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

Archive for the tag “polemics”

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.

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.

Legends and Lore in the Great Revelation, Cont.

The aforementioned chronology in the Scroll of the Great Revelation might be easily dismissed, if it were not so congruent with much of what we understand about history. A closer reading of the text reveals an internal consistency that cannot easily be dismissed. With regard to the life and times of John the Baptist,

Forty-two years (he dwelt) therein, and then his Transplanter looked upon him and he arose with his Transplanter, praised be his name! […] and a time arrived, sixty years after Yahia-Yuhana had departed the body […] the Jews, just as their former strength (returned?) to Ruha and Adonai, who became arrogant […] Hence, after sixty years, Ruha and Adonai planned to erect […] the fallen House (Temple) and spoke to Moses the prophet and the children of Israel who had built the House (Temple).

Drower interprets the phrase baita napla “The Fallen House” as the Temple, but the text is by no means clear on this point. “The Fallen House” is a metaphor for the material world, not the Temple, and the verb ethašabat el misqẖ, here translated as “planned to erect,” means no such thing, but rather something like “plotted to rise […] up to the Fallen House, i.e. the material world” The G-stem infinitive misaq is not transitive, in any case.

Although the text is fragmentary, the narrative seemingly flashes back in time; anachronistically, the “tribes of Anuš-’Uthra” are destroyed and every last Naṣorean is slaughtered; Ruha and Adunai scatter the Jews and deliver them across the Reed Sea/River, and then surround Jerusalem with walls. It is at this point that Anuš-’Uthra and Hibil Ziwa act to destroy Jerusalem and utterly defeat the Jews until the end of time.

This event is conventionally identified with the Great Revolt of 66–73 CE and the destruction of the Temple, but if we add the tallies of years given in the text together (42 years + 60 years + 60 years), we come to the beginning of the 2nd century, or around the time of the Third Jewish Revolt in 132–135 CE, which was indeed about six decades after the Great Revolt. Could this be the intended reference? In the text, the Jews are routed and scattered, and Jerusalem is destroyed, but there is no mention of the destruction of Temple, even if Drower and others have attempted to read its destruction into the account.

Following the routing of the Jews, Anuš-’Uthra establishes the seven guards at the “seven corners of the House,” in order to “crush the power of Darkness and to establish the Call of the Life and to make void the rebellious outcry.” The names of these guards and their assigned domains are as follows:

  • Zazai bar Hibil Eutra, in Baghdad
  • Papa bar Guda, on the Tigris and at the mouth of the Karun
  • Anuš bar Naṭar, on the Karun
  • Anuš Saiar bar Nṣab, on the Euphrates
  • Brik Iauar, at Pumbeditha
  • Nṣab bar Bihram, at the mountains of Glazlak
  • Ska Manda, at the tail end of the Parwan range

Buckley has identified the names of some of these figures with Mandaean riš amia or “ethnarchs” from the 3rd century, who appear both in the Abahatan prayer in the CP and in the chains of copyists. While the identities of the last two locations are still very much under debate, the text identifies these figures as being situated at the “seven corners of the House,” suggesting that these seven points represented the limits of the Mandaean world. The first ascended to his fathers, presumably without offspring, while the following six sent their descendants into the world.

The text then tells us that 280 years have passed since some of these “sons of the disciples of John” go forth, and the evil spirit Ruha perverts their teachings. If we continue with the same chronology, this would place us in the 5th century. Indeed, we then read that specifically 86 years before the arrival of the “Son of Slaughter, the Arab,” and therefore sometime in the 6th century, there was a major schism within the Mandaean community, the schism of Qiqil. Dirk Kruisheer, in his important article on Theodore bar Konai’s important account of the Mandaeans, relates these to the three specific and related groups mentioned by him. That still leaves a gap of roughly a century, presumably between the Third Jewish Revolt of 132–135 CE and the ethnarchs identified by Buckley, who flourished at the tail end of the Arsacid period and the beginning of Sasanid rule in 224 CE.

Perhaps coincidentally, the narrative backs up a bit once more and returns to this very period, chronicling the downfall of the Arsacid dynasty, the rise of the Sasanids (hardbaiia) and their reign (which according to it lasts “360 years,” a nice round number even if the reality is closer to 427 years), concluding with the arrival of the “Son of Slaughter.” According to this account, a figure named Anuš bar Danqa approaches “Muhammad son of ‘Abdallah, Son of Slaughter, the Arab,” in Baghdad. This event and the figure at the center of it can be dated through Ramuia son of Eqaimat’s colophon to the first portion of the Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans, which assigns to it the year 638 CE (another anachronism, as Muhammad had died six years earlier). If the schism of Qiqil occurred 86 years earlier, then it must have happened around 552 CE. The colophon also mentions that Zazai ḏ-Gawazta, whom Buckley identifies with Zazai bar Hibil Eutra, had copied this same manuscript 368 years earlier, or ca. 270 CE, which is almost exactly 280 years before the schism of Qiqil. With the exception of the century-long gap between the Third Jewish Revolt and the rise of the Sasanians, which might very well lie in one of the numerous lacunae that riddle this text, the chronology is internally consistent.

