The Mandeans and Christian Origins (R. Stahl)

In a recent post I mentioned reading a book by Robert Stahl, “Les Mandéens et les Origines Chrétiennes” (Paris, 1930). I finished it yesterday. Actually, I only read about half the book, because when I was at GTU library in Berkeley (see last post) I photocopied only what I considered the most important chapters. Here’s my comment on this interesting work…

Stahl sees the Gospel of John as dependent upon (and as a reaction against) Mandaism (pp. 10, 14). Both emphasize light/life/the word, but the main difference is that the Fourth Gospel carnalizes these in the person of Jesus. According to Stahl, GJohn was a reaction against those who considered John the Baptist to be the “Great Revealer,” and the majority of the logia attributed to Jesus were taken over from John the Baptist (134). If this is true, it means that the heart of Jesus’ teaching was in fact John’s. This, in turn, would suggest that John = Jesus. (For this thesis, see Ory’s and Price’s works elsewhere on this website.)

John the Mandean

Stahl notes Bultmann’s assertion that one can understand GJohn only if one understands its roots in the same revelation myth as that which yielded the Mandean writings (Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 24, no. 1 [1925]: 100-146). If John the Baptist was a “Mandean,” then the passage of many of his disciples to “Jesus” takes on new meaning and forces us into a deeper study of Mandaism. There are, of course, great differences between the two religions, and this shows that the passage from the one to the other (metaphorically, the passage of John’s disciples to Jesus) entailed considerable theological revision. Stahl brings up, for example, the contrasting views of the Holy Spirit. The Mandeans have a negative view of the Holy Spirit (ruha d’kudsha), while in Christianity it is altogether positive. Stahl concludes that the Mandaic negativity was a symptom of anti-Judaism, for the Jews considered the HS the inspiration for their scriptures. Stahl writes: “For the Mandeans, blaspheming against the Holy Spirit was a way to emancipate from the Jewish law” (60). Conversely, the Christians embraced the Holy Spirit which bequeathed the gift of prophecy as also the ability to speak in tongues.

I would only add one caution to this. Mandaism went through a huge transformation about the seventh century C.E. with the conquest of Islam, for Islam tolerated only “people of the book.” To my knowledge, the Mandaic texts that we have today all postdate that conquest. What we read in the Mandaic writings that have come down to us—which are confused and a veritable mish-mash—is certainly not what was in them during the earlier stages of the religion. In discussing the alleged “Mandaism of John the Baptist” it is necessary to identify the pre-Islamic elements in the Mandaic corpus (attempted by Reitzenstein in his Mandäische Buch des Herrn der Grosse, 1919).

Apollos the Mandean

Stahl emphasizes the role of Apollos. He notes that 1 Cor 1:12 divides the Corinthian believers into three camps: followers of Paul, followers of Apollos, and followers of Peter. Thus, Apollos at one stage apparently had the same stature as Peter and Paul (151).

Apollos and the group around him at Ephesus (Acts 18:24 ff) were, according to Stahl, Mandeans who did not know the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2, p. 126). Stahl then presents a theory of Christian origins, which had several stages: the Jews were infuriated by the teachings and disciples of the Baptist and, in retaliation, “seized their revealer, Judaized him, and made him into a Jewish hero conforming to Old Testament models: a Samson, a Samuel, a nazirite, and a prophet inspired by the Holy Spirit (127).” This was a stage on the way to the Christian “Jesus.”

Stahl loses me on a couple of points. First of all, he recognizes that Apollos was from Alexandria and was a learned man “well versed in the scriptures” (Acts 18:24). From this, however, he supposes that Apollos must have also been a devotee of Philo Judaeus (153). This is certainly possible but I find it speculative. However, the Gospel of John “presupposes a range of ideas having a remarkable resemblance to those of Hellenistic Judaism as represented by Philo,” as C. H. Dodd (1953:73) writes and Stahl affirms.

Secondly, Stahl draws parallels between Simon Peter and Symeon, the old man of Jerusalem who “should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Lk 2:26). He writes: “Could it be that the tradition has confounded the two Symeons, or perhaps that the old Symeon and Simon Peter are two aspects of the same person doubled by the tradition?” (133). Stahl also brings in the Beloved Disciple (who should not see death until Jesus returns, Jn 20:23). Again, this may be possible, but for me Stahl does not make these links convincing.


One of Stahl’s most audacious proposals is that John the Baptist or one of his disciples authored the seven letters to the churches in the Book of Revelation 2-3. He characterizes those letters as reflecting Mandean animosity against the incipient Christian churches of Paul (157).

Stahl is not a mythicist and never doubts the existence of “Jesus of Nazareth” (160). He posits two messianic figures—much like the two messiahs of the Jews. One was the priestly messiah, the other the royal messiah. (On the two messiahs in Judaism, see Torrey). The Christians, according to Stahl, simply united the two figures into one, essentially jettisoning John the Baptist in the process (165). Originally, however, there were two closely related sects: Mandaism and Christianity. The respective followers of John and Jesus had great mutual animosity, as might siblings who are at odds. One significant difference was the attitude towards Judaism: the Mandeans rejected both the Law and the “Holy Spirit,” while the Christians accommodated these (184).

Four years after Stahl’s book appeared, Alfred Loisy wrote a monograph with the exact same title and probably in reaction to the former. My report on Loisy’s unsatisfactory monograph is here.


Comment on the Baptist and baptism

I, personally, am quite convinced that “John the Baptist” (an epithet, not a name) lay at the root of Christianity rather than “Jesus.” The subject of baptism needs to be moved front and center, in my opinion. After all, according to Mk 1:4 John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Now, according to Mandean scripture, dipping into the yam suf (underworld sea) “removes sins” and renders one “white as sesame” (Book of John 270). Mandean writings portray the Jordan’s “living water” as a symbol of gnosis. Thus, “baptism” is immersion in gnosis.

The association between water and gnosis is a very ancient belief which goes at least as far back as Bronze Age times, when the underground sea (Abzu) was associated with hidden knowledge. In the Abzu the sun was rejuvenated every night (in its passage from the western to the eastern horizon under the earth), to be reborn in the morning.

The Yam Suf, furthermore, is none other than the sea through which Moses passed with the Israelites (Ex 19:4 etc., often translated “Sea of Reeds” or—even worse—“Red Sea”). In Hebrew, suf means “ending” (BDB 5486) and here we may have a gnostic connotation (“ending of ignorance”). But we are now going far afield. It is enough to assert that an ancient gnostic thread binds Moses, the Exodus, the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua (“Jesus”), and John the Baptist who “baptized” in the Jordan.—René Salm

Crossing the Red Sea (Russian fresco)


The Mandeans and Christian Origins (R. Stahl) — 1 Comment

  1. I wrote a book about this (see my booksite). I think John was Jesus. The NT is an attempt to HIDE John and James as Masters by inventing a third: Jesus. You might find my book compelling reading, since I HAVE a Master (Maharaj Charan Singh, Radha Soami Satsang Beas). I know you are atheist, but read it anyway. If you don’t want it buy it, I’ll email the pdf.