Philologastry

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

Archive for the category “Doctrine of John”

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.

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.

A Note on Mšunia Kušṭa

The phrase Mšunia Kušṭa Məšonni Košṭa has occasioned the spillage of considerable ink, at least relative to the degree to which that commodity has been spilled in the service of Mandaic Philology. Although it appears for the first time outside of the Mandaean scriptures in Petermann’s collection of Mandaic folktales as meschunne kuschta, a Mandaean paradise, it should not surprise us that the first word on the origins of this phrase come from Noldeke, who considers it a vestigial Hebrew-style D-stem passive (or pual) participle:

Vielleicht giebt es daneben noch Reste von Passiv-Participien nach hebr. Art (wie מְפֻעֵּל). So liesse sich wenigstens zur Noth fassen מוליא “Hochland” I, 282, 25 = מְעֻלְּיָא und der Name des mand. Paradieses משוניא כושטא „das Entrückte der Gerechtigkeit“ (מְשֻׁנֶּה) I, 302, 18 (meschunne kuschta nach PETERMANN); damit hängt aber am Ende משאוניאת עשאתא etwa „wunderbares Wesen des Feuers“ I, 87, 9; 295, 13 zusammen, dessen Form ganz unklar (p. 132).

Lidzbarski (1915, xviii), even went so far as to declare this putative Hebrew pual form as evidence for Palestinian substratal influence from  upon Mandaic. On this basis, both men parse it as an otherwise unattested passive participle, “transferred, removed (=sublimated).” Is this accurate, and need we look so far to find its origins and meaning? Is it at all possible that it might derive from a more proximate source, and mean something completely different?

A Hebrew-style pual participle of the root š-n-y “to be different” is not attested anywhere else in Aramaic, Western or otherwise, but Kaufmann (Akkadian Influences upon Aramaic, 73) connects this form to a JBA lexeme məšonnitā, found in the Bavli, Tract. Ta‘anith 23a(46): איהדרא ליה משוניתא ואיכסי מיע<י>נא ‏ “a məšonnitā encircled him, and he was hidden from sight.” This word apparently derives from a D-stem participle, albeit an Akkadian one rather than a Hebrew one, namely mušannītu “diverting,” from Akkadian reflex of the same root (šanû). The participle refers explicitly to the sort of earthworks that divert water into channels, a common and useful feature of the Mesopotamian landscape. Unsurprisingly, a similar form of what appears to be the same root also appears in Arabic, musannātun (pl. musannayātun) “dam,” even though this root is no longer productive in Arabic.

Lane derives from a separate root, *s-n-y meaning “to water.” No such root is attested in the related languages, but *s-n-y “to be different” is indeed reconstructable to Proto-Semitic, and has left other lexical traces in Arabic itself. Logically, it makes more sense for the Arabs to have borrowed technical terminology relating to waterworks from the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, rather than the reverse. Unfortunately, not all three of these terms can be reconstructed to a single proto-form, giving us the by-forms *musanniyat– in Akkadian and Aramaic, and *musannayat– in Arabic, with the triphthong *iya collapsing to ī in Akkadian and Aramaic, as it is wont to do, and *aya collapsing to ā in Arabic, as it is likewise wont to do. Even so, the etymology seems sound.

This would make Məšonni Košṭa “Truth’s Barrier,” which is certainly consonant with the constellation of Mandaic metaphors drawn directly from life in the marshes of southern Iraq. It is also in keeping with the Mandaic literature, and particularly that about the destruction of Jerusalem (e.g. GR 1.202, p. 29:18), in which this location can be accessed directly from this world, rather than being part of the geography of the world of light.

A parallel to the Mandaean tradition about the earthly paradise of Məšonni Košṭa is supplied by the Babylonian Talmud (Tract. Sanhedrin 97a), in the story of the death of Rabbi Tabuth’s two sons (I am indebted to Reuven Kiperwasser, who drew my attention to this parallel in a personal communication on 3/23/2014). According to this legend, R. Tabuth (or perhaps Tabyomi) lived in a “place called Truth (qušṭā),” in which no one ever tells lies (wə-lā məšanne bə-dibbūreho, literally “it did not change (məšanne) in its words”), and no man dies before his time. There, he married a woman, and she bore him two sons. One day, while his wife was bathing, a neighbor came looking for her, and out of his concern for etiquette R. Tabuth told the neighbor that she was not there. As a consequence, his two sons died, and the inhabitants of Truth drove him out of town for inciting Death against them. As a consequence, R. Tabyomi (or perhaps Tabuth) henceforth refused to say a lie, “even if he were given all the empty spaces of the world.”

