Review of Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, The Great Stem of Souls

Review of Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, The Great Stem of Souls March 3, 2008
PDQ SubmissionReview of Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, The Great Stem of Souls (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2005). 388 + xv pp. Reviewed by Dr. James F. McGrath, Associate Professor of Religion, Butler University, Indianapolis, USA.

Buckley’s book The Great Stem of Souls derives its title from a phrase used to designate the Mandaean community. It is found in the colophons of Mandaean manuscripts, which not only list the scribes who copied the manuscript, but at times also refer to contemporary events and concerns affecting the Mandaeans in the time and place in which the copying occurred. It is these colophons, often not translated together with the Mandaean texts with which they are connected, that are the focus of Buckley’s study. She is to be thanked for making more information about such materials, and in some cases translations and/or summaries of their contents at length, available to a wider scholarly community.
Copying manuscripts is viewed as a meritorious act in Mandaism, and the person for whom a particular copy is made, as well as the scribe who made it, are mentioned. Towards the end of the book, we learn that the Mandaeans did not, until recently, use gravestones or other such tomb markers, and it is suggested that perhaps the recording of names at the ends of manuscripts in this way substituted for tombs, as a way of remembering earlier generations (p.343).

Buckley’s book is largely grouped by manuscripts, with a discussion of the colophon (or in the case of composite works that seem to have resulted from the combination of works that were once separate, colophons in the plural) of each. This makes the book very difficult to summarize, as does not, for the most part, attempt to achieve what the book’s subtitle might lead the reader to believe, namely “reconstructing Mandaean history”. There is much more in the way of raw data than an attempt to integrate that data into a chronological historical narrative. In one sense, this is not surprising. There are numerous individuals with the same name mentioned in the colophons, and anyone who has done family history research will know the impossibility, without other relevant evidence, of being certain that two people with the same name are the same person. And so this book might be said to provide the raw materials for any future attempt to write a history of the Mandaeans, rather than attempting to do that itself.

Given the neglect from which the Mandaeans in general, and the colophons in their manuscripts in particular, have suffered, Buckley has thus done an enormous service for historians. Nevertheless, it remains the case that information about specific individuals and specific time periods is spread throughout the book, rather than integrated. The provision of an index of priests (pp.379-385) is thus not merely useful but essential for anyone investigating a specific person or time. This should not be taken as a criticism: it is necessary to have the evidence from individual colophons presented separately. It is for others trying to write a history of the Mandaean people and religion (or perhaps, at some point, Buckley herself, in a rather different book) to use this data in so doing.

This is not to say that there are not sections which focus on specific times and individuals. Part 2, entitled “Priests and Scholars”, sits somewhat awkwardly between parts 1 and 3, which approach and organize the material by manuscripts/texts. But it provides a refreshingly integrated approach, focused on specific cases about which relatively more information is available: Lady Drower (and her interaction and correspondence with Sheikh Negm), Heinrich Petermann’s work, Yahia Bihram, and then finally a chapter on women priests. Yahia Bihram is arguably one of the most important subjects in Mandaean studies. In 1831, a cholera epidemic decimated the Mandaean community in general and the priesthood in particular. Yahia Bihram had a key role in preserving Mandaeans’ cultural and religious heritage (which is particularly at peril in such cases, given the importance of esoteric knowledge) and ensuring the continuation of the priesthood and of the Mandaean community as a whole. His story, known from colophons, is all the more interesting because he knew Petermann and yet seems not to mention him in the colophons, while Petermann gives little indication that he is fully aware of the significance of the role Yahia played in the preservation of the Mandaeans. In this part of the book, we learn a great deal about another important aspect of the subject: how some of these (in some instances esoteric and thus, at least in theory, secret) Mandaean texts came to be in the possession of Western libraries, through the personal connection forged between scholars and representatives of the Mandaean people.

In addition to what the colophons tell us about the scribes mentioned therein, they can also provide evidence regarding the age of the texts in question, and by extension of Mandaism in general. Particularly interesting is the evidence from the colophons of those writings which can be categorized as “esoteric ritual commentaries and exegeses” (p.223), and which previous generations of scholars have at times derided as late or degenerate (p.295). Yet even if they presuppose the existence of the liturgy and the “classical” texts, the scribal pedigree indicates that the commentaries are themselves very ancient, and thus arguably far more central to Mandaism than might have seemed at first glance to be the case (see further pp.283-4, 300-301).

The subject of women priests is also given much attention throughout the book, with focused discussions of the subject concentrated in certain areas (such as chapter 8, which is specifically dedicated to this subject). The lack of female priests in the present day has often led scholars to assume that apparent mentions of such figures in the colophons and elsewhere cannot in fact refer to women priests. At the end of chapter 8, a list is given, showing that the existence of female priests and scribes down the ages is essentially beyond doubt.

