THE REAL MESSIAH BLOG: The Mandaean and related Jewish traditions

The Mandaean and related Jewish traditions

copyright 2008 Stephan Huller

The Coptic tradition is adamant that “the apostle” Mark went by another name. He was called “Mark” among the Gentiles and “John” among the Jews (Acts 15:37). Interestingly, The Talmud also called Marcus Agrippa “Johnny” (Jannai), in an otherwise silly story in Yebamoth 61a concerning the marriage of the daughter of Boethus. The Soncino editors note how the Talmud often employs the name “Jannai” as a general patronym for Hasmonean and Herodian rulers. Here it stands for Agrippa II (see Josephus, Antiquities XX, 9, 4, and Derenbourg, Essai, pp. 248ff.). It would be impossible to develop all the significant references to John, Johanan, or Jannai in the period. But the underlying pattern reveals that Jews recognize that a “John” figure ruled them in the period of the destruction of the temple and that he was responsible for taking them through “uncharted territories” when their sacrificial religion came to an end.

The most famous Jewish “John” in this age was a figure later remembered as “John the son of blamelessness” or “John the son of purity” – Johanan ben Zakkai. To put the Tarot cards on the table, my hypothesis identifies him, too, with Julius Marcus Agrippa. I cannot hope, in a matter of a few lines in this book, to dislodge the belief that an actual, distinct Rabbinic figure of this name lived and preserved Judaism. Nevertheless, some interesting coincidences do deserve mention here with the hope that they can be developed more fully in a subsequent work.

Consider the coincidence of names of “John” figures from the period leading up to the destruction of the temple: “John the son of Zakkai,” a leading figure in Judaism; “John the son of Zakariah,” a leading figure in Christianity. Neither person is known to the other tradition: the Rabbinic authorities have never heard of “John the Baptist;” the Christians have no information about “John the son of Zakkai” other than what their Jewish neighbors tell them, but they both held prominent positions in Palestine in the period. Herford acknowledges that one name is the equivalent of the other. [Pirke Aboth (The Ethics and Sayings of the Fathers), Text and Commentaries by R. Travers Herford] “Zakkai” is a short form of “Zakariah.” But this is only the beginning. There are other striking parallels which remain invisible as long as we fail to see that the Catholic tradition and its corrupted histories (e.g., Josephus) claim that John the Baptist was beheaded early in the first century. The proto-Mandaean tradition, the sect which is the original source for much of our early information (the Gospel of Luke must have borrowed from an earlier version of the Mandaean Book of John), knows nothing about any of this, and some of its traditions imply that John lived to see the destruction of the temple.

One of the most important commonalities between all these John figures is that they are all connected with a vision regarding the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. In the Mandaean tradition, John not only sees the end of Jewish worship, but he becomes a joyous spokesperson for the coming cataclysm. The messianic figure of Elijah announces to the Jews that "Woe unto you, all of you priests, for Elizabeth shall bear a child. Woe unto you, ye rabbis, for a child shall be born in Jerusalem. Woe unto you, ye teachers and pupils, for Elizabeth shall bear a child, woe unto you, Mistress Torah (the Law), for Yōhānā shall be born in Jerusalem." [John Book 18] His father similarly announces to the chief Jewish priest that when is son will be born Israel will cease to use the Torah and will “see not Moses ben Amram.” [ibid]

When John finally appears he announces "Who is my equal, who is my equal, that thou shouldst look on him and forget me? Before my voice and the voice of my proclamations the Torah disappeared in Jerusalem. Before the voice of my discourse the readers read no more in Jerusalem. The wantons cease from their lewdness, and the women go not forth to the [synagogues] . . . . Hither [to me] come the brides in their wreaths, and their tears flow down to the earth. The child in the womb of his mother heard my voice and did weep. The merchants trade not in Judæa, and the fishers fish not in Jerusalem. The women of Israel dress not in dresses of colour, the brides wear no gold and the ladies no jewels.” [ibid]

In a parallel but now entirely subdued manner we see the Rabbinic tradition recast its “John the son of Zakkai” as one who saw the end of the temple coming but who strove to preserve the “goodness of Judaism” in spite of it. The story, told in slightly different ways in the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, is that John received a “vision” about the destruction which was to come upon Jerusalem about forty years later (i.e. around the exact time that the Christian John who was called Mark witnessed the “little apocalypse” of the angelic figure named Jesus). The Old Testament Zechariah is the prophet who seems to have revealed the coming destruction in Jerusalem to “John.”

"Said Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai to the Temple, 'O Temple, why do you frighten us? We know that you will end up destroyed. For it has been said, 'Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars'" (Zechariah 11:1)' [Palestinian Talmud Sota 6:3].

Can we hope to find “John” among the Rabbinic texts? As Jacob Neusner has shown, traditional Rabbinical biography has been completely pre-critical in its methods and its aims, taking almost all of the traditions of the rabbis at face value. This presents a problem when we confront the now-dominant traditions of the figure named “John,” Johanan ben Zakkai. Neusner shows how unreliable and entirely symbolic/polemical is the character as tradition presents him (just as critical scholars now recognize concerning Jesus). Johanon has been transformed into the furthest thing from someone whom we might think “fits in” with the likes of the Samaritan Marqeh, the Catholic Mark-who-was-called-John, or the heretical “Marcion.” The Rabbinic “John” is now made into a loyal Pharisee of the House of Hillel, just as we see “Paul” reinvented among the Catholics.

According to the claim of the Mishnah (Aboth ii. 8), Judaism as we know it was “handed down through an unbroken chain of scholars; Johanan, in receiving the teachings of Hillel and Shammai, formed the last link in that chain.” In this way the John of history is not someone who reinvented Judaism after the temple was destroyed but only a faithful custodian who preserved the original message. By now John isn’t the very messiah heralded by the words of Zechariah, he isn’t even a king but a mere “rabbi” who leads the congregation through the darkness of the period, waiting, it seems, for the Mishnah to be invented in the age of Antoninus. He is completely divorced, it seems, from Jesus and yet the surviving tradition recognizes that, like Marcion, he was devotedly attached to the principle of Chesed i.e. “loving kindness.”

So it is that the Jewish tradition goes so far as to have the man they now credit as reconstituting Judaism in the period after the destruction of the temple (not Marcus Agrippa now but “John”) as explicitly denying that he was the messiah. "Prepare a throne for Hezekiah, king of Judah, who is coming,” [Berakoth 28b] the Jewish “John” is made to say. The Hillel tradition of course is made to also use Hezekiah himself as a kind of proof not to hope in the messiah at all – viz. "There will be no Messiah for Israel, because they already had him in the days of Hezekiah." [Sanhedrin 99a] Jewish scholars of course follow along rather innocently as we see Samson Levey declare all too naively "Johanan's statement is especially significant, for it was he who salvaged what little he could in 70 C.E."

Yes it must have been comforting for Jewish believers to see in their “John” a kind of selfless servant of the “old ways” rather than what he really was – viz. Marcus Julius Agrippa. His royal scepter lurks everywhere under the stories associated with the “John” of Jewish legend. Of course it would be far too problematic for the later Rabbinic tradition to admit who their “John” really was. Just look at the associates who gather round him – they are almost all identified as “sons of Hyrcanus” on some level. So it is once the reader stops and thinks where Marcus Agrippa’s own appellation Jannai derived from it is perhaps a little easier to see how he was purified and stripped from his true historical identify only to appear again in later times as our now familiar “blameless John.”

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