In his recent book From Sasanian Mandaeans to Ṣābians of the Marshes, Kevin T. van Bladel reopens old questions on the origins of Mandaeans and, armed with his characteristic erudition, fixes the topic on more secure historical and social footings. He has three major arguments: 1) the Mandaeans emerged as a distinct community in fifth-century Sasanian Persia not in the third century, as is widely assumed; 2) Mandaeans not only absorbed earlier teachings and texts from an earlier group called the Nazoreans, but they also distinguished themselves from a rival “sister” community called the Kentaeans; 3) The Sasanian emperors had a habit of pillaging pagan temples, which led to their decline and the emergence of Mandaeans, Kentaeans, and other types of “Syro-Mesopotamian” groups. Methodologically, van Bladel breaks with other scholars of Mandaeism by moving away from a “comparative religions” approach that approaches the emergence of Mandaeism through other “Syro-Mesopotamian” religions in favor of a historical approach that tracks the development of Mandaeism “with respect to larger social contexts situated in specific times” (4). Van Bladel thus works from within the Mandaean tradition and with a careful eye to external references to uniquely Mandaean ideas in order to tease out a reliable historical scaffolding for the emergence of Mandaeism.
The first three chapters deal with issues of dating. In the first chapter, van Bladel undermines scholarly arguments that contend the Mandaeans arose in the third century. He provides a rereading of a crucial colophon in the Qullāstā, the “Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans,” and ultimately demonstrates that scholars have no basis to assign such an early date to the Mandaeans. Lacking reliable internal evidence for dating the Mandaeans, van Bladel looks to external sources written and preserved in Syriac. In chapter two, van Bladel turns to the Book of the Scholion written by the bishop Theodore bar Konay, which mentions that the Mandaeans emerged in a complicated relationship with another mysterious religious community called the Kentaeans in the fifth century CE. Chapter three develops both van Bladel’s dating of the Mandaeans to the fifth century and their relationship to the Kentaeans, as demonstrated by three sixth-century Syriac sources that consistently link the Kentaeans with the Mandaeans. In his words, “The Kentaeans and the Mandaeans, as such, came into existence after Aphrahaṭ and Ephraem but before Cyrus of Edessa and the author of the History of Symeon bar Ṣabbā‘e” (36). In the fourth chapter, van Bladel argues that the Mandaeans polemicized against the Kentaeans, though they called them the Kewānāye – the people of Saturn/Saturday. These Kentaeans, van Bladel shows, were closely related to the Mandaeans in origin and practice, though differed from them in a few crucial matters, especially in their handling of water. It was this “narcissism of small differences” that led the Mandaeans to differentiate themselves from the Kentaeans.
Chapters five and six are concerned with the first lengthy, pre-modern account of the Mandaeans as Sabians, which is recorded in the tenth century text Kitāb ad-Dalā’il, written by al-Ḥasan ibn Bahlūl. This account was attributed to a certain Abū ‘Alī, whom van Bladel concludes was “a Muslim secretary, not a Christian. He was, however, also well-known that ibn Bahlūl would expect his readers to recognize him by his kunya Abū ‘Alī alone rather than by a fuller name” (58). These short chapters thus signal the growth of knowledge in the tenth century about the Mandaeans, a full five centuries after their emergence in Sasanian Mesopotamia.
Chapter seven focuses on the marshes of southern Mesopotamia. Van Bladel argues that the sudden shifts in the courses of the two rivers spelled disaster for local Aramean populations. This spurred the development of religions “resembling the biblical prophecy of Jewish sages and alluding to the sort of spiritual salvation promised by Christian preachers of all varieties” (64). The marshes, however, also insulated the Mandaeans from outside exposure, that is, until the Zanğ rebelled against caliphate rule. This led to increased political interest in the marshes, which led to the Muslim discovery of the “true Sabians” – that is, the Mandaeans. This too had a political edge, in so far as other groups like the Ḥarrānians, who claimed for themselves the mantle of Sabians, were disenfranchised as a licit community.
