Saving the Mandeans

johnbaptist
Geertgen tot Sint Jans (15th century): “John the Baptist

In the Christian Gospels, there is an interesting episode when the pregnant Mary, the mother of Jesus goes to meet her cousin Elizabeth, who herself is pregnant with the child who would later be known as John the Baptist. In Luke (1:44) Elizabeth tells Mary, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy”, because the baby knew that he was in the presence of the Messiah.

In his lectures on the Historical Jesus at Stanford University, Prof. Thomas Sheehan tells that such bits were added by Christian writers to emphasize that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus never thought of himself as the Messiah, but as we move forward in time, we can see the scriptures being written to make it appear that way.

According to Paul, who wrote in 50 CE, about 20 years after Jesus’ death, Jesus became a Messiah after his death when he was taken by God, but according to Mark who wrote in 70 CE, Jesus became a Messiah when he was dunked in river Jordan by John the Baptist. As per Luke, who wrote much after Mark, Jesus is the Messiah from the moment he was in the womb.

According to the Gospels, the ministry of Jesus starts when he is baptised by John. In fact, Jesus hears about John, goes to river Jordan and asks that he be baptised. After that John takes Jesus under his tutelage and becomes his teacher. This became a problem for later Christians because it looked odd when the Messiah became a student of John, so the texts were modified to make John say that he is not the Messiah and someone would come after him. This also accounts for the happiness of the baby John in the uterus.

While John the Baptist is considered a prophet by Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith, Mandeans, a minority community in Iraq consider him to be God’s most honorable messenger. Besides that they think Jesus was a “false messiah” who perverted the teachings of John the Baptist. The Mandeans also believe that Abraham, Moses and Mohammad were also false prophets, but recognize some figures from the monotheistic religions like Adam, Noah, etc.

Now with the war in Iraq, the Mandeans and their 2000 year old culture is facing extinction.

The Mandeans are the only surviving Gnostics from antiquity, cousins of the people who produced the Nag Hammadi writings like the Gospel of Thomas, a work that sheds invaluable light on the many ways in which Jesus was perceived in the early Christian period. The Mandeans have their own language (Mandaic, a form of Aramaic close to the dialect of the Babylonian Talmud), an impressive body of literature, and a treasury of cultural and religious traditions amassed over two millennia of living in the southern marshes of present-day Iraq and Iran.

Like their ancestors, contemporary Mandeans were able to survive as a community because of the delicate balance achieved among Iraq’s many peoples over centuries of cohabitation. But our reckless prosecution of the war destroyed this balance, and the Mandeans, whose pacifist religion prohibits them from carrying weapons even for self-defense, found themselves victims of kidnappings, extortion, rapes, beatings, murders and forced conversions carried out by radical Islamic groups and common criminals.

Mandean activists have told me that the best hope for their ancient culture to survive is if a critical mass of Mandeans is allowed to settle in the United States, where they could rebuild their community and practice their traditions without fear of persecution. If this does not happen, individual Mandeans may survive for another generation, isolated in countries around the world, but the community and its culture may disappear forever.[Save the Gnostics ]

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