Loisy disappoints

A Review of Le Mandéisme et les Origines Chrétiennes (Paris: Nourry, 1934)

I just finished reading Alfred Loisy’s book on Mandeism. It was a disappointment. Given the high regard that many mythicists retain for Loisy, this came as something of a surprise. Yet, the little I have personally interacted with Loisy’s work has, admittedly, been less than satisfactory. I feel it’s time to give my reasons and to call Loisy out.

From the Mythicist Timeline:

– Listed in the Timeline as a Jesus “skeptic,” Loisy was a historicist and is often termed a “modernist.” He was excommunicated (1908).
– Loisy argued that, though Christianity was complex, from the beginning it saw the presence of God in Jesus.
– Loisy was instrumental in having the skeptic Joseph Turmel’s works published under no less than fourteen pseudonyms from 1909 to 1930, at which time Turmel himself was finally excommunicated (1927). Loisy also helped the mythicist Prosper Alfaric (1932).

Alfred Loisy

In 1930, the mythicist Robert Stahl published a book with the title Les Mandéens et les Origines Chrétiennes. My comments on Stahl’s book appeared a couple of weeks ago. In Loisy’s words, Stahl concluded that “the author of the Fourth Gospel invented the historicity of Jesus in order to counter the Mandean John [the Baptist]—” (Loisy p. 9). This not only proposed Jesus mythicism, but also that Mandeism predated the Fourth Gospel. Evidently, Loisy was so upset with Stahl’s reading of history that he wrote a book bearing almost the exact same title: Le Mandéisme et les Origines Chrétiennes. Loisy thus attempted to “set the record straight.” However, he does nothing of the sort.

Loisy is famous for his dictum that “Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church.” This attitude, fleshed out in his many books and articles, was sufficient to earn him the eternal hatred of the Vatican which excommunicated him in 1908. Nevertheless, we see from the dictum itself that Loisy had the hightest regard for Jesus, whose existence he never doubted. In the late 1930s Loisy engaged in an acrid exchange with Couchoud regarding this question. Couchoud was right, however, and Loisy wrong. Similarly, in presuming to “rewrite” a book on the Mandeans (tantamount to an academic insult), Loisy in my opinion falls on his head.

The whole thrust of Loisy’s book is to show that Mandeism is late. For him, Mandeism is a borrowing from, and a corruption of, the canonical gospels. Therefore Mandeism can offer nothing of value regarding Christian origins. Over and over Loisy views Mandeism through Christian eyes. He is simply unable (or unwilling) to consider it on its own (pp. 21, 45, 87, 120, 145, Chp. 4).

Loisy is also obviously out of sympathy with his subject. Mandeism is a gnostic religion. It hardly occurs to him that its mythology is late and that it metaphorically illustrates deeper spiritual dynamics. For Loisy, Mandeism is merely a complex gnostic mythology which never made much sense to outsiders—nor, in fact, ever made sense at all (Chp.5). Countless times he deprecates the Mandeans and their writings, referring to their scriptures variously as “a very mediocre compilation” and a “jumble,” (18), “a relatively late and insignificant product” (21), “a comic novel” (44), “an incoherant fantasmagory” and a “mediocre allegory” (59), an “incoherant myth” (62), “a ridiculous fantasy” (66), “an ingenious fiction” (84), and so on. The Mandean baptism is an “insignificant rite” in comparison to the Christian sacrament (121). The anti-Jewish strain in Mandeism Loisy ascribes to “jealousy” (66).

As an historicist, Loisy treats passages in the 4G as history. For example, he seems well informed on John’s baptism: “It seems clear enough that, historically, the Christian baptism was in the first instance a simple rite adopted to its own ends and similar to that practiced by John who, as far as we are informed, baptised without the complication of a liturgy” (138). It would come as a shock to Loisy to learn that “John the Baptist” is a euphemism and that “baptism in the Jordan” is a metaphor for “dipping into gnosis” (according to the Mandean interpretation). In other words, nobody actually baptised in the Jordan River. That is a Christian reification, invented in order to combat a pre-existing gnostic religion. The names of that pre-Christian gnostic religion vary. Some call it Nazoreanism. Others call it Mandeism.

Loisy rarely gives reasons for his summary assertions and, when he does, they are insufficient or even circular. Witness the following sentence which follows upon the one cited in the last paragraph: “Deriving from John’s baptism, it [i.e., Christian baptism] is not the Mandean baptism—since the baptism of John was altogether different from the Mandean baptism.” This, of course, depends upon Loisy knowing precisely what John’s baptism was. In fact, Loisy didn’t have a clue, as noted in the preceding paragraph. Another example: Loisy supposes that a certain “Ado” founded Mandeism, and that this Ado was forgotten “spontaneously, the sect [which he founded] lacking originality because its founder had none and that he did not profoundly impress the sect which came from him” (143). Such shocking writing is both demeaning and circular.

When the facts to not fit his thesis of late Mandean origins, Loisy simply questions the facts: “Did Theodore bar Koni understand wrongly,” he asks in one place (144). Despite his proven erudition, Loisy is also unaware of important aspects of intertestamental Judaism. He argues that resurrection from the dead and the triumph of the messiah are Christian markers (144). But both were familiar to Second Temple Judaism (see Torrey’s discussion of 2-3 Baruch).

It is ironic how wrongheaded Loisy can be. He writes: “Everything which Mandeism reports regarding John and Jesus is but fiction, late myth, caricature, especially as regards Jesus…” (147) This would be correct if one changed the word “Mandeism” to “Christianity”!

At critical points Loisy is very wrong. He thinks (18) that the Mandean self-referent “Nazorean” was borrowed from Christianity! In Mandeism, however, the word meant “guardian of mysteries” and “skilled in esoteric knowledge” (Drower & Macuch, A Mandaic Dictionary, 285), and these meanings are not apparent in Christianity, where the word was artificially linked to the town of Nazareth (Mt 2:23)—again, invented in order to combat a pre-existing gnostic religion. On flimsy grounds Loisy denies the Palestinian origin of Mandeism (90). He seems to think astrotheology is about planets when it is really about abstract concepts symbolized by the planets (63). He thinks Paulinism is earlier while Nazoreanism is late (136—the reverse is correct).

To be fair, there are certain positive points to this book. Loisy discusses the “Kanteans” as probable gnostic precursors of the Mandeans (89 f.). I have not been able to find further information on this mysterious sect which, significantly, has links to the god Nergal and the Babylonian city of Cutha—from whence, it will be recalled, came the Samaritans. Loisy also furnishes a wealth of Mandaic citations which will be of value to those without access to the primary texts.

In this book, Loisy has the temerity to attack Reizenstein, Couchoud, and Stahl by name. He should have known better, for those whom Loisy attacks obviously knew far more about the subject than did he. It is surprising to me that a scholar of such apparently august standing as Loisy could be so ill-suited to his task as to appear like a bull in a china shop.—René Salm

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