AnneMarie Luijendijk. Forbidden Oracles? The Gospel of the Lots of Mary. STAC 89. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014. Xii + 208. Paperback. €69.
I would like to express my utmost appreciation to the kind folks at Mohr Siebeck for sending me a review copy of this book.
This book introduces a fascinating Coptic miniature codex consisting of thirty-seven sortes or oracles. In other words, this is a codex that was used for divinatory purposes. The parchment codex is housed in Harvard University’s Sackler museum where it has been kept since 1984, when Beatrice Kelekian donated it to the museum in memory of her husband, Charles Dikran Kelekian. The book is divided into two main parts. Part 2 is the actual publication of the manuscript, consisting of text, translation, notes, and images. Part 1 consists of four chapters that may be summarized as follows.
Chapter 1 (“The Gospel of the Lots of Mary”) introduces the codex generally by looking at its incipit and the characters that figure in it. The incipit (pictured above) reads: “The Gospel of the lots of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, she to whom Gabriel the archangel brought the good news. He who will go forward with his whole heart will obtain what he seeks. Only do not be of two minds.” The reference to “lots” (κλῆρος) indicates that the text has something to do with sortilege or divination. Luijendijk argues that “gospel” is a problematic term with respect to how we should understand this text, since it does not read like other gospels, canonical or non-canonical. For example, it only mentions Jesus a few times and has nothing to do with his death or resurrection. According to Luijendijk, the text was identified as a gospel in order to legitimize its contents. Mary, Jesus, and Gabriel were also mentioned in the opening page to “create an atmosphere of awe and trustworthiness” (p. 25).
Chapter 2 ("Encountering a Miniature Divination Codex") deals with codicology, palaeography, provenance, and miniature codices. The codex is made up of eighty parchment leaves and is written in a well-trained hand in the Sahidic dialect. Luijendijk dates it to the 5th-6th century on the basis of the handwriting. Each oracle is introduced by a coronis and ends with a series of obeloi (see the image below). The parchment was not lined, but the scribe did a pretty good job at keeping his/her lines and margins straight. The provenance of the codex is not secure, but Luijendijk claims that it may have come from the ancient Egyptian city of Antinoë. Specifically, Luijendijk suggests that the codex stems from the Shrine of St. Colluthus in Antinoë, where archaeologists have discovered many other oracular texts. She repeats the suggested provenance throughout the book, e.g., on p. 90: “Our little codex…was conceivably also used at a martyr’s shrine.” However, other than the fact that many oracular texts have been discovered at this site, nothing else specifically ties the codex to Antinoë. Luijendijk suggests that the “miniature” format may have been prompted by 1) the need to conceal its problematic contents, 2) the economics of production, 3) and/or convenience for travel. She also suggests that the miniature format lent a heightened intimacy and mysterious atmosphere to the divinatory session (p. 53). I found the last explanation least persuasive, since it is difficult to imagine how a somewhat larger codex could not also invite an intimate and "mysterious" atmosphere, however we might imagine these descriptions.
Chapter 3 (“A Three-Way Conversation: Book, Diviner, and Client”) puts this codex in its socio-religious context: sortilege. Luijendijk here explains the various methods of sortilege by looking at the Sortes Astrampsychi, medieval Sortes Sanctorum, and the Jewish “Books of Destiny” (or Goralot). Luijendijk argues that, with respect to our codex, we cannot know for certain how various oracles were chosen during consultation with a diviner. But she ultimately suggests that the method may have been bibliomancy: the practice of randomly opening a biblical book and taking it as a directive for one’s life. She compares the examples of the conversions of Antony and Augustine, who both converted after they randomly heard and read, respectively, passages from the Bible. This hypothesis that our codex was used in this way is certainly possible, although we have no way to confirm it. The rest of this chapter gives the socio-historical Hintergrund: Who sought such oracles? Why? Where did they go to consult an oracle? How did it work? And so on. It seems there is ample evidence that people visited oracles at shrines for health reasons, but the new codex reflects another social reality of clients: safety. For example, Oracle 8 reads: “Fight for yourself in what has happened to you, because it is a human evil. Your enemies are not far from you. They have plotted against you again due to the evil that is in their hearts. But trust in God and walk in his commandments forever.”
