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

Archive for the tag “chronology”

Famine, Plagues, and Anti-Christs, II

A colleague writes to object strenuously that it would have been anachronistic to refer to the Lakhmids as malkia arbaiia “Kings of the Arabs” during the Sasanid era, as the Syriac term ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ˁarbāye is never applied to Arabs, the terms ܛܝ̈ܝܐ ṭayyāye and ܣܪ̈ܩܝܐ sarqāye being employed in its place. Therefore, the text can only date from a much later period, in which it became common to refer to the Arabs as ˁarbāye in Syriac.

Leaving aside the obvious objection that Mandaic is not Syriac, if we really want to know how the Lakhmids styled themselves, we need look no further than the 4th century funerary inscription of the Lakhmid king Imru’ al-Qays (r. 295-328) from al-Namāra:


Our inscription famously begins تي (هذه) نَفسُ (شاهدة قبر) امرؤ القيس بن عَمرو مَلِكُ العرب, “this is the funerary inscription of Imru’ al-Qays, son of Amr, King of the Arabs.” It provides us with a direct witness to the fact that the Lakhmids styled themselves the “Kings of the Arabs,” of which the Mandaic phrase malkia arbaiia is an obvious calque.

Why were the Lakhmids ˁarbāye and not ṭayyāye? They formerly inhabited the region known as Arbāyistān/Bet ˁArbāye in northern Mesopotamia (stretching from Nusaybin to the Tigris, from Cizre in the north to Jabal Shinjar in the south), until they were dislodged by the Sasanids and migrated south to the area in which they encountered the Mandaeans. It was there they founded al-Hira, and from there they ruled until they were briefly expelled by the Mazdakite al-Harith al-Kindi, only to return and reign for an additional 71 years—exactly according to the chronicle in the Great Treasure.

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.

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.

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.

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