Friday, June 18, 2010

Butler University Press Release

Butler University issued a press release about the project today, which has already been picked up by Inside Indiana Business:

Butler Religion Professor Awarded Federal Funding

Butler University Associate Professor of Religion James McGrath has been awarded a $130,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant for a project to translate the Mandaean Book of John from Mandaic into English. The Mandaeans are a Gnostic group, the only one to have survived continuously from the ancient world to the present day.

McGrath’s main collaborator will be Charles Häberl of Rutgers University, an expert in ancient and modern Semitic languages, whose first book is on a modern spoken dialect of Mandaic. April DeConick of Rice University, well known for her work on Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas, will also be involved as a consultant.

“The Mandaeans’ sacred texts are in a dialect of Aramaic,” McGrath said. “Some of them mention John the Baptist and Jesus. John the Baptist gets a positive mention; Jesus, not so much. Two of their most important sacred texts have never been translated into English in their entirety. One, the Ginza Rba, or Great Treasure, several people are working on that. But the second most important text is the Book of John. To my knowledge, no one was working on a translation of the whole thing into English. It caught my interest and I said, ‘Let me see if I can get some funding to remedy this.’”

McGrath and his collaborators plan to spend the next two years on the first stage of this project: producing a typed version of the text in the original language and translating the more than 200 pages of handwritten text. In addition to previously published copies of the Mandaic text and manuscripts in libraries, they will also make use of scans of privately owned copies of the Book of John.

Some such manuscripts have already been identified. McGrath said he hopes the publicity the NEH grant award creates will draw this project to the attention of others who may have manuscripts among their family’s possessions and be willing to allow them to be scanned or photographed.

The long-term goal is to publish the text and translation together with a commentary.

“The discovery, translation, and publication of manuscripts like the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls has certainly helped us understand that period of several centuries in history that gave rise to early Christianity, rabbinic Judaism, and Gnosticism, among other religious movements,” McGrath said. “Yet we have these texts that have been known for far longer and yet have never been translated into English. I’m glad that the time has come to remedy this situation.”

The money from the NEH will cover numerous research expenses and free those involved in the project from certain teaching and other responsibilities, allowing them to devote the necessary time to working on the translation.

“I’m delighted to get this grant,” McGrath said. “I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to be involved in such an important project.”


  1. I am quite interested in this. There are at least two variants on the spelling of the name John in Mandaean Aramaic. When you have the time could you tell me way the name is spelled? Thank you.

  2. There is the Aramaic spelling iuhana and also the spelling derived from the Arabic form of his name, iahia. In some passages only one is used, while others will use the two names in parallel for stylistic variation, and yet others will use the two side by side as though they are a single compound name.

  3. Thanks James, just another question. Am I correctly informed that the iuhana is spelled with a he rather than a chet? How is that explained? Is it a corruption or does it show up in other words taken from Palestinian Aramaic?

  4. It simply reflects the loss of gutterals in Mandaic generally, I'd say. If its useful, there are a few sites that give further information about the Mandaic alphabet, and as you'll see, the equivalent of ḥet has for all intents and purposes vanished.

  5. Was Yahya also called Yowchanan [or Yuhanna]? It appears to be so, and God knows best. It is through the Mandaeans we get the dual name Yahia Yuhana. According to Mandaic literature Yahia is a malwasha name or the real name and Yuhana is a laqab or a lay name. The Qur'an uses only the real and spiritual name, i.e., Yahya; Yuhanna is expressed as a paraphrase in the verse 19:13 perhaps due to the fact that "Yu" in Arabic does not mean God, hence making the word "Yuhanna" etymologically meaningless. Presumably, "Yuhanna" was borrowed into Arabic through Hebrew or Syriac sources.