Miriai’s Story

Miriai’s Story June 13, 2012

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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