Babylonian Baptists

Babylonian Baptists December 12, 2014

I have been posting about the emergence of Christianity in Iraq/Mesopotamia, and its possible inheritance from sectarian Judaism.

Other continuities from the older Jewish world lay beyond the realms of orthodox Christianity, and these likewise tell us much about the importance of those Mesopotamian lands.

During the third century, Mani founded a Dualist-Gnostic religion that drew on Christianity as well as Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, and his Manichaean faith endured through the end of the Middle Ages. In modern times, scholars have been able to trace Mani’s origins within that Jewish Babylonian world.

Mani, we now know, was born near Seleucia-Ctesiphon around 216. He had many dealings with the Persian royal court at Ctesiphon, before his eventual martyrdom at the Persian city of Gundeshapur in 270. Mani’s mother was Parthian, but his father, Patik, belonged to a very significant group called the Elchasaites.

This name takes us back to very early forms of Jewish-Christian belief. In the early third century, Western writers like Hippolytus of Rome report stories of a heretical thinker called Elchasai, who lived in the early second century. Reputedly, he was a Parthian. Elchasai reported a vision he had experienced of the Son of God, a titanic being many miles tall, who had revealed to him a heavenly book. Among other teachings, Elchasai advocated a special baptism for the remission of sins. He also urged obedience to the Mosaic Law, Sabbath observance, and circumcision. This baptist sect was related to the Jewish-Christian Ebionites, and also, possibly, to the Jewish Essenes.

The fourth century writer Epiphanius of Salamis discusses Elchasai in the context of a group of Jewish and Jewish-Christian sects, including Nazareans, Ossaeans (?Essenes) and Sampsaeans. He is by no means the world’s most reliable writer, but he implies that Elchasai joined the Ossaean sect, which lived around the Dead Sea, before writing his famous book by revelation.

Well, that requires a number of jumps of reasoning, but we might just be talking about a linkage from the Essenes through Elchasai, and on through the Manichaean faith, which in its day was a great transcontinental religion.

Scholars have speculated for many years over the possible connections of the Elchasaites, to whom Albert Henrichs gives the delectable name of the “Babylonian Baptists.” They might be connected with the Gnostic-Dualist sect of the Mandaeans that still survives in southern Iraq, and which claims a special inheritance from John the Baptist. Arguably, both Mandaeans and Elchasaites really were descended from followers of John the Baptist who rejected Jesus’s message.

For present purposes, though, what is interesting is where we find this Elchasaite movement, which was clearly rooted in Jewish and Palestinian tradition. Like that other sectarian Jewish movement, the mainstream Christians, the Elchasaites originated in Palestine, but they decisively moved eastwards, to establish a major base of operations in Mesopotamia.

Like the Christians, the Manichaeans used their Iraqi foothold to expand throughout Asia.

Returning briefly to the Mandaeans, I just want to echo a point here that is made by scholar James McGrath who says, absolutely correctly, that most non-specialists vastly underestimate their importance. You can read his argument in full, but as he says,

Imagine that someone today unearthed previously unknown scrolls, written in a dialect of Aramaic, and in a unique alphabet, reflecting the beliefs and practices of a Gnostic religious group. That alone would suffice to make them headline news. But imagine if, on further investigation, the texts had other interesting characteristics. Like other Gnostic texts, they mentioned Biblical characters – but while these texts appreciate John the Baptist, they regard Jesus negatively. And imagine if, seeking the origin of those texts, it turned out that the texts were connected not with an extinct religious group, but one that still exists in small isolated communities in Iraq and Iran. Their rituals could then be observed, allowing us to understand the texts in ways that might otherwise be impossible – as well as their religious rituals in the present day being of interest in their own right. All of this would result in sensational headlines, worldwide media attention, and a concerted scholarly effort to study and make sense of the data.

Well, we didn’t just unearth them, we have known about the Mandaeans for over a century – but every other word of this passage is exactly right. Why don’t we focus more on this amazing group?


One excellent study of these various movements is John C. Reeves, Heralds of that Good Realm: Syro-Mesopotamian Gnosis and Jewish Traditions (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996). Now we also have Dylan M. Burns’s Apocalypse of the Alien God (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), which I will be discussing shortly.

Gerard P. Luttikhuizen summarizes what can reliably be said about the Elchasaites in The Revelation of Elchasai (Mohr Siebeck, 1985).


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  • Raimo Kangasniemi

    The claims about Mani’s parental religious links to previously existing forms of Christianity and Judaism have to be taken with a handful of salt.

    They might be no more than a later attempt to connect him to those traditions, which is typical of ‘genealogical fiction’ practiced by religions trying to enhance their pedigree (and it’s mirror image is the voice of the orthodox order trying to link heresies through time to each other, to condemn contemporary foes with vices ascribed to the previous heretics.)

    Let’s remember that he was also posthumously given the traditional social upgrade given to religious figures, being given royal family roots which, we can assume, are bogus.

    We have to remember that of Mani we just have the voice of his later followers and his opponents both portraying him as fit their own agenda.

  • philipjenkins

    In general, I think your comments are well taken. However, the Elchasaite link is very widely accepted as authentic. If he had been trying to link himself to some great earlier movement, surely he would not have chosen such a localized one?

  • Raimo Kangasniemi

    It was something that existed in the area he originated; and people coming from Elchasaite background might have played themselves a role in shaping the posthumous view of Mani – and what seem to us like minor fringe movements might have been more important than now seems to, if not in the numbers of followers but as influence to religious thought of the time overall.

    I’m not trying to deny that link would have existed, just that such a link would have held importance to his followers, helping to link him more securely to past traditions and thus playing a part in the work to ‘legitimize’ him in the eyes of possible converts coming from Christianity and Judaism and all the movements of the time that fell between them.