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

Archive for the category “Aphorisms”

The “Defective Age of Bišlōm”

It is generally accepted that the Doctrine of John reached its present form sometime in the aftermath of the Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia. There are many reasons to assume that parts of it, if not all of it, are much older, but here and there within the texts are references, some oblique and some not so oblique, to Muhammad and Islam. One such reference can be found on p. 45, lns. 1-2 of the Doctrine of John, which Lidzbarski translates as follows:

ṭubẖ lman ḏbhazin dara
bṣira ḏbišlum šlim

Wohl dem, der in diesem mangelhaften
Zeitalter des Bišlom heil geblieben ist.

Blessed is he who, in this defective
era of “Bišlom,” has remained whole.

From Lidzbarski’s perspective, bišlum is a pun (or ein Calembour, as he describes it); Bišlom is an oblique reference to Islam, consisting of the Persian prefix bi- “without” and the Arabic word salām “peace,” which has been Mandaicized to šlum for some reason. I’m not convinced; bi- may be the modern Persian (“Farsi”) form, but the contemporary Middle Persian form would have been abē-, not bi-. If the joke hinges upon a Farsi preposition, either this portion of the text was composed considerably after the early Islamic period (when most scholars accept that it acquired its present form), or its author would have had to wait a long, long time for his audience to get the joke—at least two or three centuries. Talk about bad timing!

Lidzbarski’s interpretation stuck, though, and Pallis (1926, 213) went even further, suggesting that bišlum is nothing more than the word Islām influenced by the word Muslim. This strikes me as clever, but perhaps a bit too clever. For a denizen of that selfsame “defective age” to recognize Islam qua Islam as opposed to, say, the worship of the planets, “Hagarism” (as it was generally known to Syriac-speaking Christians), or “Mohammedanism” (as it was known to Europeans throughout the greater part of the last fourteen centuries), it would have required a considerably more “modern” sensibility than that which is generally attributed to the polemical tracts of Late Antiquity. As a further objection, I know of no contemporary Aramaic dialect in which the word “Islam” or any calque of this word appears, raising the question of whether pre-modern non-Muslims ever employed this term, or whether they were even familiar with it. If not, what is the point of using it in a pun?

The interpretation of the term bišlum as “Islam” (which also appears in A Mandaic Dictionary) rests wholly and squarely upon this passage. Everywhere else within the corpus of Mandaic texts, including elsewhere within this manuscript, and indeed within this very same chapter, bišlum means “peacefully” or “at peace.” As it happens, a strong case can be made that it means that here, as well. It seems to me that the only wordplay within this verse depends upon the contrast between the terms bṣir “lacking” and šlim “whole:”

Happy is the one who, in this defective / lacking
age, is the one who has come to an end peacefully / intact.

The implication being that, in the “defective age” of the author, it was more common to end in pieces than end in peace.

Of course, reading Islam out of the picture has ramifications for the dating of this portion of the text. If we accept the traditional interpretation (that of Lidzbarski, Pallis, Drower, and Macuch), then we must accept that this portion of the text is post-Islamic. If we do not accept his interpretation, then there is no reason to assume that it is post-Islamic—of course, there’s also no immediately obvious reason to assume that it isn’t post-Islamic, but there was certainly no shortage of potential candidates for the role of mangelhafte Zeitalter throughout the period of Late Antiquity.

Mandaic Aphorisms, II

The Doctrine of John (p. 44, ln. 10) presents us with yet another gem:

ṭubẖ lman ḏaqria bmia umia beudnẖ laiit
“Happy is the one who is swept away (?) by the water and doesn’t get any water in his ear.”

This is another great example of a phrase that is transparent at first glance but still eludes parsing. The verb aqria likely comes from the root √ʔ-q-r “to uproot” (or, to quote Drower and Macuch, “to uproot, tear loose, tear away, eradicate, detach, destroy, exterminate, break down, tear down,” which is used in several idioms such as aqar apra “dust was whirled off” or aqria ziqia “the winds break loose,” both of which are evidently intransitive despite the transitive nature of the root. Perhaps an impersonal plural is intended? “They uproot the dust” = “the dust is uprooted” or “they uproot the winds” = “the winds are uprooted.”

Clearly this form is somehow related to the others dealing with winds and dust. Could aqria be a variant spelling of aqrẖ, “he uprooted him”? That would be orthographically, morphologically, and syntactically feasible but semantically meaningless.

Could this be the C-stem perfective of a root √q-r-ʔ ? Just such a root exists, and it even means “to tear,” but it never appears in the C-stem, not in Mandaic and not in any other dialect with which I’m familiar. Plus, the expected from would be aqra, not aqria, and it would mean “he causes to tear,” which is even less meaningful in this context. What about a variant spelling for the G-stem passive participle qria? A prothetic a is not at all uncommon before initial consonant clusters, especially after a proclitic, and especially in this text. Given the similarity of forms derived from these two roots and the strong possibility of contamination between them, it’s possible that aqria has taken the form of the G-stem passive participle of √q-r-ʔ with the meaning of the root √ʔ-q-r.

Mandaic Aphorisms

On p. 38, lns. 10-12, we encounter a nugget of wisdom from Yoshamin:

haidin uhaidin timiṭiẖ lkul gabra ḏriṭna ḏanania šama

In such and such a manner it happens to every man  ‎‎that listens to the muttering of women.

eutra ḏšama riṭnaiun ḏanania mištpil minẖ mn alma

The aeon who listens to the mutterings of women will be cast down from the (MS C: his) world.

He appears to be blaming his troubles on his wives. Of course, that might explain why later (p. 39 lns. 3-4) he says,

baiina lzauai uzauai bainai lanapla

I seek out my wives, and my wives do not meet my glance.

and then (p. 40, lns. 1-2),

ala kulhun niṭubiata ḏhualia ldilia kulhin he kulhin rgazian elai brugza rba

Woe to me, all of the consorts that I had, all of them, yes all of them are greatly enraged with me!

I can’t really say that I’m surprised.

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