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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Pagan Gnostics who shortly before the rise of Christianity, formed a sect which flourished in Mesopotamia and Babylonia

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Nasoraeans, sometimes called MANDAEANS, SABIANS, or CHRISTIANS OF ST. JOHN, are pagan Gnostics who shortly before the rise of Christianity, formed a sect which flourished in Mesopotamia and Babylonia, and which was one of the foremost religions in Western Asia in the early years of Mohammedanism. Though some 2000 families strong in the seventeenth century, they have dwindled at the present day to some 1500 adherents living on the Shat-el-Arab near the Persian Gulf. It is the only Gnostic sect that has survived and the sacred writings of which are still extant; a few remnants accepted, the writings of the so-called Christian Gnostics have perished. I Names, II Doctrines, III Discipline and Ritual, IV History.

I NAMES. Mandaean (Hebrew: MNDAYA) is a Babylonian-Aramaic word in dialectic form, meaning: Gnostics, Greek: gnostikoi, "those who are good at knowing". The Hebrew word for knowledge Hebrew: MD` Madda is of the same root and is the noun from which the adjective Mandaya is derived. It is the name adopted by the sect itself, being employed in their sacred books, and is characteristic of their worship of the Hebrew: MNDA DHYA Greek: gnosis tes zoes or "knowledge of life". Another name also found in their sacred books is that of Sabians (Hebrew: TSBYA) which means Baptists (Hebrew: `BTS to baptize in Syriac and Aramaic). This name is known to the Mohammedans (sing. Sabia, pl. fr. Subda'u) from the Koran (Sure V, 73; II, 59; XXII, 17) in which Christians, Sabians, and Jews are enumerated as religions which can be tolerated by Islam. It is based on the prominence of frequent baptism in their religious discipline and hence they are no doubt referred to by the Fathers as Hemerobaptists Greek: emerobaptistai i.e. practicing daily baptism. The name Soubaioi was even known in Greek writers. The name, however, most frequently used in their sacred literature is that of Nasoraeans, Hebrew: NATSVRAYA which is also the usual Arabic (sing. Nasrani, pl. Nasara) for Christians. The coincidence is striking, the more so as the Nasoraeans have no leaning towards Christianity, but rather contempt and hatred for it; nor do their doctrines betray any approximation to Christian beliefs, except perhaps in that of the existence of a savior, although some of their ceremonies bear a superficial resemblance to Christian mysteries. If, however, we remember that the Manichaeans in Europe paraded as the true Christians, though their system has but the use of half a dozen terms in common with Christianity, and that some Gnostic sects had barely any similarity with the Church of Christ, though self-styled Christians, it becomes less strange that even Mandaeans should have styled themselves Nasoraeans. The term Kristiana, as transliteration of the Greek word, they reserve for the followers of Jesus Christ. Christianity was no doubt a name to conjure with, but the absence of any reason for the adoption of the title remains a mystery. It is suggested by some that the name is only given to the most perfect amongst them, but this seems contrary to fact. The name "Christians of St. John" is of European origin and based on a mistake. The Nasoraeans have an extraordinary veneration for St. John the Baptist, who figures largely in their mythology. This veneration, together with the similarity of their rites to Christian sacraments, led the first missionaries from Europe to regard them as descendants of the Christians baptized only with the baptism of St. John. Such, e.g. was the impression of the Carmelite Ignatius a Jesu, who lived some years in Bassa and wrote a description of the sect (1652). II DOCTRINES. These are to be gathered from a voluminous compilation called Genza or "The Treasure", and sometimes Sidra Rabba or "The Great Book", of which copies dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris and have been published by Petermann (Thesaurus s. Liber Magnus, vulgo Liber Adami, etc., Berlin, 1867) in Nasoraean script and language. The former is not unlike Estrangela with vowels added in the modifications of the consonants, and the latter closely resembles that of the Aramaic in the Talmud. The same text in Syriac characters with a somewhat free Latin translation was published by Norberg (London and Gotha, 1817). Selections from the Genza (about one fourth) have been translated into German by Brandt. This book is arbitrarily divided into two sections, called the Right and the Left Genza from the curious Nasoraean custom of writing these two portions in one volume but in inverted positions, the left being used at funerals and being written for the benefit of the dead. The Genza is a collection of writings from all ages and sources, some dating even after the Mohammedan conquest. Another sacred book is the Kolasta, or "Summa" or practical vademecum containing hymns, liturgies, rites for marriages, etc. (published as "Qolasta" by Euting, Stuttgart, 1867). The Sidra de Yahya i.e. Book of St. John or Drashè de malkè, "Lectures of the Kings" was published in 1905 by Lidzbarski and translated with commentary by Ochser in 1905. The Diwan, a priestly ritual, was published by Euting (1904), but the Asfar Malwashe, an astrological work on the signs of the Zodiac, is not yet published. In recent years finds of Nasoraean inscriptions on pottery have added to our knowledge of their popular superstitions (Pognon, "Une incantation en Mandaïte", Paris, 1892; "Inscriptions Mand." Paris, 1898-9; Lidzbarski, "Ephem f. Sem. Epigr.", Giessen, 1900).

