Monday, December 15, 2014


AnneMarie Luijendijk, Forbidden Oracles?: The Gospel of the Lots of Mary. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum / Studies and texts in antiquity and Christianity, 89. Tübingen​: Mohr Siebeck, 2014. Pp. xii, 208. ISBN 9783161528590. €69.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst (

Version at BMCR home site


This book contains everything a scholarly reader could wish to have in a book: a hitherto unknown ancient text in its original language with an English translation, a short commentary, an extensive introduction, photos of the complete manuscript, a full list of the text's vocabulary, various indexes, and a bibliography. And all this almost without errors at that. The author is AnneMarie Luijendijk, associate professor of religion at Princeton University.

The new find is a Coptic miniature codex, presently at Harvard University's Sackler Museum, and it contains the completely intact text of an early Christian handbook for divination by means of sortilegium, so it is a lot oracle, a type of divination strictly forbidden by most Christian leaders and synods but nevertheless widely practiced in Christian antiquity (and later times). The manual's title is: The Gospel of the Lots of Mary, the Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, she to whom the archangel Gabriel brought the good news. In ch. 1 of the long introductory part of the book Luijendijk first discusses the strange fact that the work calls itself a gospel, whereas it is anything but that; it is a string of 37 oracle answers. She argues that in late antiquity for many the term euangelion had become synonym with 'sacred book' and the author capitalized on the awe this term provoked. "In commencing with the word Gospel, the author of our divinatory text intentionally tapped both into the ritual connotation of the term gospel and its status as sacred book" (24). In addition to that, as she demonstrates, the term euangelion was still used in its original sense of 'good news' or 'positive message.' That this gospel is said to be a message of Mary is to be viewed in the context of the flourishing of Mariolatry in late ancient Egypt. "In attributing the divinatory good news to the exchange between Gabriel and Mary [see Luke 1], each individual consultation of the oracular answers in the codex becomes an imitation, a reenactment of that divine communication" (28). As a matter of fact, Jesus himself hardly plays a role in this 'gospel.'

Ch. 2 deals with the codex itself. On codicological and palaeographical grounds it is dated to the fifth or sixth century and Luijendijk convincingly argues that it most probably originated at the shrine of St. Colluthus in Antinoe in Egypt, a Christian pilgrim site where divination was practiced on a large scale as the find of hundreds of oracular tickets there proves, even though church authorities had forbidden it. The ecclesiastical opposition against this practice made it necessary that the codex was easy to conceal, hence its tiny proportions (75x69 mm). This small size the codex shares with some 200 other ancient codices 10 of which are miniature divinatory codices in Greek and Coptic (these are duly listed at p. 52 n. 82).

In the next chapter the author presents us with a succinct but clear account of the various ways in which ancient lot oracles could be consulted. Here she also discusses the phenomenon of bibliomancy, i.e., random opening of the Bible and finding the answer to your question or the solution to your problem at the first passage your eyes fall upon or your index finger touches. She plausibly suggests "that either diviner or client opened the little codex at random and took the page where it opened as containing the answer to the question. The book's layout, with two-facing pages deliberately opening up to one answer, makes this a very plausible hypothesis" (64).1 The fourth chapter deals with the negative reactions of the church leaders (and scholars, with the remarkable exception of Anastasius Sinaita) towards sortilege and its strong condemnation by various church councils, and Luijendijk stresses the importance of the fact that the new codex shows once more to what degree not only common people but also priests and monks (who most probably were the diviners) ignored the ecclesiastical warnings.

The rest of the book contains the Coptic text with English translation and notes. The oracular answers in themselves are not very interesting, vague as they tend to be (e.g., no. 27, "Trust in the help of the Most High and call upon his name with your whole heart. And he will send his good angel and he will lead you. Do not fear those who will kill your bodies without having more than this to do to you"). Luijendijk's notes are very concise and contain mainly references to and quotes of parallel passages, either in the Bible or in other lot oracles or both. Not all of this material is equally relevant. I sometimes wondered whether it made sense to present concatenations of sometimes nearly identical quotes to illustrate the usage of the document. On the other hand, there is reason to be grateful because many of the passages quoted are found in sources that are not easily accessible. To keep the book readable for non- Coptic readers, the author has provided all quotes in Coptic with a translation. The proofreading has been done very carefully; I spotted only one mistake: oious instead of oikous at p. 101. And Julian's Contra Galilaeos should be quoted from the edition by Masaracchia (1990), not the outdated one by Neumann (31 n. 93, 35 n. 117).

The book is a welcome addition to the dossier of 'non-orthodox' Christian material from late antiquity. The author shows her competence in this field at every page. And the book is written in a lively and fluent style which makes it a pleasure to read. Every student interested in early Christian divination should read it.


1.   Here she could have referred to my 'Bibliomancy,' in C.A. Evans and S.E. Porter (eds.), Dictionary of New Testament Background (Downers Grove; Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 165-168.

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