Miriai’s Story

One of the first stories I became acquainted with in the Mandaean Book of John is the story of Miriai. Since it is one of the excerpts from the book that had previously been translated into English, it was interesting to spend some time wrestling with some of the obscure terms and idioms in the passage.

I’ve just posted a draft of my new translation of chapter 34 of the Mandaean Book of John on the Mandaean Book of John blog. This is the first of two chapters devoted to her story, although she appears as a character earlier in the book, interacting with John the Baptist. By that stage, she seems to already be a Mandaean, and since the material in the Mandaean Book of John is not organized chronologically, presumably this story may be set prior to the activity of John.

I will be looking carefully at this material once again in my conference paper that I will be reading at SBL in November. Like the story of portents as precursors to the birth of John the Baptist, the story of Miriai prominently features the temple in Jerusalem and engages in anti-Jewish polemic. The story is perhaps best viewed through the lens of recent work on cultural memory. On the one hand, we can see how the story was updated in retelling, so that Jerusalem became a ruin and the context of the story and background of Miriai become Babylonia, despite the action being set in Jerusalem. On the other hand, it may be hard to imagine the story’s polemic against the temple in Jerusalem arising long after that edifice had ceased to stand and far to the East of its location. And so, even if we cannot disentangle earlier and later strands the way some have tried to in the past, may we nevertheless perhaps be justified in concluding that the story reflects a tradition of storytelling that goes back to prior to 70 C.E.?

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  • Michael Wilson

    James, I can’t wait wait for you to finish your work on these text. I was wondering if you are getting the impression that the mandeans John is based soley on the gospels John or if the mandeans have developed from a seperate tradtion. I suppose my hope is this is a remnent of the community of John the baptist him self and not just a seperate comunity that decided to link its self to a popular christian saint.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      Since many have wanted the Mandaeans to be ancient and independent of Christianity, for a variety of reasons, I have been cautiously beginning with the most likely scenario – that parallel material could have been borrowed from Christian sources. Having done that, there seems to me much that simply does not fit that scenario, that does not seem like a reworking of the New Testament sources. And so I do think that there is independent tradition as at least part of the picture, yes.

      The relationship to John the Baptist is yet another puzzle, since he is viewed positively and claimed by the Mandaeans as one of their own, and yet he is not viewed as in any sense the founder of the Mandaeans. One intriguing possible explanation for the connection can be found in Theodore bar Koni’s reference to the Mandaeans as “Dostheans.” There was an ancient Gnostic group referred to by Church Fathers as Dositheans, named after a teacher named Dositheos whose own teacher was…can you guess? :-)