Another possible connection to the Mandaeans lies in the nature of the people who lived in Truth. These people famously would not change their words. A similar claim regarding the Nazoraeans is frequently added to the colophons with which Mandaean copyists conclude their scriptures:

uzakia ama ḏnaṣuraiia ḏlašanun mindam ḏhiia paqid

May the people of the Nazraeans, who did not change (šanun) anything that Life has commanded, win.

Otherwise, the expression məšanne bə-dibbūreho “change in its words” or perhaps “distort its words” to mean “lie” is unusual—in fact, near as I can tell, it is restricted to this passage. As Kiperwasser has suggested (2014, 272), the fantastic setting of this story may reflect an Iranian motif, the fortress Kangdiz, in which the deathless hero Pešyōtan, son of Wištasp, waits with his hundred and fifty righteous men, until he may emerge and restore the religion of Ohrmazd, much like the 360 Nazoraeans who escape to Məšonni Košṭa in the Great Treasure. Kiperwasser likewise suggests that Məšonni Košṭa might be derived from the rabbinic tale of Truth, the town that does not change in its words, but if Kaufmann is correct and məšonni refers instead to some kind of barrier or obstruction, then perhaps məšanne bə-dibbūreho instead reflects a folk etymology for the name Məšonni Košṭa, the abode of the Nazoraeans, “who do not change anything that Life has commanded.”

This would make the Zoroastrian Kangdiz and the Mandaean Məšonni Košṭa close parallels, both in etymological terms as well as folkloristic ones. The name Kangdiz is a compound: Pahl. diz, which means fortress and is ultimately derived from the PIE root *dheigh– “to make, form (in this case, a wall),” also found in the Avestan word pairidaeza “enclosed garden,” the source of our word paradise, and the name Kang or Hang, from Avestan Hankana, an underground fortress built by Fraŋrasyan (Afrāsiāb), the name of which is ultimately derived from the root kandan “to dig.” Thus, both names refer to paradisaical locales protected by earthworks, to which an army of righteous men have retreated to await the millennium.

Famine, Plagues, and Anti-Christs

The 18th chapter of the right-hand volume of the Great Treasure (ginza rba) represents a dramatic break from the rest of the text, no more so than in its genre. It’s a chronicle! Various scholars, including Lidzbarski, read references to Islam into its final pages:

This tractate is the only one whose date of completion can be narrowly isolated. On page 414, the duration of Arab rule is assumed to be 71 years, which cannot be said after the first years of the 8th century. The assumption of so brief a duration of the Arabian empire, for which the number 71, in addition to numbers 70 and 72, is adopted, is however more probable for the first years of Islam, so that the tractate ought to have been redacted around the middle of the seventh century.

At first glance, Lidzbarski’s argument seems logical enough, but it requires us to make the following assumptions:

  • In order to satisfy the expectations of their new Muslim rulers, Mandaeans redacted their texts into a new holy book (as reflected in JB 22: “Who is your prophet? Tell us whom your prophet is, tell us what your scripture is, tell us whom you worship”);
  • In this book (redacted explicitly to impress their new rulers), they insert a prophecy about the impending demise of said rulers;
  • This prophecy unfolds over a surprisingly short and specific time frame—possibly even within the lifetime of some of the redactors. Once this time frame concludes, they opt not to re-redact the prophecy from their text, but rather preserve it for all posterity.

On this same page (407), he presents (but seemingly discards) another possibility:

The “kings of the Arabs” are set before the fall of Sasanid rule. They are probably the Arab kings of al-Hira, on whose territory a portion of the Mandaeans dwelt.

Let us then assume that these “kings of the Arabs,” who reign for 71 years, are the Lakhmids of al-Hira and not Muhammad and his successors (who do not otherwise appear elsewhere in this chapter).  Nu’man III, the last ruler, was executed by Khusraw II Parviz in 602, whereupon the Lakhmid state was absorbed by the Sasanids. That brings us back to 531. What was happening in al-Hira at that time?

