Gnostic John the Baptizer:
by G. R. S. Mead
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FROM THE JOHN-BOOK OF THE MANDÆANS.
WE will now proceed to see what the Gnostic John-folk have to say about the person of Yōhānā and concerning their early Palestinian community, and will conclude with some typical extracts from their John-Book collection, of which the most characteristic and important will be what may be called the sagas of the Fisher of Souls and of the Good Shepherd; but first a word or two as to our sources of information.
The Mandæans (lit. Gnostics—mandā = gnōsis) of the lower Euphrates are the only known surviving community of the ancient Gnosis. That they have survived to our own day1 is a remarkable testimony to the strength of their convictions and of loyalty to a tradition which they claim to go back to pre-Christian days, The documents call them Nāzōræans.2 The Arabs generally refer to them as Sūbbā's or Baptists, while the first Portuguese Jesuit missionaries of the Inquisition p. 30 erroneously introduced them to Europe in the early part of the 17th century as the 'Christians of St. John.' But Christians they certainly are not; on the contrary they have ever been strenuously opposed to Christianity, though they may have sometimes so camouflaged themselves to avoid Moslim persecution in the first place and the Inquisitional methods of the missionaries in the second.
The Mandæan religious literature (for of secular literature there is none) supplies us with the richest direct sources of any phase of ancient Gnosticism which we possess; these documents are also all the more valuable because they are purely Oriental without any Hellenistic immixture. Indeed our only other considerable direct sources, that is sources not contaminated or rendered suspect by transmission through hostile hands, are the Trismegistic literature, the Coptic Gnostic documents and the recent Manichæan finds in Tūrfān. The Mandæan language is little used by the faithful except for religious purposes. The M. communities in general have for long used Arabic as their common speech, though one or more groups speak Persian. Mandæan is a South Babylonian dialect of Aramæan, its nearest cognate being the Northern Babylonian as in the Babylonian Talmūd. Their graceful script is peculiar to the Mandæans; the vowels are in full lettering and are not indicated by points or other diacritical marks.
Their literature was once far more extensive; for what we possess is manifestly in the form of extracts collected from manifold more ancient sources, which are no longer extant.
The chief existing documents are as follows:
1. The Sidrā Rabbā (Great Book) or Genzā p. 31 (Treasury), which is divided into Right and Left pages, for the living and the deceased respectively, it is said, but I am told that in some copies the alternate pages are reversed and in some ceremonies read simultaneously by two readers facing each other. It consists of sixty-four pieces or tractates,—theological, cosmological, mythological, ethical and historical. This collection is indubitably prior to the Mohammedan conquest (cir. 651 A.D.), and its sources are of course far more ancient.
2. The Sidrā d'Yahyā (Book of John), also called Drāshē d'Malkē (Discourses of the [Celestial] Kings). A considerable number of its pieces, which can be listed under thirty-seven headings, deal with the life and teachings of John the Baptizer. Yahyā is the Arabic form of John, the Mandæan Yōhānā, Heb. Yoḥanan; the two forms, Arabic and Mandæan, alternate and show that the collection was made, or more probably redacted, after the Moslim conquest.
3. The Qolastā (Quintessence or Selections called also the Book of Souls)—Liturgies for the Baptismal Ceremony, the Service for the Departed (called the 'Ascent'—Masseqtā) and for the Marriage Ritual. These hymns and prayers are lofty, though most of them are presumably not so ancient as those in the Genzā.
4. The Dīvān containing the procedure for the expiation of certain ceremonial offences and sketches of the 'regions' through which the soul must pass in its ascent.
5. The Asfar Malwāshē (Book of the Zodiacal Constellations).
6. Certain inscriptions on earthen cups and also pre-Mohammedan lead tablets.
It would not be difficult to prepare an annotated bibliography (as we have done elsewhere for the Coptic Gnostic Pistis Sophia document) tracing the history of the development of Mandæan study in the West from the 17th century onwards, but this is a sketch not a treatise. It is sufficient to say that, owing to the difficulty of the language, no one did any work of permanent value on the texts till the Dutch scholar A. J. H. Wilhelm Brandt published his arresting studies—Die Mandäische Religion (Leipzig, 1884) and Mandäische Schriften (Göttingen, 1803), the latter containing a version of selected pieces from the Genzā. Brandt was the real pioneer translator (basing himself on Nöldeke's indispensable Mandæan Grammar, 1875); his predecessors were either entirely ignorant of the language or indulged mainly in guess-work. Brandt's art. 'Mandæans' in Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1915) is a valuable summary of his most matured views, and to it I would refer my readers as the best general Introduction available.1 Brandt's philological equipment in so difficult and rare a dialect as Mandæn, however, was not sufficient for the work of full translation. Moreover he does not seem to me to have sufficiently realized the great importance of the subject for the general history of pre-Christian and early Christian Gnosticism. This, however, was fully recognized by the late Prof. Wilhelm Bousset, who devoted p. 33 many pages of his admirable study Hauptprobleme der Gnosis (Göttingen, 1907) to showing the enormous light which the earliest deposits of the Genzā throw on pre- and non-Christian Gnostic notions. Indeed in this work Bousset gave a quite new historical perspective to Gnostic studies, and showed the great importance of the Mandæan, Coptic