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Does the Shroud Show a Mandaean Burial?

Louis C. de Figueiredo


University of Brighton lecturer Norma Weller states that she sees images of myrtle leaves, indicating a Mandaean burial, on the Turin Shroud. She therefore proffers the hypothesis that Jesus and John the Baptist belonged to a sect known as the Nazarenes, whose spiritual descendants are the Mandaeans, thus forming a "Nazarene - Mandaean" connection.This article is meant to raise objections to demonstrate why the hypothesis cannot be sustained.

Discovered by seventeenth-century Portuguese missionaries and wrongly called "Christians of St.John" from their habit of baptism, the Mandaeans only came to the attention of Western scholars at the end of the nineteenth century. Decades later Lady Ethel Drower believed she had traced their origin to baptist groups in Palestine, which was also the line followed by Kurt Rudolph, while Edwin Yamauchi, rejecting any direct Jewish influence on the sect, saw a connection between Mandaean beliefs and an ancient Mesopotamian cult. A close examination of these viewpoints leads to the conclusion that both are partially correct, for it has to be taken into account that the discussion is about a Gnostic sect, with writings marked by the typical syncretism and obscurity. It was for this reason that Alfred Loisy warned about the fièvre mandéene, among whose victims was the biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann. But that was before the remedy known as the Dead Sea Scrolls was discovered.

The comparison of Manda d'Hayyê , the personified and mythical Mandaean "Knowledge of Life", to the Babylonian deity Marduk was first made by Wilhelm Bousset, who also argued for Iranian (Gayomart) and Indian (Purusa) influence on the sect. Part of this interpretation could also be winnowed out in the studies of the Sumero-Akkadian pantheon made by Stephen Herbert Langdon, professor of Assyriology at Oxford, in which he showed how the Harranians or Sabeans from Harran, Mesopotamia held the cult of the god Sin there and amongt whose deities was Bel-Marduk, or just Marduk, corresponding to the West Semitic Ba`al . But neither Bousset nor the French scholar Henri-Charles Puech could provide evidence of Gnosticism prior to the Christian era, the diverging points of view amongst scholars being also evident at the Colloquium of Messina in 1966. It was Adolf von Harnack who had come closer to the truth earlier when he defined Gnosticism as "the acute Hellenization of Christianity", for it appears that the wild amalgam of mythology mixed with Jewish elements that came into it via Christianity and then added to a late brand of Platonism (pessimism) produced the profound spiritual ferment of the Gnostic groups in the second century AD.

Were Jesus and John the Baptist ( or Baptizer) members of a pre-Christian " Nazarene movement " that has now come to be known as the " Mandaean-Nazarene" sect? The early Christians were called Nazarenes by Jews ---- many of them, like the Arabs, still do so today ---- and the denomination was also used to denote Jewish Christians, similar to the Ebionites according to Epiphanius. The latter are said to have used an Aramaic Gospel according to the Hebrews, almost a copy of the Gospel according to Matthew. Which means there was not even a hint of Gnosticism among them, taking us to the quest for any pre-Christian Nazarenes. According to the Jesuit scholar Father Joseph A. Fitzmyer, editor of the (Aramaic) Tobit texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran, cave 4, there is no evidence of a sect of Jews called " Nazarenes" or " Mandaeans" in pre-Christian Palestinian Judaism, and since the name "Mandaean" is derived from the Syriac word for "knowledge" mandà, it betrays its later Christian Syriac origin. The Christian matrix is clear. So that means to put a hyphen between Mandaean and Nazarene and to suggest that they were one group of Jews in pre-Christian Palestine is wholly gratuitous. Perhaps it is this that explains why none of the heresiologists mention the Mandaeans, also providing the reason for why only the ninth-century Syrian Christian monk Theodore bar Konai, who lived in his native Iraq, had something to say about the subba, "baptists", comparing them to the Marcionites, however inappropriate the comparison may seem. Another clue comes from the fact that the other name for the Mandaeans is Nasoreans, not Nazarenes, and as K.Rudolph wrote, the earliest self-denominations in Mandaean sources are " 'guardians' or 'possessors' (nasuraiyi), i.e. of secret knowledge and 'elect of righteousness' (bhire zidga)."

This takes us to the question : Is there is any evidence to justify the claim that Jesus did indeed separate himself from the mainstream community of Jews? In the words of the great Jewish scholar Samuel Sandmel, he "could not have arisen in any other tradition or culture but Judaism", which goes to say that he would also have been well-aware of his roots, refusing to be influenced by pagan beliefs. The fact that he continued to follow the lunar calendar, preach in the synagogue, socialize with the Pharisees, declare his sonship in the Parable of the Wicked Tenant Farmers ( David Flusser ), teach openly to all ( David N. Freedman ), and as a rabbi ( Rabbi Jacob Neusner ) demonstrates only some of the things that rule out the possibility of Jesus ever having belonged to a sect.

