Let us now turn to the first part of the short but powerful address of the Baptizer handed on by Mt. (3:7-10) and Lk. (3:7-9), a most interesting example of those stirring utterances or ‘sayings’ of his referred to by Josephus.

   Ye out-births of vipers, who hath given you a glimpse of fleeing from the Wrath to come? Make fruit, therefore, worthy of (or sufficient for) your repentance. And think not (Lk. begin not) to say within (or among) yourselves: We have Abraham [for] father. For I say unto you that God is able of these stones (Aram. ‘abenayya) to raise (or wake) up children (Aram. benayya) for Abraham. But even now the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree, therefore, which beareth not good fruit, is hewn down and cast into the fire.

   This graphic discourse, contained in Q, begins with the same terrible phrase ‘generation’ or ‘out-births of vipers’ which Jesus also uses on several occasions. It may possibly go back to Micah 7:17, where we read, referring to the heathen: “They shall lick the dust like serpents, like those creeping on the earth.” And if ‘licking the dust’ can be taken in the sense of the allegorists of the time, who interpret it as eating excrement, a fate allotted to the serpent-shaped souls of the damned in Sheōl, it becomes all the more strikingly graphic. In vain do they think they will p. 14 escape because they are of kinship with Abraham, or that God cannot repeat the wonder he once wrought, of raising up children out of the barren rock of their forefather. God is able to make a new Israel out of the very stones, just as he had of old hewn, like stones (Heb. ‘abanīm), a line of sons (Heb. bānīm) from the once barren rock of Abraham, as Isaiah says (51:1-2): “Look unto the rock whence ye were hewn . . . look unto Abraham your father.”

   This for the ‘stones’; but what of the ‘trees’? There are other passages in the O.T. (e.g. Ps. 1:1, Jer. 17:5-8) which liken the man who delights in the Law and has faith in Yahveh to fruit-bearing trees; but the most arresting verse in this connection is to be found in the continuation of the same vision in Ezekiel (47:1-8) which so graphically depicted the Messianic Source. This reads (v. 12):

   “By the river upon the banks thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade; they shall bring forth new fruit month after month, because their waters issue from the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat and the leaf thereof for medicine.”

   The mystical application of this prophetical utterance to the righteous of Israel as the fruit-bearing trees of the longed-for days of the Messiah, would surely strike the imagination of so intuitive a mind as John’s; it is indeed all of a piece with his general conception and expectation and fits in most deftly.


   But this does not exhaust the imagery of Ezekiel’s striking vision of the outpouring of God’s spirit in the p. 15 days of the End, which made so deep an impression upon John. The prophet uses another graphic figure, which also greatly influenced early Christianity and was made much of later on in the symbolic interpretations of some of the Church Fathers. If only we had the mystical exegesis of this figure as conceived in the mind of the pre-Christian Palestinian Dorshē Rashumōth, who anticipated in some ways the Alexandrian Jewish allegorists of Philo’s day, we should probably find that they had already given spiritual significance to the following arresting verses (9 and 10) of the vision. These read in Eisler’s rendering:

   Wheresoever the river shall come, everything that moveth shall live; and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because the waters shall come thither. . . . And it shall come to pass [that] the fishers stand by it from En-Gedi unto En-Eglaim; they shall be [a place] to spread forth nets [for all fish] according to their kinds.”

   En-Gedi and En-Eglaim were two oases with fresh-water springs—the Gedi or Kid Spring and the Eglaim or (?) Calf Spring—on the shores of the Dead Sea or Salt Lake. The former was the chief centre of the Essenes. With such a striking figure before him it would be easy for John, the proclaimer of repentance aud the turning again to God of a righteous remnant, to believe that in the Days of the End there were to be prophets who should be ‘fishers of men.’

   Now it is remarkable that we have a number of references to this fishing of souls bound up with echoes of legends of John the Baptizer, which blend into a rich stream of Gnostic traditions which still exists to-day and goes back eventually to very early times. p. 16 The Mandæans, that is believers in the Mandā or Gnosis, or Nazorāyā as they call themselves, known to the Arabs as the Sūbbā’s or Baptists, have much to tell us of the ‘Fisher of Souls’ and the evil ‘fishers of men,’ as we shall see later on.

