Talk Gnosis Interview about the Mandaeans

The video above is the first part of an interview I did for the online podcast series Talk Gnosis. In a couple of days, they will release the second part which is for subscribers only. Click through for more details about how to become a subscriber, and let me know what you think of the video!

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  • TimSteppingOut

    I really enjoyed this. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the Valentinians and “Sethians”, but have not learned a lot about the Mandeans yet. This video was a great primer. Do you think that the Mandeans emerged out of a Hemerobaptist tradition? I wonder if their rejection of Jesus was the cause or the effect of the rift between Apostolic Christianity and the Gnostics. It certainly seems like there are varying degrees of reverance paid to John the Baptist in the NT Gospels…

    • James F. McGrath

      That’s a great question. It is a real possibility. I’ve been thinking a lot lately that the tendency has been to understand “John the Baptist” to denote that John was famous for a distinctive rite that he alone practiced and shared with others. But might it not be indicative that John was a particularly famous member of a wider group – one which also contributed to what eventually became Mandaism?

      • TimSteppingOut

        In Acts of the Apostles, Apollo is described as being a learned man from Alexandria who was knowledgeable in the baptism of John. I’ve had a suspicion that this Apollo guy might be a reference to Apollonius of Tyana, who had a Neopythagorean background and was ascetic. My link between Apollonius and Tyana was that the Essenes, from what I understand, bear some resemblance in their theology to some tenets of the Neopythagoreans.

        If the Hemerobaptists had split from the Essenes, then that might indeed serve to amplify the case that Apollo was simply a composite of Apollonius (I suspect several other biblical characters are also constructed with Apollonius in mind). Of course, it’s all conjecture and very unscientific :)

        Thanks for the reply!

        • James F. McGrath

          This does involve conjecture after conjecture, and while I’m not opposed to that in principle, it isn’t clear to me why you’d want to have the hemerobaptists be an offshoot of the Essenes, or Apollos be a composite of Apollonius of Tyana and other figures. What, in other words, motivates this interpretation on your part?

          • TimSteppingOut

            I agree. It’s such a tangled web with such a huge chunk of history missing, that it almost invites enthusiasts to fill in the gaps. My motivation centers entirely around trying to understand the “big picture” and how various theologies and philosophies fed into each other. If you have any recommended readings on accomplishing that, I’d appreciate it!

            In terms of the link to Apollonius, many people have noted similarities between Jesus and Apollonius. Frankly, I see more of a connection between the Apostle Paul and Apollonius. But if you look at traditions surrounding the Apostle John, it’ hard to miss similarities between Apollonius and him – imprisoned by Domitian – Apollonius was supposedly in Ephesus on the day Domitian died.

            Given that ground zero for the Johannine movement seems to be in Smyrna, Ephesus, and Sardis, it’s hard not to wonder what impact Apollonius left in this area, and what traditions they borrowed from him.

            It’s easy enough to chalk these similarities up to fuzziness inherent in oral traditions, but I’m of the opinion that neither John the Apostle nor Paul the Apostle actually existed. I think they were invented by Polycarp and Marcion, respectively.

            Thus, they were invented by people who lived in Asia minor, where (presumably) Apollonius would have been a local hero. I suspect these characters are all composites, assembled based on Apollonius of Tyana, and probably other local legends as well, possibly borrowed from Josephus and other historians of the time.

            As far as the Hemerobaptists being an offshoot of the Essenes, I suppose it’s not necessary (I thought I read once the two were connected, but it seems the Hemerobaptists shared more similarities with the Pharisees than the Essenes) – the cleanliness rituals of the Essenes seems to be related to the repeated baptism of the HemeroBaptists. I find the relationship between the Hemerobaptists and the Sethians to be compelling as well, considering the robust baptism process. All 3 groups seem to have rejected animal sacrifice, as well, but now after looking into it, the link between the baptists and the Essenes seems weak.

  • Ophis

    1. Do you (or anybody you know of) have any plans to work on an English translation of the Ginza Rabba?

    2. Do you think that the Mandaeans’ gnostic beliefs go all the way back to John the Baptist? (If so, I think that would imply that Gnosticism of some kind was probably present in Christianity from the beginning.) Or did Mandaean gnosticism develop later, perhaps influenced by the Christian gnostics?

    • James F. McGrath

      There have been discussions of translating the Ginza, but I do not have the impression that those who were involved in those discussions have been working on it actively as a priority.

      The Mandaean sources seem to suggest that, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, the Mandaeans were Jews. Whether they already had a Gnostic bent at that stage, or were proto-Gnostic in character, or whether circumstances led them in a different direction later one, it is hard to say, but I can tell you that my next major project will involve turning my full attention to precisely those questions.

      • John Thomas

        What language Ginza Rabba written in? Can those who know Syriac language read it?

        • James F. McGrath

          Mandaic is a dialect of Aramaic, and so someone who knows Syriac ought to find it largely intelligible, if a bit strange at times. It uses a distinctive script, but someone who knows Syriac is probably already used to having to learn a new alphabet every so often, and so that shouldn’t pose a problem. :-)

      • anon

        The Ginza Rba has been available in English for ages in Australia guess the word never got out this helps everyone

        • James F. McGrath

          Sorry, I assumed the reference was to an English translation of a scholarly academic sort, with explanation of the textual basis, discussion of the meaning of words, and other things of that sort. If one simply wants an English rendering and isn’t concerned about the kinds of questions academics want answers to, there are indeed versions available.