SBL Paper Proposal Accepted: Revisiting the Relationship between the Mandaean Book of John and the New Testament

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a few days. I received notification that the paper I proposed, “Revisiting the Relationship between the Mandaean Book of John and the New Testament,” has been accepted for the 2012 Annual Meeting program unit Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism. Several other bibliobloggers have also shared details about the papers they will be reading.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been examining the Mandaean Book of John from the perspective of taking seriously that its author had the opportunity to be exposed to the New Testament, and so its distinctive version of stories about John the Baptist and Jesus could be based on those Christian sources. In this paper, I am going to ask whether, even so, we have reason to think that at least some of the material in the Mandaean Book of John reflects independent origins.

This is the same sort of question we ask in relation to the Didache or the Gospel of Thomas and the New Testament Gospels, as well as the interrelationship of the New Testament Gospels themselves. A simple answer in terms of dependence or independence often fails to do justice to the complexity of the relationship, which may reflect early independent knowledge of a tradition, and evidence of subsequent interaction with another written text that preserved the tradition.

Anyway, here’s the abstract as submitted:

During the first half of the twentieth century, there were circles in which one could practically take for granted that Mandaean sources stemmed from followers of John the Baptist, and thus provided the background for at least some sections of early Christianity (as Rudolf Bultmann famously maintained in relation to the Gospel of John, for instance). The tide turned against this view, and not without reason. But for the most part the specific claims made by critics of that stance did not do justice to the Mandaean sources any more than the scholars whose views they opposed. Since then, additional Mandaean texts have been published, and English translations of works previously unavailable in English are underway. Moreover, since then the Nag Hammadi texts have been published and allow for the question of the relationship between Mandaean and Christian sources, and between Mandaeism and Christianity, to be correlated with other Gnostic sources that were not available in the time of Reitzenstein and Bultmann on the one hand, and their critics such as Dodd on the other. On the one hand, the date of the Mandaean sources makes it inherently more likely that similarities and overlaps with New Testament texts are due to interaction with those texts and with Christianity on the part of the Mandaeans, rather than vice versa. On the other hand, many features of the Mandaean treatment of the figure of John the Baptist, his parents, and his wife and children, are not easily accounted for in these terms. This paper examines whether dependence in one direction or another, mutual dependence on earlier tradition, or some combination of all of these types of interaction best accounts for the similarities and differences between the Mandaean Book of John and the Gospels of Luke and John in the New Testament in particular.

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  • Chuck Haberl

    Congratulations! I’m still waiting to hear about my submission (as a non-member of the SBL it is following a different path).

    • James F. McGrath

      Hope it is successful! I’ll look forward to seeing you there!

  • Joffa

    How do we date the Mandean sources? How old are they?

    • James F. McGrath

      Scribal colophons help with dating at least some of them, providing a terminus ante quem. Jorunn Buckley dates some of the earliest to the third century CE. Others are significantly later, to be dated to the early Islamic era – and some which I have not looked into and/or have not yet been published might turn out to be later still. But even some of the later ones date in their present form to that later period, but may in some instances show signs of incorportating earlier traditions and perhaps even earlier written sources.

      It is hard to be more specific, since the answers differ depending on which text is being discussed, and despite being known for centuries, there has been much less scholarly study of these questions than one would have expected.