Miriai is a Vine, a Tree that Stands at the Mouth of the Euphrates

Miriai is a Vine, a Tree that Stands at the Mouth of the Euphrates June 27, 2012

I’ve just posted on the project blog a draft of my translation of chapter 35 of the Mandaean Book of John, the second and longer of the two chapters focused on the story of Miriai. While chapter 34 was relatively mundane by comparison (but still incredibly interesting, in my opinion!), chapter 35 is full of symbolism and metaphor. It continues with the same tone of anti-Jewish polemic as in the previous chapter. Those familiar with the academic study of the Gospel of John, which has comparable features, will understand better than anyone why a previous generation of scholars drew connections between that Christian text and Mandaean literature. Although the way the connections were made was extremely problematic, the possibility of connections are not themselves excluded by the errors and shortcomings of previous work on this subject.

If you read the translation draft, your input and feedback is appreciated. I have tried to render the unemended text (apart from minor corrections) into English in a manner that does justice to both what is clear and what is ambiguous, rather than allow the English to be clearer than, and smooth over difficulties and confusing details in, the underlying Mandaic text.

This is a section which had previously been translated into English by G. R. S. Mead.

The chapter requires detailed commentary, as does the entire work. One point I will mention is that I rendered as “disciples” a Mandaic term which normally means “Mandaic priest.” The term tarmida (plural tarmidia) is related to the Aramaic word for “disciple,” talmida, and presumably it at one point carried that connotation before becoming a technical term, much as “disciples” and “apostles” did within Christianity. It really makes no sense for the Eagle to kill Mandaean priests as punishment for the Jews’ treatment of Miriai, and so a meaning like “disciples” (i.e. disciples of the Jewish priests/leaders) seems called for. One cannot but wonder whether this linguistic archaism provides any indication of the antiquity of the tradition. Or is it possible to make sense of the word in its context with its more typical sense in later Mandaic? Such questions have barely begun to be asked, much less answered, but hopefully the upsurge in the translation and academic study of Mandaic texts that we have witnessed in our time will continue.

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  • All the Jews gathered in Jerusalem

    And they pursued Miriai.

    They went and found Miriai

    set upon a throne at the mouth of the Euphrates,

    And a white banner was spread over her

    And a scroll was spread across her lap

    – They read in the books of truth –

    And she stirs up all worlds.

    A (ritual) staff of living water is in her hand

    A (ritual) girdle is fastened and tied around her waist.

    They bow and prostrate themselves before Miriai

    And she teaches in a sublime voice.

    Fish assemble from the sea

    And water fowl from the mouth of the Euphrates

    come at Miriai’s voice

    and they do not love to lie down and sleep.

    They inhale the scent which is before her

    And forget this world.

    When they saw these things,

    The Jews rose from before her.

    Ashamed, they clenched their fists

    And beat their breasts and wept.

    Having a problem with Discus.

    • Besides Edgar Allan Poe coming to mind as I read this incredible translation, but so to does, the Virgin Mary. This is beautiful. Am I stepping into something here? “They inhale the scent which is before her and forget this world.” Wow.

      • Thanks for the compliments! It really is the underlying text which is responsible – it naturally falls into poetic lines, and so that has more to do with the composition than the translation.

        Jorunn Buckley and others have viewed Miriai as intended to be the mother of Jesus. But elsewhere in the work she is explicitly mentioned and her name is a different form of “Mary” than this. So I personally do not think that the reader is supposed to understand that this is the same person.

        The Mandaeans would have enjoyed turning Jesus’ mother into one of their own. Yet in these chapters, Christianity does not seem to be in view at all, unlike in other passages.

    • AM

      “Having a problem with Discus.”

      Obviously a reference to an early athletics meeting.

  • William J E Dempsey

    Classical Mandaic is usually described as a version of incantory Aramaic, relating to a spoken vernacular version centered in Iraq. My point here: it is said to show strong Persian influences. Doesn’t this therefore open up the possiblity of Persian influence on this side of Jewish and Christian thought?
    I.e. say, Persian “light vs. dark” Manicheanism. Or the influence of the Persian “Magus” or plural “Magi” – Persian for “wise man” – tradition. Jesus himself was said in the Bible to have three “Magis,” or “Wise Men from the East” at his nativity.
    In addition, Mandaic is very closely related to Samaritan. Suggesting the possibility of looking into Jesus’ occasional (if not consistent) flirtation with Samaritans, as in the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” And Jesus’ allusion to have “sources” of sustenance unknown to the apostles, spoken while Jesus was obtaining water from a Samaritan woman at the well.
    One of my consistent criticisms of classic Christian religious study is its provincialism: its insistence on concentrating only on Jewish traditions proper, as the only possible source for Christian thought. While Greco-Roman influences are obvious; and influences from the East as well.
    Influences from the East especially, might begin to become apparent in the case of Classical Mandaic. A version of Aramaic … that links Judeo-Christian culture to cross-cultural, lexical influence from Persia.