Academic Studies of the Mandaeans

Academic Studies of the Mandaeans

Academic interest in the Mandaeans has been capricious, but it has a long history. In fact, the Mandaeans were probably the first non-Islamic, non-Christian, non-Jewish religious minority of the Middle East to attract the attention of Western travelers, missionaries and scholars. Some of these initially believed them to be lapsed Christians and set out on an ambitious programme to reintegrate them into the Christian world, among others by relocating parts of the community to the Portuguese settlements in Goa, India. This was a colossal failure, especially once it was established that they were not Christians. Their subsequent reputation of being the descendants of the followers of John the Baptist ensured a lively interest in early modern Europe. Manuscripts were collected and studied, but most attempts to study the living communities were unsuccessful, largely because Mandaean priests were unwilling to share their unique knowledge with outsiders (or even with lay members of the community). The priestly tradition was severely threatened in the early nineteenth century, when all or almost all Mandaean priests died in an epidemic of cholera.

It was only in the twentieth century, with the activities of the British author and wife of a diplomat, Lady Ethel Stefana Drower, that the Mandaeans opened their world to a European friend, and the collection of manuscripts Lady Drower brought together as well as her intimate acquaintance with the life of the Mandaean communities based on first-hand fieldwork in their traditional villages, has continued to form the basis of most works written on the Mandaean religion.

Almost all the academic work done so far has been stimulated by an interest in the earliest history of the Mandaean religion. In the early twentieth century, Mandaean texts were studied with the hope that they could be used to explain the rise of Christianity (and of the movement of John the Baptist), but this hope was quickly dashed, when the approximate date of most texts (from the third to the eighth centuries ce) was established. The interest then moved to the possibility these texts offered for an interpretation of the Gnostic movements of late Antiquity, for the Mandaeans were (and continue to be) seen as the “last remnants” of late antique Gnosticism.

Unfortunately, this overriding interest in ancient texts and possible links with Gnosticism has badly impeded scholars' attempts to understand the world of the Mandaeans and of their priests. In hindsight, it is difficult to understand how this could have developed, since the most important publication on the subject, Lady Drower’s The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Oxford 1937)firmly stressed the fact that Mandaeans themselves considered their rituals to be more important, and older, than the texts, and firmly rejected the almost permanent temptation to view their tradition in a “Gnostic” frame (a category that has, at any rate, deservedly come under attack in recent times). The manuscripts probably reflect the early stages of Mandaean history, even though the physical manuscripts themselves are not very ancient.

The writing of manuscripts is a priestly craft. Much of the history of Mandaeism from colophons added to the manuscripts by their copiers. These have yielded many valuable insights into the history of the community, which is otherwise almost entirely undocumented (see J.J. Buckley, The Great Stem of Souls: Reconstructing Mandaean History, Piscataway 2005). The Mandaeans have therefore often been described as somehow frozen in history - a community that must be understood on the basis of a strongly preserved tradition. Everyone agrees that this tradition is severely threatened, a process that started in the 1970s, with the emancipation of the Mandaean laity and the attendant loss of prestige of the priesthood (something that happened to other minority religions in the Middle East). With the sudden migration of most Mandaeans to countries far away from their original home, this process has now reached potentially catastrophic dimensions.

If you wish to read further about scholarship on the Mandaeans, please see the academic resources on our links page, many of which have excellent bibliographies.