The Sasanian ruler Kavadh I passed away in 531, and with the ascension of a new ruler, Khosrow I Anushirwan, the Lakhmid ruler Al-Mundhir III ibn al-Nu’man was restored in al-Hira. Al-Mundhir had been briefly dislodged by al-Harith al-Kindi, likely at the behest of Kavadh, who was likely a devotee of Mazdak. His successor Khosrow, on the other hand, had Mazdak excecuted, and likely permitted al-Mundhir to reclaim al-Hira. Therefore, 71 years corresponds exactly to the rule of al-Mundhir and his Lakhmid successors over al-Hira.

The text shares with us some of the other events that were happening in the world at that time:

When the world is in Year 850 of the Fish, a great plague will occur. Then, after the Persian kings, there will be Arab kings. They will rule 71 years. In the years of those Arab kings, the world will be false.

To my mind, this immediately recalls the Plague of Justinian, which originated in China, and traveled thence to the Eastern Roman Empire, where it was first attested in 541 (specifically in Egypt). Could this be the earliest attested reference to the great plague, as it wended its way across Asia and arrived within the borders of the Sasanid empire? The source for its emergence in the West, Procopius, notes that it was preceded by strange weather, a year without proper sunlight:

And it came about during this year [536] that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.

In the entry for Year 803 of the Fish (presumably 484, if 531 is Year 850 of the Fish), two natural disasters are mentioned, book-ended by half a century. The first (803/484) is the flooding of the land of Babylon and the meeting of the Tigris and the Euphrates, which happened sometime in the second half of the 5th century (resulting in Ctesiphon becoming divided by the Tigris, and precipitating its decline). The second (853/534) is a famine in the land of Gaukai:

Concerning it [in Year 803 of the Fish], it is said that when Saturn is in Scorpio, and it emerges from Scorpio and enters Leo, the great Euphrates will overflow as far as the Tigris and in the land of Babylon, fifty years before the land of Gaukai goes to ruin. Were you to request a kapīč (1/10th of a peck, or about 873 grams) of grain in the land of Gaukai for five staters (roughly 43 grams of pure gold, worth about 1,775 USD today), we would look but it would not be found.

Citing al-Mas’udi, Michael Morony (2005, 137–38) notes, “This [Gaukai] had been one of the most fertile provinces of the Sawad before the lower Tigris began to shift away from its southeastern part in the mid-fifth century,” thus providing us with a terminus post quem for the situation described in the Great Treasure. The date of the famine fifty years later corresponds rather nicely to the year without sunlight recounted by Procopius and other authorities. These two dates also bookend the rise of a false messiah:

It is revealed concerning it that a false messiah will come, and he will become master of the whole world, sit on a great throne, and upon it deliver a judgment to cast out the judges. From the east to the west, he will come in one day, until the bricks of the walls bear witness to him.

Most who read this passage conclude with Lidzbarski that it refers to Muhammad (“This fits the simultaneous appearance of a false messiah, that is, of the prophet Muhammad”). It is all the more strange, then, that the author does not mention Muhammad by name, as he does elsewhere in reference to the prophet of Islam.The imagery used is quite clearly Christian, as would befit the Lakhmids. They were adherents of the Church of the East, and would naturally describe an anti-Christ by drawing directly upon accounts of Christ-like miracles, such as Matthew 24:27 (“For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man”) and Luke 19:40 (“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out”). For the Lakhmids, the anti-Christ was, of course, Mazdak, whose rise to prominence began with the ascension of Kavadh I in 488, and ended with his execution in 529—a period that fits directly between the two historical events described in Chapter 18.

Lidzbarski himself notes the difficulty inherent in reconciling these events with the events of the first Islamic century (414, fn. 3). Once we remove Islam from the picture, the dates and the events that they describe correspond to those known from Western sources with a surprising precision.

The Peacock’s Lament

The Mandaeans and the Yezidis, two  groups that fascinated Stefana Drower and continue to fascinate the generations of scholars who have followed her, have recently made the news, but unfortunately not in a good way. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on Prayer 75 of the Doctrine of John, in which Ṭausa, the Peacock, laments how far he has fallen in the world. At first he is bitter and resentful for having been humbled and forced to guard the kimṣa, a somewhat contested term that is likely related to the Aramaic and Hebrew root קמץ, and evidently refers to a place.

Drower, Macuch, and Rudolph identify this term with the Gnostic πλήρωμα pléroma, the totality of the spiritual universe, as opposed to the material world, which is known as the tibil in Mandaic, and with which it contrasts in this text (šauiun naṭar kimṣa / alma ḏtibil baṭla, lit. “[The Great Life] made me guardian of the Kimṣa/until the Tibil perishes”). If this is accurate, then the Peacock stands not within the pléroma but rather on “our side” of the boundary, which is to say that he has been separated from the Godhead and exiled from the world of light.