Gnostic and Manichæan documents, when critically treated, for tracing the genesis and development of the widespread Gnosis of antiquity, which had its proximate origin in the influence of Persian ideas on Babylonian religious traditions from the time of the Great Kings (6th century B.C.) onwards, with further Hellenistic immixture and modifications after the conquest of Alexander the Great (last third of 4th century B.C.). There is also a parallel blending and Hellenization of Egyptian mystery-lore as seen most clearly in the Trismegistic tradition. More recently Prof. R. Reitzenstein, who has done such excellent work on the Trismegistic Gnosis and on the Hellenistic mystery-religions, has published a valuable contribution to M. research in his Das Mandäische Buch des Heern der Grösse (Heildelberg, 1919). Both these scholars are free from that apologetic tendency to which so few Christian scholars can rise superior in dealing with the Gnosis. But the savant to whom we owe most is Prof. Mark Lidzbarski, whose extraordinary knowledge of Aramæan dialects and allied Semitic linguistics has at last placed in our hands reliable versions of two of the M. collections: Das Johannesbuch der Mandäer (Giessen, 1915) and Mandäische Liurgien (Berlin, 1920). L. has also made a translation of the Genzā, the publication of which is eagerly expected.1
Until this appears it is not possible to be reasonably sure of all one's ground and so get an all-round perspective of it. Meantime, as no really adequate translation of any pieces have so far appeared in English,1 I think it will be of service to give a selection of renderings from the German of Lidzbarski's John-Book, so that readers of these pages may become acquainted with specimens of the material, and be in a better position in some measure to appreciate for themselves its nature, quality and importance; for it may eventually turn out to be one of the most valuable indications we possess for Background of Christian Origins research. These renderings will be as close to the German as possible, so that readers may have L.'s version practically before them, and the inevitable leakage of translation from translation be reduced to a minimum. Even so, I hope that what seems to me to be the beauty of the original, will not be entirely evaporated. The major part of the material of the Liturgies is indubitably in verse; but the John-Book as well, if not also mainly in verse, as a most competent Aramæan scholar assures me, is clearly in rhythmic prose (Kunstprosa) and highly poetical. L., however, has not broken up the lines as in the Liturgies.
First let us begin with the pieces purporting to give information concerning the person of the prophet.
Next: II. i. The Gnostic John the Baptizer
1 In 1875 N. Siouffi, the French Vice-Consul at Mosul, estimated them at some 4,000 souls in all (Etudes sur la Religion des Soubbas ou Sabéens, Paris, 1880). These were then to be found chiefly in the neighbourhood of Baṣra aud Kút. Siouffi's estimate, however, was certainly too low; for Shaikh K. Dojaily, Lecturer in Arabic at the School of Oriental Studies, informs me that he quite recently obtained from the supreme head of all the communities at Naziriyah the precise statistics, and that they still number about 10,000 men, women and children.
2 This is a very ancient general designation used by a number of early sects. It has nothing to do with Nazareth (Q. Nazara), which is quite unknown outside the gospel-narratives, not to speak of the philological impossibility of such a word-formation as Nazoræan from Nazareth. Lidzbarski rejects W. B. Smith's (in Der vorchristliche Jesus, Giessen, 1906) derivation—Nazar-Ya ( = Jehoshua—Jesus—Sotēr—Saviour), and makes a good case for origin in √NZR, with the meaning of 'to observe'; hence 'Observers'—sc. of the laws or ordinances or may be of the holy life (Liturgies, pp. xvi.ff.).
1 Brandt passed away from this scene of his labours on March 4, 1915, and his posthumous work Die Mandäer: ihre Religion und ihre Geschichte (Trans. of Koninklijke Akadamie van Wetenshappen te Amsterdam, Nov., 1915) is practically a German edition of this article. Kessler's art. 'Mandäer' (Redencyk f. prot Theolog., 3rd ed., Herzog-Hauck, Leipzig 1903) is a helpful study; it entirely supersedes his Enc. Brit., 9th ed., art. K. avers that the M. literature preserves the oldest form of the Gnosis known to us. Art. 'Mandæans,' Enc. Brit., 11th ed., 1911, is stated to be part K. and part. G. W. Thatcher; it is a poor production even as a summary of K.'s later art. It is short, contemptuous and superficial, and deprives the reader of much that is most valnable in K. in the shape of references and parallels. It would have been really better to have translated K. literally.
1 On May 15, 1923, Dr. R. Eisler informed me: "L. writes that his trans. of Genzā is fininhed; printing will begin soon and take about a year and a half." Unfortunately since then the difficuities of publication in Germany have so increased, that the arrangements for printing have fallen through, and this most indispensable basic source of infomation for students of the Mandæan Gnosis is accordingly held up.
1 To be precise, in book-form; for I have already published the following versions in The Quest in the last two years; they are but a third of the translations I have made in MS. from the John-Book, and the Liturgies. I say this, however, in no disparagement of Miss A. L. B. Hardcastle's sympathetic and painstaking studies, containing some versions in which the work of Brandt and his predecessors was fortitied by her own praiseworthy efforts to grapple with a dictionary-less language. These studies were suggested, warmly encouraged and appreciated by myself, and were as follows: 'The Liberation of Jōhannā. (Theosophical Rev., Sept, 1902); 'Fragments from the Mandæan Traditions of J. the B.' (Quest, Ap. 1910); 'The Book of Souls: Fragments of a Mandæan Mystery Ritual' (ib. Jan. 1912); 'The Mandæan Chrism' (ib. Jan. 1914).