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

Archive for the month “December, 2016”

Mandaeans and Tajiks

Lately, I’ve been engaging the centuries of scholarship (both Muslim and non-Muslim)  that defines Mandaeans as Sabians, and both as Chaldaeans. I’m fairly certain that the Mandaeans are a real people, practicing a real religion, at least as far as I am able to discern with my own eyes and ears; scholars who don’t work directly with the Mandaeans or read Mandaean texts aren’t so certain about them, at least not in the ways that really matter to them, and have spent the better part of the last 13 centuries measuring them against these other categories, and finding them lacking.

The question of the Sabians, and particularly how they relate to the Sabians of the Qur’an, is especially fraught. Suffice it to say that we have one extant group that identifies as “Sabians,” who are in turn acknowledged as “Sabians” by their neighbors, and by those scholars who have the privilege to work directly with them and have mastered their language so that they can read their texts, in order to learn more about the various ways in which they have identified themselves throughout recorded history, but there is a small group of revisionist scholars who are not so certain of the authenticity of Mandaean claims, and never miss an opportunity to remind the rest of us. For these scholars, the term “Sabian” has a kind of occult meaning, one that is not obvious to the uninitiated, but which can be discerned through careful analysis (of course, not of the texts of the Mandaeans themselves, who can safely be disregarded as self-interested, but rather of the famously disinterested accounts of Islamic and Christian theologians).

I find it instructive to compare both to the term “Chaldaean,” which has meant different things to different people at different times, but eventually acquired a kind of romantic significance in European scholarship, referring to a discrete nation (the “Chaldaeans”), living in a discrete territory (“Chaldaea”) who practiced a discrete religion (“Chaldaism”) and who spoke a discrete language (“Chaldaic”) before it was eventually retired in the first half of the 20th. This is, for example, the sense in which Adolf von Harnack uses the term.  The valence of this term is not quite so compact outside of European scholarship. “Chaldaea” is to some extent coterminous with Mesopotamia, which appears in the Chinese sources as 条支 Tiáo zhī, a land to the West of Persia either reached overland via the Silk Road or overseas via the Gulf. This term Tiáo zhī is apparently derived from the Middle Persian term Tāzīg, “Arab,” which today bewilderingly survives as the demonym of the inhabitants of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, at least the ones who aren’t Uzbeks and Turkmen and members of other national groups that emerged as a consequence of Soviet policy and the scholarship that informed it. In the geographic region in which scholars have situated this term, it today means “fresh,” an attribute of fruits and vegetables rather than people.

When Arabic and Syriac sources discuss “Chaldaeans,” on the other hand, they exclusively intend either the famous star-worshipping astrologers of yore, or those Christians who follow the East Syrian Rite, two groups that are apparently connected only by the different languages they speak, or in the case of the latter, in which their liturgy is preserved. For obvious reasons,  the inheritors of this scholarship tend to regard “Chaldaea” and the “Chaldaeans,” at least in the romantic national sense to which their intellectual forefathers referred, and painstakingly elaborated over course of several the centuries, to be as much of a fiction as “Narnia” and the “Narnians.” This is not unexpected, considering that socially constructed categories such as “Chaldaeans” and “Sabians” can be surprisingly evanescent, and require constant attention on the part of their communities to maintain. In the absence of this effort, the impressive edifice of scholarship on Chaldaism has completely collapsed, and ownership of the term “Chaldaean” has reverted to the one community still engaged in maintaining its identity, the Chaldean Catholic Church, descendants of those aforementioned Chaldaeans who follow the East Syrian Rite. The continued relevance of “Sabians” as a subject of discourse is ensured by their appearance in the sacred literature of Islam, and by the living example of the Mandaeans, even though the scholarly debate over their meaning in the former has brought the continued existence of the latter into question in a very real way.

Unexpected Hebrew Words in Mandaic

There are a few Hebraisms in Mandaic that are surprisingly not shared with other Eastern Aramaic dialects, including the Jewish Babylonian ones. In Chapter 33 of the Book of John, for example, there is a passage dealing with the fate of the soul when Sauriel comes to collect it, describing its progression up the body, slipping from the feet to the knees, from the knees to the hip, and

haizak bhadia napla / kabša ulmarẖ mitgamla (read: lmadẖ mitgimla)

Then, she drops to the breasts / and she presses….