These sources show Nasoraeanism to be a form of Gnosticism which stands towards late Babylonian polytheism somewhat as Neo-Platonism stands towards the Greek and Roman Pantheon. It is an attempt to allegorize the ancient myths as being phases of man's creation and salvation, though Nasoraeanism never rids itself of fantastic Eastern imagery. Probably through Nabataean commerce these southern Babylonians came into contact with the Jews of the east of the Jordan and developed a worship of St. John the Baptist. Their daily baptism is however earlier than St. John's practice and is probably the cause of their belief regarding St. John rather than the effect of it. They likewise absorbed a great deal of Indian and Parsee philosophy till they developed their doctrine of the Light-King, which is similar to the Manichaean concept of the universe, though without an absolutely rigid dualism. No religion therefore bears a nearer resemblance to Nasoraeanism than that of Mani, who himself was an eastern Baptist in his youth. Finally, through contact with the monotheism of Jews, Christians, Mohammedans, and later Parsees, they gradually drifted towards the acceptance of one God. Their worship of the Light-King is one of singular beauty and elevation. Their aeonology is extremely intricate; the aeons are called by the mystical name Utra (Hebrew: `VTRYYA which means: Riches or Potencies; Hebrew `SR). It will suffice to mention a few prominent ideas. Pira Rabba is the source, origin, and container of all things. The meaning of Pira Hebrew: PYRA) is uncertain; of various suggested meanings, perhaps that of "Fruit" (Hebr. PRY) is the most likely. This "Fruit" is like the Indian "Golden Egg", the transcendental and unconscious "Fullness of Being" out of which all things develop; it is the seed of the fig tree of the Gnostic Docetae (q.v.); it is the Greek: buthos of the Valentinians. This Pira Rabba is possessed and filled by the Mana Rabba: the Great Spirit, the Great Illustrious One, the Great Splendor or Majesty. From the Mana Rabba emanates the First Life, who prays for companionship and progeny, whereupon the Second Life, the Utra Mkayyema or World-constituting Aeon, the Architect of the Universe, comes into being. This divine architect gives forth a number of aeons, who with his permission intend to erect the universe. This however displeases the First Life at whose request the Mana Rabba produces as surveyor or foreman of the architect's aeons the Manda d'Hayye or Greek: gnosis tes zoes the Personified Knowledge of Life i.e. the friend and counselor of the First Life. This Manda de Hayye is the Christ of the Nasoraeans after whom they are called and around whom all their religious ideas group themselves. As god of order he has to battle with the aeons of chaos and thus realize the divine idea in the world. The whole is a bold and obvious allegory: Marduk is sent by his father Ea to do battle with the powers of Tiamat.