Chapter 4 (“A New Voice in the Discourse on Divination”) is broader in nature: it examines the ecclesiastical anxieties about the practice of divination by looking at what certain church authorities said about it. For example, Luijendijk shows that, for Athanasius, the issue was authority. That is to say, Athanasius viewed oracular activity as a threat to the true authority that was given by God to the rightly appointed people. In point of fact, this critique of authority may have been launched at individuals within the clergy. If so, this was a fight between bishops and lower (local) clergy, who were inclined to participate in divination for authority or their own financial gain (clients did, after all, pay the ritual specialist for his/her services). Luijendijk concludes that, although we cannot identify the ritual specialist who used this codex, “he was most likely a priest active at a martyr shrine” (p. 91). In other words, divinatory artifacts such as the new codex reflect a social reality that conflicts with church leaders’ prohibition against such practices. Amulets provide another (related) example: church leaders threatened clergy and non-clergy alike with excommunication if they used them; but they did it anyway.
In Part 2, Luijendijk provides the Coptic text and an English translation of each oracle. Below each English translation one finds brief notes that refer the reader to related passages in the codex, as well as outside of it. Parallel and related passages cited in the notes are provided in Coptic and/or Greek with accompanying English translations. In the following section, black and white images of each page of the codex are provided. Each page is identified by pagination numbers as well as the oracle number.
This book offers a stimulating discussion of an interesting Coptic miniature divinatory codex. It also provides a very accessible introduction to the practice of divination in late antique Christianity generally, a topic which has not been given the attention that it probably deserves. As Luijendijk notes, “The fact that ecclesiastical leaders forbade these oracular practices has probably contributed to relatively little attention scholars have traditionally paid to this genre, as it still remains an understudied topic“ (p. 79). However, Luijendijk has succeeded in showing the relevance of such practices for the study of early Christianity. It is a superb book that should be required reading for all scholars of early Christianity. I warmly recommend it.
Iain Gardner, Anthony Alcock, Wolf-Peter Funk. Coptic Documentary Texts from Kellis. Vol. 2: P.Kellis VII. Oxbow Press: Oxford, 2014. 366 pp., 18 plates, CD with supplementary images. $130 USD.
I would like to express my utmost appreciation to the kind folks at Oxbow Books for sending me a review copy of this book.
I am very delighted to bring forth a review of this fine volume that is the culmination of over twenty years of work. This second volume completes the publication of Coptic documentary texts discovered at ancient Kellis during excavations from the late 1980s and early 1990s; volume one (P.Kellis V) was published in 1999. It is a continuation of the Dakhleh Oasis Project (DOP), in whose monograph series the volume under review is number sixteen. “The two volumes together present much the largest quantity of Coptic documents dated prior to 400 C.E. to have ever been made available to modern scholarship” (p. 4).
Ancient Kellis was a thriving village in Upper Egypt in the Dakhleh Oasis—one of the seven oases of Egypt’s Western desert. The village was abandoned by 400 C.E., but its literary remains have afforded us the opportunity to understand the lives of the ordinary people who lived there. Almost all of the Greek and Coptic texts were discovered during the excavations of four houses, most of them stemming from House 3, although a few scattered fragments were recovered from the old Tutu Temple area. Klaas Worp’s publication of the Greek texts from Kellis (P.Kellis I) offered valuable insight into the relationships of persons mentioned in the documents, such that Worp was able to construct a genealogical stemma. It is clear that the Greek and Coptic documents from Kellis must be read together, since some of the Greek documents “were written by or for or sent to the very same persons as in the Coptic letters and business accounts” (p. 17).
The Coptic documents in P.Kellis VII are significant for a variety of reasons, some of which may be highlighted briefly here. First, a late 4th century date for the archive is certain. Given the controlled excavations, the archaeological context (stratigraphy, ceramics, coins, etc.) enables us to place these Coptic documents within the time period of c. 355-380+ C.E. (see discussion at p. 6). Thus, their relevance for Coptic palaeography and dating (among other things) cannot be overstated.
Second, the new documents offer even further evidence of the influence of Manichaeism on the inhabitants of Kellis. We find explicit expressions of Manichaean faith such as “the God of Truth” (no. 71), “Praise God!” (no. 71), etc. No. 61 is of particular interest in this regard (the authors call it “the prize letter”), since it seems to be an actual letter from the leader of the Manichaean community in Egypt! Here called “The Teacher,” the leader writes “to all the presbyters, my children, my loved ones.” Moreover, the editors believe that Apa Lysimachos mentioned in no. 72 is a “Manichaean elect,” an acolyte who assisted the senior member of the Manichaen community in Egypt, that is, “The Teacher.” These historical details are vastly important for our understanding of Manichaeism in the 4th century.
