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Newly-Identified Coptic Text

February 5, 2015

A recent story posted on Live Science reports on a Coptic text recently identified and studied by Anne Marie Luijendijk (Princeton University) here.  The miniature codex (ca. 75 x 69 mm page size) contains a body of oracle-like sayings, and it appears that users seeking some advice on some matter would perhaps open the text at random to a page and find thereon some direction.

The opening words, which likely served as the title, describe the book as “The Gospel of the Lots of Mary” (“lots” in the sense of items drawn at chance to make a decision).  Luijendijk rightly comments on the noteworthy use of the term “gospel” (“evangelion”, taken over as a Greek loanword into Christian Coptic usage), as readers of the NT will associate the term with a narrative account of Jesus.  But, of course, we also have the term applied (secondarily, not the original title) to the “Gospel of Thomas,” which is a series of somewhat oracular sayings ascribed to Jesus, and also “The Gospel of Truth,” which is essentially a theological treatise setting out what appears to be a soft Valentinian Christian view of things.  So, it appears that in ancient Christian circles, the term “gospel” came to be used for a variety of types of texts, although (to my knowledge) this is the first instance of the term applied to this particular kind of text, a list of sayings to be consulted randomly.  Luijendijk dates the hand of the text to ca. the 5th/6th century A.D.

We should also note that miniature books (of any contents) were prepared for personal usage, perhaps for being carried on one’s person and/or for travel.  Also, to my mind, the good quality of the “hand” suggests an owner/user with sufficient funds to afford a copy by a professional copyist (which may tell us something about the socio-economic status of the owner).  There are numerous examples of miniature books (miniature rolls, such as the fragments of Greek Gospel of Thomas, P.Oxy. 655, and miniature codices such as this one), Christian ones and others used by “pagans”.  Indeed, the Roman wit Martial mentions the availability of his poems in small leather codices, which he recommends for taking along on a journey (Epigrams 1.2).  For those seriously interested in the subject and able to read German, Thomas Kraus is the “go-to” guy on ancient miniature books: Thomas Kraus, “Die Welt der Miniaturbücher in der Antike und Spätantike: Prolegomena und erste methodische Annäherungen für eine Datensammlung,” Studien zum Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt 35 (2010): 79-110.

For Luijendijk’s full analysis of the newly-identified codex, see her recently published book:  Forbidden Oracles?  The Gospel of the Lots of Mary (Tuebingen:  Mohr-Siebeck, 2014), the publisher’s information here.


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  1. Interesting post, Larry. One of the unfortunate realities in biblical studies is the paucity of interest in the Coptic NT. So many are intrigued by the Gnostic texts, but, as far as I’m aware, we haven’t had a decent translation in English of the Sahidic Coptic, or any English translation, for that matter, since that of George Horner! At least Horner’s translation is available again via Lulu.

    Interestingly, if E.C. Colwell had referred to the Coptic text of John’s Gospel, he and those who took their lead from him may not have made what I consider one of the most embarrassing blunders in NT studies in the past 100 years, i.e. concluding that QEOS is definite at John 1:1c based on “Colwell’s Rule”. The Coptic text includes the indefinite article there, which, at the very least, shows that those ancient translators, who knew Koine as a living language, didn’t understand it to be a definite noun.

    • Well, the Coptic of John 1:1 essentially translates quite word-for-word the Greek. Which means that the Greek indefinite form “theos” in the final phrase is rendered in an equivalent form into Coptic. That doesn’t settle the matter of what kind of ontological status the translators intended however. We’d need commentary or sermons or whatever to determine that. And “Colwell’s rule” does typically work in Greek syntax.

      • “And “Colwell’s rule” does typically work in Greek syntax.”

        Well, it depends on what you mean by “work.” Colwell’s Rule, properly understood, is of no use at all in determining whether a noun is definite or indefinite. The part of Collwell’s rule that has been misused and misapplied reads as follows:

        “Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article” [*see footnote]

        So the rule applies only to nouns that have already been tagged as “definite” per context; it does not tell us whether a noun is definite or indefinite. This means that the only real use the rule potentially has is for textual criticism, i.e. if there are two readings that have a definite predicate noun before the verb, and one has the article while the other does not, then the one that does not would be statistically more likely to be the original reading.

        The embarrassing blunder that I mentioned has to do with the abuse of the rule: Theologians, commentators, and apologists erroneously assumed the converse of the rule, i.e. that anarthrous predicate nouns that occur before the verb are usually definite. That assumption is demonstrably false. In reality, over 50% of the anarthrous predicate nominatives in John in which the PN is a bounded noun (count), the PN is clearly NOT definite. I’ve listed most of them on my blog, which you can review if you click on my name.


        *A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament, JBL 52 (1933), page 20

      • OK, Sean. You’ve made your point (which, BTW, is a departure from the topic of the posting). So, let it go.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I wonder how sacred names are treated throughout the text. I see IC and XC on the page displayed. I wonder about the less common ones and whether IAO is used.

    • Sarah permalink

      Dear Donald, I was curious about your question and so checked in the text itself. Yes IC and XC are in the incipit and one more IC at Oracle 30. Luijendijk notes that the word for Lord is written in full. Jesus appears on few occasions throughout the Oracles, God is much more common and is always spelt in full. As far as I can see there are no more nomina sacra.
      It’s a really interesting text. If you want to find out more about this book, I’ve written a review over at (

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