This female monster of chaos Nasoraeans called the Holy Ghost, the Deceiver (spirit is feminine in Aramaic) or Ruha, no doubt to spite the Christians. This Ruha has a son called Ur, the prince of devils. Manda de Hayye conquers him and throws him into chains. Unfortunately while Gabriel the Apostle and Petahiel are beginning to create a good world, Ur escapes and begets with Ruha the seven planets, the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and the five elements. A truce is called and Petahiel amicably shares the creation of the world with the sons of Ur and Ruha. The lifeless body of Adam is created, but the "Image of God" is without motion. With the help of Abel, Seth, Enos, and Adakas there is breathed into him the spirit of life. The seven planets, however, and the twelve signs of the Zodiac constitute an evil influence in the world, which is continually being overcome by the Manda de Hayye. With the doctrine of the Light-King a considerable modification of aeonology was introduced, but the main outline remained the same. The Light-King, the Father of the aeons, begets Manda de Hayye or Protanthropos, Adam as the First man. This Manda de Hayye becomes incarnate in Hibil the Glorious or Hibil Ziva (Hebrew: HYBYL ZYVA). Kessler pointedly remarks that if Manda is the Christ then Hibil is the Jesus Christ of Nasoraeanism. Hibil's descents into Hades play a great role in their theology. Hibil is the Savior and the Prophet of man. He is Marduk attempting to displace Jesus of Nazareth. A last emanation of the Light-King was John the Baptist, who with Hibil, Seth, and Enos are brethren of the Manda de Hayye. Frequent mention is made of heavenly Jordans, being streams of living waters from the transcendental realm of light. Hibil Ziva was baptized in 360,000 of them before his descent to the nether world. III. DISCIPLINE AND RITUAL.—The Nasoraeans strongly repudiate all ideas of celibacy and asceticism; they have a true Semitic contempt for the unmarried and repeatedly inculcate the precept "increase and multiply". They reject all fasting and self-denial as useless and unnatural, and if they observed the Mohammedan fasts at least in outward appearance it was only to avoid trouble and persecutions. They are the reverse of Manichaeans; there may be much evil in this world but man is bound to make the best of it. No wonder Mani left them. They observe no distinctions of food, except that blood and things strangled are forbidden them, also all food prepared by strangers, and even food bought in the market, must be washed. They have no special hours for prayer except that they must only pray when it is light, no prayer is heard as long as it is dark. Not the Mohammedan Friday, or the Jewish Sabbath, but the Christian Sunday is their weekly holyday. This, however, is not a conscious imitation of the Christians, whose "Carpenter-god" they hate as a son of the devil. The religious observance of other holidays seems of more recent origin, though no doubt their civil observance, as in the case of New Year's day (first day of Winter month; their months have thirty days with five intercalary days to make a solar year), is ancient enough, being a festival of ancient Babylonia. They observe Ascension day (of Hibil Ziva returning from Hades) on the eighteenth of first Spring month, the Great Baptismal Festival on the intercalary days, the Feast of the Egyptians apparently drowned in the Red Sea under Pharaoh (they were not really drowned, but escaped and were the forefathers of the Nasoraeans), and a few other feasts. They possessed a hierarchical priesthood to whom they paid a profound veneration. Their patriarch is the Rash Amma, chief of the people, but they seem but rarely to have had such a dignitary; legend says only one before and one after John the Baptist. A kind of bishops, priests, and deacons form the hierarchy; they are called Ganzivra, Tarmidha, and Shecanda, or Treasurer, Disciple, and Messenger. The ordination to the priesthood is preceded by a so-called retreat of sixty days during which the candidate submits to many quaint rules and baptisms. The Shecanda is only an assistant, but the priest's privilege is the power to baptize; the bishop is the administrator of the community. They possess three great sacramental rites, Masbutha or baptism; Pehta and Mabuha or communion, really morsel (bread) and draught (water); and Kusta or troth, a handshake and plighting of troth. Baptism, always in flowing or living water of rivers and brooks, is the greatest of all the rites. Children are baptized as soon as they can bear total immersion. Self-baptism is frequent; the priest when baptizing used originally the formula: Thou art signed with the sign of life: The Name of the Life and the Manda de Hayye is named over thee. Baptism takes place on Sunday and on many other occasions when forgiveness of sin is required. It is followed by a kind of anointing with moist sesame. Communion is given in thin unleavened cakes kept in the priest's house and a handful of water. Kushta is a solemn sign of fellowship with brother Nasoraeans. "Brethren of the flesh pass away, Kushta brethren remain forever", says the proverb. The history of Nasoraeanism is practically unknown. The Genza contains a Book of Kings of a pseudo-historical character, but the utter confusion of their historical reminiscences makes it difficult to find a kernel of truth. The Nasoraeans were lost to history till Ignatius a Jesu brought the news of their existence. They have been a prominent religion, as they were classed with Christians and Jews by the Mohammedans. It is often held that they once actually dwelt in Palestine near the Jordan and immigrated into Chaldea. Their bitter hatred of all that is Jewish or Christian (for Moses is a false prophet, Jesus, the Great Deceiver, whom Enos justly brings to the cross), together with their extensive use of Biblical names, would lead one to believe that though their "theology" is Indian-Babylonian they were once historically connected with Jewish Christians.


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