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Divining Gospel

Divining Gospel

Some time during the late sixth or early seventh century, somewhere in Roman Syria, a scribe named Gewargis sat down to copy a book. It was the Bible, or more precisely, a part of the Bible: the Gospel of John. The language was Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic and a major literary language throughout much of the Middle East. Gewargis had over 80 leaves of good parchment to use for his book, and since he was an accomplished scribe with a steady, clear hand, he could produce a high quality volume.


British Library, Add. 17119 (f.30v); portions of John 7, along with oracular statements inserted in red ink [Copyright © The British Library Board, All Rights Reserved]

In some ways it would be an ordinary book—the Gospel of John in 21 chapters. But it was peculiar in other ways. Unlike most gospel copies, this one would contain only John, not all four Gospels. None of the typical sections, chapter divisions, harmony notations or liturgical notes. Even the size was rather odd: tall and narrow, but compact (about 22 x 13 cm).

Most striking of all, however, were the brief statements interspersed throughout the Gospel, statements that were certainly not part of its original text. They showed up at fairly regular intervals: “That which you were expecting will happen” (at John 3:9); “Do not do this thing” (at John 11:4); “What is lost will be found” (at John 6:13). They address the reader rather than characters in the narrative. Most of the statements seem positive, but occasionally one strikes a foreboding note, as in the middle of John 18, where it says, “The matter is evil.”

Gewargis would copy 308 of these statements into the gospel text. Although he wrote them in exactly the same hand, he made them stand out by putting them in red ink and numbering them in the margins of his book. Each one began with the Syriac term, pushshaqa, “interpretation.” But they were not interpretations in the sense most people today would understand. In the ancient world, people made copies of John’s Gospel that included hermeneia, a Greek term that means “interpretation,” but these tools had a very specialized use. Gewargis’ copy of the Gospel was not intended for corporate worship, devotional reading, or as the source of theological reflection in the preacher’s study. It was intended to be used in sortilege, the practice of drawing lots for the sake of telling an inquirer’s fortune. The special statements added to the text were couched as answers to the questions of someone who was seeking divine aid or knowledge.

Not much is known about this historic practice, except that it was common. Before Christianity, people commonly practiced divination by consulting passages of revered texts, such as Homer. Complex stand-alone systems of divination were also developed and became popular (e.g. Sortes Astrampsychi). Some Christians also used their scriptures as a source for divination, consulting passages at random in order to discern an immediate message from God. But at some point, Christians combined these approaches by formulating sets of oracular statements and attaching them to sacred texts, especially the Gospel of John and the Psalms, thereby synthesizing systems of divination that became fairly popular.

We know it was popular because we have records of official restrictions against the practice. But we also have vestigial evidence of the system dating from early times, in Greek and Coptic papyrus fragments of John that have oracular statements, known as hermeneia. Though very fragmentary, many of them agree in content, sequence, and number with the ones Gewargis has in his Syriac copy. We also have Latin, Armenian, and Georgian versions, though most of the surviving evidence is very fragmentary. In one early Armenian manuscript preserved in Austria, the material was erased and the book recycled, so that its oracles are barely legible.

The care and attention Gewargis put into making his book has been rewarded by the fact that his book is older and more legible than several of the other witnesses and its system of lot-oracles (sortes) is more complete than any others yet to be identified. The book resides now in London, under the designation: British Library, Additional Manuscript 17119. Jeff Childers and some of his students have been studying the material. Childers has presented on it in several conferences and is now editing the material for publication. The work promises to broaden our understanding of ways Christians used their books and applied the biblical text to daily life.

CSART Inaugural Event

CSART Inaugural Event

Carmichael-Walling Lectures & Inaugural Events

Abilene Christian University’s Center for the Study of Ancient Religious Texts launched November 2-3 in a series of events on the university campus that included the 30th annual Carmichael-Walling Lectures on New Testament and Early Christianity.

