Neglected Mentions of John the Baptist and Mandaeans in Syriac and Aramaic Sources?

Neglected Mentions of John the Baptist and Mandaeans in Syriac and Aramaic Sources? August 16, 2018

Several sources online have highlighted a new resource related to the study of Syriac literature: the Digital Syriac Corpus.

As illustration of what is available, here is the beginning of Narsai’s work “On John the Baptist” so that you can see what happens when you copy and paste from the site:

As you can see from the fairly clear text that has pasted, and from the hyperlinks in each word if you follow them, it is a very flexible resource with a great deal of additional lexical and other information just a click away.

In this context I can mention that I’ve begun work on one of my next big book projects, which relates to the historical John the Baptist and the question of whether we can usefully bring the Mandaeans and their texts into the picture. I think that the answer to that question is yes, but obviously will need to make that case in detail. Some of the groundwork, however, has already been laid in a work that is soon to appear, and I think that scholars of ancient religion (as well as Semitic linguistics) are going to be blown away by some of the things that I believe will become clear as a result of the publication of the two-volume Mandaean Book of John critical edition, translation, and commentary.

In connection with the online resource that started off this post, and linking nicely through the rest of it, I’m interested in hearing from those who work on Syriac and Aramaic literature from Mesopotamia in Late Antiquity (as well as earlier and later, potentially), who may have come across references to John the Baptist and/or a group of Gnostics practicing ritual immersion that they had encountered. I suspect that there are references to the Mandaeans (frequently under other names such as Sabians, Nasoreans, Dostheans, Baptists, etc.)  that either wait still to be found in unpublished manuscripts, or are already known but their significance for Mandaean studies has yet to be recognized. And so if you work on this literature, writings of Jews and Christians from the Late Antique East, please let me know if anything you’ve come across seems relevant to those who study the Mandaeans. I’ll be extremely grateful!

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  • John MacDonald

    I’m not sure that the historical Jesus ever met the historical John The Baptist.

    Mark seems to be portraying Jesus as a greater Apocalyptic Prophet than John the Baptist, and as the successor to John the Baptist’s ideology. To do this in a metaphorical religious context, Mark figuratively casts John the Baptist in the role of Elijah. Regarding Elijah and Elisha, some see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit of Jesus as a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior. Later Gospel writers see John baptizing Jesus as embarrassing, but there is no reason to think Mark was embarrassed. As I said, John the Baptist was to be held in the same esteem as Elijah: Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on).

    Importantly, Jesus was understood as being an evolved understanding of what the Messiah would be. John the Baptist would have understood the Messiah to be a military conqueror, so John sent word to Jesus questioning him if he was really the chosen one (Luke 7:18-23), since Jesus wasn’t engaging in any political conquest. Jesus replied that he was the chosen one, but John the Baptist needed to approach his understanding from a spiritual, non-violent point of view.

    • Would the early church have been likely to either turn Jesus into a disciple of John’s, or someone whose identity as “the one who is to come” John doubted, never mind both? Not impossible, to be sure, but is it more likely than that the church simply had this as data that it had to incorporate somehow?

      • John MacDonald

        I think the stuff about Jesus being a disciple of John, given the portrayal of John as a new and greater Elijah, hints that Mark may be intending with Jesus’ baptism an allusion to Elijah bequeathing Elisha a double portion of his power, acknowledging Elisha (or John acknowledging Jesus) as his successor and superior. The part about John doubting Jesus may just be to show John had a traditional view of the messiah as a military conqueror, and so the growth was for John to see Jesus as a spiritual messiah.

      • John MacDonald

        I think the doubt of John the Baptist may have been meant to model for Mark’s reader how they need to grow beyond the traditional view of the messiah as a military conqueror to the view of Jesus as a spiritual messiah.

        • Those are always possibilities. Any thoughts on how we might decide what is most likely among the possibilities?

          • John MacDonald

            I don’t know.

            As you know, I have no background training in historical reasoning or biblical hermeneutics, so I am basically like a first year university student in these areas trying to wade my way through the material.

            You shared a very interesting article you wrote once about why Matthew’s “Jesus as the New and Greater Moses material” may just be legendary embellishment, so it is problematic to try to find historical material there. It might be a fun exercise to present to students in your Historical Jesus course with material about (1) Jesus as the new and greater Moses in Matthew and (2) John the Baptist as the new and greater Elijah, and get them to sift the historical nuggets out of the legendary silt.

  • The Mouse Avenger

    Most intriguing! 😀

  • Drifting Out

    There’s still a lot of work to do in regards to Syriac and Aramaic sources. While Mandaean studies is flowering and finally getting the attention it derserves, the problem is it’s not as interdisciplinary compared to other areas of study. So relevant sorces are not always passed on to Mandaean scholarship. I’ve always wondered if they are Sasanian sources about the Mandaeans or Zoroastrian polemical works. I also wonder whether there are Syriac Christian mentions of late antique and medieval Mandaeans. So many fascinating possibilities. Hopefully this massive resource for Syriac and Aramaic works shed some much need light.

    • Although I find many aspects of his interpretation of the evidence to be extremely problematic, Kevin van Bladel’s book (of which I have been working on a review just recently) includes translations of relevant Sasanian as well as later Arabic sources that contain references or possible allusions, including some that are largely neglected and not widely known or studied at all in relation to the Mandaeans: ‪https://amzn.to/2NtRiaL‬