Reviews of

Forbidden Oracles? The Gospel of the Lots of Mary

In AnneMarie LUIJENDIJK, Mohr Siebeck, Sarah Parkhouse on February 1, 2015 at 9:01 pm


2015.01.02 | AnneMarie Luijendijk. Forbidden Oracles? The Gospel of the Lots of Mary (Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 89). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.

Reviewed by Sarah Parkhouse, Durham University.

Many thanks to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review copy.

Several years ago, AnneMarie Luijendijk was presented with a tiny, leather-bound codex, which read ‘The Gospel of the Lots of Mary’ (henceforth, GLM). The 2014-published paperback Forbidden Oracles is the first critical edition and translation of the text it contained. But Forbidden Oracles is so much more than that: it is a journey into magic and mystery, slaves and women, reviled practices, temples, travellers, codicology and bibliomancy, and even cites a classic Lennon & McCartney number ‘There will be an answer, let it be’ (p.13).

GLM is a fifth- or sixth-century Coptic book of oracular answers. A client would ask a diviner a question; the book would provide the answer. The full incipit 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 (or: will seek) with his whole heart will obtain what he seeks. Only do not be of two minds’. The rest of the 160-page (80-leaf) codex comprises short passages spread over two facing parchment leaves (the open book at any one moment will reveal one statement) which would serve as the answer.

The answers are ambiguous enough to satisfy almost any question but provocative enough to invoke an emotion or reaction. They range from telling the client that an unidentified event will happen; to have endurance and patience; to make haste; not to doubt; inciting glorification of God; and warning against enemies. Several answers refer to a vague event in the client’s past: ‘Do you not remember what has happened to you before today?’ (Oracle 3) and ‘remember that you were close to death another time’ (Oracle 16). The majority speak to a single person but occasionally the plural form of “you” is used.

In part one of Forbidden Oracles, Luijendijk reveals her personal journey with the codex, the questions that arose on her first encounter(s), and the world it has unravelled. The primary endeavour is to present the lived religion around the codex. As she writes, ‘This every-day text provides fascinating glimpses into a milieu that is otherwise difficult to see’ (p.10) – a lived religion which is largely silent (or has been silenced) for us today. Part one is split into four manageable chapters.

Chapter one appropriately starts the journey at the beginning: opening the codex. Why is it called a gospel? The text does not fit into the predetermined ‘gospel’ category: it is not a narrative of Jesus’ life, a sayings collection (like Thomas) or a revelatory dialogue (like Mary and Judas). Luijendijk concludes that the author employed the term ‘gospel’ in two ways: 1) as good news, and 2) to deploy a sacred, apotropaic book. Her conclusions force us to readdress the gospel genre. Another prominent question is about the Christian nature of the text. Clearly, GLM is Christian: It not only calls itself a gospel but it is endorsed by the mother of Christ. It draws on Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Matthew, Luke, James, 4 Maccabees, 1 Enoch and the Shepherd of Hermas. However, it does not contain traditional Christian teachings: there is no eternal life, kingdom of God or Heaven, beatitudes, miracles, healings or exorcisms, cross or resurrection, apostles or martyrs, nor the church. Jesus plays a marginal role whereas God hears, helps, fights and takes pity. As Luijendijk writes ‘why settle for Jesus if you can have God?’ (p.37). The text caters to an audience that are interested in the here and now. Slaves ask about freedom, travellers seek answers about their voyage home, merchants about business, and women about birth.

Sortes were living texts, subject to creative transmission, adaptation, additions, and omissions. There are three extant manuscripts that have points of overlap with GLM. Luijendijk suggests a potential Greek Vorlage, based on the grammar variations in the parallel manuscripts and several biblical allusions that were ‘lost in translation’. She does not propose a date for the Vorlage, rather focusing on the ‘free transmission’ that ‘ensures the continued relevance of the text and its applicability to the present circumstances’ (p.14).

