In the ancient world, a method of fortune‐telling called sortilege was performed by randomly choosing one of several slips on which were written verses of a poet, such as Homer or Virgil (sortes Homericae or sortes Vergilianae). Another soothsaying system involved randomly opening a copy of Homer's Iliad or Virgil's Aeneid and interpreting as prophetic the first line upon which the eye settled. Even though Christianity denounced augury 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), Orléans (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.”
Along with gleaning messages from randomly chosen texts of scripture, early Christians also sometimes consulted specially prepared copies of the Bible, especially the Gospels, to learn their fortunes. In the lower margin of successive manuscript pages there occasionally appear brief comments, before each of which the Greek word hermēneia (“interpretation”) is written. And so early Christians opened the Bible at random, or even cast dice to determine page numbers, in order to divine their fortunes. Such “interpretations” are found, for example, on eight Greek manuscript copies of John's gospel from the third or fourth century to the eighth century. Similarly, the fifth‐century Codex Bezae bears such comments written in the lower margins of the gospel of Mark. Dating perhaps from the ninth or tenth century, these sixty‐nine successive short statements include “You will be saved from danger,” “Expect a great miracle,” “You will receive joy from God,” “Seek something else,” “After ten days it will happen,” and “What you seek will be found.” An Old Latin codex of the Gospels of the eighth century is also inscribed along the margins of the gospel of John with a similar collection of sayings.
Sortilege was the influencing factor of St. Augustine's conversion; Augustine himself, however, credits a providential calling. His account (Confessions 8.12) reveals that, upon hearing a child's voice urging Tolle, lege; tolle lege (“Take up, read; take up, read”), he opened up a copy of the scriptures and his eyes were drawn to Romans 13.13–14, a passage that caused him to repudiate his former life. Later Augustine looked unfavorably on using the scriptures for divination: “As to those who read futurity by taking at random a text from the pages of the Gospels, it is better that they should do this than go to consult spirits of divination; nevertheless 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” (Epistle 55.20.37).
Undoubtedly, the use of the lot to select Matthias as the twelfth apostle after Judas' suicide (Acts 1.26), along with the verse “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33), stimulated the practice of biblical sortilege. John Wesley and early Methodists were known to take seriously this method of consulting the scriptures, and it is still practiced from time to time in various places.
Bruce M. Metzger