The Original Script of the Manichæans on Texts in the Museum

By: James A. Montgomery

Originally Published in 1912

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The writer has had more than once the opportunity of presenting to the readers of the JOURNAL an account of the magical texts written on bowls found in the upper strata of Nippur by the expeditions of the University of Pennsylvania. In this paper he wishes to speak of an interesting discovery he has made in connection with the script or alphabet in which some of these texts are inscribed.

Characters in syriac and turkish script shown side by side
Fig. 10. — Comparative Tables of the Script of the Syriac Bowls and the Manichæan Turkish Script.

The bowls in question are to be placed at a date not later than the beginning of the seventh century of our era, that is, just before the Mohammedan conquest; they may possibly be a century or two earlier. Accordingly they are the latest texts we have found in the excavations, and are the remains of the last settlements upon the ruins of the once lordly Nippur. The glory of the city and sanctuary had departed, the religion and civilization of ancient Babylonia had disappeared, Greeks, Parthians and Sassanians came successively to rule in the valley of the Babylonians. Under the veneer of these ruling races, the old Semitic elements persisted, having a bond of unity in a language which we call Aramaic, but which was spoken in a number of different dialects, many of which may have passed away leaving no literary trace. The early history of the Aramaic stock of the Semitic group of languages is peculiarly interesting because such of its various stocks as have survived are contained almost entirely in the sacred literatures of certain religious sects, and hence we can obtain only an imperfect idea of the family of dialects in its secular character.

The bowls from Nippur are of interest as throwing some light upon this fusion of the Aramaic dialects as they existed in actual life in old Babylonia. The texts are written in three Aramaic dialects, each one in its own script. These dialects evince much inter-contamination, showing that they were used interchangeably, and the citizens were probably quite polyglot in their speech; but that there was an independence to these dialects is shown by the presence of distinct scripts; various causes, racial, political, religious, tended to preserve the identity of the several dialects.

Of these dialects one is well known as the language of that great thesaurus of Jewish lore, the Babylonian Talmud; in lieu of a better name we may call it the Rabbinic Aramaic, bearing in mind however that the Babylonian Jews spoke the dialect or fusion of dialects prevailing in the land of their adoption. Indeed the bowl-texts themselves are to be characterized not as Jewish but as eclectic, and many of them are distinctly pagan. Their script is practically the same square character which is commonly known as the Hebrew character, which was in matter of fact adopted by the Jews from Babylonian Aramæans and not the original script of Palestine.

A smaller group of the bowls is written in the Mandaic dialect and script. The Mandeans still survive as the last remnant of the numerous Gnostic sects which played such a large part in the religion of the Graeco-Roman civilization. A good deal of its literature has been preserved, and its theology is a bizarre mixture of the various religious elements which once prevailed in Mesopotamia, pagan and ancient Babylonian, Jewish, Christian, Persian. The sect adopted a peculiar form of script, probably one which already existed in the district where the sect arose, and developed an original fashion of orthoepy, by using the consonantal alphabet to express very fully the vowels, thus parting company with the other Semitic literatures.*1

The third group of dialects is represented in our Museum by six bowls (speaking of those in at all perfect condition); to this I may add one in the possession of Mr. Wm. T. Ellis, of Swarthmore, which he obtained on a visit to Nippur a year ago, while a bowl in the British Museum appears to be written in the same character, although it has never been correctly deciphered. The dialect is a form of what is generally known as the Syriac language, i. e., the literary tongue of the Syrian Christians, a people known to us in America, through the great stream of immigration coming to our shores, as. Syrians. The dialect of the bowls is however very much contaminated by the other local dialects. The dialect has again its own script, which is evidently, closely related to the Syriac alphabet, more especially to that form of it which is called Estranghelo, the alphabet of the eastern or Nestorian Syrians. Many of the characters are the same, as can be seen by reference to the accompanying table, in which the Syriac alphabet is given in the first column. By comparison with the remains of the old Aramaic alphabets on the monuments, I saw that this novel script had close relations with that of Palmyra, and I drew the conclusion that it represented an early stage of the Syriac alphabet as finally established, a sort of elder sister, to speak genealogically. I was at first unable to establish any further connections for this peculiar form of alphabet.

