Friday, February 6, 2015

The Coptic Gospel of the Lots of Mary

            In a new book, Dr. AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton University describes a newly published manuscript, produced in the 400s-600s, titled The Gospel of the Lots of Mary.  The manuscript is not an account of the ministry of Jesus; nor is it a collection of sayings of Jesus.  Instead, it is a small collection of oracles, written on sheepskin parchment, designed to be used as a sort of horoscope.  The manuscript was in the possession of Harvard University ever since 1984, when it was donated by Beatrice Kelekian, in memory of her deceased husband Charles, to the Sackler Museum.  (So in this case, 30 years elapsed between the acquisition of the manuscript, and the publication of its text.)  Its previous history is not known.      
[Derived from a photo for which credit goes to Harvard Art Museums/
Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Mrs. Beatrice Kelekian 
in memory of her husband, Charles Dikran Kelekian, 1984.669] 
Unaltered Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College
This book was designed for a specific purpose:  fortune-telling.   Someone seeking guidance about the future would consult the owner of the book, who would then have the guidance-seeker pick a number at random – this would be the “lot” in the title – and then turn to the oracle that matched the selected number.  That oracle would then be delivered as a message for the guidance-seeker.
           Despite occasional references to Jesus, Mary, Gabriel, and Michael, this text does not really have much to do with the New Testament.  It is a divination-book with some Christian overtones.  There is not a lot about Mary!  Jesus is mentioned only three times:  in the title of the book (“The Lots of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ”), in Oracle 30 (“The Lord Jesus fights on your behalf”), and Oracle 37 (“Christ Jesus will give you a good fruit and a prosperous life”).  [See Forbidden Oracles, page 36.]  Some of the oracles contain statements that might be based on passages from the Gospel of Matthew.  One statement is similar to James 1:13.
           The Gospel of the Lots of Mary may have been produced in the 500s near, or at, a shrine for Saint Colluthus (a physician who was martyred during the Diocletian persecution) that was located in the Egyptian city of AntinoĆ«.  One point in favor of this conclusion is that the lettering in The Gospel of the Lots of Mary resembles the handwriting in a fragment of Fourth Esdras from AntinoĆ«.
Oracle #25.  Picture credit:  Harvard Art Museums/
Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Mrs. Beatrice Kelekian
in memory of her husband, Charles Dikran Kelekian, 1984.669

Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College

            The title “Forbidden Gospels?” may initially seem sensationalistic but technically it is correct:  at the Council of Vannes in 465, and again at the Council of Agde in 506, and yet again at the Council of Auxerre in 578, the use of oracular books, including the use of Biblical texts in an oracular manner, was forbidden.  (The oracular use of Scripture involved selecting a passage of Scripture at random and treating it like a horoscope to answer a question, such as “Will I reach my destination safely?”“Should I get married now?”, “Will this business be profitable?” and so forth.)  Such practices, called bibliomancy, were officially considered a superstitious imitation of pagans.  A pagan oracle-collection called the Sortes Astrampsychi (Oracles of Astrampsychus), was already in circulation by that time; probably it was produced in the 200s or maybe earlier.
            Nevertheless, bibliomancy and similar practices endured.  A rehabilitated form of the Sortes Astrampsychi, known as the Sortes Sanctorum, was in circulation in the early Middle Ages when some of its interpretation-notes, or hermeneiai, were added to the margins of chapters 1-10 of the Gospel of Mark in Codex Bezae (an important manuscript of the Gospels, Acts, and Third John).  In 1901, J. Rendel Harris conducted an investigation of the Sortes Sanctorum in Codex Bezae; it can be read as part of his book The Annotators of Codex Bezae.  Harris also investigated the Sortes Sanctorum in the margins of the Gospel of John in the Old Latin Codex Sangermanensis (g1), which features a circular diagram which was designed, it seems, for the purpose of oracle-number-selection.  Harris concluded that similarities in the oracular materials suggest that both manuscripts were at one time housed in the same library.
            Five papyrus fragments of John show that the use of the Gospel of John for oracle-consultation persisted in Egypt
            Papyrus 55 (500s-600s) – John 1:31-33 and 1:35-38, with notes on one side.
            Papyrus 59 (600s-700s) – snippets from John 1, 2, 11, 12, 17, and 18, with seven hermeneia.
            Papyrus 63 (500s) – John 3:14-18 and 4:9-20, with the oracular notes in Greek and Coptic.
            Papyrus 76 (500s) – John 4:9, 4:11-12, with two notes, both resembling notes in the hermeneia in Codex Bezae’s margins, and
            Papyrus 80 (200s-300s) – John 3:34.
Papyrus 63 - The word "Hermeneia," indicated by red arrows,
separates portions of the Gospel of John from oracle-notes. 

            Each of these manuscripts has at least one oracular note.  (A sixth, P60, does not have hermeneiai, but it probably did when it was in pristine condition.)  This is also true of two Greek uncials (0210 and 0302).  Not only does this raise the question of what these non-continuous manuscripts are doing in the Gregory-Aland list of papyri with their own identification-number, but it also raises the question of whether or not the Biblical text in manuscripts with oracular notes embedded in their texts (rather than added secondarily as in Codex Bezae) should be approached with extra caution, due to the possibility that such manuscripts were copied, not primarily as Scriptures used in the churches, but as oracular consultation-books used privately as horoscopes. 
            David C. Parker investigated this question of the reliability of the text of papyri manuscripts with oracular notes, in 2006; his research is accessible as chapter 11, Manuscripts of John’s Gospel With Hermeneai, on pages 121-138 of Manuscripts, Texts,Theology – Collected Papers, 1977-2007 (published in 2009 by Walter de Gruyter).  In this detailed study, Parker concluded that when the reliability of the texts of John in these manuscripts is tested, the texts “come out of the test very well,” and should not be assumed to be inferior to the texts of continuous-text manuscripts.  (For more information see Bruce Metzger’s “Greek Manuscripts of John’s Gospel with “Hermeneiai,” in Text and Testimony:  Essays on New Testament and Apocryphal Literature in Honor of A. F. J. Klijn, pages 162-169) and especially Stanley Porter’s The Use of Hermeneia and Johannine Papyrus Manuscripts, the gist of which can also be found on pages 60-63 of Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture (Brill, 2012)). 
            Recently, Brice C. Jones discovered a Coptic manuscript (sa 402) with text from John 3:17-21 accompanied by hermeneiai.  His report about this manuscript (assigned to the 400s-600s) includes pictures showing the oracular notes below the Scripture-text, similar to the format in P63.                

              Forbidden Oracles?  The Gospel of the Lots of Mary by AnneMarie Luijendijk is published by Mohr Seibeck and is available at (it is Volume 89 in the series Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum).  A book review by Sarah Parkhouse is at .

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