CarmichaelWalling-134Father Justin gave the Carmichael-Walling Lectures as part of an inaugural celebration featuring special events, distinguished speakers, and an opportunity to see rare book and manuscript treasures. Father Justin is librarian in the venerable monastery of St. Catharine’s at Mt. Sinai in Egypt. One of the world’s foremost experts on ancient Christian manuscripts, he gave lectures focusing on biblical discoveries, John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, eastern Christian art, and the imagery of Sinai in scripture as seen from the perspective of someone who resides at Sinai:

  • Illustrating the Ladder of Divine Ascent: An Illuminated Manuscript of a Spiritual Classic (Sinai Greek 418)CarmichaelWalling-163
  • Newly Recovered Manuscripts of the Scriptures from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai
  • ‘For Moses Wrote of Me;’ Reflections From Mount Sinai

CSART Student Scholars and Faculty Fellows enjoyed dinner with Father Justin, during which the conversation focused on such things as Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East.

CarmichaelWalling-031Dr. Mark Hamilton, the Robert and Kay Onstead Professor of Old Testament in ACU’s Graduate School of Theology, delivered the CSART inaugural lecture, entitled “Who’s Afraid of Ancient Texts? Rediscovering Old Words for a New Era.” ACU students Ryne Parrish and Daniel Marolf reported on their research in Greek patristic citations, the Ethiopic version of the Bible, and editing the Syriac spiritual author, John of Apamea.

Dr. Curt Niccum, Professor of New Testament in ACU’s Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry  introduced CSART to ACU faculty. His presentation, “Burning Bushes; Building Bridges: Mt. Sinai and ACU,” clarified the importance of St. Catharine’s Monastery and highlighting the emerging partnerships between CSART, the Monastery, and the Museum of the Bible.CarmichaelWalling-113

CSART’s inaugural events culminated in a reception. In collaboration with the Museum of the Bible and the Special Collections and Archives of ACU’s Brown Library, a select number of rare books and ancient manuscripts were on display. These included a Greek Bodmer papyrus manuscript of the Psalms, the famous palimpsest manuscript, Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a Greek 11th-century Greek Psalter, and an Ethiopic Psalter.


The Power of John

The Power of John

A Cure for Sheep Disease

Written into the official documents of the Benedictine monastery of Eynsham in central Oxfordshire is a late 13-century ceremony for warding off sheep disease. After conducting a mass in honor of the Holy Spirit and making an offering, the priest gathers the sheep into a cote and performs a complex charm, commencing with a recitation from the beginning of Jn 1, In principio… (“In the beginning…”).

The occurrence of a text from John’s Gospel in a medieval charm against sheep murrain is not surprising. Even today, the Gospel of the Beloved Apostle is also one of the most beloved Gospels. People are drawn to its charming characters and colorful stories. Jesus’  teaching as presented in John is powerful and compelling. Yet the Gospel of John has seemingly always held a special fascination for its readers.

Long before monks settled in Eynsham, objects containing texts were revered as relics of mysterious power. Portions of scripture could serve as amulets and biblical codices were thought to manifest the divine presence in oath-swearing contexts and at ecumenical councils. Central to these uses is the materiality of the objects themselves, connected to but transcending the specific textual contents of the books.

Eagle symbol of John the Evangelist based on an image in the Book of Kells (Trinity College Dublin MS 58, f. 27v; ca. 800)

Although a variety of biblical texts and textual objects containing scripture were put to what may be called “bibliomantic” uses, the Gospel of John has held a special status in this regard, perhaps due to the mystical qualities of its language. For instance:

  • Augustine of Hippo († 430) exhorts his hearers to cure their headaches by sleeping with a copy of the Gospel rather than using other amulets (In Joh. tr. 7.12).
  • The smallest extant Latin biblical manuscript is the Chartres St. John, a tiny codex of John (71 x 51 mm) from the late 5th or early 6th century. It probably served as an amulet before it was put into the reliquary of the Virgin’s shirt at Chartres in the 11th century.
  • The famous Stonyhurst Gospel is similar. Often described as the oldest intact European book, this diminutive Latin codex of John (138 x 92 mm) was apparently buried with St. Cuthbert (†687) when he was reinterred at Lindisfarne in 698.

These books containing John’s Gospel appear to have functioned as relics, material objects bearing special power.

The actual text of John was seen to be especially potent also. For instance, John’s opening statements of power feature prominently in early Coptic amulets with scriptural incipits. They were used apotropaically in Syriac healing charms and Arabic amulets. In the early 17th century, a certain sorcerer in Nottingham was known for selling copies of John’s Gospel for ten shillings apiece as protection against witchcraft.

Perhaps more than any other biblical book, the Gospel of John has been used in ways that reveal an enduring belief in its mystical power—including its role in practices of divination, the subject of another post.