Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Lots of Mary

A book called "The Lots of Mary has recently been discovered inside another manuscript. It is dated to around 1,500 years ago, so about 500 AD, which is a considerable time after the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were written.

It is a 160-page codex, so small and would fit in someone's palm, and is written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language, and the opening verse says:

"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."

That is interesting, because a good deal of modern speculation, of the Dan Brown variety, centres on Mary Magdalene; this is Mary the Mother of Jesus.

There seem to have been a plethora of Marys around the time of the New Testament, and some of the stories in the main gospels themselves appear to have conflated and confused these. We have Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha), Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopas, Mary mother of James, Mary mother of John Mark.

In fact, the name Mary appears 61 times in the New Testament, in 53 different verses. It was the single most popular female name among Palestinian Jews of the time, borne by about one in five women. It reminds me of growing up in the 1960s when almost every other girl seemed to be called Julie.

This book is likely to have been used for divination and would have been consulted to help answer difficult questions. This book is called a "gospel", which appears to be slightly unusual.

Examples of the oracles:

"Stop being of two minds, o human, whether this thing will happen or not. Yes, it will happen! Be brave and do not be of two minds. Because it will remain with you a long time and you will receive joy and happiness."

"You know, o human, that you did your utmost again. You did not gain anything but loss, dispute, and war. But if you are patient a little, the matter will prosper through the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

"The fact that this book is called that way is very significant," said Prof Anne Marie Luijendijk from Princeton University. "Nobody who wants to know the future wants to hear bad news in a sense."

Now the Daily Mail says:

"An expert said this could rewrite the definition and purpose of gospels"

That is sheer nonsense. While it draws upon Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Matthew, Luke, and James for its oracles, it was written around the 6th century, and contains nothing explicitly Christian.

It its way, it is like the charms used even up to the 19th century, mentioned in L'Amy's "Jersey Folklore", where bible verses would be written on a slip of paper, and sewn into a very small cushion, and placed around the house to bring good luck and ward of evil.

Dr Eva de Visscher gave a talk on "Magic, Science & Religion in Medieval Manuscripts" in 2014 where she mentioned a similar kind of divination. There was a book on lot casting, entitled "The Lots of the Apostles" which may also have dated from the same period. It is mentioned in Tertullian. A dice would be thrown, a question asked, and combination of numbers of the dice would lead you to an answer.

The Bible itself, of course, in Bibliomancy, could be used where verses from a book would be opened at random to glean messages.

According to Wikipedia:

"Drawing the Sortes Sanctorum (Lots of the saints) or Sortes Sacrae (Holy Lots) was a type of divination or cleromancy practiced in early Christianity, derived and adapted from the ancient Roman sortes, as seen in the pagan Sortes Homericae and Sortes Virgilianae."

"Since full copies of the Christian Bible were rare before printing was invented, the lots usually used the Psalms, the Prophets, or the four Gospels"

There is an amusing but probably apocryphal story of a man who wanted to find out what God had for his future, so he closed his eyes, opened the Bible randomly, and stuck his finger on the page. He opened his eyes and read Matthew 27:5, "Judas . . . went away and hanged himself." Not liking that answer, the man tried again. This time, his finger landed on Luke 10:37, "Go and do likewise." Again, not liking that answer, the man tried again. This time his finger landed on John 13:27, "What you are about to do, do quickly."

Like much folk magic, the use of scripture or texts drawn from scripture was a means by which these practices could be legitimised. What the Gospel of the Lots of Mary does show us is that some means could even use the term Gospel, and a supposed New Testament connection as a specific form of legitimisation. In that sense, it may be unusual, or it may simply be one of the few texts which have turned up in that particular form.

But there are other equally unusual texts such as "The Acts of Matthew and Andrew in the City of Cannibals", which was written down in Greek probably shortly before 400 A.D. by an Egyptian monk. The city of cannibals was Marmadonia, thought to be a town in Scythia, now in eastern Crimea.

The Greek original is lost, as is the Latin translation, but we do have an Old English translation possibly by an Anglo Saxon monk. Here is a sample:

"Here it says that after our Lord Saviour Christ ascended to heaven, the apostles were together, and they cast lots among themselves to learn where each of them should travel. It says that the blessed Matthew was given by lot the city of Marmadonia. It says then that the men who were in this city ate no bread and drank no water, but ate men's flesh and drank their blood. And whatever foreign man who came into the city, it says that they immediately seized him and put out his eyes, and they gave him a potion to drink that was blended with much witchcraft, and when he drank this drink, immediately his heart was undone and his mind overturned."

Notice the emphasis on casting lots to determine where the apostles should travel., although the mechanism by which they did so is not known.

And the practice of casting lots to make a decision is even found in the New Testament. The book of Acts records that the eleven apostles cast lots to determine who would replace Judas (Acts 1:26).

I can't finish this piece without mentioning that splendid episode of "Yes Prime Minister" when Jim Hacker is asked to approve the appointment of a Bishop. He is told about the Apostles casting lots to let the Holy Ghost decide, and asks "Can't we let the Holy Ghost decide now?"

The reply:

"Well, Prime Minister, we feel that the Holy Ghost might not fully appreciate what makes a good Church of England Bishop."

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