John the Baptist and the Gnostics

John the Baptist and the Gnostics January 1, 2013

Miguel Conner has an article in The Examiner highlighting the various mentions of and views about John the Baptist in Gnostic sources. In it, he links to one of the chapters I translated from the Mandaean Book of John!

There is a need for a detailed scholarly treatment of this topic. When G. R. S. Mead wrote The Gnostic John the Baptizer (which can be read online for free, since it was published in 1924), that was before we had the Nag Hammadi texts. Working as an outsider to the relevant fields, he managed to render just a few excerpts into English.

I do not intend my reference to Mead’s status as an “outsider” to relevant linguistic and other training as a slight. Lady Drower (a volume of whose scholarly correspondence Jorunn Buckley recently published) was also an autodidact. Yet her contribution to Mandaean studies remains unequalled. As a New Testament scholar by training myself, I too can be considered something of an outsider, or at least a latecomer. Mandaean studies has throughout its history been the purview of those willing to plunge into a challenging language and subject matter, whoever they happened to be. They were often simply people who realized just how important and interesting these texts are, and did what they could with them.

I will say again something I say more and more often of late. If the Mandaean sources were discovered for the first time today, they would make international headlines. First there would be an attempt to decipher their unique alphabet. Then it would be realized that they are in a dialect of Aramaic. Then it would come to light that they mention John the Baptist and Jesus and other familiar figures from the New Testament, but in very different ways. There would be incredible excitement, and lots of scholarly attention. The relative scholarly neglect of Mandaean sources is thus baffling.

I’m working primarily on one Mandaean source at present, the Mandaean Book of John. But there is also a need for a broad academic study of John the Baptist from the perspective of Gnostics, and in some sources, as himself a Gnostic. One that covers the ground in Conner’s article, but with the detail of a scholarly monograph. Perhaps one day I will write it, but if others get there first, that is fine. It is one of the refreshing things about Mandaean studies that it is not a field in which one has to worry about others getting to a subject before you do. It is rather one in which we hope that someone, somewhere, will actually work on any of the dozens if not hundreds of important questions that are deserving of scholarly attention, and which have yet to be the focus of anyone’s research.

Thanks to Jim Davila for directing attention to the article. I hope it helps to generate not only public but also scholarly interest in these matters.

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  • Scott F

    James, what you need to do is lock away the Mandean texts so that no one else can access or evaluate them until you have produced a ground-breaking documentary for the Discovery channel with accompanying book. This so-called “open academic research” is a career killer!

  • Thanks for this post James – look forward to reading more of your Book of John translation! BTW Mead also worked in Coptic sources, and translated Pistis Sophia, when it was a major source for Gnosticism (or Theosophy, at least:) before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library

  • In whose name John, the Baptist baptised Jewish men only in water? He said, after me will baptise you in Holy Spirit. When Jesus baptised His Labourers?