Outside of Christian orthodoxy, John the Baptist has long been a figure associated with esoteric movements such as Freemasonry, the Knights Templar, the Mandeans and the Gnostics. According to the famous Masonic pontiff Albert Pike (33°) John symbolized the connection of esoteric Templar doctrine with early Christian Gnosticism (A. Pike, Morals & Dogma, pg. 817-18). In Mandean tradition John was regarded as the true Prophet in opposition to Jesus, who was condemned and denounced by the Mandeans (e.g. the Right Ginza; M. Meyer, The Gnostic Bible, pg. 550). And in Gnostic Christian tradition John is part of Sophia’s plan for salvation. The church father Irenaeus gives this report regarding this doctrine:
“They maintain that Sophia, herself has also spoken many things through [the prophets] regarding the first Anthropos (man), and concerning that Christ who is above, thus admonishing and reminding men of the incorruptible light, the first Anthropos, and of the descent of Christ. The [other] powers being terrified by these things, and marvelling at the novelty of those things which were announced by the prophets, [Sophia] brought it about by means of Ialdabaoth (who knew not what he did), that emissions of two men took place, the one from the barren Elizabeth, and the other from the Virgin Mary. (12) And since she herself had no rest either in heaven or on earth, she invoked her mother to assist her in her distress. Upon this, her mother, the first woman, was moved with compassion towards her daughter, on her repentance, and begged from the first man that Christ should be sent to her assistance, who, being sent forth, descended to his sister, and to the besprinkling of light. When he recognised her (that is, the Sophia below), her brother descended to her, and announced his advent through means of John, and prepared the baptism of repentance.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.30.11-12; cf. NHL: Testimony of Truth, 45; Valentinian Exposition, 40-41.)
In Gnostic thought & myth the original and spiritual act of repentance began with Sophia. And John the Baptist is the man, the vessel, through which her repentance is introduced to mankind. John is reported to have preached a “baptism for repentance and remission of sins” (Mt. 3:2, Lk. 3:3).
The theological context of John’s doctrine has long been a subject of dispute. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus was challenged by the priests at Jerusalem. They inquired of him by what authority did he preach his doctrine (Mt. 21:23). Jesus turned the table and challenged them in return, saying “I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, where is it from? from heaven? or from men?” (Mt. 21:24-25)
The priests declined to answer Jesus’s question because John was popular with the people. But privately they believed that John’s doctrine was heretical and contrary to the Law of Moses. Jesus likewise refused to answer their question. Now of course for the Gnostic reader Jesus was preaching on behalf of another God, which was why Jesus over-turned certain points in the Law of Moses on behalf of a “perfect” God as opposed to the “jealous” God of the Old Testament—providing that one is willing to recognize the contradictions in the Sermon on the Mount, between the passages in Matthew 5:17-19 & 5:38-48.
But outside of Matthew there is further evidence of the obscure nature of John’s theology. In the Gospel of John 1:17-18 this plain statement is attributed to John the Baptist:
“For the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time. The only-begotten Son, in the bosom of the Father, He has declared him.”
The theme that Moses does not represent the true God occurs throughout this gospel. In John 17:25 Jesus says plainly “Oh righteous Father, the world (kosmos) has not known you“. And in John 9:29 the Pharisees are reported to have responded to Jesus’s message thus: “We know that God spoke to Moses: as for this fellow, we not where he is from.”
For open-minded and discerning readers it can be seen that there is the idea of another unknown God in the New Testament, and that this God and repentance is revealed through both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Now, setting the mythical narrative aside, we must consider the prospect that Jesus (or, the followers who invented “Jesus”) learned these ideas originally from John the Baptist. This prospect can be seen in the Gospel of Luke where the teaching connected with Jesus in Matthew 5 is attributed to John the Baptist in Luke 3:11, “He that has two coats, let him give to him that has none; and he that has meat, let him do likewise“. (cf. Mt. 5:41-42, Lk. 6:30a)
Like Matthew, Luke also has conflicting passages that reveal the presence of more than one theology, which in Luke can be seen in a comparison of Lk. 6:35-36 as compared with Lk. 4:8. Between these passages the discerning reader can see the contrast between the Good Father and the vindictive, Jealous God. (Surely it was conflicting passages like this that led Marcion to reject the version of Luke used by the Catholic Church of his day.)
Next we must note that in ancient sources the arch-heretic Simon Magus was also connected with John the Baptist and is said to have been John’s favorite disciple. Considering the evidence already presented above, we must consider the question: Did Simon also learn his ideas from John the Baptist?
According to another record known as the Clementine Homilies, which may originate from the Apostolic father Clement of Rome (a follower of Peter), it is stated that Simon was the favorite student of John the Baptist:
“But that [Simon] came to deal with the doctrines of religion happened on this wise. There was one John, a day-baptist, who was also, according to the method of combination, the forerunner of our Lord Jesus; and as the Lord had twelve apostles, bearing the number of the twelve months of the sun, so also he, John, had thirty chief men, fulfilling the monthly reckoning of the moon, in which number was a certain woman called Helena, that not even this might be without a dispensational significance. … But of these thirty, the first and the most esteemed by John was Simon…” (Clementine Homilies, 2.23; J. Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8, pg. 233.)
It is stated further in the Clementine Homilies that Simon eventually succeeded John the Baptist in the leadership of John’s order and ministry. Thus it is implied in this source that Peter’s struggle against Simon was a struggle against the movement founded by John the Baptist, subsequently under the leadership of Simon.