As for John the Baptist, reasonable conclusions can be drawn from the gospels as well as from the Antiquities of the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Coming from a priestly family and celibate like Jesus - the Mandaeans of course firmly reject celibacy and believe that unmarried men are reincarnated - , John was probably raised by the Essenes after his elderly parents had died. In the view of the Protestant scholar Professor Otto Betz, who wrote some of the best material on him, " the Essenes were led to the wilderness by the same scriptural directions that motivated the life and ministry of John" ; also, " his preaching had several characteristics that can also be found at Qumran." Moreover, "the early Christians had understood him as the 'voice of one crying in the wilderness' ", this passage from Mark quoting Isaiah 40 : 3 in the same manner as the Qumran Manual of Discipline. That John did not belong to or intended to form a sect is clear and any direct connection between John and the Mandaeans was denied by Carl H. Kraeling, John H.H. Scobie and C.H.Dodd. One cannot fail to stress that if there really was a Jewish sect that could count significant figures like Jesus and John the Baptist amongst its members, as important and reliable a source as Josephus would have another group to add to his small list of Jewish philosophiai.

Both John's baptism and the Qumran washings were connected with repentance and undoubtedly had their origin in Numbers 19 : 1-22 and similar passages about purification in the Pentateuch. Little known is that John was but one example in what was a more widespread movement in which the hermit Bannus, mentioned by Josephus, also took part. We also know from ancient sources about the Tobele Shaharin, the Elkesaites and the Hemerobaptists, groups that appeared later, the last one cited in the apocryphal Pseudo-Clementine Literature, dated by Oscar Cullmann to the third century. On his part Jesus did not seem to place that much importance on baptism, much less consider it as some sort of magical process, asking, instead, that it be administered in the threefold Name, and just once. This generated much controversy among the early Christians till the time of St.Augustine. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli had different points of view.

The Mandaean baptism or immersion, called masbata, is performed every Sunday, at birth, before marriage and at death. Being a Gnostic community, with no room for revelation rooted in history, their beliefs are as much anti-Christian as anti-Jewish, despite the fact that they contain elements from both religions.The Holy Spirit is held to be Ruha d'Qudsha, the personification of evil, also identified with the "spirit" in the book of Genesis. It is Anos Uthra, also called Manda d'Hayyê, the "Knowledge of Life" who combats the demiurge Ptahil, creator of the world. It should therefore be pointed out that the rabbinic tradition that developed after the time of Jesus had the Holy Spirit empowering Hillel and Gamaliel. Although the historical accuracy of this assertion has been questioned by Rabbi Jacob Neusner, any attack on the Holy Spirit would inevitably be aimed at Christians and Jews alike.

The Mandaeans probably developed their Gnostic speculation after they sought refuge in Mesopotamia and Iran, where they were likely to be exposed to Babylonian and Iranian myths. Their magical texts have been dated to the 4th and 5th centuries and the stratification in their writings is not difficult to detect. Some of the best scholars felt that it was the Arab conquest that obliged them to compile the Drasa d' Yahya, the "Book of John" in the sixth century in order to claim John the Baptist as one of their prophets and thus gain legitimacy as "People of the Book". All that had to be done was to draw from the Peshitta, the Syriac Bible . Even the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas presupposes knowledge and use of the canonical gospels, with the narratives deleted to suit Gnostic orientation, as convincingly shown by the American Catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. Considering the tendencies during that period, the followers of the Syrian heretic Bar-Daisan (Bardesanes), as well as Mani, may also have influenced the Mandaeans.Whatever, the Mandaean narratives that dwell on John are clothed with obscurity when it comes to his way of death. It is vaguely said that he was taken up to heaven. The reason is obvious.

Furthermore, Father Fitzmyer's studies demonstrate how Mandaic, the Mandaean language, is closely related to Syriac and Babylonian Jewish Aramaic of the third century and later centuries of the Christian era. Hence one could conjecture that familiar as the Mandaeans must have been with the language of Talmudic material, it would have been easy for them to pick up the story of "Jeshu ben Pantera", where Jesus is portrayed as the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Pantera. After all, they also refer to Jesus sometimes as the rumaya, the Roman, in their writings. Another possibility is that this was intended to be an attack on both Jesus and the emperor Constantine, who presided over the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, and whose rulings they appear to contest.

There are sufficient reasons to conclude therefore that Jesus never separated himself from mainstream Judaism and to question the importing of Mandaean customs to interpret the image on the Shroud. The baptismal installations Norma Weller refers to could have been used by any of the baptismal groups, while the myrtle symbolizing immortality and success is traced to the Jewish tradition only as far back as the Mishnaic period. Then, the most logical procedure would be to place the "Crown of thorns"at the side of the body and not leave it over the head. But not necessarily to so that a myrtle wreath could be placed there. Finally, the Gospel according to John mentions only one cloth, that is the one "that was about his head", lying " rolled up in a place by itself ", what is probably now known as the Oviedo sudarium.

Louis C. de Figueiredo

You can contact the author with your comments at: lcf12@zipmail.com.br

18 August, 2002


London School of Theology