The soul apparently exits the body from the breasts, because the next two lines graphically describe what happens to the corpse after the soul is removed from it (spoiler alert: it’s not pretty). The last two words of this line, which presumably describe the extraction of the soul from the body, perplexed Lidzbarski, who left them untranslated and remarked in the footnotes that they are probably corrupt. I’d like to suggest that lmar- stands for the graphically similar (but regrettably unattested) form *lmad- “until she” (in place of the expected alma ḏ-he) and mitgamla for mitgimla “she is weaned,” this being the most obvious way to remove something from a breast, especially something that is unwilling to leave it, as the soul is often described in the Mandaean tradition. The Hebrew root g-m-l “to wean” doesn’t appear anywhere else in Eastern Aramaic, but it is attested in the Gt stem in Western Aramaic.

Another apparent Hebraism is found in Chapter 66 of the same text:

klilai qarnia ḏ-ziua / man brišai nitriṣlia

My wreath of splendid beams— who will set it upon my head?

The klila is the myrtle wreath worn primarily by priests on their heads, as they execute most of their functions. This particular wreath is a “wreath of qarnia of splendor” or “radiance.” Lidzbarski translates it as “Krone, die Stirnlocken des Glanzes,” and Drower and Macuch render the word qarna as “horn” or “angle,” but neither of these are appropriate in this context (Jerome’s similar mistranslation of this exact word in Exod. 34:29 is responsible for the belief, formerly widespread in Europe, that Jews have horns, as famously reflected by Michelangelo’s statue of Moses).

The word qarna ḏ-ziua can only mean beams of light here, precisely as in Hebrew, but apparently not in any other Aramaic language. In the targumim to the passages in which this Hebrew word appears, as well as in the Peshitta (e.g. Hab. 3:4), the Hebrew word קָרַן qāran or קַרְנַיִם qarnayim is either ignored (e.g. Exod. 34:29 ʾəray səḡi ziw yəqārā d-appohiezdahar meškā d-appaw, etc.) or rendered with a different word (Hab. 3:4 wa-hwā bə-qārīṯā d-iḏaw). Only the Samaritan for Exod. 34:29 preserves קָרַן. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Mandaic uniquely preserves the word in this meaning, at least within Eastern Aramaic.

Thēsauròs Zōēs | Life’s Treasure

The proper name simat hiia is conventionally translated as “Treasure of Life,” the word simta being compared fruitfully with the word symh “treasure” in other Aramaic languages, and the whole phrase being compared with the Manichaean thēsauròs zōēs, which means much the same thing in Greek. Both the Aramaic words are conventionally derived from the root s-w-m, one of the more common roots meaning to put” or place.”

In the Book of John (chapter 58), she appears with her male counterpart, sam hiia.

A treasure am I—Life’s Treasure (simat hiia)! / Life’s Treasure (sam hiia), in [Life’s] radiant tartour, / sent me to the adamantine worlds.

The male member of the pair boasts a tartour (Mandaic ṭarṭabuna, Arabic طرطور, allegedly from Latin turritus “turreted, tower-like”). In the medieval Levant, these caps were worn primarily by married noblewomen, a fashion that apparently reached Europe via the Crusaders (where the tartour became the model for the stereotypical conical “princess’s cap”), but elsewhere in the Middle East they served as unisex headgear (and are still worn today by dervishes of certain orders). Both sam and simat are popular Mandaean names, even to this day. It would appear that sam is merely another word from the same root, although Drower and Macuch translate it as “He-Placed.” The semantic progression from “placed” to “treasure” is not clear. Could there be another explanation for this word?

