June 22, 2021


This tiny minority of Iraqis follows an ancient Gnostic religion - and there's a chance they could be your neighbors too (James F. McGrath, 6/21/21, The Conversation)

Mandaeism, like other forms of Gnosticism, is an esoteric religion whose literature remains mostly in the hands of priestly families. Their sacred texts are written in a distinctive alphabet used only for that purpose. The contents and meaning of these works are largely unknown even to most Mandaeans, never mind others.

But the Mandeans' alternative view has periodically attracted popular interest. In the 19th century, their most important sacred text, the Great Treasure or Ginza Rba, was translated into Latin. That is believed to have contributed to the heightened interest in esoteric mysticism and spirituality in that era. However, this was largely among people who had no contact with or real awareness of the Mandaeans in the present day.

For Mandaeans, baptism is not a one-time action, but a repeated rite of of seeking forgiveness and cleansing any wrongdoing. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
The Mandaeans' central ritual is baptism: immersion in flowing water, which is referred to in Mandaic as "living water," a phrase that appears in the Bible's New Testament as well. Baptism in Mandaean faith is not a one-time action denoting conversion as in Christianity. Instead it is a repeated rite of seeking forgiveness and cleansing from wrongdoing, in preparation for the afterlife.

"Baptist" today usually denotes a form of Christianity, but Mandaeans aren't Christians. They have a special place, however, for the individual who is said to have baptized Jesus, namely John the Baptist. The Mandaean Book of John, which I was involved in translating, tells stories about John the Baptist and attributes speeches to him containing various ethical teachings.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Mandaeans received significant attention from New Testament scholars who thought that their high view of John the Baptist might mean they were the descendants of his disciples. Many historians think that Jesus of Nazareth was a disciple of John the Baptist before breaking away to form his own movement, and I am inclined to agree.

Whatever tensions and competition there may have been among Mandaeans, Jews and Christians in Iraq in the past, today they seek to coexist amicably, finding themselves in a context in which all minority groups face much the same struggle to survive and maintain their identity.

A number of Mandaean scrolls contain fascinating artwork and illustrations depicting varied images including the celestial figures mentioned in their texts, scenes from the afterlife, trees and animals. All are drawn in a style that isn't quite like what one finds in the artwork or illustrated manuscripts of other religions. One of my favorite scenes in the scroll known as Diwan Abatur depicts people being tormented with trumpets and cymbals in purgatories through which souls are liable to pass. The point is most likely the loud noise such instruments can make, and not a negative statement about music in general.

Posted by at June 22, 2021 12:00 AM