Eventually, he acknowledges his own faults (chief among them his pride) for having brought him so low, at which point his father, the Great Life, sends him a “letter of truth” (engirta ḏkušṭa), which Sundberg identifies as a letter containing within it Gnostic truths, in his monograph on the word kušṭa. In it, the Peacock earns that his father is extending him the ritual handshake (also known as kušṭa), which is a sign of reconciliation. Relieved by this news, he praises his father wholeheartedly.

Although short, this is one of a very few passages to which scholars such as Drower point when discussing the shared traditions of the Mandaeans and the Yezidis, the two groups with which I began this entry. Our Peacock is identified by the Mandaeans with the lightworld being Yushamin who, just like the Peacock Angel of the Yezidis, is an emanation of the Godhead who defies Him out of pride and is exiled, but eventually becomes reconciled with Him and is redeemed. 

The Peacock Angel of the Yezidis is most frequently compared with the figure of Iblis in the Qur’an (7:11–13), but the obvious parallels between the Mandaic Ṭausa and the Yezidi Tawûsê Melek cannot be discounted. As all of the written traditions surrounding the Yezidis and Tawûsê Melek are comparatively late, this account (in the Doctrine of John) may well be considered the earliest surviving tradition about this enigmatic figure.

The translation follows.

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Some Preliminary Data

As the 18th chapter of the Doctrine of John is the only one thus far that contains a clear terminus post quem (that being 691 CE, the date of the completion of the Dome of the Rock), I thought that it might make for a useful “anchor” for my relative chronology. The first step was to collect data about the language of the text; the chart below illustrates this data, and an explanation of the data follows.

A B C D E F G H
1) gṭal 145 0.52 0.91
2) gṭil l- 14 0.05 0.09
3) nigṭul 13 0.05 0.12
ḏ-nimar 11 0.04 0.85
ḏ-nimar 2 0.01 0.15 0.02
4) gṭul 7 0.03
5) migṭal 5 0.02
6) (qa)gaṭil 95 0.34 0.88 0.98
Total 279 1

The rows represent different verbal stems, starting with 1) the  inherited perfect (“suffix conjugation”), 2) the innovated periphrastic perfect, 3) the inherited imperfect (“prefix conjugation”), 4) the imperative, 5) the infinitive, and 6) the innovated participial present-future tense. As I previously mentioned, 2) and 6) came to replace 1) and 3), respectively, in most Neo-Aramaic dialects; my purpose in collecting this data is to determine how far along this process Classical Mandaic was at the time that this chapter was composed.

I immediately ran into some serious problems.  For starters, although the inherited imperfect (3) appears 13 times in the text, almost all of the examples are from a formula used to introduce direct speech (ḏ-nimarlun). Formulae of this sort are much more likely to retain archaic grammatical constructions than spontaneous speech, so I felt that the data had to reflect this in some way.

Column A reports the distribution of the 279 verbal forms that appear in the text.  As you can see, the preponderant majority were the inherited perfect and the innovated participial present-future tense, suggesting a relative proximity to the contemporary reflex of Mandaic. Column B contains a breakdown of the 13 instances of the imperfect, divided between formulae and all other forms.

Column C reports the relative proportion of these verbal forms. Column D reports a breakdown of the proportion of instances of the imperfect, divided between formulae and all other forms.

Column E reflects the proportion of inherited perfects to the innovated periphrastic perfect in the text.  The overwhelming majority (91%) of examples are of the inherited perfect.

Column F reflects the proportion of formulaic instances of the inherited imperfect to non-formulaic instances.  85% of the examples were formulaic.

Column G reflects the proportion of inherited imperfects to the innovated participial present-future tense in the text. Only 12% of the examples reflected the inherited imperfect, a number which decreases even further when you remove the formulae from the proportion (Column H); then the proportion becomes 98% to 2%, a situation very much like that found in Neo-Mandaic, in which the only vestiges of the inherited imperfect are found in formulae.

It will be interesting to compare the breakdown of the data in Chapter 18 to that of the other chapters that have been parsed.

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.

Arabic Loanword

I’ve encountered what could very well be the first genuine Arabic loanword I’ve yet seen in the text of the Doctrine of John. The word is hus, which appears at least twice, first on p. 4, ln. 15, and again on p. 76, ln. 14. Both contexts require something meaning the “source” of the Jordan, and have been translated by Lidzbarski as “reservoir.”

