In the sixteenth or seventeenth century Portuguese missionary monks encountered the colony of a religous group which utterly amazed them. These people practiced baptism in a way that the monks identified with their own. They also observed a sacramental meal and other rites which led the monks to conclude that something very extraordinary had met their eyes in this discovery. They came to call them "Christians of John the Baptist." These were the Mandaeans. They further concluded that while there was much separating them from full Christian orthodoxy (of that we would not be surprized), insofar as their baptism was concerned it was adequate and need not be repeated for entry into full Christian communion. This stands as a contrast with those in Acts who "knew only the baptism of John the Baptist" and needed more remedial measures.
We orient our discussion of the Mandaeans around the work of Kurt Rudolph, GNOSIS. His well-illustrated chapter "A Relic: the Mandaeans" is a good treatment of our subject. Though there are those who wish to distance the Mandaeans from gnosticism, the fact that the word "Manda" means "knowledge" is convincing. Reservations about the heretical nature of all gnosticism are now relaxing. Knowledge, gnosis, is not foreign to the New Testament. Much of the work done in analyzing the Mandaean scriptures has justly identified them as "late" and "gnostic." We wish to set aside these judgements for a moment to return to the impressions felt by the Portuguese monks who did not analyze Mandaean scriptures but observed what Mandaeans did and said regarding their charter by John the Baptist. We wish to see these monks more as open-minded than ignorant.
In its maturity, the Christian sacrament of baptism was seen as efficacious in its own right. That means that it was not dependant upon the virtue or lack of virtue of the priest who administered it. The sacraments were so powerful that even the orthodoxy of the administrators was not at issue in their efficacy. We who are heirs to the protestant era know that the anabaptist (rebaptizers) impulse runs in the opposite direction. Whatever theology of the sacraments we may have, it is understandable that the monks were astounded at these baptised people who claimed the heritage of John the Baptist. The monks immediately recognized a religious kinship with them. This event stands as a milestone in the study of the Mandaeans in spite of the subsequent great skepticism about the legitimacy of their claims to a direct lineage to the Baptists of Palestine.
Rudolph's introduction to the Mandaeans is excellent:
Only one gnostic sect has survived to the present day; it has therefore been placed at the end of our historical review, although its origins probably go back to pre-Christian times. It is the community of the Mandaeans, a baptist sect, comprising about 15,000 followers, and to be found especially in the southern region of the Euphrates and Tigris in the republic of Iraq. Its present-day centres are Bagdad and Basra where all travellers are able to meet them on the gold and silver market which they practically dominate... (this predates the U.S. Iraq war; Mandaeans have reportedly fled to Australia in large numbers. -ed.) Their Muslim compatriots call them Sabians (in the vernacular: Subba), i.e. "baptists, baptizers", a name which also occurs in the Koran and which enabled them to belong to those religions which are tolerated by Islam. (p. 343)Our emphasis is on the final words of the quotation: "up to now." Rudolph seems to leave the door adjar for those who await more evidence or a more convincing argument. In reflecting on the vagueness of the picture of John the Baptist as founder of the Mandaeans one cannot help but consider just how clear the Christian gospels are about Jesus as the founder of Christianity. They also fall short of what historians would hope for. Jesus is a prophetic wonder-worker; a Jew from Galilee; crucified for claiming to be Messiah. His charter for an ongoing religion is also largely derivative.
A 2002 update on the Mandaeans:
MANDAEANS DETAINED IN INDONESIA. The Mandaean Society of America issued an urgent appeal on 12 May calling on the international community to prevent the deportation of the 158 Mandaean [The Mandaeans are also referred to as "Sabaeans"] refugees from Indonesia to Iraq. They were arrested in the process of being smuggled into a safe refuge in Australia. The Baghdad newspaper "Babil," which is under the control of Udayy Saddam Husseyn (the president's son), described these people as "traitors" on 24 April. The Mandaean Society of America notes that "if these people are returned to Iraq, they would probably face execution. Even if their names are given to the Iraqi authorities, their relatives might suffer severe punishments as well." The appeal also points out that "the Mandaeans are the only Gnostic religious sect that has survived in the world." Originally, they inhabited the marshlands in the Ahwar district of southern Iraq. Following the Gulf War, those who could left Iraq. They now live in exile in many parts of the world. Remaining in Iraq are still some 30,000-50,000 Mandaeans. As they do not accept converts for religious reasons, they have reached a point where their number cannot increase, only decrease. The appeal was addressed to Indonesia, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Red Cross. (David Nissman)
While the editorial efforts (which amount to a caveat against mistaking the Baptist for the "One" proclaimed in the fourth gospel) have convinced Bultmann and others that the author was intimate with the followers of John and may have belonged to that group initially, there appears to be other corroborative evidence for this linkage. For example, the water-based ritual of the footwashing seems to suggest a rite tailor-made for association with those observances which characterize the sect of the Baptist throughout its history.
A dilemma of the fourth gospel is its silence concerning the institution of the sacrament of the last supper. It is precisely at this point, on the "night in which he was betrayed," that in place of the synoptic charter of Christendom's premier rite there appears in John the familiar but very different rite of the footwashing. The harmonizing impulse has not succeeded in removing this offense, although every conceivable explanation has surely been advanced. The power of this impulse, not only for exegetes but for the preferences of the devout, is illustrated by the stretch that is made to explain this silence about a eucharistic institution as a deliberate "arcana," or secretiveness peculiar to gnostic practice. It is omitted to protect the hallowed rite from circulation among the uninitiated! But the rite of footwashing is itself the catharsis for the kingdom's inauguration, and might be considered exclusive unless the whole purpose is charade. Hardly so.
