The Bible and Beyond Podcast Episode
Getting to know the Mandaens and their deep roots with John the Baptist
An Interview with Dr. James McGrath
photo courtesy of Wipf and Stock Publishers
Dr. James McGrath introduces us to the Mandaeans, a modern-day community that practices a religion with ancient roots. Their sacred texts mention John the Baptist and Jesus and other names that are familiar from the Bible. If you’re interested in the New Testament, in Christianity, you’ll also be interested in this group. Since they practice baptism as their main ritual, these people may be the 2,000 year-long descendants of John the Baptist.
Dr. James McGrath brings a rich background to this conversation from his research and time spent studying the modern and ancient communities of the Mandaeans. His two-volume critical edition, translation, and commentary on the Mandaean Book of John, in collaboration with Charles Heberl, represents the first edition of the complete work in English based on all the known manuscripts. At Butler University, James is the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature. He also loves the way science fiction and religion weave together.
Thank you for this wonderfully insightful podcast on a group I knew little about, the Mandaeans. I am looking forward to Dr. McGrath’s writing project on the influence that John the Baptist might have had on Jesus’ growth and teaching. Dr. McGrath mentioned that the Mandaeans speak a dialect of Aramaic. Is there any where to learn more about this dialect? Are there different Mandaean dialects in existence or just one? Is the Mandaean dialect classified in the North-Eastern Neo Aramaic (NENA) dialects? Thank you for sharing your insights, Dr. McGrath.
Thank you for these great questions! Very briefly, there are projects underway to provide improved lexical resources (most notably by Matthew Mordenstern), but at the moment Drower and Macuch’s Lexicon and the Macuch handbook are still the main things available in English. If you read German then Noldeke’s grammar is worth looking at. Classical Mandaic is closest to Babylonian Jewish Aramaic (but with some distinctive features nevertheless). I’m less able to speak to modern Neo-Mandaic and how it has evolved in comparison with other surviving Aramaic dialects, and so for that I will direct you to my collaborator on the project Dr. Charles Haberl of Rutgers University, who did his doctoral work on a particular Neo-Mandaic dialect.
Looking forward to talking more about this…
I enjoyed reviewing a copy of your book, The Mandaean Book of John, at the De Gruyter’s booth at the SBL/AAR conference held in San Diego Nov. 23-26. The Aramaic on the cover was different than any Aramaic I have studied. I wish I could have attended the breakout session on the book, but enjoyed learning from your blog on the subject. Intriguing!
In lieu of a thesis, my Capstone Action Research Project for my Masters of Interfaith Action at Claremont Lincoln University, is focused on the preservation of Chaldean Aramaic. An article I recently included in my research project was titled, “Christians, Yazidis, and Mandaeans in Iraq: A Survival Issue.” (Hanish, S. (2009). Digest of Middle East Studies). It seems Chaldeans and Mandaeans have similarities in their respective journeys.
The work of Charles Haberl is certainly of interest to me. Thank you for the reference to your co-author. Our focus at Let in the Light Publishing (www.letinthelightpublishing.com) has also been on preserving the modern and ancient dialects of Aramaic, although in Chaldean not Mandaic dialects. My research indicates that ancient Chaldean Aramaic is the dialect closest to that spoken by Jesus. What fun it will be to compare the Chaldean dialect to the Mandaean dialect spoken by the followers of John!
Thanks again for sharing your research on this podcast!