An overview of and introduction to Coptic literature

Here are a few notes from a lengthy article in the DACL, which I found on my shelves in photocopy form this afternoon.

1. COPTIC LANGUAGE.  This is the language of Christian Egypt, ancient Egyptian with many borrowings from Greek, even in documentary texts, but written in Greek letters with some demotic letters.  Almost all the ecclesiastical words are Greek.  The first proto-Coptic appears in a London horoscope composed ca. 100 AD, the “demotic magic” of London and Leyden (ca. 200-300 AD) and a magical text in Paris (275-400 AD).  The first of these seems to be in a dialect related to Akhmimic, the others closer to Middle Egyptian.

2. DIALECTS.  The oldest texts are the graffiti of Akhmim, in the dialect known as Akhmimic, even though it is found in places as far removed from Akhmim as Panopolis.  The oldest document is the horoscope above; the most recent is in the copies of the 3rd century Acts of Pilate in the 4-5th century.  There is also a “sub-Akhmimic” dialect, showing mixture with Sahidic, perhaps due to transportation into Upper Egypt.  This appears in an ancient version of the gospel of John and in the Acts of Paul.

Sahidic is the literary language of Christian Egypt, because it is used in the works of Shenoute, the most important Coptic author (d. 452 AD).  From the 5-9th centuries it was the language of Coptic writers and of the liturgy, spoken from Aswan to the Delta.  Most of the Sahidic manuscripts are from the library of the White Monastery (Deir el-Abiad) at Atripe, 8km north of Sohag, and it may be the dialect of that place.  In the 18th century Assemani brought a large number of mss from there to Rome, which were split on his death between the Vatican library and the Biblioteca Borbonica at Naples.  C. G. Woide also acquired some, which ended up in the Bodleian library in Oxford.  Others went to the Marciana in Venice, others via Henry Tattam to Lord Crawford and thence to the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and some in Berlin, St. Petersburg and Vienna.  In 1884 most of what remained at the library was transferred to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.  In 1910 a discovery of 58 mss was made at the monastery of St. Michael in the Fayum, mostly complete (unusually) and mostly with dates on them.  In December 1911 these were bought by J. Pierpont Morgan, who gave photographic reproductions of them to many great European libraries.  The oldest of these mss dated to 832 AD, the latest to 914.  Nearly all Sahidic manucripts are by scribes from the school of Touton in the south of the Fayum.  There is also a “neo-Sahidic” of the late period, spotted with words from Bohairic.

Bohairic was the dialect of Lower Egypt, and almost everything that remains comes from the monastery of St. Macarius in the Wadi n’Natun.  None is more ancient than the 9th century.  The monophysite patriarchate of Alexandria transferred to this monastery in the 6th century, and so the liturgy and accompanying Saints’ lives, martyrdoms and homilies form a mass of Bohairic literature.  The monastery was destroyed for the fifth and final time in 817, which is why the surviving mss are all so late.  The dialect was perhaps restricted to monks and clergy, but preserves many ancient forms.  Parchment Bohairic mss are of the 9-10th century; paper ones (the Arabs having introduced this in the 9th century) then become standard.  In the 10th century there was a revival in Coptic. But in 1131 the patriarch Gabriel ordered that the Lord’s Prayer be given in Arabic, indicating that general understanding of Coptic was waning.  By the 14th century the liturgy is translated into Arabic, and glossaries and grammars of Coptic are written, proof that it was no longer well understood. In the 17th century the Englishman Huntington visited St. Macarius, but only a ms. of the gospels in that collection can be shown to be from there.  The German Wansleben (Vansleb) was unable to visit the monastery but bought mss, today in the Bibliotheque Nationale Francais.  In 1715 J.-S. Assemani bought many mss, now in the Vatican.  In 1844 Tischendorff bought numbers of fragments, mostly now in Leipzig but some in Cambridge.  In 1920 H. G. Evelyn-White found other fragments, often completing some of those found by Tischendorff or in the Vatican.

