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Divining Gospel

Oracles of Interpretation in a Syriac Manuscript of John

Ancient manuscripts of John’s Gospel containing hermeneiai have long puzzled scholars, provoking debate about their origins, purpose, and use. The fragmentary nature of the early evidence has impeded progress towards a better understanding of these specialized books.

The present study shows that these books are "Divining Gospels"—editions of John’s Gospel incorporating lot divination materials for use in fortune-telling. The study centers on material presented here for the first time: the text and translation of a unique sixth-century Syriac manuscript, the earliest and most complete example of a hermeneia Gospel. An analysis of the Syriac along with evidence from Greek, Coptic, Latin, and Armenian versions show they all preserve vestiges of the same apparatus, disseminated widely at an early time throughout many different Christian communities. These books must be situated squarely within the development of divinatory practices in early and late antique Christianity. However, they represent a true hermeneutic, a method by which interpreters brought the potency of the Bible to bear on the everyday concerns of people who consulted them for help.

Furthermore, the Divining Gospel draws on the special aura that John’s Gospel held in the Christian imagination, both as text and as textual object. An analysis of the interplay between the biblical text and sacred codex, the oracles, the ritual practitioner, and the client enrich our appreciation of this distinctive hermeneutic. Contextualizing these materials in popular use illuminates the fraught relationships between the ecclesial establishment, ritual experts operating on the margins of orthodox respectability, and lay clients seeking knowledge and help.

Author Information

Jeff W. Childers, Abilene Christian University, TX, U.S.A.
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Audience: Scholars of the Bible, manuscript, and ancient divination practices

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