After the meal, a ritual is introduced beginning with a change of garment on the part of the celebrant. That this is not merely peculiar to a unique time and place such as similar accessories attendant upon, say, a miracle, is made quite explicit. The disciples are to repeat this rite as a matter of mission. One of the myriad vessels associated with Jewish rites is produced, filled with water. That this conforms with the style of the Baptists from their origin on the banks of the Jordan goes without saying.
Let us examine some of this variety of ritual vessels mentioned above. In the footwashing it is a "nipteyra" that is employed...translated "basin." But "basin" is also one of the words synonymous with "goblet" or "cup," synonymous with the vessel called "poterion,"...the Greek word "cup" of the synoptic eucharist rite, cast at this same critical time in the life of Jesus. And "poterion" has also the meaning "charger." "Charger" is used to translate the legendary "pinaki," the vessel upon which the Baptist's head was presented to Herod. Of this word "pinaki" we have the following definition (Easton's Bible Dictionary):
Basin or Bason (1) a trough or laver (Heb. aggan') for washing (Ex. 24:6) rendered also "goblet" (So 7:2) and "cups" (Is 22:24)
Obviously, the wealth of renderings has brought the linguist to the brink of despair. He might well have resisted his final speculation: "The basin in which our Lord washed the disciples' feet (Joh 13:5) must have been larger and deeper than the hand-basin."
Bearing in mind the life situation of the gospel accounts, with their role in defining cult practice and etiology, it is the more formally religious of these definitions for "basin" which emerge as the compelling choices. Thus definition (1), the household appliance, may be set aside. We move into more fertile ground as in the case of (3) "saph". Were it the case that this is the original word root of the "charger" on which the Baptist's head is presented, we should have solved the riddle of the meaning of this macabre tale reported in Mark. Any Jew familiar with temple practice would know that the irony of this murder conspiracy was revealed in the vessel used...it was the vessel of the holy sacrifice.
The same could be said of definitions (3) and (4) if one were to speak of blood only. They are sacred vessels of cultic significance. Legend has the vessel of John's martyrdom made neither of gold nor bronze, but silver. Presumeably there would be blood involved in the container of the Baptist story, and one might observe that this only exceeds in grisly aspect the Christian words of institution because of their constant repetition and our resulting familiarity...the two scenes are of the same genre.
Another puzzle of the eucharistic institution involves the consumption of blood, taboo to the Jew. At the same time, the ritual presence of blood of sacrifice is by no means strange to the Jew of temple observances. It can be noted that the story of the Baptist's death, with its symbolic presentation, is suggestive of divine meaning without the consumption of any symbolic element. A cultic meal held in observance of this might include a vessel representing that sacrifice. That is how we can make some sense of the story as it appears in Mark and would represent a cultic practice known to him. Might it have been just such a meal which preceeded the footwashing on the eve of Christ's sacrifice.
Without the words of institution, "eat" and "drink," the fourth gospel may go back to a common precursor to the Christian eucharist...the commemorative meal observing the martyrdom of the Baptist...and at the same time accommodate a Jewish sensibility about the consumption of blood.
Yet another "basin" reference, this time from the Mandean Book of John the Baptizer, chapter 1, "Portents of John's Birth:"
That a characteristic symbol (basin) of the "prophet and more" should be read back into his pre-history is not unusual, and confirms its centrality. There are here no evident links to the Johanine nativity in Luke apart from the characters nor any consciousness of Christianity. There is however, a familiar "bread and drink", "baptism" and "ascent." And what of the "pure sign?"
Not every baptism can be done in the Jordan, nor in running water, even for the devout member of the Baptist sect. Neither is every Christian eucharist an actual meal, though that was its origin. The exigencies of long time and great space dictate an abbreviated and simplified rite. Then it would not be remarkable that between the basins of his birth and death sagas, the Baptist rite should include a cathartic basin of preparation...in which the entrance of the feet would offer again the miracle of Jordan.
Did Jesus prophetically institute the consumption of his body and blood at the last supper, according to Mark, Matthew and Luke? Or did he observe a Baptist ceremony of preparation, as in John?
For more insight into the sacraments as practiced by the Mandaeans we turn to E.S. Drower's THE MANDAEANS IN IRAN AND IRAQ of 1937 (Oxford U. Pr.). There we are reminded that baptism rituals are not only initiatory, but, "The Mandaeans also baptize their dead, which may upset certain people, but this they do since they find it is needed for the Mandaean man or woman to receive blessing and benediction on their journey..." (definition; baptism)
This gives a different perspective on a washing rite at the eve of death. It also is linked with a ritual meal as again Drower illustrates: "The Masiqta, or raising up, is primarily celebrated for the service of the newly departed, and food is eaten in the name of the departed, and a priest takes his position in the participation of the rite. The most important role this ritual serves is to bestow upon the departed a spiritual garment, clean and eternal nourishment, lustrations in the holy water of life and praises sung in his name to the great counsel of heaven..." (definition: masiqta)
More detail of the Mandaean liturgical ritual from the Ginza Rba:
The priestly instructions seem universal in style, leaving nothing to chance for the novice. Another note of interest concerning the mambaha from Drower's definitions:
Mambuha: The sacramental drink drunk in connection with the Blessed Oblation, the Masiqta and the Masbuta rituals : it can be
Of particular significance is the interchange between Jordan river water and a ceremonial wine. This could point to a major linkage between Baptist and Christian practice, that is, their common origins. To point out the significance of the appearance of the sons of Noah for the Baptist sect: by the purification of the flood waters, the cleansing of mankind is accomplished by God's intervention. This is background to the role of the "waters" for their entire ethos, though it goes back also to creation and focuses later on the Red Sea and Jordan adventures of Israel. Indeed, the Mandaean authority for its ritual is generally scriptural, a rabbinic exegesis of the Hebrew Bible contemporary with and not unlike the New Testament religion.