Studying the Mandaeans: Sources and Questions

Studying the Mandaeans: Sources and Questions July 17, 2009

The recent ARAM conference on the Mandaeans in Oxford was a delightful cornucopia of different perspectives and scholarly angles on the Mandaeans, from questions about the origins to their present-day situation, with a number of Mandaeans in attendance as well as scholars interested in their religious tradition, heritage and language.

Mandaism is, I’m quite sure, fascinating to everyone who hears about it. An ancient Gnostic group surviving to the present day, whose texts are written in a dialect of Aramaic – can anyone fail to find them interesting? But there are also a lot of hurdles and challenges, not to mention a number of unanswered questions. I thus thought it would be useful to list some of the major sources in the study of the Mandaeans and their traditions in antiquity, as well as some of the major scholarly needs and puzzles relating to them.

(1) The major texts
The two major religious texts of the Mandaeans are the Ginza Rba (Great Treasure) and the Sidra d-Yahya (Book of John), neither of which exists in a complete English translation. The German translations by Lidzbarski, on the other hand, can be found on

Major need: Someone please translate these into English. Imagine what the situation would be like if there were no English translation of the Nag Hammadi texts, or the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of course, scholars working specifically on them will work on them in the original languages. But many scholars in other fields (such as New Testament, for instance) may well never have studied Coptic, and yet might benefit from reading or consulting them in translation. And even those who know the relevant languages would find it easier to skim in their native tongue when looking for a particular passage. In addition to the scholarly benefit, having English translations would benefit those Mandaeans living in English-speaking countries, who currently cannot read their own Scriptures.

(2) Worship materials and explanations
I am grouping together here two very different sorts of works. On the one hand, there is an English translation of the Canonical Prayerbook, which contains the ‘hymns’ used in various liturgies. On the other hand, there have also been translations made of what are often called “esoteric priestly commentaries” which explain and interpret the Mandaean rituals.

Major need: My own conference paper focused attention on the Miriai story in the Book of John in conjunction with passages in priestly sources (the Thousand and Twelve Questions and the Scroll of Exalted Kingship) which provide clues about the historical connection between Mandaeism and Judaism.

(3) Unpublished and unknown texts
There are texts which are known to exist but which are not in any library’s collection of Mandaean texts, such as Dmuth Kusta, which I’ve heard is also beautifully illustrated. There are also texts which have never been shared with anyone outside of the Mandaean priesthood, and there may even be texts the existence of which is still unknown to scholars.

Major need: Copy, transcribe, acquire if possible, publish, photograph, and in any and all ways make available these texts for scholarly study. Imagine what our understanding of early Christianity would be like if some of the New Testament books were still unknown to scholars, only to be found in the private collection of priests. Who knows what is still waiting to be discovered?

(4) Mandaic magical bowls
These have been collected and studied for many years, and are of great interest, in particular when found in archaeological contexts that can be documented. Those found at Nippur, for instance, show that bowls in Mandaic and Aramaic scripts could be found in homes around the same courtyard (as Erica Hunter explained in her conference paper at the ARAM conference).

Major need: Personally, I think an investigation is needed of whether the language of the bowls is the same dialect written in two different scripts, or whether the creators of Aramaic and Mandaic bowls would have seen themselves as speakers of different languages or dialects. The Mandaic script is itself mysterious – there are no instances of its usage for anything other than magical bowls and amulets on the one hand and sacred texts on the other.

(5) Haran Gawaita
Deserving mention on its own, this short and fragmentary text is among the most fascinating texts because of its apparent allusion to a Mandaean migration and because of its reference to a King Ardban or Artapanus.

Major need: Figure out which Ardban is referred to, and whether anything in this work can be confidently corellated with other historical information. Particularly worthy of being explored further is Jorunn Buckley’s suggestion (which I made independently here!) that “inner Haran” could perhaps be Wadi Hauran, which would provide a natural link between the Jordan Valley and the historic homeland of the Mandaeans in Mesopotamia in later centuries.

(6) Mentions by others
The non-Mandaean sources which either may or certainly do mention the Mandaeans need further investigation. Among Christian sources important ones include Epiphanius (who refers to a pre-Christian Jewish sect of Nasaraeans) and Theodore bar Koni (the earliest to quote the Ginza, he appears to be reproducing material from an earlier source at this point). There are also many medieval authors writing in Arabic whose mentions of the Mandaeans (or Sabians) are insufficiently known.

Major need: Particularly intriguing are the references in the Qur’an to Sabians (i.e. baptizers), and the mention of Muhammad being accused of being a Sabian. Does this tell us anything about the presence of Mandaeans in Arabia – or rather, about the composition and compilation of the Qur’an in an area where the Mandaeans were known?

If there is one thing that makes working in the field of Mandaean scholarship particularly rewarding, it is that there is so much to be done, that one does not need to fight to find some tiny area in which one can make a contribution. Hopefully the recent surge of interest will continue and spread!

In addition to, a Gnostic church has made some serious academic translations and discussions of Mandaean sources in English available online. This is greatly appreciated. Although the Mandaeans are the only Gnostic group existing from antiquity with continuity, it is great that current wider interest in Gnosticism is translating (if you’ll excuse the pun) into genuine interest in the Mandaeans, their history, their writings and their current situation.

