Books of John

Books of John June 13, 2014

As I’ve been working on the commentary on the Mandaean Book of John this summer, I’ve been struck from time to time by seemingly close parallels and points of intersection with the New Testament. For instance, here’s an excerpt from the start of chapter 13, from which the quote above is taken:

It is to you that I am speaking and teaching,

the chosen and perfect people who are living in this world.

Don’t be part of the darkness,

but set your eyes upon the place of light.

Learn to distinguish yourselves from the wicked and [to] the good,

learn to distinguish yourselves from the wicked sinners of the place of darkness.

Love and teach one another

So that your sins and trespasses may be forgiven (to you).

Watch, listen, and learn,

And rise victoriously to the place of light.

The good sit and argue, and how they argue and learn!

The good talk and give advice to one another…

I’m curious what readers of this blog think. Do the similarities to the Johannine literature in the New Testament, for instance, appear to you to be merely ones at the surface level of terminology that also appears in other traditions besides these? Or does it seem like it might indicate some historical connection of some sort? (See too other sections, such as that about the Good Shepherd, or those about John the Baptist).

The suggestion that the Mandaeans have some connection to the New Testament, or to the world of Jesus via John the Baptist, is not a new one. Earlier versions of such proposals were set aside because they were unduly speculative. But if many of the criticisms were on target, many were equally poorly informed about the Mandaeans and their literature. Is the time ripe for this to be reexamined?

Let’s sit and argue about this, and learn together!

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  • SocraticGadfly

    No, more than coincidence, I think. I still agree with J. Massyngberde Ford’s commentary on Revelation, where she says the core, minus the letters to churches at the start and the Christian finish, comes from a Baptist group.

    • I’m not so sure about Revelation, but I definitely need to take a second look at that proposal. But the possibility that Luke’s early chapters borrow from a Baptist source or tradition seems to me very plausible, in view of the intersections yet differences between the stories about Zechariah and Elizabeth in the two works.

      • SocraticGadfly

        Ford’s plausible on time lines. For instance, a lot of scholars note that the social situations in the letters to churches seem to align with the time of Domitian. However, that would seem to clash with 666, if that is indeed Neron Ceasar in Hebrew. BUT … that’s in Revelation 13, which is, if you follow Ford, part of the Baptist core, which could have been written then. Add in that Acts describes an evangelism conflict between Christians and Mandeans, if you will, and it occurring in Asia Minor, and Ford’s thesis is at least plausible.

  • Michael Wilson

    James, I starting to become more interested in the Mandeans after looking through the translated works. My initial feeling was to err on the conservative side and take their devotion to John to be a late development, that they picked a figure from Christian mythos as founder other than Jesus to mark their distinction from Christianity and melded him to some variant of gnostic theology. But recently I have been questioning whether this was a huge gulf between the theology of Johnian Christianity and Jesus’ movement, which appears to have budded off from John the Baptist’s movement. We know so little about minor sects of Judaism of that time.

    What do you think of the prospects of John the Baptist being part of the mystical traditions associated with Gnosticism so that both John’s surviving followers (which apparently were around at least during the apostolic period) and the fore runners of Johnian Christianity were adapting a common body of tradition in the east between Asia and Syria with the Christian Johnians adopting a more traditionally Jewish ideology and the Baptist Johnians adopting a more gnostic ideology? How likely is it that the Mandens can really trace their intellectual lineage to the Baptist?

    • It is hard to assess the likelihood because the Mandaean texts are, in the copies that we have, so late. There is good reason to conclude on the basis of the study of them, however, that some of them are more than a thousand years older than our earliest copies of them. And so the challenge is to get more people involved in the detailed study of these texts first, and then try to answer these questions as best we can. I have lots of hunches, but we need more people working on these texts and the questions they raise!

      • Michael Wilson

        James, I’m not sure how fast I can learn the relevant languages, but I would like to like to help you investigate these text. You have an example of the kind of research I’m capable of.

  • Andrew Dowling

    You see this “light and darkness” language in so many Jewish/Gnostic works from the 1st through 4th centuries that I don’t think you can make any firm conclusions about origin.

  • Danny

    I am compelled to thank you for being one of the few public scholars on Mandaean texts and origins. No matter what, you are doing my community a huge service. Interest is growing among preChristian and Jewish scholars and I know of many Mandaeans who are eager to join in the discussion. Our texts tell us that John had all the spiritual makings of a great leader, but on a broader scale, he inherited a tradition of ideas that had already gained momentum in Mesopitamia, ie Manichaeism and Bardaisanism of Edessa. And those are just the small movements. We have had such a tremendous effect on modern religions from baptism to pacifism (or lack thereof)

  • Rullbert Boll

    Yes. It’s time! The Jesus-from-Nazareth fiction doesn’t hold before archaeology. The theory of the neutral redactions/elections of canon doesn’t hold to academic scrutiny. I believe Christianity proper (there might have been other Messianic/Christianisms/Son-of-God-groups unrelated to John the Baptist and Jesus son of Maria) and the Mandeans shared some common heritage centered around John the Baptist. It is not a coincidence that all Judaeo-christians (f.ex. the Ebjionites) moved towards a Gnostic position — the Judaeo-christians simply were Gnostics.

    • The Pseudo-Clementine literature doesn’t seem to fit your last assertion. What Jewish-Christian groups and texts did you have in mind?

      • Rullbert Boll

        OK. Ebjonites, “Nazarens” Ναζωραίως. Don’t know of any more.

      • Rullbert Boll

        A fast survey on the net, seems to indicate: The Pseudo-Clementine literature is 1. in the range 320-380, 2. actually contain gnostic-like features. (Perhaps my statement was exaggerated).

      • Rullbert Boll

        Ah, I understand your doubts: the pseudoclementine litterature calls Simon Magus a heretic. But his system wasn’t the sole Gnostic system. Thanks for your tip, though. I’ll scan the Pseudo-Clementine literature more for hints.

        • Can you provide an example of something that seems Gnostic to you in other Jewish Christian sources?