   Their saga of the Fisher of Souls is a beautiful conception within the setting of eschatological and soteriological notions, and seems to be an integral element of the syncretic stream of the Mandā which goes back far towards Gnostic beginnings. Now the Mandæan traditions are hostile not only to Christianity but also to Judaism. Many of their notions can be closely paralleled with some of the doctrines of the religion of Mānī, with some of the main elements underlying the scheme of the Coptic Gnostic Pistis Sophia and the two treatises of the Bruce Codex; points of contact may also be found in what we know of the doctrines of the Elchasaites, and in some parts of the Clementine romances which preserve early Ebionite traditions and legends of Simon the Magian, with whom John is brought into connection.

   And here it may be noted that, if it is surprising to find the influence of John the Baptizer spreading as far east as Mesopotamia, it is not out of keeping with the fact that the baptism of John was also practised in the east Mediterranean area far outside Palestine among the Dispersion and indeed among some of the early Christian communities, as we learn from the Acts and Epistles, witness especially the Apollōs incident (Acts 18:24, I. Cor. 1:12).


   No little of mythic notions from old Babylonian, Chaldæan and Iranian traditions is to be found p. 17 immixed in the oldest deposits of this Mandæan stream; there is thus a pre-Christian background as well. Indeed the Fisher-figure cannot fail at once to remind students of the comparative science of religion of the ancient Babylonian fish-clad fisher-god Ḫani-Ōannēs—the archaic Ea, father of Marduk the saviour-god of Babylon who rose yearly from the dead. This primeval God of Wisdom was the culture-god who had taught early mankind all the arts of civilization. Berossus, the Chalæan priest who wrote for the Greeks a history of his people, tells us of no less than six manifestations of Ōannēs in successive periods; and this notion of revelation and saving in successive periods is fundamental with the Mandæans. Ōannēs rose from the sea—the waters presumably of the Persian Gulf, in the old story; but Marduk, his son, descended from heaven.

   It is by no means improbable that the picturing of appropriate ancient myths which floated freely in the thought-atmosphere of Babylonia, may have determined some of the imagery of Ezekiel’s visions by the ‘river of Babylon,’ and indeed may otherwise have psychically influenced indirectly no little of Jewish apocalytic literature, as for instance when the Ezra Apocalypse (at the end of the 1st century A.D.) tells us that the Redeemer of the world, the Celestial Man, is expected to rise from the ‘heart of the ocean.’ If then, as Ezra IV. permits us to conclude, certain apocalyptists and allegorists, who were probably Jews of the Babylonian or Syrian Dispersion, could conceive of their pre-existent Messiah as in some way associated with the figure of the ancient Ḫani (Ōannēs, Iannēs, Iōannēs), and expected the Redeemer of Israel to arise from the depths of the great waters, it is not p. 18improbable that in those days, when the interplay of mystical associations was so prevalent and eagerly sought out, some of the most enthusiastic followers of John may have believed that this baptizing ‘fisher of souls’ was the expected manifestation.


   Similarity in the sounds of names fascinated men’s minds, and Ḫani-Ōannēs-John is not the only name-play we meet with in the Baptist’s story. Attempts have been made by scholars to show that ‘the sign of the prophet Jonah’ (Q—Mt. 12:19f. = Lk. 11:29f.) was perhaps originally connected with John, and that a testimony of Jesus to John has been converted already in Q, the early non-Markan source of matter common to Mt. and Lk., into a testimony of Jesus concerning himself. (On this point see Eisler, op. cit., pp. 156-162, where all is set out in detail.) It is further of interest to note that Jonah in Hebrew means Dove, and that among the Mandæans there was a class of the perfect called Doves. Compare also the Greek Physiologus (xli.): “The Dove . . . which is John the Baptist.” The names Jonah and John could easily be brought into close connection, and indeed Jonah is sometimes found as a shortened form of Joḫanan.

   The Jonah-legend provided a very suitable setting wherein to depict the life of a prophet who caused his hearers to repent, and it may be that Jesus referred to John as ‘a greater Jonah’ (Mt. 12:41). The most striking image in the mythic story is the Great Fish. Now the belly of the Great Fish for the Jewish allegorists, and indeed it is plainly stated in the legend itself, was Sheōl, the Underworld, the Pit. But another mythic Great p. 19 Fish, or perhaps the same in another aspect, was the cosmic monster Leviāthān. And symbolists, allegorists and mystics got busy with this mythic figure. Thus we find that Leviāthān was the name given by the Ophites of Celsus, who are plainly of Syrian Babylonian origin, to the Seven,—that is to the cosmic animal psychē, the hierarchy of rulers and devourers of the animal souls of men as well as of animals proper, each of the Seven being symbolized by an animal figure, probably an animal-faced (lion, etc.) dragon or fish. In the Mandæan tradition the Fisher of Souls takes the Seven in his net and destroys them, even as in the old Babylonian myth the Saviour-god Manduk {sic., read Marduk} catches Tiamāt, their mother, the primeval dragon of the deep, in his net and destroys her. And strangely enough there is an old Rabbinical legend of Jonah preserved in the Midrash Yalqut Yona (§ 1), which relates that, when the prophet was in the belly of the Great Fish, he prayed that it should carry him quickly to the Leviāthān, so that be might catch it with his fishing tackle. For Jonah desired, when once again safely ashore, to make of its flesh a feast for the righteous,—a distinct reference to the Messianic fish-banquet which is to take place in the days of the End.