Five months ago, I drafted an article on Greek loanwords in Mandaic and offered it as a session on One of the observations I made was that Greek η ē regularly corresponds not to the expected high vowel aksa (i) in Mandaic, but rather the letter halqa (a):

šaraia ‘silk,’ Gk. sērikós

sasa ‘moth,’ Gk. sēs

kaluza ‘voice,’ Gk. kēruks

To add to this list of mysteries is the Greek word kibōtós ‘coffin,’ which appears in this same text as qabut. An obvious cognate is Syriac qēʾḇūṯā. In fact, there is a consistent pattern of Mandaic halqa corresponding to the sequence e(ʾ) in Syriac:

haria ‘nobles,’ cf. Syr heʾre
kauila ‘ark,’ cf. Syr keʾwelā
makulta ‘food,’ cf. Syr meʾḵolṯā
qaba ‘muzzle,’ cf. Syr qeʾmā
šaraia ‘silk,’ cf. Syr šeʾrāyā
zaba ‘wolf,’ cf. Syr diʾḇā

The last word is also regularly spelled diba in Mandaic, reflecting an intriguing feature of the so-called “classical” orthography: by-forms in which a historicizing (or pseudo-historical) spelling like zaba *ðiʾb- coëxists with a phonemic one like diba, which reflects both the merger of PS *ð and *d, and the loss of the word-internal glottal stop.

At one point, I was a bit of a purist when it came to halqa; I insisted then that it always consistently represented a vowel, and never a glottal stop, but in light of this evidence I am forced to modify my position. There are obvious cases, such as the words above, in which halqa represents not a vowel but rather a glottal stop. To distinguish these words from those written according to a phonemic orthography, I am writing them in small caps in my forthcoming grammar, adopting a convention used for other languages of the region. Nearly all of these words appear at some point or another in the Book of John.

Is there, then, a Syriac cognate to sam, along the lines of sīmṯā? As it happens, yes, we are in luck. The Syriac word seʾmā “silver,” a loanword from Greek ἄσημον ásēmon,  is used to distinguish the metal, “silver,” from the old Semitic word kaspā, which is metaphorically extended to mean “money” in most cases. Thus Syriac seʾm and sīmṯā correspond quite nicely to Mandaic sama and simta, and would represent yet another potential Greek loan to add to the list of words that I have compiled.

Holy Untranslatable Texts

For questions of interpretation, scriptures stand in a category of their own, separate from modern and post-modern literature, for which even the most traditional readers admit the potential for a multiplicity of readings, and epigraphic texts, which had long ceased to be curated by any community before they were rediscovered. While nothing prevents you or me from reading any of these works as we please, and reading our own meanings into them, scholars and people of faith alike find themselves confronted with a (somewhat self-imposed) constraint: how to read the “correct” meaning into it? We do not permit ourselves to read any old meaning into scriptures or ancient texts, and with good reason.

The distinctive feature of scriptures is that they are actively and presently curated by a religious community. The potential reasons for this are multiple; this community may consider them to be

  • divinely authored or inspired; that is to say, whether they are attributed to an author or not, they are ultimately of supernatural origin;
  • in James Kugel’s terms, “omnisignificant,” that is, meaningful in each and every detail, and with a meaning that is eternally and directly relevant to each and every reader;
  • ultimately admitting only of a single “correct” meaning, which can be discovered only through careful analysis, rather than a fluid multiplicity of meanings.

These three attributes of scriptures, at least as they are understood among those traditions conventionally described as “Abrahamic,” naturally exist in a certain tension with one another. If every last detail is existentially relevant but admits of only one possible divinely-ordained reading, then it behooves the scholars of that community to struggle continuously to elaborate this reading, and then guard it zealously for the benefit of future generations, which extends to subsequent re-workings of scripture into different languages. Thus “context rather than content makes the holy untranslatable,” in the words of Christopher Shackle (2005, 20).

In the case of ancient texts, these painstakingly developed schools of interpretation, laboriously constructed over the centuries, have largely disappeared with the community that constructed them, and in their absence, other scholars have appointed themselves their custodians, and perpetuate the interpretive work of that vanished community, with one exception―to my knowledge, no latter-day scholar of the Babylonian creation myth, the Enûma Eliš, maintains that it is divinely inspired. While secular scholars differ from religious scholars in this respect, much of their approach to the text remains the same. They both maintain that the text admits of only one correct meaning, both at the time in which it was authored and subsequently for all time, and that this meaning reveals itself only through careful analysis. These texts then share much with scripture, save that they are no longer curated by communities that consider them divinely inspired or divinely authored, and therefore we might deem them “post-scriptures.”