According to Nöldeke (Mandäische Grammatik, p. XXXIII, ln. 17), the word appears three times in the Doctrine of John, and comes from the Arabic حوض ḥawḍ- “basin, cistern.” On p. 670 of Book 1 of his Arabic-English Lexicon (London: Willams & Norgate, 1863), Lane identifies it with the root √ḥ-w-ḍ “to collect (water)” inter alia, which would seem to indicate that it is indeed a good Arabic root, and not potentially a loanword into Arabic from some other language. What is it related to?

Assuming no ad hoc sound changes, the PS root could only be *ħ-w-ɬʼ. This would give us Aramaic √ḥ-w-ʕ (or √ḤWQ), Hebrew √ḥ-w-ṣ, Akkadian √ʔ-w-ṣ, and so forth. The root √ḥ-w-ʕ is unattested in Aramaic; I likewise found nothing in Akkadian that would indicate the existence of this root (the expected G infinitive êṣum “to be(come) too little, small,” is actually derived through regular sound changes from Old Babylonian wiāṣum, according to the CDA, and the expected cognate to Arabic ḥawḍ-, ūṣum, only appears with the meaning “arrowhead,” which clearly comes from the unrelated PS root *ħ-ϑʼ-w).

Hebrew, on the other hand, has two roots that are potential candidates, חוץ I and II, the first of which is represented by the word חוץ ḥuṣ “outside” and the second by the word חיץ ḥáyiṣ “barrier, partition.” BDB relates the latter to Arabic root حوص √ḥ-w-ṣ, meaning “to sew” or “to contract,” but it seems to me that both could be related to the Akkadian root √ḫ-ṣ-ṣ (e.g. ḫaṣāṣum “I to snap off; II to erect (a reed hut)”), which would make them completely unrelated to PS *ħ-w-ɬʼ.

Quite apart from the question of the origin of the Arabic term is the question of how it came to be adopted into Mandaic.

  • Why would the Mandaeans, who live in a water-rich environment and have a correspondingly rich vocabulary for water features, need to borrow such a term from Arabic, which is not generally known for its aquatic vocabulary? It would represent a total inversion of the established principles by which borrowing operates, as if the Inuit were to borrow the English word for “snow,” or if New Jerseyans were to borrow the Inuit word for “hairspray.”
  • Why then, for that matter, would this stray Arabic word appear, isolated, in a text that is otherwise almost completely bare of other loans?
  • Why employ a borrowed word that means “basin,” i.e. a place where water is collected, in a context that clearly requires something like “source”? They’re not the same thing, and neither Nöldeke nor any of his followers have attempted to explain the semantic shift.
  • Finally, how can we explain the anomalous use of s to represent Arabic ض? Here is a spare list of words containing the same phoneme, borrowed into Mandaic:
Arabic Transliteration Mandaic Gloss
أرض ʔarḍ- arda earth
بياض bayāḍ- baiad whiteness
ضعيف ḍaʕīf- daeip weak
حوض ḥawḍ- hus basin

I could find no other words in Drower and Macuch, and at least one of these is dubious in the extreme, but the pattern is clear: the Arabic phoneme ḍ-, when borrowed into Mandaic, is represented by d, except for this one word.

Granted, one could easily counter that we’re not dealing with a lot of data here, and that the word hus, if it was indeed borrowed, may have been borrowed from Arabic when the articulation of ḍ- was quite different from what it was at a later date. Even so, there’s not much evidence that this was borrowed from Arabic, despite the superficial similarity between the two words, and as Mark Rosenfelder reminds us, chance resemblances between words in two unrelated languages are not at all uncommon. In the final analysis, it’s just not a good candidate for an Arabic loan word.

So, what does it mean, and where does it come from? I can’t find any good Middle Persian candidates, unless we assume it’s somehow related to xwaš “pleasant, sweet, nice,” which somehow entered nearly all the languages of Iraq, Semitic and non-Semitic, as xōš “good” and which precedes the noun it modifies in each of these. Unfortunately, this interpretation founders upon the same issue, that of the final sibilant, which is just not a match.

Progress Report 7

Chapter 12 of the Doctrine of John, which is the second of two parts on the Good Shepherd, is now available at the project website. This chapter begins on p. 45, ln. 11, and continues to p. 49, ln. 5.