The Fayumic (or Baschmouric) dialect is contemporary with Bohairic.  Most of the remains are 9th century, but the translation of the bible is much older.

3. TRANSLATIONS OF THE BIBLE. The bible was a model for Coptic writers who followed even Greek elements embedded in the text.  Most important are the akhmimic translations, above all of the minor prophets,  and, in sub-akmimic, the gospel of John.  Sahidic mss are numerous for the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the books of wisdom, and the prophets, but many are just fragments.  In Sahidic the book of Job is pre-hexaplaric, but that of Isaiah based on the Hexapla.  The NT tends to a “Western” text type.  The Bohairic NT is related to ms. B and the great uncials.  There are only fragments of the fayumic version.  Many pieces of the fayumic NT are in the bindings in the Morgan collection.

4. APOCRYPHA.  Most of these are translated from Greek, but often with Coptic additions, usually with a tendency to the marvellous or fantastic.  OT apocrypha include: The History of Adam; Enoch; Testaments of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the death of the patriarch Isaac; Paralipomena Ieremiae.  Three apocalypses of late Jewish origin, attributed to Elias and Sophonias, the first and second of which are extant in akhmimic, the second also in sahidic, and the third only in sahidic.  NT apocrypha include the Protevangelium of James, the letters of Christ and Abgar, the Acts of Pilate, the gospel of Nicodemus, the gospel of the 12 apostles, the gospel of Bartholomew, the life of the holy Virgin, the assumption of the Virgin, the death of St. Joseph.  Apocryphal acts: Andrew, Bartholomew, Stephen, James son of Alphaeus, Voyages of John, Death of John, Martydom of Luke, Martyrdom of Mark, Matthew (Preaching, Acts, Death),  Acts of Paul, Martyrdom of Paul, Philip (Preaching, Martyrdom), Peter (Acts, Martyrdom, Acts of Peter and Paul), Simon (Acts, Martyrdom), Thaddeus (Acts), Thomas (gospel, preaching, martyrdom).  Apocryphal revelations: Mysteries of St. John, Apocryphon of John the Baptist (author cites Theophilus and Cyril), Apocalypse of Paul, Investiture of St. Michael, Investiture of Gabriel.  The Nag Hammadi discoveries must be added to  this.

5.  APOSTOLIC FATHERS.  There are few patristic translations initially. By the time the Coptic church was writing its own works, these early texts had mostly lost their interest.  The Didache existed in Akhmimic, and 10-12.2 is extant in British Library Or. 9271.  The Shepherd of Hermas (Sahidic). 1 Clement (Sahidic and Akmimic) was extant in a Strasburg ms. and a nearly complete ms. at Berlin.  The “De virginitate” of Clement, or Athanasius (!) exists.  A Sahidic version of the letters of Ignatius is known.  There are extracts of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus in the Bohairic catena of de Lagarde from 888 AD, but this catena was probably translated from Greek rather than compiled in Coptic.

6.  TRANSLATED HOMILIES.  Most coptic literature is connected with the liturgy.  Many Greek homilies exist in Coptic, usually under the wrong name and often with modifications.  Coptic homilies consist of a series of anecdotes, often about the miracles of a saint, often rather rubbishy.  Abu’l Barakat in his (Arabic) Lamp of Shadows gives a list of literature used by Christians, probably Coptic (online here).  O’Reilly gives a list of authors, works, manuscripts and publications, too long to give here.  Authors: Acacius of Caesarea, Amphilochius of Iconium, Athanasius, Anastasius of Echaites, Basil of Caesarea, Benjamin of Alexandria, Celestine of Rome, Constantine of Assiut, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Damian of Alexandria, Demetrius of Antioch, Dioscorus of Alexandria, Ephrem Syrus, Epiphanius, Isaiah of Scete, Eustathius of Thrace, Evodius, Flavian of Ephesus, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, Hippolytus, John of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, John of Parallos (6th cent.), Isaac of Antioch, Isaac of Kalamon, Mark of Alexandria, Paul of Tammah, Peter of Alexandria, Peter Mongus, Proclus of Cyzicus, Rufus of Shotep, Severus of Antioch, Severian of Gabala, Theodore of Ancyra, Theodore of Antioch (wrongly attributed), Theodosius of Alexandria, Theodosius of Jerusalem (ps.Theodosius), Theodotus of Ancyra, Theopompus of Antioch, Theophilus of Alexandria, and Timothy of Alexandria.

