Mandeans, are two religious groups in southern Iraq and in the Iranian providence of Huzisian. They are the only surviving representatives of Gnosticism.

Their literature, written in an Aramaic dialect and a distinct script, is very extensive. The major books are the Gonza, «treasure,» and the Book of John, both compilations of mythology and theological discourses; and a large «canonical prayer book.» These display a typical Gnostic system, including a myth of creation, redemption by a series of messages initiating with the one called «Gnosis of Life,» and the ascent of the soul after death.

The age of the literature and early history of the sect is obscure. Their interpretation of the New Testament is extremely controversial, and it is very important to determine what elements, if any, are to be treated as contemporary or antecedent to Christianity. The fact that John the Baptist
appears in Mandean texts as a «priest» suggested to 18th century Christian missionaries that the Mandeans were descendents of John’s disciples and they referred to them as «Christians of St. John.» Although these references to John now seem to be secondary, many scholars still hold, nonetheless, that the Mandeans originated as a Jewish baptizing sect across the Jordan area in the first century AD or earlier. Be that the case, their marginal status in Judaism would have opened them to Gnostic influence. By the second century they would have migrated eastward into Persian territory. Perhaps they are the Sabbeans (? «baptizers») mentioned in the Qur’an with Jews and Christians as «peoples of the book» (Ahl al’kitab), and so were tolerated in Islam. By Muslims they are currently known as Subbas.

The Mandeans have a hierarchy including priests, bishops, and a «head of the people.» The chief liturgical act is baptism (maswetta) by a priest which is by immersion in flowing water, traditionally in a special pool in a sanctuary next to a river, accompanied by other ritual acts including anointing. Baptism is seen as the purifying from sin and may be frequently repeated; the ritual is held on Sunday. The other ceremony is the funeral, massechtha («ascent»), consisting of readings and ceremonial meals at intervals for forty-five days after death.

Mandeans number 15,000-25,000, and are traditionally skilled silversmiths. There are, however, few priests, and among the urban young people religious life is weak. A.G.H.


Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 611