Third, of the Coptic letters from Kellis, over 40% are either written by or to a woman. In contrast, less than 10% of the Greek letters from Kellis involve a female correspondent. The editors’ comments in this regard are worth repeating: “We think that these figures are significant; and that for this social group in the latter 4th century there is a correlation between Coptic, family, gender and religious expression. It is well known that women are relatively invisible (with important exceptions) in the Greek documentary record from late antique Egypt. However, this is certainly not the case in the Coptic archive discussed here” (p. 14). A possible explanation for the presence of women in these letters is the absence of their husbands, some of whom were away for work or travel. In no. 75, for example, Pegosh is angry that his wife Parthene had not written to him, and so he reminds her that he is out working all for her sake!
On a somewhat related note, it is interesting, but in no way surprising, that no legal or administrative documents were discovered among the Coptic archive. This is starkly contrasted with the Greek documents from Kellis. Thus, the editors are probably right in saying that this “is a clear impression that Coptic was favoured for the personal and the familial” (p. 12).
P.Kellis VII is a fine addition to scholarship and I warmly welcome its appearance. Edited by a “dream team” of Coptologists, this volume—which is quite large—contributes to discussions about an ancient Egyptian village, Manichaeism, prosopography, family life in the Egyptian desert, Coptic language, palaeography, epistolography, and more. The indices (native words, loan words, geographical names, conjugations, subject index) are comprised of fifty-seven pages and are complete. And mention must be made of the supplementary images on the disc, which is included in a sleeve on the back cover. The color images (in addition to the black and white printed plates at the back of the volume) are for the most part high-resolution JPEGs of all the documents edited in the volume. This feature alone justifies the purchase of the book. Unfortunately, a few of the images are out of focus at some places (particularly at one or the other extreme end of the image) and the image of no. 110v is unusable. Otherwise, the images are excellent, and take up only about 560Mb of hard drive space, should one decide to import them to one’s computer for personal use, as this reviewer did. In sum, I congratulate the editors for their hard efforts in bringing forth a work of lasting significance to historians.
I would like to close the review by reproducing a few lines of the editors’ translation of nos. 78 and 79 (the former is featured on the cover of the book and included below). These letters, written by Pegosh to his father Horos, concern a variety of commodities, including the textile trade. Both letters, however, begin with addressing an interesting matter concerning the purchase of papyrus scrolls, the sum of which is given.
My review of Johanna Brankaer's Coptic: A Learning Grammar (Sahidic) (SILO 1. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010) has been published in Laval théologique et philosophique 69. You may find an electronic offprint here.
Only recently did I become aware of a nice hardback facsimile edition of P.Bodmer II (P66; Gospel of John) titled L'évangile selon Jean: Introduction et traduction de Jean Zumstein (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008).
This is an interesting publication for several reasons. First, the title is misleading. It is not merely a book on the Gospel of John. It is really, in fact, a full, colored photographic facsimile of P.Bodmer II, with a general introduction to the Gospel of John at the beginning (pp. 9-48) and a French translation of P.Bodmer II at the back (pp. 205-257). Second, it would appear that the photographs are digitally manipulated scans of the 1962 plates published by Victor Martin (Cologny-Genève, Bibliothèque Bodmer). Thus, the 1962 black and white images are slightly clearer, so hang onto those. (I have really, really high-res scans of these which have come in handy over the last couple years!) Nonetheless, the quality of this book is really nice. It has a red cloth spine, the binding is really solid, and the pages are quite thick and durable. Each codex page takes up an entire page of the book, and there is no additional text to the page. It would have been nice to have the pagination and content of each page listed at the top or bottom (cf. the 1962 plates), but at least the pagination can easily be read on the papyrus itself (where it is present). The introductory essay on the Fourth Gospel by Zumstein is also very good reading, although I feel that an introductory essay on P.Bodmer II would have been more appropriate given that this is a photographic facsimile. Anyway, be sure to check out this facsimile. It is a must-have for anyone working on ancient manuscripts. And the price is very reasonable (€28). Here are a few images: