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Is anyone aware of any ancient source material regarding the biblically described practice of casting lots, including when it was used by the first Christians to replace Judas? Most Google search results yield websites that describe casting lots in various ways, but none of them cite their answer with any ancient sources. Some websites admit "we don't know the method" which seems to be the most intellectually honest. Other websites seem to speculate "stones in urn" or "drawing straws."

Answers to the question How did the Apostles cast lots in Acts 1? on this issue of casting lots references "writers" and a quote from a commentary, but it's still a bit unsatisfying in terms of ancient sources.

Seems like we don't know the method with any certainty.

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  • I don't see the point of trying to 'authenticate' the casting of lots from ancient sources. The process was clearly ineffectual since Matthias (once appointed) is never heard of again. Another attempt was made with James the Lord's brother (see Galatians and Acts) but - most evidently - matters were already in hand, by heaven, and Saul (later Paul) was clearly the twelfth, replacing the transgressor, Judas.
    – Nigel J
    May 17, 2023 at 20:29
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    @NigelJ, I'm not sure that not being mentioned after being called means that the process was ineffectual. Would you say the same about apostles like Bartholomew or Thaddaeus, who Jesus called during his ministry, but aren't mentioned later on? May 17, 2023 at 23:51
  • @SamuelBradshaw Thaddeus is Jude, who wrote a book of scripture, by the way. But the casting of the lot was clearly superseded. I say again, that Saul (Paul) was evidently the choice of heaven.
    – Nigel J
    May 18, 2023 at 0:37
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    nigel - not trying to authenticate the process. trying to find a description of the process. ancient sources are generally more likely to be accurate than modern speculations found on random websites. Whether that process was 'ineffectual' is a separate debate, and on that point I think you're wrong for mostly symantic reasons. Open a separate thread I'll be glad to expound. I don't think 'apostle' means what you think it means.
    – theo1432
    May 18, 2023 at 18:33
  • Just as a possible lead - "Urim and Tumim" were used to inquire about gods will.
    – grammaplow
    May 19, 2023 at 7:38

2 Answers 2

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Casting lots is a practice referenced many times in the Old Testament (e.g. Lev. 16:18); however, the precise process is not given there.

The process is described by Sophocles (~497 - ~406 BC) in his play Aias (aka Ajax):

In single combat, Hector, casting lots, At no man's word, the lot which he put in Was no deserter, lump of moistened clay, But one full sure to be the first to leap With nimble spring from out the crested helm (from English translation here, see p. 333)

The essentials are covered:

  • A piece of clay is marked for the individual
  • The pieces of clay are placed in a container
  • The piece of clay that first leaves the container is the lot selected

Casting lots is also described in Homer's Iliad:

Thus he spoke, and when each of them had marked his lot, and had thrown it into the helmet of Agamemnon son of Atreus, the people lifted their hands in prayer, and thus would one of them say as he looked into the vault of heaven, "Father Jove, grant that the lot fall on Ajax, or on the son of Tydeus, or upon the king of rich Mycene himself."

As they were speaking, Nestor knight of Gerene shook the helmet, and from it there fell the very lot which they wanted- the lot of Ajax. The herald bore it about and showed it to all the chieftains of the Achaeans, going from left to right; but they none of of them owned it. When, however, in due course he reached the man who had written upon it and had put it into the helmet, brave Ajax held out his hand, and the herald gave him the lot. When Ajax saw him mark he knew it and was glad; he threw it to the ground and said, "My friends, the lot is mine (Iliad Book VII)

Though less-detailed, there is a Rabbinic source describing the process of casting lots, and it is consistent with what is recorded by Greco-Roman writers:

The High Priest would mix the lots in the lottery receptacle used to hold them and draw the two lots from it, one in each hand. (Mishna Yoma 4.1)

The modern sources cited in the linked post are simply compiling/reiterating what is described by ancient Greek writers.

Although this does not definitively answer the question regarding the process used in Acts, it shows commonality between the process used by the Greeks and by the Jews, and it demonstrates that casting lots was widespread, well-known, and in use for more than a millennium prior to Acts. As such, it is not unlikely that the process of casting lots in Acts was comparable to what is described by Sophocles, Homer, and the Mishnah.

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  • Good find. But do you think that 5th century BC Greek practice was the same one used by Palestine Jews in the 1st century AD? It's so far apart spatially, chronologically, and culturally, although there was some Hellenization going on among diaspora Jews. May 17, 2023 at 18:18
  • @GratefulDisciple good question - these are the kinds of inferences historians have to work with all the time. Generally the closer in time and space the better. I suppose the ideal would be a Rabbinic or Patristic quote to confirm (ironic since secular historians so often treat pagan sources as definitive and monotheistic sources with derision). But we do rely on Greco-Roman sources for a lot of context for Biblical passages. Casting lots had been in common use for more than 1000 years before Sophocles, so I think it probable that his method was old, common, and widely used. May 18, 2023 at 0:54
  • @GratefulDisciple I found a Rabbinic source! Casting lots is described in Mishnah Yoma 4 (though in less detail than is found in Sophocles). Post updated. May 18, 2023 at 4:35
  • I'm afraid what you found is a more detailed procedure for drawing lots for a very specific purpose only: the scapegoat ritual in the yearly Day of Atonement (Lev 16:7-10). English commentary on Misha Yoma tractate 4.1 here. May 18, 2023 at 5:12
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    love it thanks HTTR
    – theo1432
    May 18, 2023 at 18:26
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To add to what others have said, you might find it useful also research the Urim and Thummim used by Moses to King David. Saul used both UT and lots. Some even believe the use of the UT employed a lot method.

A great book that was a dissertation on the UT is available that provides a great deal of reference material for primary sources: The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel

Also, Proverbs 16:33 was often used in the Jewish psyche to justify the traditional use of lots. It was this Jewish tradition of using lots to elect someone to a given position; i.e., a new disciple would require a lot casting election process. In fact, it is referenced almost 70 times in the Old Testament and almost always employed when electing individuals to office. You see most of the high-level biblical references in the posts of others in response to your question.

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