Hypothesis regarding John the Baptist
by Georges Ory
Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan, no. 10 (1956)
Translated by R. Salm
(Note: Editorial additions are in brackets and/or are signed “RS”)
Apollos and the baptism of John
The accounts of the famous baptism are contradictory and incoherent. Moreover, that found in the Fourth Gospel is an interpolation from 1:29 (“Here is the lamb of God…”) to 1:36 (“here is the lamb of God”), the lamb having replaced God or the Son of God.
According to Acts 18:24ff a certain Jew named Apollos arrived in Ephesus, a man well versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed into the Way of the Lord and taught with precision concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.13 It is surprising that one could know “the things concerning Jesus” without knowing the baptism of the Spirit, but that did not prevent the later redactor of this passage from relating that Apollos successfully preached the kingdom of God. Such, at least, was the primitive texts of Acts in this passage, which we can reconstruct as follows:
/24/ Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures. /25/ He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. /26/ He began to speak boldly in the synagogue /19.8/ and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God. /9/ When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. /30/ This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.
An editor interpolated a passage into the text beginning at 18:26 (“He began to speak boldly…”) and continued until 19:8 (“spoke out boldly and persuasively”), so that we obtain the passage as it presently appears (the interpolated portion is in bold):
/24/ Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. he was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures. /25/ He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. /26/ He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. /27/ And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. On his arrival he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers, /28/ for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.
This interpolation depicts Priscilla and Aquila perfecting the knowledge of Apollos by explaining to him in detail the Way of God according to Jewish-Christian doctrine. However, this depiction is incompatible with the rupture between the Jewish-Christians and Apollos recorded in the primitive text (19:9).
The manipulation of the text does not end there. A second redactor wished to give a further example of true Christian baptism. He inserted a second passage (19:1-7) into the first interpolation, a passage which completes the religious instruction of certain13+ disciples who, despite their title of disciples, had never heard of the Holy Spirit (v. 2) and therefore had not been baptized in its name. They knew only the baptism of John. “When Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them” (v. 6). But we are dealing here with a pious forgery, for Paul elsewhere affirms that he baptized no one and contented himself with preaching the gospel (1 Cor 1:14-17).
The complementarity of the text (Acts 18:26 and 19:8, both with forms of parrêsiazomai, “speak boldly”) frames an interpolation with repetition. The result is that Apollos’ original instruction in the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus is ultimately attributed to Paul.
Baptism in the name of Jesus appeared relatively late. Nowhere do the synoptic gospels reveal that Jesus baptized. While the Fourth Gospel declares that Jesus was baptized, it insists that his disciples alone baptized (Jn 4:2).
The baptism of the Spirit appeared long after the baptism of John, very probably in the second century, after the appearance of baptism in the name of Jesus—something necessarily unknown to John, who came before Jesus.14
Thus, it became necessary to supplement the gospels, which ignored them, with baptisms in the Spirit and in the name of Jesus. These two baptisms later fused to become the baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity.15 Given these facts, it is not surprising that the primitive baptism of John was completely lost to view, was forgotten, and was a rite finally considered entirely foreign to Christianity.
The Mandean baptism of John
Are we able, at this point, to understand the significance of John’s primitive baptism? Let us momentarily refer back to our study regarding the “Divine child,”16 to the creator god whose habitual dwelling is water. That god says to the hermit: “I am your ancestor, the primordial being who confers life, primordial man…” Does not this myth occur elsewhere only in India?17
Mandean literature has preserved the trace of an account which proceeds from the same inspiration and which also approaches the Christian notion of baptism. According to the Ginza (190-96), the divine Manda d’Hayye (“Knowledge of Life,” or “Living Gnosis”) appears at the River Jordan in the guise of a child of three years and a day [that is, 1,096 days]. John is present. He has been active in his ministry already for forty-two years. The child greets him and insists upon being baptized. After hesitating for a long time, John makes up his mind. He carries out the rite of opening the waters, descending into the river, extending his arms, and receiving Manda d’Hayye.
At the presence of the young god, the waters of the river come together with such force that John can scarcely stand. But when the child looks at the Jordan the waves stop, withdraw, and John realizes with astonishment that the riverbed is dry under his feet. With John, Manda d’Hayye wishes to follow the Jordan to its ultimate source, the world sea. On the banks of the river the fish open their mouths and the birds their beaks. They all sing: “Blessed are you, Manda d’Hayye! Blessed is the place whence you came, and the place whither you shall go!”
Confronted with this miracle, John realizes that standing before him is He in whose name John administers the baptism of life, He whose name is now revealed, “the name ruling the future which must come,” the name Mana (Spirit). John then asks God to baptize him: “Now, place your hand of truth upon me, and your great authority of healing. Pronounce upon me the name of the first life.” But Manda d’Hayye informs John that the baptism He gives signals the death of all that is terrestrial: “If I place my hand upon you, you will separate from your body.”
John accepts death in order to understand “the great fruit of light, the water in which the living fire of life burns.” The divine child bequeaths his raiment of flesh and blood to John, in order to gird him with a robe of splendor and to dress him with a turban of light. From the two banks of the world-ocean of light John views his terrestrial carcass over which the fish and birds congregate, and he intones the long prayer which he addresses to God. Manda d’Hayye clothes John with sable. The various stages of John’s ascent to heaven are then described.
According to this account, Manda d’Hayye (the Savior) is contrary to the Christian conception of the messiah. Certain scholars have recognized that he was an avatar of the ancient Babylonian god Marduk who delivered the world from chaos—which agrees with the presence of Assyro-Babylonian elements in the most ancient Mandean texts.18
Many authors have studied Mandeism without distinguishing between what was anterior to Christianity and what was added subsequent to the primitive texts. For them, priority belongs to the Christian texts. This affirmation needs to be revised, for many indications suggest, on the contrary, that the Catholics borrowed and modified (not to mention destroyed) Mandean texts and traditions.
Unwilling to enter into discussion, traditionalist scholars will object that there is no mention in the Gospels of the Jordan waters receding. They will point out that Christian baptism was not a prelude to death. Finally, they will state that Jesus did not appear in the form of a child.19 It is a mistake, they will conclude, to attach too much importance to the preceding arguments.
In fact—though the element has disappeared in the Gospels whereby the waters of the Jordan recede to expose dry ground20—it frequently returns in Christian baptismal iconography. We find it also in the two epiphany hymns of Ephrem Syrus. We learn in the Itinerary of the Piacenza pilgrim (Antony of Piacenza) that a wooden cross marked the spot in the Jordan where the water receded before Jesus. Similarly, the Chronicle of Alexandria (VII CE) reports that at the moment of baptism, the waters of the Jordan receded: “The Savior ordered John to say to the river, ‘Stop, the Savior has come among us!’ ” And, indeed, the river immediately stopped.21
Thus, from the first representations of the baptism until at least the seventh century, the Church certainly knew a mythical detail of the baptism that does not appear (or no longer appears) in the Gospels.
The baptism which the Mandean John received, we can aver, shortly preceded the prophet’s disappearance. It was the sacrament of immortality at the threshold of death.22
On the other hand, the baptism of John, precursor of Jesus, procured only repentance for the remission of sins. We recall that after the canonical account of the baptism between John and Jesus, John disappears. His role is finished. It is Jesus who takes his place.23 This coincidence is troubling.
We recall that at Luke 1:66, at the end of the account of John’s birth, all said: “What then will this child be? For the hand of the Lord was upon him.” The expression is Mandean.
Nor should we forget that the idea of death was primitively associated with baptism. [See note 22—RS] We read at Romans 6:3-4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”24 Here we have the death of Christ at the time of baptism, an idea which can in no wise be explained by the crucifixion.25
The actual account of the baptism of the adult Jesus, and Luke’s text (3:23)—which tell us that Jesus was thirty years old at the time of his baptism—do not accord with certain frescoes from the end of II CE, nor with certain ivories and with some sarcophagi decorated with the baptismal scene. In these latter cases, the baptized Jesus is represented as a youth. Moreover, John the Baptist is often shown placing his hand on the head of the young Jesus. Now, this gesture (which became the “Imposition of hands” in Christianity) was among the Mandeans part of the ceremony of baptism itself. Here the Christian Jesus rejoins Manda d’Hayye, the divine child, the primordial being.
The resemblance between Jesus and the Mandean god is much more astonishing in the Gospel of Thomas, where the child Jesus affirms that he knows more than men because he existed “before the ages.”26 In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, he declares that he has no father according to the flesh and that he existed “before the Law.”27
In many places in the New Testament, Jesus is treated as the eternal savior, as God who has existed forever. He himself represents the primordial being, the Son of God. What form did this God-son take in the imagination of his followers?
We recall (above) Luke’s indication regarding the date when John the Baptist received the work of God. Let us consider the declaration of Marcion: “In the fifteenth year of Tiberias, Jesus Christ, the Saving Spirit, deigned to come down from heaven.” It is clear that this Jesus is not a man but an aeon who accepts to leave the divine Pleroma. Luke tells us why: to give the word of God to John. The Gospel of John (1:6) confirms this: John is sent by God to witness to the Kingdom of Light. The baptismal scene occurs between the god Jesus and the man John. Primitively, it was comparable to the baptism of John by Manda d’Hayye. The baptism was gnostic.28 Jesus, however, being taken for a man and John having been elevated to the Kingdom of Light—it was Jesus who became the hero of the tale.29
The Gospel of John itself calls attention to the difference which exists between that which is of the earth and that which is of heaven (2:31).
13. This was the baptism of water, not of the Spirit.—RS.
13+. Ory writes “twelve” disciples but, as far as I know, the number of disciples is nowhere enumerated in the manuscripts of this passage, where we encounter tinas mathêtas or simply tois mathêtais.—RS.
14. Thus, Ory posits the following sequence: (1) the water baptism of John; (2) the baptism in the name of Jesus; (3) the baptism by the Holy Spirit. However, one may ask: What meaning does a baptism without the spirit have? It is hardly possible to suppose that the prophet John the Baptist baptized without any claim to the “spirit.” Far more probable is that only the emergent Church impugned John’s baptism as being without the “Holy Spirit.” Furthermore, “Jesus” originally was the Holy Spirit (Ieshua in Semitic = that which “saves”). John’s spiritual baptism must have been the equivalent of baptism by “Jesus” ( = the Holy Spirit). The Paulines sought to separate the Baptist from the spirit (“Jesus”) in their attempt to find a human vessel for the kerygma. This vessel “Jesus” required an entirely marvelous and miraculous biography, for the kerygma was itself marvelous and miraculous. John’s actual, mundane, prophetic, and vital activity was denigrated by the Pauline evangelists, resulting in a reduction of John’s spiritual (read: gnostic) baptism to one merely of “water” (Mk 1:8 and parallels). The Paulines transferred the genuine baptism by the spirit to their artificial God-man: Jesus of Nazareth.—RS
15. Matthew alone (28:19, in a passage added later to his gospel) attributes the institution of baptism to Jesus, but not to the living Jesus—the evangelist ascribes it to the risen Jesus—a new miracle that has convinced many historians.
16. Bulletin Ernest Renan, no. 37 (June 1956), entitled “Un rite magique de Simon le Samaritain.”
17. In Vedic mythology, Prajapati dismembers himself and thus brings about the cosmos.—RS
18. Ory is correct in seeing ancient Mesopotamian elements in Mandeism, but those elements echo not Marduk (a solar god) but more likely his sometime adversary Sin/Enki, the moon god of water, of the underworld, and of gnosis even in Bronze Age times.—RS
19. But now see GTh and the Nag Hammadi scriptures.—RS
20. This legendary element might indicate that Moses and Joshua, as well as Theudas (Josephus Ant. XX.5.1) were baptizers.
21. We cannot admit as evidence—for or against—certain Psalms (notably 114:3) whose origin and date is unknown.
22. Again, the terms must be interpreted spiritually. The Mandean baptism marked the vital, transitional, moment in the gnostic’s life. It was the very acquisition of gnosis, a boon which bequeathed death to the old spirit but life to the new. Cf. Jn 3:3.—RS
23. The baptism ( = gnostic enlightenment) marked the transition from “John” to “Jesus.” These names were a first effort to differentiate the pre-enlightenment (pre-baptist) saintly human “John” from the post-enlightenment avatar who has found gnosis, “Jesus.” The finding of gnosis, thus, is passage from ignorance to understanding and is the original meaning of “baptism.” Before his enlightenment, the human was “John.” Afterwards, he was identified with the gnosis he carried. i.e., “that which saves” = Jeshua.
24. This Pauline passage makes graphically evident how the gnostic origin of baptism was forgotten. ‘The new life in gnosis’ gave way to ‘the new life in Jesus.’ Gnosis and Jesus were originally identical. However, when they were separated, “Jesus” took on a life, character—and eventually biography—of his own, and faith in that invented Jesus replaced gnosis.—RS
25. Nevertheless, in Paul’s mind and in the subsequent Church, the baptism was transferred to the crucifixion. A personal, spiritual, and gnostic victory was transformed by Paul into a cosmic, fleshly (at the moment of death), and vicarious victory for all of us.—RS
26. Perhaps Ory has Th 19 in mind here. Parallels are Jn 8:58 and GPh 64:10.—RS
27. The theology implied is significant. If ‘Jesus’ has no father according to the flesh, then he is (1) pure spirit (= docetism); and (2) the flesh must be ‘abandoned’ (transcended, sacrificed, made ‘dead’) before the mantle of ‘Jesus’ can be put on, like a ‘robe’ (also an ancient gnostic symbol). Many of these gnostic symbols were taken over by Paul and the incipient Church after their rich gnostic meanings were removed.—RS
28. I.e., “Jesus” = the Holy Spirit, and the baptism of “John” was his enlightenment with the Holy Spirit, his becoming filled with “the Jesus,” that is, saving gnosis.—RS
29. A carnalized Jesus is indeed the hero of the tale for Christians who forgot about gnosis, while John remained the hero of the tale for Mandeans who preserved the gnostic roots and who, furthermore, repudiated the “lie” of a carnalized Jesus. In Mandeism there is no incarnation.—RS