I. Searching for the original idea of Gnosticism

Gnosticism is an enlightening theory which was originally based on old Greek and/or Oriental ideas (1), then introduced to a religious movement with the aim of awakening (resurrection). More precisely it is how to display knowledge of an unknown and strange otherworldly god – and to have faith in him. This revealing doctrine, which presupposes education and learning in mysteries, emerged in the Near East and Asia Minor during the Hellenistic period, most probably at the time of the king of Egypt Ptolemy II (285 – 247 BC), or some decades before. There is little doubt that, at the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus was rich in activity concerning arts and literature. During that time the translation of the Greek version of the Old Testament, the so-called Septuagint or “translation of the Seventy”(2), took place. For the first time Greek speakers as well as Jews, who had lived for ages in Alexandria far away from their homeland, became acquainted with Jewish scriptures. From this fact and from the Nag Hammadi Library, we know that given their ideas and traditions, Jews and Judaism provided the primary contribution to the development of Gnosis (3).

Again, the main focus of this doctrine of knowledge and faith is the conception of a universal redeemer, an otherworldly divine god for the whole world. This might be the result of the idea that our earthly world cannot regarded as a wholly material world, and that the devil within it cannot be an inherent property or belong to our very nature to the extent that we are unable to confront it or get rid of it completely. Furthermore, in order to punish the devil, our existing world does not need a harsh, grim and cruel god like that of the Jewish Bible, but rather it needs one who is compassionate and kind, a god who easily grants access to him in matters such as forgiveness of sins. This idea found expression in cultic practices, in the appearance of baptism in flowing living water as a way to purify both body and soul from daily defilement and contamination.

Now, “though Christianity in its origin is an Oriental religion”(4), there is no talk in Gnosis about a Christian redeemer. Moreover, from the numerous scriptures found in Nag Hammadi we know now for sure that, “the theory of a pre-Christian or at least non-Christian redeemer conception in Gnosis proves to be correct” (5).

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II. Mandaeism and Gnosticism

The emergence of the Mandaean religion in the North must have been an exact parallel to the rise of Christianity in Palestine. This view cannot be contradicted or dismissed by the fact that the Mandaean script was developed in the first century of our era (6). As far as the theological struggle between the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christianity and the groups of Gnostics in Syria and Asia Minor is concerned, the Mandaean-Nasoraeans took the side of the latter from the outset. This is evident from the numerous Gnostic terms such as pira (fruit), kimşa (solidification), living water, crown of victory, etc., which are incorporated in their most important and prominent book Ginza Rba, a compendium that deals with a divine, strange, and otherworldly redeemer beyond our reach in the worlds of light. These undoubtedly confirm the Gnostic character of this ancient sect.

Not only was Mithras, the Persian god of sun, light and justice, worshipped in Iran, but also his veneration reached Armenia and Rome. Then by the time of the Parthian king Mithridates, who lived in the era of the Roman imperator Nero, Mithraism had made its way to Rome and soon became established in the city - this event seemingly coinciding with the installation of Christianity there. Nevertheless, the Mandaean-Nasoraean religion did not take anything from them. Rather, the Nasoraeans (that is, the guardians of Gnostic mysteries) rejected both of them, as they also refused the sect of the Nazoreans, whose ringleader was the famous apostle Paul (7).

In the above-mentioned book Ginza Rba and in other Mandaean literature we find many passages that confirm the repudiation of Christianity as well as paganism. As for Lady Drower and Rudolf Macuch, they together wrote: “the Mandaean term [= Nasuraia] is obviously older than Syriac Nazoreans and Arabic Nasara”(8). However, only a few Mandaeans know that they are the Last Gnostics remaining from eighty or more sects, whose names, schools, theories and literatures are preserved by some authors of antiquity, such as Epiphanius of Salamis (9). They also do not know how the designation ‘Gnosticism’ came to them, because they have lost the links between themselves and their ancestors for a long time (many centuries!). Moreover; they have lost the relationship between the ancient Nasoraeans and contemporary Mandaeans. It might be for this reason that they did not ask about their obscure origins and their enigmatic texts in the book Ginza Rba nor in the other canonical books, diwans and scrolls.

Certainly, the link is the philosophy of Gnosticism, where the obscurities and cryptic topics, words, and comments come from.

However, only as Gnostics have Mandaeans managed to preserve their identity until now!

Carlos Gelbert, Sunday 18th July 2021

1. See Reizenstein, R., in Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, p 32.
2. See Tcherikover, Victor, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, p. 348.
3. See Rudolph, Kurt, Gnosis, p. 52.
4. See Reizenstein, Richard, Hellenistic Mystery-Religions, p. ix.
5. See Rudolph, Kurt, Gnosis, p. 52.
6. Ibid., p. 346.
7. See the New Testament, Arts of the Apostles 24:5; see also the Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Book I:29:7 (p. 123).
8. See Lady Drower & Rudolf Macuch, Mandaic Dictionary, p. 285.
9. See the Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, translated by Frank Williams, Brill, Leiden, (1994) book I (sects 1 – 46); book II and III (sects 47 – 80).

All I could find re the names.

Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society & Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 155.

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