   The Jewish folk of the Babylonian dispersion, who were surrounded with images of the fish-clad Ḫani-Ōannēs and of his priests, would easily think of them as representing a man swallowed by a fish, and as easily be reminded of the story of their great prophet Jonah, who was fabled to have made the proud King of Ashshur and all the Ninevites repent; and the mystics subsequently would easily associate all this with Messianic notions.

p. 20


   It has recently been shewn by that acute scholar J. Scheftclowitz from hitherto neglected Rabbinical documents that ‘fish’ was quite a common symbol for the righteous man of Israel, who lived all his life in the waters of the Torah or Sacred Law. The evidence goes back as early as the times of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, the teacher of Paul, who was therefore a contemporary of John and Jesus. Thus we read in the Midrash Tanḫuma to Deut. 5:32: “As a fish delights in water, even so a master of the scriptures dives into the streams of balm”—the sweet smelling waters of the Law; compare the sweet savour and perfume of the gnōsis and of the heavenly essences and per contra the stench of the evil fishers or teachers of false doctrine in the Mandæan John-Book. Decisive in this connection is the following passage from the Aboth de R. Nathan (ch. 40):

   “The pupils of Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder were divided into four kinds of fish: into clean and unclean [brackish water] fish from the Jordan and fish from the Ocean, according to their high and low descent and to the degree of their learning and quickness of their understanding.”

   Though they were not ‘fishers of men,’ they were fish of Yahveh swimming in the holy stream, the life-giving waters of the Law. It was thus very natural for John, remembering the striking passage in Ezekiel (47:12) about the fish who repented, to contrast with them the unrepentant as a ‘generation of vipers,’ (cp. the fish-scorpion contrast in Mt. 7:10). Nor could John have been ignorant of the prophecy in Jeremiah (16:16) p. 21 concerning the gathering together of dispersed Israel: “Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them,” and have given it a spiritual significance. But of an even more arresting nature is the following from Berešith Rabba (ch. 97):

“As the Israelites are innumerable, even so are the fishes; as the Israelites will never die out on the earth, the fishes will never die out in their element. Only the Son of Man named ‘Fish’ could lead Israel into the Land of Promise,—namely Joshuah ben Nun ( = Fish).” The Greek transliteration of Joshuah in the LXX. version is invariably Jesus.


   Now in Samaritan tradition, and it will be remembered that the Samaritans rejected all the Jewish scriptures save the Five Fifths of the Law, their future Redeemer was to be called Joshuah. This Deliverer they called the Ta’eb, the Returner, and they believed he would be a reborn or returned Joshuah. The Ta’eb is the Samaritan ‘Messiah.’ In this connection a recently translated Samaritan Midrash (B.M. Samaritan MS. Or. 3393   ft.1) is especially instructive. It understands the title Ta’eb as signifying ‘he who repents’ or even ‘he who makes to repent,’ not so much the Returner as the Turner-back of others. It is brought into close connection also with Noḫam, meaning Repenting, and is thus by word-play associated with Noah. Our Samaritan Midrash accordingly brings Noah on to the scene of expected redemption, and becomes a spiritualized version of the Deluge-story, abounding in mystical word-plays. One or two specimens p. 22 of them may now be given, as the ideas behind them are reminiscent of the John-circle of ideas.

   Whereas in the old story Yahveh orders Noah: “Make thee an ark (tebah),” the Midrash makes God say unto the Ta’eb: “Make thee a conversion”—or repentance (Aram. shuba, tubah). And so it continues in many details glossing the original parts of the ark by means of word-play, introducing notions of propitiation, expiation and atonement. A single passage from the original will make this clear, and in reading it we should remember that Samaria was a hot-bed of mystic and gnostic movements of all sorts.