The chapter begins with an eutra exhorting someone (presumably the believer) to become a “shepherd’s helper” and aid in tending the flock. The respondent has reservations; first, he argues that the world is full of thistles and thorns, but the eutra offers a pair of everlasting radiant sandals to protect his feet from the thistles and thorns. He then lists a series of seven possible ways he could lose sheep (respectively, lions, wolves, thieves, fire, muck, water, and ‘remaining behind in the fold’), which the eutra associates with the worship of different entities, starting with the Sun, the moon, and the planet Mars.

While this was one of the easier chapters to translate (due, in no small part, to the amount of repetition within it), it was not without its challenges. I’ve already written about the phrase rahim raia, “a shepherd’s friend,” which perplexed Lidzbarski. The seven sects that claim members of the flock are also not explicitly identified, save for one (Christianity, which here represented by muck). The first three are associated with three of the visible planets (the Sun, the moon, and Mars), following the order of the week (Sunday is governed by the Sun, Monday is governed by the moon, Tuesday is governed by Mars, and so forth). I do not feel that this order is coincidental, so I collated the seven threats with the seven planets:

lion Sun Judaism?
wolf Moon ?
thief Mars Islam?
fire *Mercury *Zoroastrianism?
muck *Jupiter *Christianity
water Venus ?
gudibna Saturn ?
agambia gudibna Ruha ?

I am not certain whether the thief (the worshippers of Nirig, or Mars) represents the threat posed by Islam. Certainly, in post-Islamic texts, Mars represents Islam, but I haven’t established to my satisfaction that this section is indeed post-Islamic.

The fourth and fifth threats are fire and muck, representing the worshipers of fire and the worshipers of the Mšiha or “anointed one” (i.e. Christians), respectively, and the forth and fifth planets are Enbu or Mercury and Bil or Jupiter. Jupiter (or Ohrmazd in Pahlavi) is identified with the god of the Zoroastrians, thus suggesting that the “worshipers of fire” are to be identified with them, which is by no means an exclusively Mandaean trope. As for the Christians, Drower and Macuch (1965, 280) note that the Mšiha is explicitly identified with Mercury. The identification of the followers of the Mšiha with muck likely represents yet another Mandaean word play—the Messiah is anointed with muck, not fine oils, just as his followers are baptized in turbid waters, not the flowing, living waters of the heavenly Jordan. Strangely, though, these two planets are switched with respect to the religions that they usually represent.

I am not certain to whom the sixth and seventh threats refer, but the final two planets in this sequence should be Dilbat Venus and Kiuan Saturn. Death by drowning is the punishment for the worship of the seas, and the threat of “remaining behind in the sheep-fold” is the punishment for the worship of the Ekuria, those of the É.KUR or “mountain house,” the chief temple of Nippur. While I cannot make a case for associating the seas with Venus (apart from the obvious Greek myth about the birth of Aphrodite), the patron deity of Nippur was Enlil, whose role as chief of the divine pantheon was assumed by the god El in the West. According to the Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos, the Phoenicians identified El with the planet Saturn (in Mesopotamia, Saturn was associated with Enlil’s sun, Ninurta), thus connecting the gods of the É.KUR with Saturn (and possibly even Kevin Bacon, by extension, within six degrees).

The worshipers of Gudibna “in-the-sheep-fold,” on the other hand, is another mystery. This word doesn’t appear in Drower and Macuch, and its sole appearance seems to be within this very chapter. On the face of it, it is appears to be a compound of gu “in” and dibna “sheep-fold,” and therefore it may represent some kind of wordplay on the threat (of “remaining in the fold”). Lidzbarski suggests translating it as a “fold spirit,” so I have somewhat whimsically taken the liberty of creating a portmanteau word, foldergeist, from “fold” and “poltergeist.”

The eutra‘s response adds an eighth threat: agambia gudibna “beside in-the-sheep-fold,” who represents the Evil Spirit, Ruha ḏ-Qudša. As the Evil Spirit is the mother of the planets, I am all the more convinced that we are in an astrological context.

In his analysis, Lidzbarski identifies some sections which are extraneous to the sequence, and appear to be glosses that were later incorporated into the text (I have placed these “glosses” between {brackets}). This “corruption” might also explain why the fourth and fifth threats are switched, at least from the perspective of the planets, and together with the sing-song, repetitive nature of the composition, it leads me to suspect that this text may have been transmitted orally prior to being committed to writing.

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