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Fortune Telling with Manuscripts

An interesting new manuscript of the Gospel of John has just been identified. I’ll give some information on it in the next post, but to make sense of it I need to provide some background. This is pretty esoteric stuff (i.e., hardly anyone but hard-core experts knows about it), but it’s pretty interesting.

In 1988 my mentor, Bruce Metzger, published an article called “Greek Manuscripts of John’s Gospel With ‘Hermeneia.’ ” In this article he identified five Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of John with an unusual feature. These papyrus manuscripts date from the third (or possibly fourth) to the seventh centuries. The unusual feature in them is that on the bottom of one or more pages (fourteen instances altogether among the five manuscripts) after the portion of the text of John’s Gospel , they have written the Greek word “hermeneia,” which is then followed by some kind of phrase or other. These phrases are such things as “If you believe it will be a joy to you” or “it is a good deliverance” or “It will be a great glory.”

The word “hermeneia” means “interpretation.” But the problem is that the phrases following the word hermeneia don’t seem to have anything to do with the text of John on the page. That is, the phrases don’t seem to *be* “interpretations” of the text. So what’s going on?

 

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New Hermeneia Manuscript
Video: Misquoting Jesus

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Scott F  November 6, 2013

    Plus ca change, eh?

  2. Avatar
    nichael  November 6, 2013

    When I was a kid I certainly knew folks who, when they felt that the needed special guidance or an answer to a question, would hold their Bible and, with their eyes closed, open to a random page and point their finger at a random place on the page. The verse thus selected gave the requested answer.

  3. Avatar
    toejam  November 6, 2013

    Reminds me of people today who have a pressing question and figure if they open their Bible up to a random page page (closing their eyes while opening the book, or using a dice etc.), they will find on that page an answer to their question. I remember going through a phase like this – and I wasn’t even a “Christian” in the traditional sense. But I was always disappointed that I couldn’t find any distinguishably specific answer, so the novelty wore off pretty fast LOL.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 6, 2013

    Fascinating! I think there’s an echo of this in the extreme reverence Muslims have for printed copies of the Quran.

    • Avatar
      nichael  November 6, 2013

      There’s an important point here: The Quran is not simply a “book” for Islam. Rather it is *the* divine revelation and manifestation of God.

      Look at it this way: Many Christians view Mohammed as something like “the Jesus of Islam”. But that is not really correct. As the saying goes “There but one God, Al-lah and Mohammed is his prophet.” If there is an analogue to Mohammed in Christianity it is someone like Paul. The more accurate analogue to the Quran would be Christ.

  5. talitakum
    talitakum  November 6, 2013

    Here’s a short article on such John’s manuscript (with picture):
    http://bricecjones.weebly.com/1/post/2013/10/a-newly-discovered-coptic-gospel-fragment-at-yale.html

    And here’s some interesting examples of Jesus’ name invocation in ancient Greek Magical papyri (PGM IV. 1227-64; PGM IV.3007-86; rite and charm to cast out demons):

    http://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2011/10/08/more-on-jesus-in-the-greek-magical-papyri/

    As far as I’m concerned, there is a relevant consensus among scholars on Jewish origin of PGM IV.3007-86

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 6, 2013

      Yes, Jesus’ name gets invoked a lot in the magical papyri; probably doesn’t make any of the papyri necessarily “Christian.”

  6. Avatar
    KungFuJoe  November 6, 2013

    This is my first time hearing about “hermeneia,” so I’m sure this question has been addressed by scholars at some point, but is it possible that these “interpretations” really are meant to address the text on the leaves on which they were written? Even today, we have the Bible Code types who always seem to be interpreting the text in completely ludicrous ways; and we know that many early Gnostic Christians placed emphasis on secret, hidden knowledge.

    I guess my question is best phrased, “What makes Fortune Telling a more convincing explanation of ‘hermeneia’ than Gnostic interpretation?”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 6, 2013

      Yes, I considered that as an option; but the “interpretations” themselves sound much more like the fortune telling things you find in the books of fate; so that’s probably what they are….

  7. Avatar
    donmax  November 6, 2013

    What it suggests to me is the fact that early Christians treated their scriptures as ‘divine objects’ with extraordinary power, in and of themselves, much like amulets or lucky charms and magic lamps, not just words and writing to be deciphered and endlessly debated.

  8. Avatar
    stephena  November 6, 2013

    Thanks for this fascinating post. Wearing scripture passages “around their necks or placed them under their pillows to ward off evil spirits” sounds exactly like what many of today’s superstitious Christians do with Bible verses and “proof texts.”

  9. Avatar
    AmenRa  November 6, 2013

    Thanks Dr. Ehrman for this post. Recently, I have purchased a book entitled “ANCIENT CHRISTIAN MAGIC: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, by Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith. I was wondering why did the Christian church councils and bishops sanitized the bible to remove any historical indications that magic, astrology etc were apart of early Christian practice?

  10. Avatar
    EricBrown  November 6, 2013

    Interesting. I’m sure your last comment is true, rthat some so-called fundamentalists might consider the physical book that is a bible to have “powers”, but that is just about the oppositie of “fundamentalism” as a theology, with its “sola scriptura”, etc. In fact, the embodiemtn of holiness in objects would traditionally be a Roman Catholic pracitce (and considered an abuse by the reformers antecedant to fundamentialists).

  11. Avatar
    toddfrederick  November 6, 2013

    You don’t need to “suppose” … be certain of it. I know many fundies who believe in that right here where I live. they have a problem and randomly open the book, point at a verse, and that is there answer. I’ve been there when they have said that.

    In fact, I heard it said that many of those living in the Bible Belt (right where you now are) never read the family Bible. It is a holy object to be worshiped.

  12. Avatar
    mjardeen  November 9, 2013

    It reminds of what we still do on Facebook where people will pass along a story of something a person should do and then say that wealth or some good thing will occur if they pass it on to 5 people in the next 10 minutes or bad things if you don’t. My degree was in Anthropology so I love these kinds of connections.

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