In the comment thread of my recent post titled “The water of John’s water baptism” I alluded briefly to the Mandaeans as another possible source of information on John the Baptist and the evolution of his movement (the part that doesn’t seem to have integrated with incipient Christianity). I have been quite curious about the narrative in Acts 19:1-7 where Paul meets disciples of John in Ephesus (as well as the mentioned of Priscilla and Aquila mentoring Apollos in 18:23-28, who apparently was identified with John’s movement prior to being integrated into the Jesus movement). If we assume that there is validity to this story—I have no reason to doubt it since it apparently concerned Luke that there may remain disciples of John who had not submitted to baptism unto Jesus—then we find John’s disciples far away from the Jordan River yet who must have been proclaiming something and practicing things that identified them with John. Why in Ephesus though?
Today James McGrath posted a bit on the Mandaeans, a group that exalts John even to this day. It is a worthwhile read: John the “Baptist”. If I were to propose an initial hypothetical scenario for the emergence of this sect it would be that there remained disciples of John who were like Apollos, but who either rejected the invitation of Jesus’ disciples, or who never heard about the movement. After the Great Jewish-Roman War when gnostic spirituality seemed to be popularizing a bit among Christian groups and Jewish groups it is quite possible that the same basic philosophies, cosmologies, and so forth found there way to this sect, which would explain why they developed a gnostic impulse. Any thoughts on this?
To refine this, you might want to look at “No Longer Jews” by Brad Smith. He tries to come up with a historical rationale for the creation of Gnosticism and an event to use as a benchmark. His basic conclusion, following the work of his mentor Yamauchi, is that there was no full blown Gnosticism before about 115AD. The creation of it, especially the Biblical Demiurge Tradition variant, is tied directly to disaffected Jews who rejected old school Judaism because they concluded that God had rejected them.
Thank you for the recommendation. I would agree that gnosticism doesn’t begin to take substantial shape until the second century and I do think the Great War is the impetus for this theology among Jewish thinker (as you note = God had rejected them).
Some good points and questions in your post, Brian. I haven’t read “No Longer Jews” but it sounds like important reading. I’ll surely hear his case (and appreciate anyone summarizing it, as my time to read these days is minimal), but I’m not clear on the point of finding “an event to use as a benchmark.” I may not be understanding what is meant by this, or where the author takes it.
So far, it seems to me that Gnosticism DID evolve slowly, as most philosophical/theological “schools” or paradigms do… though often driven or accelerated by key events and their effects… certainly the “Great War” had such an impact on both Xnty and Judaism, so it having such on Gnosticism does make sense. Still, I think the evidence is there for a lot of continuity in developing “gnostic” (small g) concepts and general view of spiritual/this-world cosmologies. That is, continuity from at least the time of Paul’s writing to early 2nd century texts (which are mostly very hard to date from mid-1st to early or mid-2nd). In other words, the clearly Gnostic-related concepts of Eph. and Col. (which I take as “Pauline school” but not Paul, most likely, and probably post-War) seem to grow almost seamlessly out of “genuine Paul”… this providing one key reason tradition accepted them as by Paul for so long.
While I haven’t read much about it specifically, it seems Jewish (and then Xn) apocalypticism from a bit before the time of Jesus and following, but pre-War as well as post-War, could have involved the same “rejected by God” concept, tho it retained the hope that that rejection would soon end. The fact that the Maccabean liberation didn’t hold was certainly a big, big disappointment. And probably Jews saw (rightly, I’d guess), the Romans as more oppressive, exploitive than the Greeks and their vassal rulers had been.
We need to make a distinction between ideas and practices that are similar to gnostic thought and gnosticism as represented by groups that began to form in Jewish and Christian circles that included those ideas and practices. For example, much of the cosmology of the Valentinian Gnostics is very similar to Neo-Platonic cosmology, but that doesn’t mean Neo-Platonism is gnostic. Gnosticism seems to move away from the material as much as possible, which is why I think it may have begun in Jewish circles trying to cope with the destruction of the Temple. Then Christian-Jewish interaction led to some Christian groups incorporating gnostic ideas, which may have been very easily done since many of these ideas would have reflected some Neo-Platonic ideas that may have resonated already with many non-Jewish Christians. So, as regards Eph. and Col. (which I take to be Paul, not his students, but that is of secondary relevance) some of the ideas that would be adopted by the groups that came to be labeled gnostics may have existed, but ideas around incipient gnosticism may be misleading (maybe proto-gnosticism).