An obvious tension emerges, then, when secular scholars apply this same approach to scriptures that are still being actively curated by a religious community, with their own painstakingly developed schools of interpretation. While Christoph Luxenberg, to give one example, may disagree with Ismail ibn Kathir on the divine authorship of the Qur’an, both Luxenburg and ibn Kathir have competing claims to uncovering the one exclusive meaning of that text. Neither consider themselves to be engaged in the business of “knowledge production,” but rather the business of “knowledge recovery,” one that does not easily allow for competition.

Since neither secular nor religious scholars admit of a fluid multiplicity of meanings, each community establishes its own conventions for producing readings, and its own criteria for assessing their merits. The conventions for secular scholars are much the same as those for religious ones. The ultimate basis for both is direct observation, either from internal factors such as the ways in which the scriptures describe the world around them, which can presumably be connected to that world in ways that might be meaningful, or from external factors, such as the age of the physical manuscripts, and what its copyists and past interpreters have to say about it. From these observations, new questions inevitably emerge, and scholars develop new readings to answer them, and hopefully test these readings in order to expand, alter, reject, or refine them.

Among communities of secular scholars, the merits of the readings so developed are assessed through the process of peer review. Ultimately, a reading’s success will depend not only upon its ability to answer the questions that emerge from observation, but also upon other forms of merit, such as its originality, or the qualifications of its reader. The former is critical, to ensure that the reader has not simply replicated past scholarship, or even presented it as an original contribution. The latter is equally critical to the reading’s success, but some communities employ double blind peer review, in an attempt to reduce the impact of psychological and socio-economic factors on its initial reception. In such instances, the identities of both the reader and the reviewers are obscured, until the other merits of the reading have been assessed.

In this model of scholarship, there is, was, and always will be a tension between the ways in which a reading‘s merits are assessed, and the ways in which they determine its ultimate impact. Some readings are accepted primarily on the strength of their reader‘s qualifications, and the level of prestige and support they enjoy from the scholarly establishment, as is generally the case with religious scholars. Others are valued for the degree to which they affirm a scholarly or religious dogma. In such instances, originality is deprecated in favor of orthodoxy. If we reject these influences as pernicious, then we must naturally conclude that the ultimate merit of a reading is whether it answers the questions that emerge from observation, and whether another reader, equipped with these same observations and furnished with these same questions, could arrive at the same reading. This, then, is the rubric against which I shall evaluate secular readings of Mandaean texts, including my own.

Fallujah, under the Seal of Solomon

Tractate 20 of the Book of John, about John’s conversation with the Sun, is one of the shortest compositions in the entire text, but what it lacks in length, it makes up in the richness of its detail concerning the lives of ancient Mandaeans.

Since much of this text concerns the Sun, the reader is confronted immediately with references to the Mesopotamian cosmology:

Šamiš etib bṣurta /  usira etib btalia

arba ziqia ḏbaita / lagṭia ganpaihun / ahdadia ulanašmia

The sun sat in seclusion / and the moon sat in an eclipse.

The four winds of the House / grasped their wings / one to another and breathed not.

The word I have translated here, ṣurta, literally means a drawing, but in Mandaic it has come to mean the ritual barrier that is created to separate the pure from the impure, and by extension those who are enclosed within it (such as menstruating women) and the period during which they are so isolated. All three are known as a sorthe even today.

Similarly, the word I translate here as “eclipse,” is actually a proper noun, ˀāṯallyā, which derives from Akkadian attalû, the dragon that swallows the sun and the moon to create an eclipse. Thus, the very first line is extremely rich in metaphors to which my English translation does no justice.

