A 1,500-year-old book that contains a previously unknown gospel has been deciphered. The ancient manuscript may have been used to provide guidance or encouragement to people seeking help for their problems, according to a researcher who has studied the text.
Written in Coptic, an Egyptian language, the opening reads (in translation):
"The Gospel of the lots of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, she to whom Gabriel the Archangel brought the good news. He who will go forward with his whole heart will obtain what he seeks. Only do not be of two minds." [The 7 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]
Anne Marie Luijendijk, a professor of religion at Princeton University, discovered that this newfound gospel is like no other. "When I began deciphering the manuscript and encountered the word 'gospel' in the opening line, I expected to read a narrative about the life and death of Jesus as the canonical gospels present, or a collection of sayings similar to the Gospel of Thomas (a non-canonical text)," she wrote in her book "Forbidden Oracles? The Gospel of the Lots of Mary" (Mohr Siebeck, 2014).
What she found instead was a series of 37 oracles, written vaguely, and with only a few that mention Jesus.
The text would have been used for divination, Luijendijk said. A person seeking an answer to a question could have sought out the owner of this book, asked a question, and gone through a process that would randomly select one of the 37 oracles to help find a solution to the person's problem. The owner of the book could have acted as a diviner, helping to interpret the written oracles, she said.
Alternatively, the text could have been owned by someone who, when confronted with a question, simply opened an oracle at random to seek an answer.
Throughout the book "the text refers to hardships, suffering and violence, and occasionally one finds a threat. On the whole, however, a positive outlet prevails," Luijendijk wrote in her book.
In the ancient world, a special type of book, sometimes called a "lot book," was used to try to predict a person's future. Luijendijk says that this is the only lot book found so far that calls itself a "gospel" — a word that literally means "good news."
"The fact that this book is called that way is very significant," Luijendijk told Live Science in an interview. "To me, it also really indicated that it had something to do [with] how people would consult it and also about being [seen] as good news," she said. "Nobody who wants to know the future wants to hear bad news in a sense."