The amount of detail provided means that this book is far more like a dissertation than anything else. It will thus be of the most use to scholars working on the Mandaeans. One particularly useful feature for this audience are the references to the large number of manuscripts that remain unpublished and/or untranslated, plus useful suggestions on topics that likewise remain insufficiently studied. Even one of the most important Mandaean texts, the “Book of John” (also called “The Teaching of Kings”), has not been translated into English. Buckley also provides details of personal experiences that will be useful to scholars seeking to take up studies of Mandaic texts. For instance, her fourth chapter, “Mandaic Adventures in the British Library”, recounts at the start how much was involved when she attempted merely to locate the relevant manuscripts, as they were filed under the heading Syriac. In addition to much time spent studying the manuscripts in the possession of libraries, Buckley has had unprecedented access to the correspondence of Lady Drower, whose contribution to Mandaean studies is unequalled, as well as manuscripts in the possession of private individuals, and input from the Mandaeans themselves.

I am inclined to describe Buckley’s approach to the colophons as anthropological, indeed ethnographic. It is as though she is seeking to observe them carefully, and preserve a record of what she has observed, in a way that respects the autonomy even of the long-departed scribes whose names are mentioned in the colophons. A modest attempt at synthesis finally comes at the very end of the book, when Buckley at long last engages several key scholars on the question of Mandaean origins and the age of their beliefs, traditions and writings. Over the course of the book, of course, Buckley attempts to determine wherever possible the date of the various scribes mentioned in the colophons. One of the earliest mentioned, Zazai of Gawazta, is said to have flourished around 270 CE (p.27). Often, however, the precise basis for the dates given is not explained, or is only given significantly later in the book (p.192). It would have been much more helpful if the material were ordered in such a way that the evidence for dates, if not presented at length the first time an assertion is made about the date of a particular scribe, at the very least was linked by a footnote or in some other way to the relevant later discussion.

In the end, however, one eventually encounters all the necessary arguments and discussions, if one reads through the book in its entirety. Some colophons mention specific dates and events, and occasionally even precise time periods between named figures (p.192). Other evidence likewise demonstrates the antiquity of some manuscripts – for instance, those which lack any trace of the Arabic vocabulary that clearly becomes an integrated part of the Mandaic language in the period after the arrival of Islam in the regions inhabited by the Mandaeans (p.286). Alphabetic features in some manuscripts likewise point back to an early date (p.302). Buckley tackles some of the most difficult questions towards the end of her book, including whether there might be a historical connection to John the Baptist, where Haran Gawaita might be, and which Ardban might be the king referred to in that text (pp.315-326). Also discussed, albeit briefly, are indications that elements of Mandaean stories may show an awareness of the Christian apocrypha (pp.330-341). Yet if Buckley is right about the early date of Mandaism, then we need to consider whether the direction of dependence may not be in the other direction, and whether there is any way we might ever hope to be able to determine if that were so.

The only element I found genuinely frustrating was when Buckley changed her mind between an earlier chapter and a later one (p.276). It is good that, at the very least, she did so explicitly. Nevertheless, given the degree of detail in the book, and the impression one can get that many dates for scribes mentioned in the colophons are profoundly uncertain (and perhaps even mere guesswork), it would have made more sense for her to go back and rework earlier material to reflect her final conclusions, rather than to allow us to witness the development and subsequent revision thereof as it unfolds.

In her conclusion, Buckley calls for a re-evaluation of early Mandaism that is not simply “a reawakening of the long-discredited theories of Richard Reitzenstein and Rudolf Bultmann” (p.341). There is indeed a need for much more scholarly attention to be devoted to the Mandaeans and their literature. Given their distinctiveness, the fact that they have survived to this day, and the amount of scholarly interest devoted to other Gnostic texts such as those from Nag Hammadi, the paucity of scholarly attention devoted to the Mandaeans is hard to understand. On the other hand, the current state of interest in Gnosticism in general, as well as the fact that Iraq and Iran are in thoughts of people in Europe and America for multiple reasons, bodes well that an increasing amount of scholarly attention may be paid to the Mandaeans in years to come.

I am grateful to Gorgias Press for providing me with a copy of this book to review, and in spite of specific minor criticisms, I recommend the book enthusiastically to anyone who is beginning or continuing research on the Mandaeans, or plans to do so in the near future.

See also April DeConick’s “Book Note” on the book:

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  • Zera

    This review was phenomenal McGrath! Buckley is one of the very few scholars today doing any studies on the Mandeans and Mandaism (along with you and others). I’m also in awe in how little known and studied these people are despite the recent obsession with Gnosticism and just of how utterly fascinating the Mandeans are. This review was really enlightening and gives me a idea of what to find and expect when I get a chance to read it. Just in case if you’re curious, I’m a student that is specializing in Iranian and Central Asian history, culture, and religion. As such, the Mandeans and their beliefs are of great interest and importance to me personally and academically. Anyway, thanks for your time in reviewing Buckley’s work.

    • Thanks for getting in touch! Please do send an email my way sometime, since there are so few of us working on this, it is good to connect electronically and find ways to collaborate and mutually encourage one another.

      Hopefully our paths will cross at some future conference on the Mandaeans!