I say all this as someone who isn’t an avid student of gnosticism, but that is my working model right now.
I think we’re in basic agreement on your “model”. Your main point is well-taken. And there probably was a diverse proto-gnosticism, as you say, as gnosticism itself, more organized and developed, also was diverse. I think it’s hard for us to relate to (or understand) how ideas and theologies developed in that time and area…. Certainly had some parallels to processes in our times (which seem to be evolving fairly fast with the acceleration and broadening of communication, mostly via Inet).
But I think there was a lot more geographical development of sects and sub-sects than we can easily imagine. And they did so surprisingly rapidly (when we think of change being slow back then, probably mostly wrongly). Also probably some sub-development related to specific status socially and/or economically…. The broad theory for this, along with a lot of details (which are admittedly heavily speculative) exists most poignantly and well-developed in some of the books of Burton Mack, who I think is overlooked way too much… it’s just too “real-world-oriented” perhaps, rather than intellectually or spiritually inspired, as to his view of Christian origins. And he has a strong partner in Jonathan Z Smith, more an interdisciplinary historian than a biblical scholar per se — a brilliant thinker.
Interesting question. This is what K. Rudolph [‘The Relevance of Mandaean Literature to the Study of Near Eastern Religions,’ Aram 16 (2004): 1-12] says (edited to leave out his transliterations): ‘According to Mandaean tradition, the former ‘Nasoraeans’ had been expelled from Jerusalem by the Jews. The destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE) is seen as a punishment for this act. In the same context it is said that John the Baptist as a ‘disciple’ or ‘priest’ of the Nasoraeans was an opponent of Jesus Christ, who was baptized by John but then apostatized in order to establish his own community. For the Mandaeans John the Baptist is not the founder of their religion but only one of their prominent representatives – particularly over against the Muslims he is their ‘prophet’. Until now, there is no strict proof that the Mandaeans were originally followers of John the Baptist. The only testimony for such a relationship is their central rite, baptism, which cannot be performed without a priest, who, like John, is witness and performer of baptism. Without any doubt the significant water lustrations have roots in the so-called Jewish baptizing sects that flourished between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE’ (4). And then on the next page: ‘Significant for an early stage of the Mandaean religion is the impact of Gnosticism on its ideology. This can be shown by the strict dualistic world view with its two opposite principles of light and darkness and by many parallels in topics such as cosmogony and anthropogony to Gnostic sources, especially to some of the Nag Hammadi texts (e.g. Apocalypse of Adam, Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, Origin of the World). Mandaeism probably had its origin in the early history of Jewish religion before the consolidation of rabbinic orthodoxy. Its polemics against Judaism (Moses, Misha, is presented as the prophet of the bad ‘spirit’, Ruha), and Christianity (Jesus is presented as the false messiah and a manifestation of the bad planet Nbu, Mercury) must be seen as elements of the process of preserving a new religion based on Jewish and Gnostic ideas and baptist rituals, documented in a special tradition and literature’ (5). Later in the article, he acknowledges debate about whether John the Baptist has any historical connection to the Mandaeans.
Note also E. Lupieri’s informative history of the Mandaeans here: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/mandaeans-1
Thank you for sharing that excerpt. The statement about the Mandaeans wanting their own prophet to compare to Islam is very intriguing. If their decision to elevate John came after Islam emerged then it might be a much later development in their religion. This isn’t to say that Mandaeans didn’t respect John already (otherwise, why exalt John?), but that he gained more prominence later. I need to look up that article.
Also, thank you for the additional link!
