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What was the manner in which the apostles cast lots to make Matthias an apostle in Acts 1?

And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:26)

The answer isn't in the text of the Scripture, but is there a tradition of how they did it? Or if not, what were common ways that the Jews of the time would have cast lots?

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2 Answers 2

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Casting lots was an old tradition found among Jew and Gentile. The first mention was in regard to the scapegoat.

And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat. Lev 16:8

Here is an explanation of the process.

5-10. shall take of the congregation. . . two kids of the goats. . . and one ram--The sacrifices were to be offered by the high priest, respectively for himself and the other priests, as well as for the people. The bullock ( Lev 16:3 ) and the goats were for sin offerings and the rams for burnt offerings. The goats, though used in different ways, constituted only one offering. They were both presented before the Lord, and the disposal of them determined by lot, which Jewish writers have thus described: The priest, placing one of the goats on his right hand and the other on his left, took his station by the altar, and cast into an urn two pieces of gold exactly similar, inscribed, the one with the words "for the Lord," and the other for "Azazel" (the scapegoat). After having well shaken them together, he put both his hands into the box and took up a lot in each: that in his right hand he put on the head of the goat which stood on his right, and that in his left he dropped on the other. In this manner the fate of each was decided. -source-

This practice is found among Gentiles as well.

And they [the mariners] said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. Jon 1:7

This practice was also found among the Roman soldiers.

And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots. Mt 27:35

So, based on the examples and explanation, casting lots sounds exactly like it is. A method of casting tokens or dice to determine a random outcome, although the randomness only appears to men before the die is cast. Afterwards, they believed God intervened to turn the lots exactly as they should be.

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Casting lots is described by other writers, allowing us to posit 3 possible descriptions of what is taking place here.

  • Chance: Stones are placed into an urn (one for each candidate); the urn is shaken, and the stone that falls out first is selected
  • Vote: The 11 vote on the matter by each marking a stone for either one of the candidates and placing their stone in the urn (like a ballot). Then the lots are removed and counted, the position being given to the man who receives the most votes
  • Hybrid: The 11 vote on the matter by each marking a stone for either one of the candidates and placing their lot in the urn. The urn is shaken, and the lot that falls out first is selected. The outcome still depends on chance, but the opinions of the 11 affect the probability

The text does not provide sufficient detail to determine which of these options (or further hybrids amongst them) was used. The implication is that which is left to chance in this matter would be left to God.


See discussion of the Greek terminology here & competing commentaries explaining the phenomenon–and its usage by Homer and other writers–here.

*note that pieces of wood could be used in place of stones, the method being essentially the same

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