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Mandaean Religion


The syncretistic, Gnostic religion of the pagan baptist sect of Mandaeans who survive in small numbers in southern Iraq and Iran. They were first brought to the attention of the West by 16th and 17th-century merchants and missionaries and erroneously called Christians of St. John because of their veneration for John the Baptist. Scientific study of Mandaeism began in the 19th century with the travels and writings of H. Petermann and the grammar of Mandaean, a dialect of East Aramaic, by T. Nöldeke (1875). The works of W. Brandt and M. Lidzbarski and, more recently, the many manuscripts obtained and published by Lady E. S. Drower, furnish copious documentation for Mandaeism but do not fully solve its problems.

The name Mandaean means "gnostic," from the Aramaic maddā <mandā' "knowledge." Other names used are abaeans, "baptizers," and Naoraeans, probably "observers" (of the code and cult). The name observers is more properly reserved for the priests who are fully initiated into the esoteric doctrine. The sect won toleration from the conquering Muslims as a "people of the book" because they possessed their own literature, which may have been set down or at least first collected for that purpose in the 7th and 8th centuries a.d. Their principal works include the Ginza (Treasure) or Book of Adam, the Book of John, the Canonical Prayerbook, and many esoteric works of varying antiquity. Generally, these are not unified compositions but loose collections of cultic and other materials, many of them traditional and very ancient.

Mandaean ritual life is more important than its mythological framework and may indeed be more primitive. The two principal rites are the mabūtā or baptism, a frequently repeated ritual washing in "living" (i.e., running) water, and the masiqtā, a ceremony for the dead which includes a sacred meal. The teaching combines elements of Jewish, Iranian, Babylonian, Gnostic, and Christian origin into a nonphilosophical synthesis with an underlying dualism contrasting light and darkness, the world of spirits (Uthras ) and the earth, the supreme being Great Life or Lord and the evil Holy Spirit, the human soul and the body. Salvation is possible by an ascent of the soul to the world of light, which is to be achieved by knowledge, ethical living, and practice of the cult. The savior figure is called Hibil-Ziwa (Abel-radiance). The strict moral code of Mandaeism is of Jewish origin.

The antiquity and provenance of the Mandaeans are disputed. Extrinsic evidences make it reasonably certain that the sect existed in the 4th or 5th century a.d. and some scholars are reluctant to go any further. T. Säve-Söderbergh [Studies in the Coptic-Manichean Psalmbook (Uppsala 1949)] has argued that the 3d-century Manichean Psalms of Thomas depend on Mandaean hymns, which are therefore older. Other arguments based on the peculiar Mandaean script, certain elements of cultic practice, etc., would place Mandaeism in the earliest Christian or even pre-Christian times. It was once thought to have originated in Mesopotamia or Iran, where it certainly flourished at an early date, but most authorities now think it had Palestinian or Syrian origin. For the sect's migration to the East under persecution, a date around a.d. 38 has recently been proposed [R. Macuch, "Alter und Heimat des Mandäismus nach neuerschlossenen Quellen," Theologische Literaturzeitung 82 (1957) 401408]. The Mandaeans probably developed from a heretical Jewish baptist sect under Gnostic influence. Mandaean influence upon the NT is improbable, though remote parallelism is to be expected from their common Palestinian background.

See Also: gnosticism; aramaic; manichaeism.

Bibliography: Texts and translations. m. lidzbarski, Ginza: Der Schatz oder das Grosse Buch der Mandäer (Göttingen 1925); Das Johannesbuch der Mandäer, 2 v. (Giessen 1915). e. s. drower, The Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans (Leiden 1959); Diwan Abatur or Progress through the Purgatories (Studi e Testi 151; 1950); The Haran Gawaita and the Baptism of Hibil Ziwa (Studi e Testi 176; 1953); The Thousand and Twelve Questions (Berlin 1960). Bibliographies. s. a. pallis, Essay on Mandaean Bibliography 15601930 (London 1933). s. schulz, "Die Bedeutung neuer Gnosisfunde für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft," Theologische Rundschau 26 (1960) 301329. Studies. w. brandt, Die Mandäer, ihre Religion und ihre Geschichte (Amsterdam 1915). j. schmid, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 6:134347. c. colpe, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 4:709712. e. s. drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Oxford 1937; reprint 1962); The Secret Adam (Oxford 1960). k. rudolph, Die Mandäer, 2 v. (Göttingen 196061) v. l Prolegomena: Das Mandäerproblem, v. 2 Der Kult. e. s. drower and r. macuch, A Mandaic Dictionary (Oxford 1963).

[g. w. macrae]

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