The description of the Four Winds grasping their wings one to another brings to mind Pazuzu, lord of the Four Winds, whom the ancient Mesopotamians depicted as a winged demon (as you can see in the image in that blog post). It’s probably not unreasonable to suggest that the passage hearkens back to these depictions. Then the sun speaks directly to John in Jerusalem:

etlak atlata tikia / taga ḏšauilẖ lkulẖ alma

etlak mn mašklil / spinta ḏradia haka biardna

etlak plugta rabtia / ḏhaka radia binia mia lmia

kḏ tizal lbit rbia / qudam rbia adkar elan.

You have three halos, / a crown worth the whole world.
You have from mašklil / a boat that travels here in the Jordan.
You have a great canal / that goes here from water to water.
When you go to the House of the Great / remember us before the Great.

The word mašklil is a hapax legomenon; could be related to Syriac mǝšaḵlal “perfect,”or perhaps it is related to meškā “skin.” Lidzbarski suggests some kind of wood. For my money, though, this is not the biggest mystery in these lines. What is this great canal (or division) that runs from water to water? It is called plugta in Mandaic, which just happens to be the etymon of the present name for Pumbeditha, namely Fallujah, so-called because of its strategic location at the nexus of the canal network. That is to say, Pumbeditha was informally known as plugta, “the canal,” and that is the name that stuck.

For most of the first millennium, Pumbeditha was one of the most important centers of Jewish learning in the world. This may be significant, because Mandaeans identify the Jewish god, Adonai, with the sun—particularly in the texts about John, of which this is one. Thus a reference to a major center of Jewish learning in a text that is ostensibly about the sun would not necessarily be unexpected. Is there any other evidence of Jewish themes in this text?

John attributes his three wonders to Life, like a good Mandaean. When he gets to the third, plugta, the text takes a turn for the strange:

hatma ḏmalka matna elẖ / ḏgaira bšumak / uazla lbit qiqlia

qarba mn zaua ḏnapšẖ / baiia bnia lamaška

kḏ šalmu nidrẖ unapqa / lašiha lbit hiia / ulamqaima ldaura taqna

The king’s seal was placed upon her / so that she cavorts in your name / and goes to the house of dunghills.
She fights with her own spouse / she seeks her sons but does not find them,
When her vows were completed and she left / she was not worthy of Life’s House / and was not raised to the everlasting abode.

Apparently John has anthropomorphized the plugta, which is feminine in Aramaic, and likens it to a wife who has strayed from her family. The symbol of this transformation is the hatma ḏmalka, “the king’s seal,” which is almost certainly a reference to the famous ring of Solomon, described in the Bavli (Tractate Gittin 68a) and in both Aramaic and Mandaic incantation bowl texts as proof against demons. In the latter, it is explicitly described as a seal, using this word. In later centuries, perhaps as late as Islamic times, this term became associated with the Magen David, as a symbol of Judaism. Scholem (1949, p. 246) suggests that its identification with the seal of Solomon first arose in medieval times, but its potential appearance in the incantation bowls and now here, within a Jewish context in the Book of John, suggests that it may be much earlier—potentially even pre-Islamic.

The language of this line differs greatly from the others. The participle gaira could potentially come from two roots: g-w-r, which means “to commit adultery, and g-y-r, a denominative root from the Hebrew word giyur, “conversion (to Judaism).” It is entirely possible that both meanings were intended, in precisely the sort of double entendre for which Mandaean texts are famous (I’ve tried to capture some of this double entendre in my translation). As for the “house of dunghills,” bit qiqlia, while this at first sight appears to refer to some region, and Lidzbarski interprets it to be a bordello, this word can also mean ruins, and indeed one the Jewish temple is explicitly identified as a קיקלתא in one of the Jewish Palestinian piyyutim published by Sokoloff and Yahalom (1999, 21:12). The Temple looms large in this portion of the text, where it is elsewhere described as baita nsisa “the disturbed house.”

To recap, the debate between John and the sun in Jerusalem immediately puts us into a Jewish context. The reference to “the King’s Seal” only confirms this impression, and encourage us to read further meaning into what appears, at first glance, to be a nonsensical text about a canal cheating on her husband. What emerges is a thinly veiled polemic against Pumbeditha (or, to use its modern name, Fallujah) as a major center of Jewish learning.

