John the “Baptist”

John the “Baptist” August 16, 2013

“John the Baptist” is the way one particular John is known to history. But there are two ways that phrase could be understood.

One, which is probably the most common, views John as having developed a distinctive ritual immersion, and that creation of his led to him being nicknamed “John the immerser.”

A problem with this view is that it fails to explain how, with all the different sorts of immersions that people practiced in this time period, John’s ritual, however distinctive, could have led to him being called “John the baptizer.”

And so a second option is that there was a baptizing religious movement in this time period, and John, as a representative of that movement, was its most famous and prominent adherent. This second view is precisely how John is depicted in Mandaean sources. He is not the founder of the Sabians, another name for the Mandaeans, which means “the baptizers.” He is just a particularly important, influential, and famous one.

Of course, here too there are issues and problems that arise. But they are not necessarily any greater than the problems with the first option, and are perhaps fewer.

The fact that the Mandaeans are Gnostics cannot be used to claim that John was a Gnostic, any more than the existence of Gnostic Christians in later centuries proves that Jesus was one. The Mandaean source Haran Gawaitha seems to acknowledge, in fact, that the forebears of the Mandaeans were mainstream Jews until after the appearance of Jesus.

Nazoreans is another term used by the Mandaeans for themselves, and in particular for those with particularly advanced knowledge of the esoteric teachings. And so when Jesus, and then in Acts Paul and others, were referred to as “Nazoreans,” might this have indicated an awareness that they had some connection with the movement of which John, Jesus’ mentor, had also been a part?

Of related interest, Brian LePort posted recently about the significance of John’s baptism, and wrote another about water as Spirit. See also Bart Ehrman’s post on whether Luke’s Gospel originally included chapters 1-2. Given the intersection with Mandaean traditions found in the Book of John, the possibility that those chapters derive from or are based on a Mandaean/Baptist source needs to be considered.

On whether Jesus was a Baptist in the modern sense, see the recent article in First Things.

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  • brianleport

    This group is fascinating to me. If I were to toss out a hypothesis for their beginnings what do you think of a beginning like that of Apollos or the disciples in Ephesus (Acts 18-19) who appear to be Diaspora disciples of John who either had not heard about the Jesus movement or rejected its claimed. After the Great War when it seem gnostic spirituality was emerging among Jewish and Christian groups some of these same ideas made there way to some of the disciples of John, which would explain why these are gnostic-like and why they exalt John like no other group in history. I know, fragile and skeletal, but I’m trying to get my head around their evolution as a group.

    • This group may have been located in the vicinity of Jerusalem for some time. They have a strong cultural memory of facing persecution there, and if only we knew which king Ardban the Haran Gawaitha is referring to, we mit know when they relocated to Mesopotamia.

      You should move into Mandaean studies, even if only as a side interest. There is a need for more people working in this area!

      • brianleport

        What tend to be the languages one needs to know to research their writings and history?

        • Mandaic, which is a dialect of Aramaic. It is challenging in many respects, because we have only Mandaean sacred texts and incantation bowls in this dialect and script. But in other respects, the way Mandaic is written is easier than other dialects, as far as indicating vowel sounds is concerned. You can start with the Talmud and other Babylonian Jewish sources, if you want a close dialect with more learning materials available to help, and the familiar alphabet also used for Hebrew. But for NT people, starting with Syriac may be easier, since you can read the New Testament and other early Christian sources.

          Or you could just jump right in with Mandaic.

          If you are interested, I will share with you what resources I have for the language!

          • brianleport

            I am interested. Though it is something I’d have to do on the side over time, I’d like to know more about their views on John and so forth.

          • brianleport

            I think you have my email address if that’s easiest.

          • Done. And you should also check out the draft translation of the Mandaean Book of John here:

          • brianleport

            Thank you. Will do!

  • Interesting issues! I’ve been interacting with Brian LePort and his commenters on this also. It’s an issue too-much passed over in my experience in various “strands” of current Protestantism.

    I’d add this interesting data point as well: Josephus has about 2-3 times the amount of info (still minimal) on John as he does on Jesus (assuming some element of the “testimonium” on him is genuine). And he never suggests a connection between John and Jesus… maybe most importantly, the picture in the Gospels of John as mainly a “way preparer” and “introducer” of Jesus is not at all the identity and role ascribed to John by Josephus.

    • That’s interesting. I once saw a lecture by Yale’s Dale B. Martin where he said that Jesus was likely a disciple of John the Baptist before starting his own ministry. Given Josephus’s account of John the Baptist do you think this makes Dr. Martin’s opinion less likely?

      • No, not less likely. I’m sure Martin was fully aware of Josephus’ comment (I think around 100-200 words) on John and had probably really studied it, from the best Grk. editions of Jos. that we have. I have not, so I will tend to defer unless/until I think I see a flaw in analysis, etc. And James (elsewhere in the comments) affirms the same basic thing: Jesus likely being “under” or trained by John at least briefly, whether actually baptized by John or doing baptisms himself later (he apparently did not).

        I don’t think Josephus’ summary precludes the likely connection and/or discipling relationship. And of course, anyone who takes at least the broad strokes, if not the details within the Gospels as historical (or drawn from real events), will rank the narrative there above that of Josephus (who was obviously “polemical” himself, like the Gospel writers, and an “apologist” for Judaism of the basic “rabbinic” — Pharisee tradition — type).