Chapter two studies GLM as an artefact, with codicological and paleographical analysis, and suggests a provenance. The parchment leaves are not larger than the author’s palm, situating GLM firmly within the realm of “miniature codices”. Luijendijk takes a rational approach to the size: it is easy to carry, to conceal (it might even be hidden in an armpit! (p.54)) and only requires the skin of one sheep to make. For this book’s status, size doesn’t matter – a myriad of features present its authority, including the gospel title, deluxe parchment pages, good orthography, grammar, and handwriting which mimics the Biblical uncial style (p.47). Furthermore, these features indicate monastic training which leads into Luijendijk’s convincing proposal that the codex inhabited the revered healing and pilgrimage site, the Shrine of Saint Colluthus in Antinoë. Several roads lead to this hypothesis, including the oracular answers aimed at pilgrims, the well-preserved state of the book (contrasted with the damaged papyri of Oxyrhynchus), but mainly because this shrine was the home of several extant oracular texts and fragments, which, on occasion, match GLM verbatim. This possible provenance raises the larger question of whether sortilege was an established practice in the houses of ordained Christian officials.

In chapter three, Luijendijk offers insights into the business of divination at the Shrine. She paints a vivid and imaginative picture of how the codex was used. She writes of grimy margins pointing to ‘the diviner’s dirty fingers’ (p.57) which belonged to a monk or priest who was earning money on the side of his day job (p.68). She lucidly imagines a divinatory session with the monk-diviner, a pilgrim-client and their slaves or relatives (as it was rare to travel alone in antiquity) ‘gather[ed] closely around the booklet to retrieve an answer to a personal question, the smallness of the object lent the divinatory session a heightened intimacy and mysterious atmosphere’ (p.53). The clientele is never disclosed by the text – it aims to cater for the widest audience possible. Luijendijk also demonstrates an acute business sense, noting that ‘the mix of answers must tilt towards the positive for the diviner to stay in business: no one wants to pay good money to hear only bad news!’ (p.27). If the client was dissatisfied with the oracle, the diviner could simply claim that insincere clients receive insincere readings and thus the fault lies with the client (p.78).

Chapter four situates the text within the context of practices and prohibition of divination. Those against divination have the loudest voices in the history books. Their opposition ‘has been largely silent’ (or silenced) (p.10). This codex invites the modern-day reader into the world of the silenced. The fifth century saw an explosion of Christian gospel divination. Old sortes were reworked for a Christian audience, using the authority of scripture. Their frequent use imposed a threat worthy of condemnation. In the third century, Athanasius of Alexandria writes that the word of Christ has put oracles out of operation. Yet the sixth-century Canons of (Pseudo-)Athanasius prohibits their use (indicating the ongoing practice) and associates diviners with actors, soldiers, pimps and prostitutes (pp.82-86).

Part two is the edition of the Coptic text, translation with notes and images of the codex. I couldn’t resist putting the oracles to the test. I found one striking limitation: questions must be about you. The answers aren’t appropriate for a question such as “is my mother well?” It made me wonder whether the diviner imposed limits on what the client asked, guided them towards a certain topic or reworded the question to make the answer appropriate: “will my mother’s health impact my life?” Clearly, calculation, cunning, and constraint were involved in this ancient practice. I turned the questions to myself and the answers were extremely clever. Asking about relationships, I was told ‘no evil that shall reach you’ (Oracle 11); asking about finances, the answer was ‘do not let them finish robbing you’ (Oracle 22). The statements were longer but I was able to take an answer appropriate to my question. As a final test, I asked about job prospects and rather uncannily was told ‘I marvel at you, o human, since it is not (in) your power. You will be afflicted. Your hope left you another time’ (Oracle 23)! The oracles displayed altitudes of genius.

Forbidden Oracles is a rich investigation into the understudied topic of gospel divination in late antiquity. Luijendijk covers a lot of ground in a compact volume, engaging both the novice and the more-advanced reader. She offers an array of insights into the theological, social and material fields of early Christianities, specifically in terms of authority and praxis, and the wider Mediterranean world. The Coptic edition and translation are fascinating reading in their own right and the inclusion of images of the codex, including the opening page to scale, is a magnificent source to be able to peruse.

Sarah Parkhouse
Durham University

s.j.parkhouse at

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