Reading Paul out of the Book of John

A few years back (December of 2011), James McGrath asked me whether the phrase mšiha paulis, which Lidzbarski renders “Christus-Paulis,” might have anything to do with the Persian word bolūs meaning a “deceiver” or “flatterer.” At the time, I could find little to support this interpretation, and much against it. The whole passage reads, according to Lidzbarski,

Den Jordan, in dem Christus-Paulis getauft wurde, habe ich zur Traufe gemacht. Das Pihtfi, das Christus-Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum „Sakrament” gemacht. Das Mambuha, das Christus -Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum „Abendmahl” gemacht. Die Kopfbinde, die Christus-Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum „Pfaffentum” G gemacht. Den Stab, den Christus-Paulis nimmt, habe ich zum Dreck  gemacht.

Christus-Paulis! How could these foolish people make such a mistake? Clearly they must be completely ignorant of the Christian faith (said the New Testament scholars, and particularly those who sought to deny any relevance or antiquity to the Mandaean texts). This is certainly the tone adopted by Lietzmann (p. 601), who concludes, “in several passages here, we find word of Christ-Paulis, where the name of the Apostle Paul is thrown together with Christ. This is characteristic of the twisted creativity of these people. This whole piece stems from the Arab period.”

Now that I have dedicated some time to reconstructing the meter of the text, I can say it should read something like this:

iardna ḏeṣṭbabẖ mšiha / paulis kuhrana šauitẖ

pihta ḏnasib mšiha / paulis qudša šauitẖ

mambuha ḏnasib mšiha  / paulis qurbana šauitẖ

burzinqa ḏnasib mšiha / paulis kahnuta šauitẖ

margna ḏnasib mšiha / paulis mahrunita šauitẖ

That is to say, mšiha “the Christ” and paulis (var. palus, pulis) don’t even belong to the same hemistich. Instead, each line parallels the symbols of the Mandaean religion with those of the Christian religion, with a surprising degree of familiarity of these institutions, stating quite clearly that the the former were the basis for the latter.

The Jordan in which the Christ is baptised / I have made a paulis of the font (Syr. gūrnā)

The morsel (pihta) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the Eucharist (Syr. quddāšā)

The spring-water (mambuha) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the Eucharist (Syr. qurbānā)

The turban (burzinqa) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the priesthood (Syr. kāhnūṯā)

The staff (margna) that the Christ takes / I have made a paulis of the crozier (Syr. mōrānīṯā)

Now, before we condemn the Mandaeans for their ignorance of Christianity, we have to explain their surprising familiarity with technical terms like “font,” “Eucharist,” and “crozier.” What is the possibility that someone sophisticated enough to draw a connection between the Mandaean margna and the Christian crozier, would not know the difference between Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul? I think we can safely rule this interpretation out, and with it, the basis for Lietzmann’s verdict that the Mandaeans only knew Christianity via the intermediary of Islam.

That leaves us with a problem: how to explain paulis? Lidzbarski suspected that it was of foreign origin, possibly Iranian, but the ending –is suggests either Latin or Greek to me. Are there any Latin or Greek loanwords in Eastern Aramaic that fit the bill? There is the JBA pūlsā, which ultimately derives from the Latin follis, a large bronze coin (and the ultimate origin of the Arabic word fulūs, which means money). It doesn’t necessarily always mean money in JBA, however; in the Bavli (Tractate Šabbat 65a(32)), it refers once to an unstruck blank, the unmarked basis on which new coinage is stamped.

If we translate paulis as “blank,” then the passage suddenly becomes clear. The Jordan is the basis of the gūrnā (which, according to Lietzmann, some adherents of the Church of the East do indeed call the Jordan). The pihta is the basis of the quddāšā. The mambuha is the basis of the qurbānā. The burzinqa is the basis of the kāhnūṯā. The margna is the basis of the mōrānīṯā. Ruha has taken all of these Mandaean symbols, and overstamped them with a Christian meaning, just as a blank is stamped with the die to become a coin. Lidzbarski and Lietzmann may have concluded that the Mandaeans were confused between Christ and Paul, but it appears that the confusion was entirely in their own minds. This is characteristic of the twisted creativity of early 20th century scholarship on the Mandaeans.

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