   Behold I bring a [flood of] conversion [and] of divine favour upon the earth, to save Israel and gather it from everywhere under the sky. I shall perform my covenant, which I have set up with Abraham, Israel and Jacob. And thou shalt enter into the conversion, thou and thy house and the whole house of Israel with thee; and take with thee all kind of . . . praying and fasting and purification, which thou performest, and take all unto thee, and it shall be for conversion for thee and for them. And the Ta’eb did everything as God had commanded him.

   The ark (tebah) saved Noah from the flood of perdition, and the conversion (shubah, tubah) will save the Penitent One (Ta’eb) and all the sons of Israel from the [flood of] perversion.

   The ‘flood of perversion’ is that of ‘the cursed æon.’ Among the many Messianic expectations of those days, therefore, was the belief that in the Last Days it would again be as in the times of Noah, as indeed we are expressly informed by Q (Mt. 24:37ff. = Lk. 17:26ff.)


   There are other points of interest in the fragmentary ‘sayings’ of John and other references preserved in the synoptic accounts, but of these we shall select only p. 23 one as being of special interest. John’s expectation of the nature of the catastrophe of the times of the End was somewhat complex. Three phases of elemental destruction haunted his imagination. Similar disasters had already happened in the past at the culmination of certain successive critical periods in the history of mankind. There had been a destruction by water, another by a mighty wind and tempest which overwhelmed the great Tower (to which many a Rabbinic legend testifies), and a destruction by fire in the days of Lot. John’s baptism or water-purification may well have been intended as an outer sign of the inner attempt to avert from the righteous the dire results of the great forthcoming world ‘trial’ by the water of God’s Wrath that would overwhelm the wicked. But there were two other ‘baptisms’ or purifications which he expected a greater than himself to effect in similar fashion and for a similar purpose. There was to be a purification or baptism by fire; and, in Christian interpretation, the third and last and greatest was to be effected by means of the holy ‘spirit.’ This would not be out of keeping with the belief of John, for it was ever the spirit of God, as water, fire or wind, that would purify and save the righteous. But the graphic figure of the winnowing fan in John’s declaration shows clearly that the notion was connected in his mind with the necessary wind without which winnowing was impossible—the mighty wind or spirit of God. For the good this would result in a blessed harvesting, but for the evil it would be a scattering as of chaff.

   Though all these notions may well have come to John within the ambit of the Jewish scriptures, many prophetical pronouncements in which graphically depict all these forms of Divine visitation, it is nevertheless p. 24 not without significance that the rites of purification by water, fire and wind (ventilation) were an integral element of some of the Hellenistic mystery-institutions, and that the periodic catastrophic scheme is clearly to be paralleled in the later Babylonian astral religion, and especially in its blending with Iranian conceptions which centre round the æon-cult (Zervanism), and all those notions of the Great Year and world-periods, which later Stoicism took over and made familiar to Imperial times. This Great Year had three ‘seasons’—summer, winter, spring—each of which was assigned to one of the three most ancient elements: fire, water and wind. As the Great Year turned on itself the constellations returned at the end of the revolution to the same positions they had occupied in a former Great Year. There were thus critical moments in the æonic movement, and at these cosmic catastrophes occurred.

   It is hardly to be supposed that John had any such ‘scientific’ notions in his mind: but it is undeniable that many had such conceptions in his day, and indeed among the learned and mystics we find blends of such ‘science’ with prophetical intuitions. But for the Jewish eschatologist it was a once for all event he expected, whereas for such men as the Stoic thinkers it was a perpetual recurrence.


   And what is the outcome of this enquiry? It seems to me that a very important background of Christian origins is here indicated. It points to a wide-spread Jewish eschatological and therefore necessarily Messianic movement prior to Christianity, of which earliest Christianity was at first a culmination, whatever p. 25 modifications and completions were subsequently introduced. It is therefore to be regretted that our information concerning John the Baptizer and his doctrines is so meagre.

   It is quite natural that some of John’s adherents should have attached themselves to Jesus on his public appearance as a proclaimer before the martyrdom of their own imprisoned prophet. The suddenness with which Mk., our earliest narrative, introduces Jesus ‘calling’ the first four of his disciples and their instant leaving all and following him to become ‘fishers of men,’ is inexplicable without there having been some prior knowledge of the Way on the part of Simon and Andrew, James and John. They may well have already been familiar with John’s teaching. Indeed the writer of the Fourth Gospel tells us categorically (Jn. 1:40) that Andrew, the brother of Simon-Peter-Kephas, had been a disciple of the Baptizer.