This thread still has me thinking re. the Jesus-John connection, and that of the disciples of each. I’m not studying it in depth but re-looking at some of the NT texts a bit closer. A couple things stand out that I think generally we gloss over way too fast (tho I’m sure various commentators have written about copiously):
Actually the first is not in that category…. Just that I note John gets a LOT of attention overall… all 4 Gospels and Acts… while other key concepts/events get attention only from some of them, such as the virgin birth, the time and nature of the birth (i.e., its celebrants or witnesses), the teaching in the Temple at 12, etc.
In the accounts overall, there is a lot of murkiness and questions raised (as with many other things: birth, cleansing of the Temple – beginning or end of ministry (?), resurrection and post-res. accounts, etc.). In context of this discussion and other recent ones here on what John’s teachings/practices really were and their relation to those of Jesus, it now strikes me more that the accounts seem to be straining to GET Jesus connected to John and particularly to get John to “hand off” to Jesus, while endorsing him as Messiah.
For example, it’s now striking me as more than curious how John (according to both Matt. and Lk.) sent his disciples, while he was in prison, to ask Jesus essentially if he was the Messiah. Mk. and John (Gospel) seem to have John crystal clear of not only Jesus being Messiah, but of his role to introduce him, recede from the scene for Jesus to “increase”, etc. Luke, as “reconciler” or harmonizer (esp. in Acts) I can understand trying to connect two things that may have earlier, or still at the time of his writing, NOT been widely seen as connected (such as the ministry and testimonies of John and Jesus). Matt. I’m not sure about… I have no clear sense if this may be a case of perhaps both following Q (my impression is no, as that relates mainly to sayings as far as I’ve read or noted). I’ll have to look closer, longer.
But with this and the several references to differences betw. John and Jesus (esp. on fasting and communion with “tax collectors”-[marginal collaborators with Herod/Rome?] and “sinners”), including the impression of a good NUMBER of disciples of John present when Jesus was doing miracles, challenging Pharisees, etc., one senses that confusion and/or competition was strong, still at the time of the writing of all the Gospels. Otherwise, I frankly doubt that so many separate references would have been made, and in the confused fashion they are, among all the Gospels. And particularly the conveyance of uncertainty by John, right up to before his execution, as to who Jesus was, or was claiming to be. (Could this be one of the points helping Schweitzer decide, particularly confirmed in his 1951 “Kingdom of God…”, that Jesus did not likely consider himself, or at least not proclaim himself Messiah? I don’t think the point comes up in that book, as I recall, but you KNOW a lot was in his head that he couldn’t include, esp. in this lay-oriented book.)
Back to the point of the q’s by or about John’s disciples… If John had made speeches like the one in John 3, why wouldn’t they have all been clear that John had merely prepared the way for Jesus, who was now here to be followed, while John “decreased”? There does seem to have been a “problem” for the Mark/John scenario that Matt. and Luke felt needed some attention.
Its not surprising how John (according to both Matt. and Lk.) sent his disciples, while he was in prison, to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah.
Although there are many great things about John, still, he wasn’t the Messiah and knew it [John 1:27]. He had face prosecution (for speaking truth to Herod), been put in prison, and had doubts (as any mortal would) when faced with persecution, but so did Jesus [Mark 14:36] – yet both were still faithful despite these doubts.
This particular doubt happens to have been recorded. Speculating, it seems that John may have known he was going to die, and wanted to confirm that his life’s work proclaiming the messiahship of Jesus was not for nought, by seeking confirmation from Christ Himself.
This wouldn’t be the only example of someone who declared Jesus to be something then had doubts. We have Jesus’ own family at odds with him in spite of two Gospels indicating that his identity was revealed to his mother by an angelic messenger before his birth. We have Peter declaring him to be the messiah, then doubting him. We have John declaring him to be the Coming One, then having second thoughts when Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing what John imagined a messiah should be doing. So whatever we do with this tension we must realize that the Evangelists are comfortable with it. Of course, there may be an effort to reconcile, but I think they are far less bothered by their characters having lapses of belief in Jesus than we are.
That said, there is little doubt that it wasn’t a smooth transition from John to Jesus. Yet again, the Gospels don’t hide this. There is concern between the two parties about who is doing baptisms. That John in a moment of holy ecstasy would declare something (even if merely a kernel of what becomes his speeches in the Gospels) then second guess it later is beyond the possibilities of history.
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