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  • sbh

    Thanks for the links; I don't know why, but it never occurred to me to look for Mandaean material online.When I was in college I used to sit in on the Nag Hammadi seminar at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity (this was a quarter-century ago) and at that time the opinion seemed to prevail that the Mandaean material was too late and too remote to be of any interest in studying Gnostic movements in late antiquity. In spite of that I couldn't help but feel that a living Gnostic movement that looked back to John the Baptist as a founder had to be of some interest–it's an anomaly, to say the least.Since I left college I've completely lost track of what's happening in the field–no access to journals, for one thing. It's a little discouraging to see here that so many of the things that needed doing back then still need doing today. But I'm really enjoying your Mandaean entries and I hope very much there will be more of them.

  • On the one hand, there's a consensus that John the Baptist is not considered by the Mandaeans to be their founder. The question of whether his presence in Mandaean tradition results from dialogue with Christians or is an inherent part of their tradition from much earlier times remains open – it is interesting that there are traditions claiming that Dositheus (a disciple of Simon Magus) had been baptized by John the Baptist, and Theodore bar Koni uses the term "dostheans" in connection with the Mandaeans.In particular as a result of Jorunn Buckley's work on the colophons (lists of copyists) on Mandaean scrolls, many would regard the 3rd century as a relatively firm date by which a number of the Mandaean sources in their original (rather than present) form were composed. If the Manichaean Coptic Psalms of Thomas could be connected with certainty to Mani's disciple Thomas, then we'd have another confirmation of that date, since the Manichaean psalms make use of Mandaean writings and terminology.I find this subject fascinating, and so the number of posts on the Mandaeans is likely to increase as time passes!

  • All these texts should be translated and made available online and in English. There's no good reason why not. Not that I have any interest in Mandaean, but if I did, I'd be annoyed at such a failure.If you want to see these Mandaean texts, why not find someone capable of making a translation and pay him to do so? I always offer around 10c per word of the original. Would it really cost so very much? Think about your salary, and amortise it over a reasonable period. Most of us spend far more on holidays and techno-gadgets.Furthermore, these people are ethnics. Diverting money to ethnics is what a lot of state funding bodies live for. Try proposing it to some such body, and see if you can get some funding.If that sounds like too much work, why not run the existing German versions into English using Google translator and some elbow-grease. Not ideal, but better than nothing. Nor do you have to do it yourself; find volunteers at the college.If I can do it, anyone can.A word of warning; don't get a Mandaean to do the translation. Get an Englishman or American, who can read fluent Mandaean. Otherwise you WILL get gibberish. I had some bad experiences with an Arab from Lebanon and a serious published scholar in Australia who was a Copt. Both produced nonsense which they expected me to pay for.Oh, and eat an elephant a little at a time, and pay as you go. It avoids heart-stopping bills, and allows you to halt the project at any time.The world doesn't need crappy papers on the Mandaeans. It needs texts and translations. Even the best "research" tends to be obsolete quickly. But a source book of Mandaean studies will be of use long after you are dead.

  • Thanks for the links, and indeed the attention. I 'discovered' the Mandaeans last year, and trying, from time to time, to pick up more information about them. Thanks!

  • Thanks for your post, and pointing out that they spoke Aramaic. It shows how widespread the use of Aramaic was over this whole area. The Mandaeans are an interesting people.

  • Roger, thanks for some really good suggestions. I know you've ordered microfilms and other facsimiles of manuscripts from a number of libraries. Do you by any chance know what the Bodleian Library's policy is when it comes to such matters? If I can order microfilms or digital images of some of the manuscripts in the Drower Collection, that would certainly facilitate things!

  • Actually, I think the answer is on their web page. The next step will be to look into who can get such a copy made.I won't be surprised if I end up finding that microfilms have already made their way into other libraries…

  • EJC

    About the Mandaeans, some good up-to-date information can be found in (more recent than the Encyclopaedia of Islam and often useful) by typing for search: "Mandaeans" (including an article in the entry 'Iran' about the use of Aramaic dialects there since about 1000 BC). About the possibility of translating the Ginza, I am afraid that the Mandaeans are quite happy of being about the most discrete community around, and that one would find too many parallels with the Coran which may cause them further trouble. Also, we can read from scholarship on Greek or Aramaic ancient texts that there is always quite a lot of debates about possible translations, and therefore they would probably rather not risk to translate such a sacred text wrongly. Translating Lidzbarski for this reason might not be an option. Rather, I would suggest that a transliteration of the text, in Latin script, would be extremely useful for scholars, and to put this on a website open to comment in order to get from scholars of every field comments and parallels would give some interesting impulse to researches. EJC

  • Kevin Long

    >>Major need: Particularly intriguing are the references in the Qur’an to Sabians (i.e. baptizers), and the mention of Muhammad being accused of being a Sabian. Does this tell us anything about the presence of Mandaeans in Arabia – or rather, about the composition and compilation of the Qur’an in an area where the Mandaeans were known?<<
    I'm given to understand that prior to the start of his prophecies, Mohammed traveled extensively with trade caravans, well beyond the borders of Arabia. From what little I've learned about his life, he seems to have had a genuine interest in religion, and he seems to have inquired into the beliefs and practices of the various groups he came into contact with in his travels. If this is the case, then it's within reason to assume he might have met some Mandeans in his caravan days, been impressed, and declared them a People of the Book without them having a presence in Arabia itself.
    (Neither here nor there, but I've always been a bit surprised at the absence of any mention of Zoroastrianism in the Koran)