But some clues leading to a wider relationship have turned up in an unexpected and interesting quarter. Far off in Eastern or Chinese Turkestan, German expeditions have been uncovering the ruins and remains of a lost civilization in sand-swept wastes which once teemed with human life. M.le Coq in his lectures two years ago at the University told us of the fruits of his and his co-laborers discoveries in that region. Among the literary remains were portions of Christian Syriac literature, various documents in ancient Turkish dialects, and among them manuscripts which, as their contents show, are documents of the lost and obscure Manichæan sect. These documents are written in a script closely akin to the Syriac Estranghelo, with the addition of some Arabic letters, the Manichæan missionaries having reduced the Turkish dialects into the alphabetic forms which they brought with them from Mesopotamia.*2

Now, as the accompanying illustration shows, the form of Syriac alphabet used by the Manichæan is almost identically the same as that found in our Syriac bowls. Almost in every case where they differ from the Christian Syriac they agree with each other (n. b. the 4th, 6th, 9th, 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th characters in the illustration). In fact, it is remarkable that there is such close similarity, as the Turkish texts must be some centuries later than the bowls. The coincidence shows that the Manichæans were using a well established script. Now Mani, the founder of the sect, was a native of the city of Babylon, a short distance from Nippur. The inference is then that he and his sect used in their literature that form of script which was current in Babylon and its neighborhood, and that it became ultimately a sectarian script, just as the Jews, Samaritans, Mandæans, Syriac Christians, have each appropriated to themselves a peculiar form of the alphabet. Our texts bear no Manichæan traces, they are the remains of a provincial dialect and script which came to be the vehicle of the sect that arose in the region of Babylon.

The discovery of the original local script which Math adopted for his sect is of considerable interest, for on the one hand we know very little directly of him or his church, and on the other hand the Manichæans were in their day a most formidable religious body. We learn of Math and his followers only through the distorted traditions of Christian and Arabic polemicists, and it has been difficult to winnow the truth out of the chaff. Mani was the founder of a new religion, of largely Persian elements, but one which was much affected by Christian doctrines and forms. He himself was put to death by the Persian king Varanes I in 276, and the sect suffered cruel persecutions in the Orient. It spread to the West into the Roman empire, about the time that Paganism and Christianity were struggling for spiritual mastery, and became there a rival of Christianity. The Church fully recognized the danger that lay in the quarter of the Manichæans. When such great souls as the youthful Augustine had fallen under its spell, it is no wonder that Christian apologists spent much of their time in combating this Oriental heresy. And politically the new sect was so strong that we find the Christian emperors signalling it by name, out of all the so-called Gnostic sects, and providing for its repression and suppression by drastic penalties. Manichaeism was the last great attempt of oriental gnosticism and eclecticism to conquer the western world. Defeated in its Persian home by the ancient Zoroastrian religion, it succumbed in the West before the Christian Church, which had the advantage of time and political favor, not to speak of religious power and truth, and it found its last home in far off lands of central Asia, where it carried on its propaganda among the rude Turkish tribes, giving them letters and civilization, until the incoming sands blighted their home or they fell before the irresistible advance of Islam.*3


1 * See W. Brandt, Mandäische hriften, and Die Mandäische Religion.
2 * For a description of the script and language, see F. W. K. Müller in the Sitzungsberichte of the Berlin Academy, 1904, p. 348; for accounts and publications of the literary remains found in Eastern Turkestan, see the same journal, 1904, p. 1389; 1905, p. 1077; 1908, p. 398; 1909, p. 1202; 1910, pp. 293, 307. The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society has also in the last year been publishing translations of the documents.
3 * For the Manichæans the English reader may be referred to the articles “Math,” or “Manes,” and “Manichæans,” in the Dictionary of Christian Biography, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the English Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia. A fuller account of the script will appear in the writer’s forthcoming volume on the bowls in the Publications of the Babylonian Section. An account of Mr. Ellis’s bowl will appear in the Journal of the American Oriental Society.

Cite This Article

Montgomery, James A.. "The Original Script of the Manichæans on Texts in the Museum." The Museum Journal III, no. 2 (June, 1912): 25-29. Accessed February 21, 2024.

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