nevertheless on its own showing, in the beginning the particular community of which John was so great a prophet, is depicted as settled in Judća, even in Jerusalem, and is claimed to have had a profound knowledge of the inner meaning of the Law. It is made to look back to a still more ancient tradition which is claimed to be purer and wiser than that of the Hebrews. Though the legendary 'historical' side of the question is exceedingly obscure, our best authorities are agreed that, as far as the mythic element is concerned, the Mandćan tradition preserves many traces of the earliest forms of the pre-Christian Gnosis known to us. The problem is thus exceedingly complex.


Next: II. From the John-Book of the Mandćans


Footnotes

p. 1

1 London, Watkins, 1921. Chh. xv-xxvi. (pp. 129-207) are devoted to the special subject of John and his doctrines.

p. 3

1 The rest of the Jews other than Herod's party presumably.

2 A mountain fortress; in Perća on the boundary between Palestine and Arabia.

p. 21

1 Ed. by Adalbert Merx, Zeitschr. f. alt. Wiss., 1909, xvii. 80.