Philologastry

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

Persian Flattery

My colleague and fellow Principal Investigator Dr. James McGrath once asked me whether the phrase mšiha paulis, which Lidzbarski renders “Christus-Paulis,” might have anything to do with the Persian word bolūs meaning “deceiver” or “flatterer.” This is a good question.  There are a few points in favor of this reading, and a few points against it.

The main point in favor is that bolūs can mean both “deceiver” and the Apostle Paul in modern Persian, a pun that would undoubtedly appeal to the Mandaeans.

The main point against it, of course, is that neither the initial consonant nor the vowel of the second syllable agree.  Also, the word does not appear in Mandaic elsewhere, raising questions as to whether such a clever pun might be understood by a monolithically Mandaic-speaking readership. The question of the initial consonant is somewhat mitigated by the word palos “flattery” in Persian, but the other questions are seemingly intractable.

That’s not my main concern, though, which is that the existence of this clever pun in modern Persian does not necessarily derive from a preexisting pun in earlier stages of the language. In fact, no form of this word appears at all in Middle Persian, which is disconcerting, since there are plenty of words for deception in that language.  The form bolūs for Paul is clearly an Arabic form (since the voiceless bilabial stop /p/ isn’t part of the phonemic inventory of Arabic, unlike in Persian), so what about bolūs for flatterer?  It has no clear Iranian or Middle Persian root, so it makes sense to look for an Arabic root, especially given that the word is only attested in modern Persian, the vocabulary of which is replete with Arabic loanwords.

The root b-l-s does exist in Arabic, but only with the meaning “to despair.”  I have a suspicion (not confirmed at this point) that the Persian word is derived from an (unfortunately unattested) Arabic denominal Arabic root from the name Iblīs (itself from Greek Diabolis, possibly via Syriac), which would mean something like “to (behave like the) devil.”  Denominal verbs of this sort are quite common, and I’m actually surprised that such a verb doesn’t exist, since it would obviously lend itself to many useful situations. Perhaps I’ll start using it.

This raises interesting questions related to the chronology of the Persian pun, namely when it entered the Persian language from Arabic (if indeed it did), and whether the Mandaeans borrowed it, and if so whether they borrowed it directly from the Arabs or indirectly via Persian.

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  1. Pingback: Reading Paul out of the Book of John | Philologastry

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