In closing, I’d like to suggest a possible chronology for the legendary events mentioned in the Great Revelation, along with some of the historical events to which the text alludes:

  1. Beginning of Babylonian Captivity (597 BCE)
  2. John the Baptist “arose with his Transplanter” (ca. 41/42 CE)
  3. The Great Revolt (66–73 CE)
  4. Massacre of the Naṣoreans
  5. Third Jewish Revolt (132–135 CE)
  6. Anuš-’Uthra destroys Jerusalem
  7. Zazai bar Hibil-Eutra and six other guards appointed to various posts
  8. Fall of Arsacids; Rise of the Sasanids (224 CE)
  9. Zazai of Gawazta copies the Canonical Prayerbook (ca. 270 CE)
  10. Schism of Qiqil (ca. 552 CE)
  11. Capture of Ctesiphon (637 CE)
  12. Anuš bar Danqa and the Ethnarchs provide a copy of the book to the Arabs (638 CE)

Progress Report 6

The eleventh chapter of the Doctrine of John, which is the first of two sections that Lidzbarski termed “The Good Shepherd,” is now up at the project website. This consists of the better part of six manuscript pages, from p. 40, ln. 6 to p. 45, ln. 10 in the 1915 edition.

I’ve been documenting my progress thus far with this chapter, so it really needs no introduction at this point. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to outline the passage briefly. “The Good Shepherd” is an extended allegory involving several elements:

  • a shepherd figure (who likely represents Hibil Ziua or Manda ḏ-Hiia);
  • his flock (which likely represents the Mandaeans);
  • various threats such as wolves and thieves (these are explicitly identified with the seven planets and the twelve signs of the Zodiac);
  • a storm of some sort (which some scholars have identified with Islam).

I dealt with the question of whether this passage addresses the Islamic conquest in an earlier post. Suffice it to say that I am not convinced. The passage usually adduced as an oblique reference to Islam (p. 45, lns. 1-2) doesn’t withstand the light of critical scrutiny. Subsequently, the passage does mention “those living at the tail end of the Age of Mars (nirig),” which might be such a reference. Mars is sometimes identified with “Abdallah the Arab,” the name by which the Prophet Muhammad is known to the Mandaeans, or as having descended alongside Muhammad, as in the Scroll of Inner Harran. Then again, Nirig is, of course, the Mandaean form of the name of Nergal (compare the Arabic name for Mars, مريخ marīḫ), the chief deity of Kutha, who was at times also associated with war, disease, and the underworld, any of which could naturally fit this reference. While this could therefore be an extremely oblique reference to Muhammad, the fact that Nirig/Nergal predates Muhammad by a considerable period of time (several thousands of years) requires us to be somewhat cautious about drawing such a conclusion.

The fact that the “Good Shepherd” makes reference to the “tail end” of this period should also give us pause; assuming that this passage was indeed composed in the early Islamic period, what would make the Mandaeans of the time think that they were living in the end of that era? The right half of the Great Treasure contains a similar claim in Book 18, suggesting that these two works might be coetaneous, if indeed the “Age of Mars” can be identified with the Islamic period. I have my doubts. The Great Treasure, for example, never employs this term, but it does appear in Code Sabéen 16, which is a manuscript of the Thousand and Twelve Questions (the so-called Pariser Diwan): hṣilnin bdinba ḏ-dara ḏ-nirig “we reached the end of the Age of Mars.” It would be interesting to investigate what this reference meant to this copyist of the Thousand and Twelve Questions. I’m not sure I want to try contacting the Bibliothèque nationale de France again for a copy, as their bureaucracy could really give Rutgers a run for its money.

The question of the presence or absence of any reference to Islam is not the only contentious aspect of this chapter; immediately preceding the reference to the Age of Mars is a reference to what appears to be female priests:

ṭubaihun el tarmidiata
ḏmn qlalia ḏruha mitparqan
mitparqan mn ṭanputa
uqlala ušišilta ḏlašalma

Happy are the tarmidiata,
who are free from the snares of Ruha,
free ‎‎from the pollution, the snare,
and the never-ending chain.

At first glance, tarmidiata appears to be the plural of tarmidita, the feminine form of tarmida, which is the first grade of the Mandaean priesthood as well as a general term for priest. As the cognates in related languages attest, it originally meant a kind of student or disciple, but in Mandaean texts it consistently refers to priests. In his translation of the Doctrine of John, Lidzbarski is silent about the identity of the tarmidiata, which he translates as Jüngerinnen (female disciples), but in his translation of the Great Treasure he argues that as female priests do not (currently) exist among the Mandaeans, this term cannot refer to female priests. Q.E.D. Drower, deferring to Lidzbarski, bent over backwards to translate this term as “women of priestly family” or “caste,” even though there is no logical basis for this interpolation. While it is certainly true that there are no female priests today, Jorunn Buckley has amassed a considerable amount of textual evidence for the existence of female priests at some point in the distant past of the faith. Obviously this question is not going away any time soon.

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.

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