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

How Can You Date a Text?

The question I keep asking myself as I read selections from the Doctrine of John is how these texts relate to one another and to the rest of the Mandaic corpus. I’d like to be able to express these relationships quantitatively, but for the time being I must stick to the qualitative differences that have been identified by previous researchers. These include:

  1. References to Islam or historical events that followed its advent;
  2. Orthographic conventions, such as historical or phonetic spellings;
  3. The presence of Arabic words, either in the form of loan words or names; and finally,
  4. “Modern” (Neo-)Mandaic forms such as the indicative particle qa- or the 3rd pl. personal morpheme -iun on the perfective;

All of these are found to some degree or another in Chapter 18 of the Doctrine of John.  The problem with 1) is that it is subjective and open to interpretation, as I have hopefully demonstrated elsewhere.  In the context of Chapter 18, there is a reference to a “Dome of the Priests,” qumba ḏ-kahnia, which appears to be a synonym for the Temple, but this would place the text (or at least this version of it) squarely in the Umayyad period, as the Second Temple was most certainly not domed, and was destroyed in 70 CE in any case; no dome would appear until 691 CE, when the Dome of the Rock was completed. This confusion between the Temple of Solomon and the present occupant of its former site is by no means restricted to the Mandaeans; at times, Muslims, Christians, and even Jews have confused the two. The incipit to the Gospel of Luke in the Harley Golden Gospels, which was composed sometime during the first quarter of the 9th century, features an illustration of the Annunciation to Zechariah (the very subject of Chapter 18) against the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock:

Incipit to Luke

2) is a slightly better indicator of the antiquity of a text, but still problematic, as these texts were copied and recopied constantly throughout the centuries, and with each copy came new opportunities to revise the spelling of each word (potentially to “modernize” or even “archaicize” it).  It is for this reason that the preponderant majority of the variants between the existing texts of the Doctrine of John are spelling variants.

With 3) we find ourselves on slightly better ground, but its utility as a metric for dating texts is still quite limited.  For starters, Arabic and Mandaic belong to the same Central branch of West Semitic, and share a common inherited vocabulary. Words inherited by both languages will be distinguished by their phonology; while Arabic retains the distinction between most Proto-Semitic phonemes, in Mandaic many of these same phonemes have been merged together.  Unfortunately, the Mandaic script reflects its phonology, with the result that Arabic phonemes not found in Mandaic are lumped together with their closest Mandaic equivalents, which are not infrequently reflexes of the same ancestral phonemes. Thus distinctions between Arabic and Mandaic words are occasionally invisibilized by the script. Furthermore, Arabic words are rare in this text, and the pedigree of a given word is not always unimpeachable.

4) is perhaps the best indicator of the relative antiquity of a text.  The presence of Neo-Mandaic forms, when they are absent from other classical texts, indicate that the text in question was composed more recently, relative to those texts.

To these diagnostics, I’d add another qualitative difference, and perhaps even a quantitative one:

  1. The presence of the periphrastic gṭil l- perfect conjugation, which is neither Classical nor, strictly speaking, Neo-Mandaic;
  2. The gradual replacement of the old Semitic imperfect or “prefix conjugation” by a participial present-future tense.

The latter requires some explanation. Between the period of Late Antiquity and the present day, the Eastern Aramaic dialects underwent a major restructuring of their verbal system. As a result of this restructuring, the ancestors of most surviving Aramaic dialects lost their inherited perfect and imperfect conjugations, which were replaced by periphrastic conjugations based upon the participles. These participial constructions were already present in earlier Aramaic dialects, in which they were used to supplement the inherited tenses. Construction 1), mentioned above, eventually came to replace the West Semitic perfect or “suffix conjugation” in most surviving dialects. It is conspicuously absent from Neo-Mandaic, but appears occasionally in the Doctrine of John.

The process by which these conjugations were replaced was gradual, and Classical Mandaic, especially insofar as it is represented by the language of the Doctrine of John, is a virtual “snapshot” of this process at work. Thus it is possible that this process could be used as a metric for a relative chronology of the texts; if the proportion of the innovated forms to the inherited forms can be observed within the corpus of texts to grow over time, then the relative age of individual texts could be potentially be gauged.


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One thought on “How Can You Date a Text?

  1. Pingback: Some Preliminary Data « Philologastry

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