Seeking Divine Answers in Ancient Christian Egypt

By Chance Bonar
May 21, 2023
Index Magazine

Seeking Divine Answers in Ancient Christian Egypt

An open book reveals rows of Coptic letters, handwritten in dark brown ink. The pages are darkened, and the frail edges are irregular.
Gospel of the Lots of Mary, Coptic, Early Byzantine period, 6th century. Ink on sheepskin vellum. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Mrs. Beatrice Kelekian in memory of her husband, Charles Dikran Kelekian, 1984.669.

A tiny book in the Harvard Art Museums collections is exemplary of early Christian texts in Egypt. This so-called Gospel of the Lots of Mary offers insights into the long history of divinatory practices.

In the 21st century in the United States, where do you receive advice about how to live your life or learn about what might happen in the future? Some people grew up with the Magic 8 Ball, a black plastic sphere that could be shaken to reveal different answers, such as: “It is certain,” “Better not tell you now,” or “Don’t count on it.” Others may carefully select their fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant, knowing that randomness plays a role in what fortune they will receive. Others might turn to tarot, selecting cards at random that reveal information about a person’s life (this method was invented in 15th-century Italy; see this 19th-century Florentine tarot card housed at the Harvard Art Museums). 

Such advice-giving and horoscopic practices have been around for millennia: consider the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, for instance. They allowed people with questions about their life to receive answers from something or someone and by seemingly random means. 

The Gospel of the Lots of Mary is a prominent material example of divinatory texts and oracles from early Byzantine Egypt (395–642 CE). At the time this miniature book (codex) was made, Christian texts were exchanged up and down the Nile, and the Christian practice of divination had expanded with the development of monasticism and pilgrimage. The book’s given title is based on the opening sentence: “The Gospel of the lots of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, she to whom Gabriel the archangel brought the good news.” Containing 37 oracular statements, the manuscript gives us a window into how Egyptian Christians dealt with the seeming chaos of everyday life by looking for answers about their current circumstances. These oracles either affirmed or opposed the decisions or questions that people asked. For example, in response to a question, oracle number 4 in the book tells the petitioner that “This matter that you want to do, its time has not yet come.” Oracle number 9, on the other hand, tells the petitioner to “Get up and go immediately. Do not delay.” The Gospel of the Lots of Mary functions much as if one needed to go to a religious specialist to consult a Magic 8 Ball or a fortune cookie, with both parties believing that even though the answer may look random, God intervenes in how an answer is chosen to provide exactly what the petitioner needs.   

The Gospel of the Lots of Mary is written in Coptic, the final stage of the indigenous Egyptian language before the predominance of Arabic in North Africa. The codex likely dates to the sixth century CE and is written on sheepskin. Being such a small object—less than 3 inches × 3 inches—the Lots of Mary was easy to carry and store and was most likely used during one-on-one conversations rather than in Christian services. It is uncertain exactly where in Egypt the codex came from. Scholars have recently suggested that the manuscript was possibly used at the Monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit.[1] Bawit was a village north of Asyut; a monk named Apollo founded the prominent monastery in the fourth century. In the sixth century, around the time of the codex’s creation, the monastery flourished under an abbess named Rachel.

The Harvard Art Museums acquired the codex in 1984 as a gift from Beatrice (Altmayer) Kelekian, a Radcliffe alumna and wife of Charles Dikran Kelekian, who dealt in Egyptian antiquities. The codex was published in 2014 by AnneMarie Luijendijk, a former Harvard doctoral student and current professor of religion at Princeton University.[2]

In addition to this complete copy of the Lots of Mary, three fragments of the same text are known and have been published since the 1990s. Two originated from a shrine of St. Colluthus (a physician and local martyr) in Antinoë, and another is from a shrine of St. Philoxenus (a local martyr) at Oxyrhynchus.[3] In all three cases, the oracular text seems to be associated with monastic spaces and healing shrines in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Earlier scholars believed that such a small book would have been used by an itinerant oracle-monger who would travel from village to village giving oracles. But given where these fragments were found, it’s more likely that petitioners would come to the saint’s shrine or monastery during a festival or pilgrimage to receive oracular advice and support.

