Mandaeans

The only-known Gnostic* sect surviving into the present century. Numbering only a few thousand, they are located in S Iraq and Khuzistan, and no longer use the language of their sacred books, speaking instead dialectal Arabic. Mandaic thought from the beginning (i.e., a.d. second century, at latest) was assimilated less to Western concepts than was Hellenism, and remained characterized by a syncretism of highly complex elements which defies systematization. These elements include biblical and other West Semitic materials, late Babylonian ingredients (especially astrological), Iranian dualism, and a peculiar concern for a highly legendized John the Baptist (the source of their designation as “St. John's Christians”).

Their significant literature includes doctrinal treatises, liturgical materials, and a variety of popular works including phylactery rolls and incantation bowls. There are three ranks of cult officials; assistants, ordinary priests, and overseers. These preside over two fundamental rites: a frequent ritual washing in the name of Life and the “knowledge of life,” and a “deathbed” washing. The former includes anointing with oil and a sacramental meal of bread and holy water.

While known to Westerners since the sixteenth century, publication of Mandaean texts began in the late nineteenth century. Mandaean studies are valuable for the history of religions, and gained further significance with R. Bultmann* and his school in their work on John's gospel.

See E.S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (1937; rep. 1962), and G. Widengren, “Die Mandäer,” in Religionsgeschichte des Orients in der Zeit der Weltreligionen (1961), pp. 83- 101.