James McGrath Receives NEH Grant

Friday, June 18, 2010

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.”