How would a text like the Lots of Mary work to offer an oracle? Unlike other forms of divination in the ancient Mediterranean—such as reading the movement of stars or birds, interpreting animal entrails, or awaiting a divine dream while sleeping—lot divination involved handling objects that could produce a random outcome (such as dice) that would then determine what oracular statement was given. We do not know exactly how an oracle-monger used the Lots of Mary, since its 37 oracles don’t align with the odds of a dice throw. Somehow, the oracle-monger and petitioner decided upon a number that determined what statement would be read from the codex.

Egypt had a long history of petitioning gods for random answers. A process called “ticket oracles” emerged in the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BCE).[4] The practice worked like this: a petitioner would bring to the shrine of a god two tickets with opposite answers (such as, “If it is your will, I will start a business” and “If it is not your will, I will not start a business”). The priest or religious intermediary would take the tickets and consult a god for an answer, and one of the tickets would be returned to the petitioner. This practice continued into the early Byzantine period, when oracular books like the Lots of Mary were created, suggesting that Egyptians had multiple avenues for seeking out divine answers.

In the wide range of practices associated with ancient oracles, the Harvard codex is most closely associated with small objects such as dice and knucklebones. Both objects have a certain number of sides (6 for most dice; 4 for knucklebones) that provide you with a distinct numerical result when rolled multiple times (for example, 3-1-6). People in the ancient Mediterranean used these small, rollable objects for games, but also found them helpful for picking random numbers to seek out a god’s advice. In daily life, gaming and religious practices could coincide.

In relation to miniature objects from the premodern world, the Lots of Mary shows us how the category of “miniature” can be misleading. Scholars often debate and theorize the function of miniature objects: are they meant to represent or refer to their “normal-sized” counterparts? Does being miniature involve being “impractically” small or indicate a change in usage? Are there ways that miniatures can be convenient for everyday use or function better than their larger counterparts because of their small size (for instance, they could be brought home as a symbol of pilgrimage)? In the case of the Lots of Mary, its size misled scholars: many originally argued that it must have been small to be portable and taken during travels or hidden away to avoid detection as a “heretical” object. We now think that the codex remained primarily in one place and was not a secret. Rather, people came to pilgrimage sites, monasteries, and saints’ shrines and sought out the oracle-monger who had this book to receive their divine answers.

The small size of some objects offered a different experience of holy sites. Across the premodern world, pilgrims could take home a part of their travels with them. For example, Byzantine ampullae—flasks that could hold water, oil, or dirt—were used to contain physical pieces of the natural world from a saint’s shrine that could be used at home in protective ways for believers. Likewise, miniature medieval Buddhist stupas, whose life-sized counterparts were shrines that contained relics of the Buddha or a saint, became popular tools for experiencing Chinese Buddhist pilgrimages from a distance. Miniature objects like these took on new functions and uses as they made interaction with distant locations or beings—even including the gods—possible. The Gospel of the Lots of Mary is part of this network of small objects used in pilgrimage culture, although in a slightly different way. Rather than taking home part of the natural world from a site or having a miniature version of a shrine at home, the practitioner received divine answers to the questions of everyday life and took them home to live them out.

Chance Bonar received his Ph.D. in religion from Harvard University and formerly served as graduate student intern in the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at the Harvard Art Museums. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University.


[1] Sofía Torallas Tovar, “A New Sahidic Coptic Fragment: Sortes Sanctorum or Apophthegmata Patrum?” Journal of Coptic Studies 17 (2015): 153–64, esp. 155–56; AnneMarie Luijendijk and William E. Klingshirn, “The Literature of Lot Divination,” in My Lots Are in Thy Hands: Sortilege and Its Practitioners in Late Antiquity, ed. Luijendijk and Klingshirn (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 19–59, esp. 47–48.

[2] AnneMarie Luijendijk, Forbidden Oracles? The Gospel of the Lots of Mary (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014). 

[3] Lucia Papini and David Frankfurter, “Fragment of the Sortes Sanctorum from the Shrine of St. Colluthus,” in Pilgrimage and Holy Space in Late Antique Egypt, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 393–401; Alexander Kocar, “Oxyrhynchus and Oracles in Late Antiquity,” in My Lots Are in Thy Hands, 196–210.

[4] David Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 145–97, esp. 193–97.