Holy Mandaeism: A New Old Thing

I confess that I have been in a bit of a rut.  Not much has surprised or impressed me recently.  I try to find new music, but it sounds like the same old stuff.  I haven’t read a book that really made me sit up and take notice in over a year.  Even Bible commentaries that I read in preparing for sermons seem tried and tired.  Well, in just two weeks I seem to have hit the jackpot of things new and interesting.   I have already written about the first of these, Whittier’s poem, The Brewing of Soma.  The second was an interesting perspective on Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth that draws from rabbinic midrash (I’ll post the link to the resulting sermon).  The third, and perhaps most astonishing, “new thing” happened today.

I met a lovely family of recent immigrants from Iraq .  In the course of our conversation I learned that they are followers of John the Baptist.  Really?!  Really!  In the course of my seminary studies I learned that John the Baptist had his own followers that believed that he was a more important prophet than Jesus.  Some thought John might be the promised Messiah.  The gospel writers sought to lay this perspective to rest, having John himself pronounce Jesus’ divinity.  Luke writes: “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming ; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'”  I knew this much.  But I had no idea that there were still followers of John the Baptist walking the earth.

“We are cousins,” said one of these Iraqi gentlemen, “like Elizabeth and Mary!”  Again, Wow!  Here is someone from Iraq who is reaching out as long lost family, recalling the connection we share through Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother) and Mary (Jesus’ mother).  That’s  just crazy cool.  The circumstances didn’t allow a full exploration of the history or beliefs of these good people, but as soon as the conversation ended I went straight to Google and entered “Iraq followers of John the Baptist.”  And there they were (in Wikipedia, of course) Mandaeans!  Having just provided the link, I won’t repeat everything I learned, but in short, Mandaesim is a monotheistic religion with a strongly dualistic world view that reveres Adam, Abel, Noah and especially John the Baptist.  The Mandaens “may be the only sect from late Antiquity to identify themselves explicitly as Gnostics.”  There were about 70,000 Mandaens in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, but all but about 7,000 if those have fled to Jordan and Syria to escape persecution.  A very few have been able to immigrate to the U.S.  Fascinating.  I can only hope that I will have the opportunity to deepen my relationship with these, my cousins, and their ancient faith.

Lest I ever doubt, it is just as the UCC proclaims – God is Still Speaking in new old ways!

Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 2:07 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. Nice blog, George. Never heard of the Mandeans before this, but I knew that John the Baptist had followers. Gerd Theissen’s book “in the … of the messiah” makes those dynamics clear. The blog is — as you said it would be — a way to percolate ideas. I like it. I also note that you write/publish at 2 am. I remember the days in the ministry when the idea strikes and/or when you can’t sleep and seeing where it goes. Ah, ministry.

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