Bruce Metzger on Sortes Biblicae

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Bruce Metzger wrote a fascinating article in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (which he also co-edited) called Sortes Biblicae. Sortes is a very ancient method of fortune-telling (also called sortilege), which consisted of using popular literature in a random way which would in turn be followed as guidance for life. For example, people would write verses of Virgil or Homer on bit of material and then randomly select one and follow its teaching or advice (sort of like a fortune cookie). Alternatively, some people would arbitrarily open Virgil or Homer and take a random verse as prophetic guidance. Other names you’ll see for this include sortes Homericae or sortes Vergilianae.

Metzger relates this to the early Christian church:

“Even though Christianity denounced augury [divination] and the related practice of sortilege, many continued to use such practices in the early church. A specific type of soothsaying (sortes biblicae) pursued by Christians involved using the Bible to divine their destiny by ‘sacred lots.’ After randomly opening the Bible and selecting the first line their eye fell upon, early Christians considered the passage a divine message to be applied to the problem that had caused them to employ such means of divination. The widespread use of sortes biblicae is confirmed by its repeated condemnation. For example, in France, the Gallican synods of Vannes (465 CE), Agde (506), Orleans (511), and Auxerre (570-590) passed ordinances vowing to excommunicate any Christian who ‘should be detected in the practice of this art, either as consulting or teaching it.’”

Metzger later notes how a few manuscripts of the Gospels (from roughly the 3rd to the 10th centuries) even contained small footnote type fortunes on the bottom of certain pages. These fortunes included statements like these: “You will be saved from danger,” “Expect a great miracle,” “Seek something else,” and so forth. He also quotes Augustine, who said this type of Bible lottery is a tad better than outright divination. However, Augustine also said, “I am displeased with this custom, which turns the divine oracles, which were intended to teach us concerning the higher life, to the business of the world and the vanities of the present life.”

So the Prayer of Jabez/Joel Osteen methodology is ancient and Christians have been struggling against this practice for a long time. I agree with those early synods mentioned above. This is a practice which should not be done for many reasons. It distorts the main message of the Bible (salvation in Christ), it twists the main purpose of Scripture (knowing and following Christ), it ignores basic biblical interpretive methods (context and Scripture interprets itself), it breeds ignorance and laziness (avoiding serious Bible study), it fosters an anti-church attitude (private, random interpretation rather than a corporate reading of the Word), it is unwise (biblical wisdom means applying the broader teachings of Scripture to specific life instances), it is unbiblical (not prescribed in the Bible), and ultimately makes a mockery of God’s Word (mixing it with the methodology of darkness – divination). Of course we need to use patience and love when dealing with this error among Christians, but it certainly should not be allowed to occur in the church because it is an unbiblical, dangerous and irresponsible use of the Bible.

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