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Gnosticism and Ritual

Kurt Rudolph’s Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism has probably been surpassed in influence by later work (such as that of Simone Pétrement and others) but it is nonetheless a rewarding read. Professor Rudolph interacts with the traditional sources on Gnosticism, as well as the findings of Nag Hammadi (which were new at the time of his writing) and the Mandaeans, a Gnostic group which now continues to exist. A selection from this latter treatment is available online here.

There are many interesting features of Mandaeism, especially its peculiar self-image and genealogy. It sits somewhere between Christianity and Islam, though professing to be the true heir of many Hebraic figures and finally John the Baptist. Up until the most recent US-led invasion of Iraq, Mandaeism was almost wholly located in Iraq and Iran. It has now been scattered across that part of the Middle East. Over the years, Mandaeism has gone from being categorized as a peculiar sect of Islam to now being understood as its own independent religion, perhaps the only extant variety of ancient Gnosticism.

Prof. Rudolph notes the central place of ritual in the Mandaean religion:

The center of the Mandaean religion is the cult. For centuries the traditional cult sites have been the principal foci of the local communities. They formerly consisted of a small hut (maškna, bit manda, bimanda, mandi) made of mud; in front of it lay the pool or “Jordan” (yardna) with “flowing (living) water.” Therefore the sanctuaries were always situated next to rivers or canals. Otherwise the rituals were performed directly on the banks of the rivers or creeks close to the residences of the community. However, since the mid-1970s, the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran have partly changed the tradition of their cultic areas in order to avoid polluted streams and rivers. Modern cultic structures are built of bricks, and often the ritual font is connected with the public water system. But émigré Mandaeans in the West, prefer to use natural waters, if it is possible and permitted.

The most important and oldest ceremonies are the “baptism” (maṣbuta, pron. maṣwetta) and the “ascent” (of the soul; masiqta, pron. masexta). The baptism or “immersion” takes place every Sunday (the first day of the week, habšaba) in “flowing water” (called yardna). It consists of two main parts: first is the actual baptismal rite, including a threefold immersion (the participants dressed in the sacral white garments, rasta), a threefold “signing” of the forehead with water, a threefold gulp of water, the “crowning” with a small myrtle wreath (klila), and the laying on of hands by the priest. The second part takes place on the banks of the “Jordan” and consists of the anointing with oil (of sesame), the communion of bread (pihta) and water (mambuha), and the “sealing” of the neophyte against evil spirits. Both parts are concluded by the ritual handclasp or kušṭa (“truth”). The purpose and meaning of the baptism is not only a purification of sins and trespasses but also a special kind of communion (laufa) with the world of light, because it is believed that all “Jordans” or “living waters” originate in the upper world of “Life.” There is no doubt that the basic constituent features of the water ceremonies are derived from baptismal practices (lustrations) of Judaism in the pre-Christian period (Segelberg, 1958, pp. 155 ff.; Rudolph, 1965, pp. 367 ff.; 1996, pp. 569 ff.; 1999; pictures in Drower, 1962; Rudolph, 1978; Tahvildar, 2001). Apart from this “full baptism” ritual, there exist two water rites, which can be done without priests and not only on Sunday (Rudolph, 1965, pp. 105 ff.).

The other chief ceremony is a kind of “mass for the dead,” or rather “for the soul” of the dead, called “ascent” (masiqta). It is performed at the death of a Mandaean and supports the “rise” of his soul to the world of Light and Life. It consists of lustrations with “running water,” anointing with oil, and “crowning” with a myrtle wreath. The main part starts three days after death, when the soul is released from the body and begins its forty-five-day “ascent” through the dangerous heavenly “watchhouses” (maṭarata, a kind of purgatory), until it reaches the “home of Life.” Recitations from the “Left Ginza” and ceremonial meals serve the ascending soul, including its symbolic nourishment, rebirth, and creation of a spiritual body (see below, iii, on the Iranian, Zoroastrian source of this “meal in memory of the dead”).

The Mandaeans have many more rituals such as the ordination of priests (tarmidi) and bishops (ganzibri, “treasurer”), the end-of-year ceremonies (parwanaiyi or panja;see below, iii), the cleansing of the cult-hut or “temple,” the marriage ceremony (which includes always the Masbuta), and several kinds of funeral and commemorative meals (lofani, zidq brikha).

He even adds this line:

A Characteristic of the Mandaean religion is the close connection between rituals and Gnostic ideas. It is not only “knowledge” (manda, madihta, yada) that brings salvation, but also the ceremonies, at first baptism and “offices for the soul,” which are indispensable means for release or salvation.

This is important to note because for much of the last two centuries, theologians have been prone to use the moniker “gnostic” to signify something wholly distinct from the historical reality. Thanks to the Hellenization thesis of the German liberals and certain polemical works like Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics, “Gnosticism” has come to stand in for a hodgepodge of idealism, pietism, and Puritanism (in the aesthetic and disciplinarian sense), but is also used to sometimes explain social progressivism, militarism, feminism, egalitarianism, and capitalism, depending on the needs of the author. Perhaps most recently, we’ve seen Protestant theologians use “Gnosticism” to explain the individual and informal character of modern Evangelism, with “ritual” often offered as the antidote. As rhetorically moving as this may be, it bears the scantest resemblance to actual Gnosticism.

In fact, the more one studies Gnosticism, the less Western it looks altogether. While certainly the Greeks were influencing the East and vice versa from before the time of Alexander, if one had to assign a regional character to Gnosticism, it would be much more Middle Eastern than Hellenistic. Any Platonic elements present exist alongside Hebraic, Persian, and pagan notions. They hardly stand out as unique or even central. And the one thing that absolutely was not the case is the claim that the Gnostics opposed ritual.

We cannot expect the rhetoric to change very quickly, but we can at least make an initial plea to not use terms in ways opposite to their actual meaning. We can ask for this even if they help us to score polemical points. In fact, it is especially these times when we should most resist the urge.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.