        • I do have to add, though, that I hold out a possibility that John and Jesus did not actually overlap in time-frame, and thus perhaps even have direct contact. I realize that possibility goes against a number of aspects of the NT narrative on them both, so I’m not prepared to argue for it, even if I DID think it likely.

          BUT, there IS murkiness about the dating of Jesus birth, from the Gospel acct’s themselves. Also, the exact time (even year) of his death, tho most likely Pilate’s dates of rulership narrow it to within 8 or 10. Is it possible that some of the puzzlement mainly from Acts 18, 19 re. the spread of followers of John and them knowing only “his baptism” comes from a possible “lead time” of a few to several years for disciples of John over those of Jesus? Or that the “Churches of God”, clearly pre-Paul in several cases, were Qumran-type (not necessarily directly tied) or “Therapeute” Jews who became the connection and planting point for either the msg. and practices of John, or of Jesus and eventually of both in some cases?


    James –I know you like to jump into the deep end of the pool, but do you ever swim to a destination? From what you know, did John “develop a distinctive ritual immersion” or not. Or, was he just a famous member of a preexisting Nazorean/Mandaean/Sabian movement? Last of all, was John really “Jesus’ mentor”?

    Thank you.

    • I would say that we don’t know enough about the details of John’s baptism to know how it was similar to or different from either Christian baptism or Mandaean baptism. I do think he was Jesus’ mentor in important respects.

      • 3SPARTUS8

        Would you say it was similar to Jesus’ baptism? If so, in what respect would their baptismal rituals have been different from other 1st century Jewish immersions, including the Essenes? And, in what respects would John have been Jesus’ mentor?

        • It isn’t clear whether John’s immersion was something done once, as per Christian baptism, or frequently, as per Mandaeism (and, it would seem, other Sethian baptizing groups).

          Jesus seems to have been John’s disciple at some point. It isn’t clear for how long.

          • 3SPARTUS8

            I know that certain subjects can be challenging, even downright difficult, but sometimes they are made unclear by those who write about them.

            So let me try again. How did John’s baptisms differ from those performed by Jesus? What did their baptismal rituals have to do with one another and with Christian baptisms? And, if Jesus was a disciple of John and John a mentor of Jesus, what does that mean?


          • Perhaps what you are missing is that we simply do not have the sorts of sources we would need in order to be able to answer those questions. We have brief descriptions of John and his baptism in Josephus and in the Gospels, but those scarcely give us much to work with. The Mandaean sources are from much later, and so it is hard to say for certain how much of their rituals go back to the time of John, although the ritual element does seem to be the most conservative aspect of the tradition in many respects.

            It may be that you think that we have sources of information that are more robust than we actually do. Or it may be that I am misunderstanding what you are asking for, and what you are hoping for is not a highly probable historical scenario, but speculation based on the little information we have.

          • 3SPARTUS8

            I’m not missing anything, James. If your questions cannot be answered for lack of adequate sources, why bother to ask them in the first place. And if you cannot give definitive answers, or at least your own judgment in these matters, maybe a review of other scholars and their opinions would be helpful.

            What I’m asking for is what you think about the relationship between Jesus and John, their disciple/mentor connection, and how it connects to 1st century and early Christian baptism.

            I really don’t expect “a highly probable historical scenario.”

          • I think that it is worth asking questions, and being aware that the questions are worthwhile, even when we have to say we don’t know what the answer is.

            Given the reference in Epiphanius in the context of baptizing groups to Nazoreans, who sound at least very similar to Mandaeans, it is plausible to say that at least proto-Mandaeans are older than Christianity. It isn’t clear whether they had Gnostic tendencies in that time, or moved in a Gnostic direction post-70, as indeed some Christian groups also did.

            I think that Jesus was John’s disciple. I think that he was part of his movement, before setting out on his own. And I think that Jesus disappointed John by not enacting the sort of judgment that John predicted was coming. One possibility is that Jesus engaged in a demonstration in the temple while still connected with John’s movement, as the Gospel of John depicts. John was arrested and Jesus moved back to Galilee. John was executed, and Jesus began to see a similar fate lying ahead for him, which he eventually came to embrace as part of his own mission.

            I suspect that the Mandaean baptism represents a significant departure from John’s practice. They retain the importance of the term “jordan” for baptismal water. But the symbolism of the term makes more sense in the context of a non-Gnostic baptism which viewed the ritual as somehow reenacting the Exodus and the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land. We may be able to reconstruct a plausible picture of John’s baptism through careful comparative study of Mandaean and early Christian sources. But that is work that no one has attempted yet.

          • 3SPARTUS8

            Thank you for the clarification. It gives me something to sink my teeth into, metaphorically speaking. 🙂

  • What is it about the Mandaeans that made them Gnostic? Is it the extreme dualism (is traditional Christianity somehow less dualistic)? Every time I try to find out what Gnostics believe I run into epic creation stories about the demiurge and whatnot but then I find groups that are considered Gnostic that do not have that. If it is extreme dualism that makes Gnostics I have also read that some Gnostic religions are more dualistic than others. What considerations do scholars use when considering whether they should label a group Gnostics or not?

    • Dualism alone isn’t enough to merit the term Gnostic, although there are some who apply the term very broadly, and some who say it isn’t useful at all. But I would limit the term to those who say that the creator God of the Jewish Scriptures is a malevolent and inferior figure, and not the supreme God sought by the Gnostic. Usually this is coupled with the view that one needs to know something important (code words, rituals, or whatever else) in order to be able to ascend past the malevolent creator and his henchmen to reach the truly divine realm, from which the sparks of light trapped in this prison of human flesh originated.