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THE TEACHINGS OF JOHN THE BAPTIST

The first English translation of the Draša ḏ-Yahya by Carlos Gelbert, titled Teachings of John the Baptist (TJB), Living Water Books, 2017, is largely based upon the pioneering efforts of Mark Lidzbarski’s German translation from a century before, but is able to elucidate numerous issues unclear to the earlier translator, leading to clearer connections in the initial parts of the text.  This is due mainly to Gelbert’s Mandaean background but also discoveries during the last century and his use of an original text (the G manuscript) somewhat more complete than the six texts used by Lidzbarski.

Divided into 76 sections the text is a polemic work, initially focused upon the conflicts in the supernatural realm (§§1-17) and lastly upon more familiar Mandaean teachings about human relations to the gods visible and invisible (§§40-76).  Sharply circumscribed is the best-known John Baptist (Yahya-Yuhana) portion of the text (§§18-33), as there is no reference to him in the text otherwise.  Conversion is the subject of §§34-39, material strikingly original in content and involving Miriai (Mary) and fishing for souls.

The preface provides a short history of Mandaean survival while the introduction covers current issues facing Mandaeism.  The prologue provides a wider context about the Mandaean homeland.

Lidzbarski’s introduction, now placed after the text, provides essentially insights into Mandaeism as well as the text, these having stood the test of time.  His footnotes are also included in full as the vast majority of them supply valuable and correct information, so his Arabic, Syriac, Greek and Latin are included.  A double referencing system is used, enabling his section introductions and footnotes to be placed appropriately in our endnotes without interfering with the flow of the main text.

The status of the three demiurgic beings, Yušamin (the Second Life), Abathur (the Third Life) and Pthahil (the Fourth) has always been problematical, given the one demiurge, a being both good and bad, found in other Gnostic systems.  In Mandaeism, the demiurge’s three roles: the contrary agenda, the judgment over creation and creating the physical world in the first place are divided respectively among the three.

Yušamin’s sons provoke an uprising (§§3-10) against the Great Life, Yušamin joining in – with more bloodshed than Lidzbarski revealed – but leading to Yušamin’s ultimate defeat and extensive devastation of the Creation.  And so the Good Shepherd, Shem son of Noah (Šum br Nu) and John the Baptist (Yahya-Iuhana) appear in succession to aid mankind.

Potentially contradictory interpretations of the material are ever-present and require great care in translation.  For instance, Hibil-Ziwa, the preeminent Mandaean savior, is also involved in maintaining the Creation, revealing his weariness at the task, at §55:11-19, having to deal with Abathur and the weighing-scales being niqal.  Lidzbarski (p. 197 n.3; here p. 133) treated the word as an imperfect of QLL “to be light”, but noted the obvious alternative derivation TQL “to weigh”, as preferred in Buckley’s translation (Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, Professional Fatigue: ‘Hibil’s Lament’ in the Mandaean ‘Book of John’. Le Muséon 110:3-4 (1997) 367-381).  However there is another alternative: ȊQL “to pervert”.  Since Abathur is neither an entirely good (TQL) nor an entirely evil (ȊQL) being, the reading QLL is favored due to its intermediate and contradictory implications when applied to a demiurge.  I.e. were the scales weighing correctly there would be little need for Hibil to lament it, and were they entirely perverse, this would imply Abathur was too so should not have been appointed to the role.

The present arrangement of the TJB material clearly dates from the early Islamic era as also indicated by the colophon.  For example the enigmatic phrase commencing the John Baptist sections “Yahya preaches in the nights, Iuhana at eventide” implicates the pre-Islamic era as the Aramaic Iuhana’s time of declining light whereas the Arabic Yahya is preaching in the night now descended upon Mandaeism from the Islamic age.

In two Christian-oriented sections (§§33,76) the Messiah Jesus faces either Yahya (John the Baptist) or Anoš (Enosh).  The two latter are strongly connected, Anoš being Yahya’s spiritual mentor, reminding us of the Jesus and Thomas ‘twinship’ connection in the Acts of Thomas (ss. 57) whose material has some common derivation with Mandaeism, notably through the Hymn of the Pearl in that work and the related Mandaean-based Psalms of Thomas.

Hence this work is essential for any proper understanding of the Mandaean religion and its relation to Christian origins and practice.

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