In the 1960s in Norway, I started my university studies. My fields were psychology, philosophy and ancient Greek before I delved into my main area, history of religions. The focus on Gnostic religions led to an immersion in Mandaeism. Three reasons were important to me in this choice: the Mandaeans had a vast number of texts, almost nobody else studied these traditions, and the Mandaeans were still alive. In 1971 a Norwegian professor sent me to U. of Uppsala to obtain some knowledge of the Mandaic language. During this time, I went to England and met Lady E. S. Drower, the foremost and famous scholar on the Mandaeans. I am very lucky to have met her, less than a year before she died. I kept a close and very friendly contact with her daughter, the Egyptologist Margaret (“Peggy”) Hackforth-Jones, until she died in 2012. Lady Drower’s grand-daughter remains my close contact with the family for years now.
After studies at the U. of Utrecht and a short stay in the U S., I moved for good to the U. S. and have remained here since. I went to the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1975 and received a Ph. D. three years later on the figure of Ruha in Mandaean religion. Since then, I have mostly worked in American universities and colleges, but almost never teaching about Mandaeism because the religion is off the radar for most people. It has a vast literature, is not Christian, and it probably intimidates some folks. Of the few scholars engaged in Mandaean studies, most are in linguistics. For a long time, I worked in Mandaean studies pretty much in isolation. But among my few and helpful colleagues were Kurt Rudolph in Germany (retired) and Rudolf Macuch, (d. 1993) the famous linguist who worked in Berlin. A few Mandaeans are also involved in academic studies on their religion. I keep up my contacts with Mandaeans internationally, and for several decades have been working in human rights for them.
Much of my academic work has been in ancient Mandaean texts, interpreting myths and rituals, without being encumbered by “what Gnosticism is,” or by the predominant obsession of “Gnosticism’s origins.” So, my interests are not theological, and I am quite uninterested in New Testament comparisons or Christian church history. My questions have rather been: what sense do these myths and rituals make in their own Mandaean contexts? To set this as a task, one has to be familiar enough with the manifold Mandaean religious universe. Here, of course, my identity as a historian of religions is decisive, and this “professional identity” has been strong since the 1960s. Dealing with “the problem of Mandaean origins” was of little concern of mine until I felt compelled to say something about it in a chapter of my book on Mandaean colophons. Often critical of other peoples’ work in Mandaeism, I have engaged existing scholarship with questions such as: what kind of people wrote the Mandaean texts; for whom; why; and what does the lack of interest in orthodoxy regarding myths mean? For instance, you may find many creation stories in Mandaean texts, so no “true” myth is of any interest here. In contrast, there’s great concern for correct rituals, so what does that entail? Is the fundamental interest in correct rituals a reason why the religion has survived? Is the very use of the Mandaic language a shield against outsiders gaining access to the literature?
In most of my publications (whether on Mandaeism or on other topics in religion), I have insisted on the importance of methodological issues. Which questions do you ask? If a Mandaean ritual text tells you what the religious labor means and it does not make sense to you, it’s your fault, and it means that you better get smarter (this reflects one of my 10 commandments: “Know that they are smarter than you,” and this list has been published). I rely to some extent on anthropological methodologies and also on angles of interpretation deriving from philosophy. It is necessary to grasp Mandaeism’s native logic, appreciation of paradoxes and humor, and the religion’s own system of esoteric correlations (you might use the Kabbalistic mindset as a helpful comparison). As noted, the Mandaean literature is enormous, relatively unknown, and comprises a number of types of texts (see my 2016 essay “Mandaean Literature” in The Oxford Handbook of the Literatures of the Roman Empire). There is much here to make anyone intellectually dizzy.
By no means a traditional academic fieldworker, I have visited Iran only twice (in 1973 and 1996), never Iraq. Most of my contributions to Mandaean studies engage topics in Mandaean texts for these topics’ own sake. That means trying to take the literature on its own terms, in accordance with its own religious logic, and avoiding flights into the hallowed sanctuaries of comparisons. In a paradoxical way, one can only compare something to itself. Luckily, Mandaeism has a strong tradition of doing its own internal, “native” commentaries, on texts, rituals, and symbols. For scholars, this is instructive. When we deal with Mandaeism we’re confronted by native intellectuals with an appreciation of polemics, a deep sense of humor and of esoteric forms of logic, love of word-play, and levels of symbolism. So, when you have a literature that comments on another part of its own tradition, you need to take note of that, and learn something new. Linear logic might not work, and a strong appreciation of the Mandaean imagination is necessary. Instead of cleaving to old categories of interpretation or to traditional venues of comparisons, you are forced to ask: what is going on here, what does the writer mean, is this a text for priests, the real insiders? What universes are conjured up in ritual X at ritual step Y?
To take a few examples of areas deserving investigation: first, polemics tells you that the religion is in contact with others. If you make fun of Jews or Zoroastrians or Christians, surely you know their stuff, and these people are your neighbors. On what precise issues do you criticize them? How, exactly, do the Mandaeans assert that the Jews have misunderstood their own traditions? Is Adonai stupid, or does he intentionally mislead his own people? Are the Mandaeans better Jews? Pay attention to how Mary is portrayed as a good Mandaean while her son Jesus went astray. What is the focus of interest here? Rituals? Mythologies? Second, why are there such particular, detailed steps in a complex ritual? And how does the tradition handle ritual errors? Who is even interested in such things? Priests, of course. Third, what is the understanding of time and place? What historical information lurks in what appears to be entirely mythological contexts? Fourth, John the Baptist! Please note the contexts in which he surfaces, and the sheer bulk of materials on him in Mandaeism! What does that tell us? And, what a sorry spectacle Jesus makes…the poor guy. Fifth, of course: can we get a sense of why this religion, among the Gnostics, survived?
Throughout my work, I pay attention to what I call “native logic” and theorizing. How do you grasp a religion’s own ways of self-reflection? What types of intellectuals are we dealing with in the Mandaean tradition? Can you nod to their lines of thought, laugh, and have fun with their logic and polemics? I am a loner, belonging to an interstitial generation (though this is not my own characterization of my labor in Mandaeism, but that of a fellow-scholar), from ca. the late 1970s to ca. 2005. Born in 1944, I can’t think of any colleagues in Mandaean studies who are in my own generation.
The first ARAM conference on the Mandaeans took place in 1999 at Harvard U., and the most recent one was in 2013 at Oxford U. The ARAM events will undoubtedly continue, and other venues will also emerge. (Mandaeans have their own conferences, too, mostly without non-Mandaeans attending). As already mentioned, much of the work done by my colleagues lies in the realm of linguistics. Work continues in the study of ancient inscribed bowls and metal strips, and in the reconstruction of the relationships Mandaeism had with its neighbors in its earliest centuries. The first English translation of The Book of John is underway (by two of my colleagues). New voices are emerging in Mandaean studies, and women scholars in Mandaeism are beginning to engage feminist studies in the religion. This is an aspect barely heard, so far.
Dr. Jorunn Buckley is Professor of Religion Emerita at Bowdoin College.