Chapters nine and ten return to the topic of origins. Having located the origins of the Mandaeans in fifth century Mesopotamian marshes, van Bladel systematically dispatches with a series of counter-arguments that might presuppose an earlier, non-Sasanian origin. These include claims that 1) the Mandaeans had connections to figures in the Parthian era, 2) were originally from Palestine, 3) are “gnostic” and thus tied to 2nd/3rd century “gnostic” movements, 4) datable to earlier centuries through the use of magical lamellae, and 5) that Mandaeism antedated Manichaeism. With regards to this last claim, he suggests that the similarities between Mandaeism and Manichaeism might stem from a common Elchasaite source.
Van Bladel provides the thickest description of Mandaean origins in chapters eleven and twelve. In chapter eleven, he argues that the religion that we now know as “Mandaeism” actually developed from a pre-Mandaean Nazorean past. He notes that there are very few actual references to “Mandaeans” in their books, though references to Nazoreans abound. In fact, as Bar Konay demonstrates, the Mandaeans were sometimes known as Nazoreans. Van Bladel hypothesizes that “the Mandaean sect arose from within a Jewish Christian sect already known as Nāṣoreaean when one or more teachers, or perhaps even originally pagan laypeople who observed Nāṣoreaean baptisms, fostered a new esoteric form of religion requiring special initiation and having its own secret texts, but for which they retained the name Nāṣoreaean” (94). If true, then this means that some Mandaean texts may preserve an earlier pre-Mandaean strata reaching back to the third century.
Yet such changes did not happen in a vacuum. In chapter 11, van Bladel attempts to frame the emergence of Mandaeism within broader political and religious shifts from the Sasanian era. This chapter is, by his own admission, perhaps the most speculative, though it still warrants deep engagement. He begins by suggesting that the Sasanian emperors were responsible for the long decline of pagan, non-Zoroastrian temples. These temples were prime targets for imperial pillaging, since they were relatively unprotected, filled with wealth, and generally disliked by a range of religious communities, including the Zoroastrians. With the loss of these institutional bases of worship, van Bladel posits that new religions – like that of the Kentaeans and Mandaeans – emerged to fill the needs of many local Arameans who had lost the institutional support of their local temples. These local Aramean people and priests “cast in forms familiar from religions that had already been able to flourish – Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism – and bore the imprint especially of the Manichaean example…” (114). They created new scriptures and rituals, ultimately leading to the emergence of a number of religions that were similar to the Mandaeans and the Kentaeans, though only the Mandaeans survive to this day.
In concluding his book, van Bladel points to lack of homogeneity across characters, narratives, and rituals even within a single text. He posits that this is largely due to a lack of a centralizing authority. At the same time, such pluriformity demonstrate that the Mandaeans and their texts are not “fossils” of the past, but living communities that underwent uneven periods of oppression, disagreement, and schism. He concludes with a sobering reminder, that the Mandaean materials we have are themselves products of numerous “bottlenecks,” and that they do not, as a whole, represent an accurate account of the Mandaean past.
Van Bladel’s book is a significant contribution to the field of Mandaeism and will hopefully spur further interest in its neglected texts. Its interdisciplinary import is no less substantial. Indeed, if read next to recent monographs on the encounters between the Church of the East or the Babylonian rabbis with Sasanian power, van Bladel’s book demonstrates how unique the Mandaean “experience” with the Sasanians must have been. Indeed, in comparison to the rabbis, Christians, and Manichaeans, all communities that had extensive contact – for ill or for worse – with the Sasanian authorities, the Mandaeans seem to have successfully navigated Sasanian power relatively undisturbed. This, in turn, suggests something of the uneven distribution of imperial attention and power upon the minority communities inhabiting Iranshahr. Van Bladel’s book is thus not only a story of the Mandaean past, but a window into Sasanian Mesopotamia and the forging of “religious communities” beyond the “Greco-Roman” boundaries. For these reasons, it demands serious consideration among scholars interested in situating the Bavli in its Iranian context, the Church of the East, and the Sasanian Empire in general.
Jae Hee Han is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Jae will be joining the faculty at Brown University in Fall, 2018