Philologastry

The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Legends and Lore in the Great Revelation

The “Scroll of the Great Revelation” (diuan ḏ-galalta rba), also called “Inner Harran” (haran gauaita) on the basis of the words with which all surviving copies of the text begin, is a work of Mandaean legend that addresses the birth, infancy, and career of John the Baptist (iahia iuhana), the destruction of the Temple, the rise of the Sasanians (hardbaiia), and the rise of Islam, among other historical events. Rudolf Macuch famously declared that the text must be taken seriously, even if only five percent of it were historically valid, but it is not immediately apparent from the text what might be considered history, and what might be considered legend.

The text is chiefly known from Stefana Drower’s translation, based upon the eighth portion of a diwan of the 1012 Questions, represented by Drower Collection (DC) MS 36 in the Bodleian; her only other manuscript, DC 9, appears to have been detached from another such scroll. The former was copied in 1088 AH (1699/1700), and all other copies consulted by Drower trace back to this same manuscript, the colophon of which mentions that it was copied from only one exemplar. On these grounds, she concludes that by 1700 “only one imperfect and ancient copy” remained. That text was apparently very fragmentary, as indicated by the numerous lacunae, particularly at the beginning of the text, which were indicated by small circles in the copies that she consulted. It is for this reason that the text begins, in medias res, “and Inner Harran received him and that city in which there were Naṣoraeans, because there was no road for the Jewish rulers.”

As Jorunn Buckley notes in her Great Stem of Souls (2010, 305), the portion concerned with the birth and infancy of John seems to share certain elements with the Protevangelium of James (which has been dated to the mid-2nd century), specifically the motif of John the Baptist being born, carried into the safety of the hill-country, and watched over by heavenly beings.

Then [...] when the boy was born Anuš-’Uthra came by command of the great Father of Glory and they came before Hibil-Ziwa by command of the great Father of Glory and travelled over deserts towards Mount Sinai and proceeded [...] towards a community called Ruha’s that is situated near the place where the Ark was built [...] and she will be a deliverer (midwife?) to the child [...] into Parwan, the white mountain, an earthly place. And (in?) that place the fruit and sky are large. There [...] (groweth?) the Tree which nourisheth infants. And they took back Ṣufnai the lilith to a place so that when they should perform a living baptism to purify the child, the apostle of Kušṭa, Yahia-Yuhana [...]

The text here mentions Mount Parwan, which Drower identifies with Kuh-e Parou near the city of Tafresh in Markazi provice, Iran, more or less due east of Hamadan and southwest of Tehran. Intriguingly, the infant John appears to be guarded by a lilith in the Mandaean account (an intriguing inversion of the lilith’s usual role), whereas in the Protevangelium of James, the guardian is merely an unnamed “angel of the Lord”:

But Elizabeth when she heard that they sought for John, took him and went up into the hill-country and looked about her where she should hide him: and there was no hiding-place. And Elizabeth groaned and said with a loud voice: O mountain of God, receive thou a mother with a child. For Elizabeth was not able to go up. And immediately the mountain clave asunder and took her in. And there was a light shining always for them: for an angel of the Lord was with them, keeping watch over them.

The following section contains numerous references to the “Fallen House.” Drower took this phrase to mean the Temple of Solomon, but elsewhere it is generally a metaphor for the material world. There is confusion over which is intended here, and the ambiguity may be the result of word-play. At the very beginning, we read that the Jews attacked the “tribes of Anuš-’Uthra, the Head of the Age,” and massacred all the Naṣoraeans. Incidentally, while the word Naṣoraeans (naṣoraiia) traditionally refers to the initiated members of the Mandaean community, with the term “Mandaeans” (mandaiia) reserved for the laity, the term here appears to apply to the community as a whole, just as it does in the account of Theodore bar Konai, “Mandaeans” appearing nowhere within.

Immediately afterwards, we find Jews on the run from something, taking flight across the Suf Zaba (that is, “reed of river” or “end of river” which is traditionally identified with the Shatt el-Arab but here probably refers to the Yam Suph of the Exodus account) and then a detailed account of the building of Jerusalem. I am not at all convinced that this is sequential. It seems to me that this account of the flight of the Jews and the building of Jerusalem (which Drower takes to have been the “new Jerusalem”) is actually copied from one or more fragments that have fallen out of place, or that the copyist has attempted to harmonize fragments from several manuscripts and failed to do so.

After Jerusalem is built, Hibil Ziua approaches Anuš-’Uthra and tells him to bring seven guardians from Mount Parwan. These guardians are armed with seven magic bows that shoot flaming arrows, and chartered to destroy the Temple and scatter the Jews. It is not Anuš-’Uthra or his seven guardians who are credited with accomplishing this, but rather Hibil Ziua, who destroys Jerusalem and brings an end to 800 years of Jewish rule in “Baghdad,” by which the text likely intends Babylon (Baghdad is an obvious anachronism, as the present city was not founded until the 8th century). The section concludes,

Thereupon Anuš-’Uthra, changed nothing of that which they commanded him (to do), and Hibil-Ziwa came and burnt and destroyed Jerusalem and made it like heaps of ruins. And he went to Baghdad and killed (there) all the cohens and took away government from them and pounded (to) dust every city in which there were Jews. Moreover for the eight hundred years that their government [malkutun] was in Baghdad they exercised an autonomy amongst themselves [dabarbun malkuta] – four hundred rulers [malkia] – (for) the duration of a Jewish autonomy [malkutun] in Baghdad was eight hundred years; four hundred rulers [malkia] from the Jews (Jewish community) wielded kingly office.

Thus the House of the Jews came to naught and met its end, and the Host of darkness became powerless.

It would seem that this would be the most appropriate place for our narrative to fade to black and roll the credits. The language is more characteristic of an eschatological context, rather than a historical one, for at none of the times in which this text is set or in which it could have been composed could any of these things be said to be true, although they do have the appearance of an end-times prediction. Furthermore, if we take this chronology at face value, starting from the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity, we find ourselves at the end of the turn of the third century, which precisely the time that the first references to the Exilarchate or Reš Galuta first appear. The tradition that the Exilarch had been reigning continuously in Babylon from the time of the captivity of Jehoiachin is a specifically Jewish tradition, appearing in the 9th century Seder Olam Zuṭa and nowhere else, at least not to my knowledge.

If the Mandaeans were in contact with the Jews, as they undeniably were, and familiar with their traditions, as this text seems to suggest, why would they write that the Exilarchate was destroyed at precisely the time that it is first appearing in the historical record and being institutionalized by the Sasanids? They could not have been unaware of the continued existence of the Exilarchate, but perhaps they had reasons to consider it illegitimate. Regardless of the historical value of the tradition, its appearance here alone raises other issues.

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One thought on “Legends and Lore in the Great Revelation

  1. Pingback: Charles Häberl on Mandaean History and the Haran Gawaita

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