   But if some of John’s actual ‘disciples’ followed Jesus before any question of Messiahship arose, it is probable that far more of his lay-adherents also did so. Indeed the earliest history of the expansion of Christianity, that is of the Jesus Messianic movement, preserves traces that in some places there was a considerable Johannine influence, notably the continued use of John’s baptism. On the contrary, most of John’s disciples to all seeming refused to recognize the Jesus Messianic claims, and the echoes of history preserved in the Mandæan traditions declare that they most emphatically rejected them.

   In any case it may well be that some of the great figures, types and symbols used by Jesus in his exhortations and teaching were not original to him, but that he shared them, together with other mystic, p. 26 apocalyptic and prophetical notions, with circles that had been instructed by John. Jesus is made to distinguish John as the greatest prophet who had come before him, nay as more than a prophet; and yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is said to be greater than a John. This can only mean in the Kingdom in its fulness; for surely most of the Christians fell far short of the high virtue of the Baptist. What is furthermore exceedingly probable, if not unquestionably evident, is that the whole of John’s mentality was flooded with what we can only call mystic notions and conceits, graphic figures, highly spiritualized, the mentality of a prophet and seer. If John is the forerunner of Jesus, many of the Baptizer’s eschatological and associated beliefs are probably the forerunners of earliest Christian general doctrine. And with all this in mind, it is difficult not to believe that Jesus not only knew more of John personally and what lay at the back of him, but used more of his ideas and symbolisms than the gospels would lead us to suppose.

   The Mandæan tradition deserves most careful analysis from this point of view; but before presenting it we may add a few words on the estrangement of the John- and Jesus-movements.


   Though the Synoptics in some passages are at pains to let it appear as if John recognized the Messiahship of Jesus, and the later and ‘correcting’ Fourth Gospel emphatically affirms that he did so from the baptism onwards, there was evidently very considerable doubt on the question in the earliest tradition. Q (Mt. 11:3f. = Lk. 7:19f.) lets the reader see that Johnp. 27 to the end had no conviction, much less prior spiritual apperception, on the subject. For it tells us that just before his end the imprisoned prophet sent messengers to Jesus asking him in complete uncertainty: “Art thou he that should come, or look we for another?” To this unambiguous question no direct answer is given. John’s disciple-messengers are bidden simply to report to their master the wonderful healings of which they have been told or which they have witnessed. The proof of Messiahship is made here to rest solely on wonder-doings; any prior spiritual recognition by John of Jesus as the Expected One is unknown to this tradition, nor is it able to report that John accepted the wonders as proof of the fulfilment of his expectation. From this we may reasonably feel assured that, though some of John’s disciples followed Jesus when he began his public ministry after John had been put in prison, and continued the proclamation of the near Coming of the Kingdom, the majority refrained. They continued in their own way and discipline; nor did they subsequently recognize the Messiahship of Jesus, for above all they had no authority from their master to do so.

   This is a negative inference; but the positive rejection of the Christian Messianic claim is brought out with sharp polemical emphasis in the Mandæan tradition, which claims to derive from John and regards Jesus as the Deceiver-Messiah. The baptism of Jesus by John is acknowledged, but explained in polemic mystic fashion. There are however signs that, apart from the subsequent bitterness of outer theological controversy, there was originally an inner deeper gnostic ground of division, for Jesus is not represented as unknowing, but on the contrary, is made to answer p. 28 certain test questions of John with profound moral insight. But the most surprising fact of Mandæan tradition is that it preserves no indications of having entertained any belief in distinctive Jewish Messianism at all. Its soteriology is peculiar to itself and the tradition repudiates Jewish prophecy and apocalyptic and in fact the whole Torah, as emphatically as it does Christian doctrine. Nevertheless on its own showing, in the beginning the particular community of which John was so great a prophet, is depicted as settled in Judæa, even in Jerusalem, and is claimed to have had a profound knowledge of the inner meaning of the Law. It is made to look back to a still more ancient tradition which is claimed to be purer and wiser than that of the Hebrews. Though the legendary ‘historical’ side of the question is exceedingly obscure, our best authorities are agreed that, as far as the mythic element is concerned, the Mandæan tradition preserves many traces of the earliest forms of the pre-Christian Gnosis known to us. The problem is thus exceedingly complex.

by G. R. S. Mead



p. 21

1 Ed. by Adalbert Merx, Zeitschr. f. alt. Wiss., 1909, xvii. 80.


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