Moreover it is reported by the church fathers that Simon also taught the concept of another God above the God of the Mosaic Law. This passage from the Homilies is an example of Simon’s doctrine:
“When I went away yesterday, I promised to return today, and in a discussion show that he who framed the world is not the highest God, but that the highest God is another who alone is good, and who has remained unknown up to this time. … If then he is the Lawgiver, he is just; but if he is just, then he is not good. … Now a lawgiver cannot be both just and good, for these qualities do not harmonize.” (Homily, 18:1)
One side-note here is that I do believe that the Clementine Homilies are ultimately a report of Peter’s battle against Paul, and is the back-ground of the conflict in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. In the interests of unity Catholic scribes replaced Paul’s name with Simon, thus allowing Paul’s ministry to be conflated with Simon’s ministry. On the other hand, it can be said that Paul and Simon shared many important ideas in common regarding theology, ethics and the Law of Moses. I provide a summary of these parallels in part two of my series St. Paul and the Apostolic Tradition: the Clementine Cover-up.
The passage quoted above is an example of a report from the church fathers accusing Simon of being the originator of Gnosticism, even in its Christian form–although Simon himself is said to have rejected Christianity altogether. Nonetheless it can be seen where Simon may have learned his ideas from John the Baptist. The church fathers report of Simon that he considered himself to be the supreme Being, that he himself was this other God. But these reports, which are derogatory and biased, have to be regarded with caution. Based on Simon’s teaching as preserved in the Great Announcement I understand Simon to mean that he was able realize what was present within himself as a potentiality. The church father Hippolytus is the one cleric who offers a rational comment on Simon’s teaching: “According to Simon, therefore, there exists that which is blessed and incorruptible in a latent condition in every one—potentially, not actually; and that this is He who stood, stands, and is to stand.” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 6:12)
Another example where John’s teaching may be echoed by Simon can be seen in the aforementioned Simonian treatise known as the Great Announcement as preserved by Hippolytus (Refutation of All Heresies, 6:11). In the passage cited, words are repeated that are also attributed to John the Baptist in Matthew 3:10 and Luke 3:9. Quoting from the Great Announcement: “If, however, a tree continues alone, not producing fruit fully formed, it is utterly destroyed. For somewhere near, he says, is the axe (which is laid) at the roots of the tree. Every tree, he says, which does not produce good fruit, is hewn down and cast into fire.” (ibid. 6:4, 11)
Reading the above passage it must be noted that the Great Announcement is not a Christian document. It is a work of Simonian philosophy and mysticism and has nothing to do with Jesus. Yet words are quoted here that resemble word-for-word a teaching attributed to John the Baptist. The context of Simon’s statement is that those people who do not bear spiritual fruit, meaning to realize the Divine potentiality within themselves, will be subject to a fiery condemnation. Is it possible that the Great Announcement contains the fullness of John the Baptist’s original teaching?
Now of course orthodox tradition makes out John’s words to be reference to the prophecy of Elijah in Malachi 4:1, 5; “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.” … “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord”.
In my view there is not a clear match between John’s words and the passage above. The connection is purely the invention of orthodox scholars. Whereas it is entirely possible that the source and meaning of John’s words could lay elsewhere—hence the enduring connection of John with heresy or a whole other branch of philosophy.
Furthermore, the statement in the Gospels that John lived in the wilderness and wore a loin-clothe and subsisted on locusts and honey, may be regarded as an invention by Christians to make John appear inferior to Jesus. (Moreover, it may also be doubted that John ever literally deferred to Jesus as subsequent Christian traditions, orthodox or heretical, together maintain.) From the extant records it can be gathered that John was the son of a Jewish priest. This means that John was born into the upper class and had access to a good education. It is also known that the Jewish priesthood in Roman times was open to secularism; meaning that they were open to pagan culture and education in their private lives. Their very order existed because of King Herod (the Great) and the Roman state. It is within the realm of possibility that John was a highly educated man, educated in philosophy and Hellenistic culture. That John was known to Herod the Tetrarch and the religious leaders indicates that John was a man of respect. But then Herod came to resent John after he spread the family’s business among the people, if the report in the Gospels is accurate. Or Herod may have feared John’s popularity, as Josephus reports (Antiquities, 18.5.1-2).
Of course I am getting deep into speculation but I believe we should be careful of this traditional view that John was an eccentric who wandered around in a loin-clothe and ate insects. I suspect John was a man of much greater stature, and he had his own school. Some say that John was an Essene but there is not much by way of solid evidence to establish that connection. John may have had his own movement and his own ideas, and that’s why we never see John referred to as an “Essene” in historic texts. John is the man who may have inspired the early Hellenist & proto-Gnostic Christians like Paul, and perhaps laid the foundation for the Simonians and later the Mandeans. And it may very well be that because of the highly political nature of the evolution of dogma, that John the Baptist’s true place in that historic evolution has been concealed. To learn the truth about John is to pull on yet another thread that unravels the fabric of Christian orthodoxy. It is a veil that has remained in place for centuries. Nonetheless there is a counter-tradition of John the Baptist which has persisted like a shadow through the centuries. Mandeans, Templars and Freemasons all lay claim to an esoteric tradition that originated in part from John the Baptist. —jw
By Jim West. Copyright © May 5th 2015; revised May 10th, 2015.
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