7.  THE FIRST HERMITS.  There are many lives of hermits in Coptic.  Most of these were compiled for use in services on the date of the commemoration of the saint.  There is no Coptic life of Paul the first hermit, but there is a Coptic version of S. Jerome’s life of him, translated from Latin (!).  Athanasius life of Anthony exists in a Sahidic version.  There are fragments of the letters of Anthony.

8.  PACHOMIUS.  Pachomius (d. 345-6) was the founder of monasticism in Upper Egypt, and the creator of the Pachomian rule.  His Life exists in Bohairic, in Sahidic (in fragments of 6 different versions), and in many Arabic versions.  The Coptic seems to be a translation of a Greek text, to which Coptic speeches of unknown origin have been added.  Most of the monastic literature is in Greek, or Coptic and Arabic (and even Ethiopic) versions of this.  Only the Shenouda material is of Coptic origin.  The Arabic version of the life of Pachomius, made in 1259, was made direct from the Greek. 

The great work of Pachomius was his Rule.  It is well known in Greek, and in a longer Latin translation by S. Jerome, who says ut erant de aegyptiaca in graecam linguam versa (as was translated from Egyptian into the Greek language).  A Coptic fragment at Paris, closely related to Jerome’s text, may show that the Greek text known today is an abbreviation.  The Instructions of Aba Pachomius and Counsels also exist.  There is also a homily of Pachomius for Holy Week, and another homily is extant., There is a reference to a lost treatise “on the end of the community”.

9.  SHENOUDA. Shenouda is the most important Coptic author.  He was the superior of the monastery of Atripe (the White Monastery), an organiser and reformer of monasticism.  His life was filled with impetuosity and a great zeal for holiness and good order.  His rule has a certain “bonhomie” but his discipline was strict, including corporal punishment sometimes so severe as to result in fatalities, and otherwise unknown to Egyptian monasticism.  His monastery contained 2,200 monks and 1,800 nuns, often drawn from the peasant class, who perhaps recognised no other form of discipline.  His life was written in Sahidic by his disciple Besa, and remains of this exist, but a Bohairic version has come down to us.  There were other Lives also.  He acquired a great reputation for sanctity and orthodoxy.  Cyril of Alexandria invited him and Victor, Archimandrite of Tanennisi, to  the Council of Ephesus in 433, where Shenouda made an impact at the start of the council by his violent language against Nestorius.  In 450 Egypt was invaded from the south by the Blemmyes, and Maximus, dux of Upper Egypt, asked his blessing before the campaign, and received it.  He was also present at the council of Chalcedon in 451.  Curiously Palladius does not mention him in the Lausiac History, although Palladius visited the White Monastery; but Shenouda was a Copt through and through, while Palladius was a Greek who disdained the Copts.  The reputation of Shenouda endured to the Arab period, when Abu’l Barakat in the 14th century mentioned that a great number of his works existed in Sahidic, and some had been translated into Bohairic and Arabic.  In the west his name was forgotten until modern times, although many of his works are extant in manuscript in the Vatican and Naples libraries.  83 works were published by J. Leipoldt in Sinuthii Archimandritae vita in Corp. Script. orient. 41, 1906, but more sermons and letters exist, as well as those published by Amelineau in Oeuvres de Schenoudi 1907-14.  His literary style is complicated and his sentences are often rather involved, and full of Greek words.

10. PISENTIUS.  Pisentius was a monk of el-Asas, near Jeme, opposite Thebes.  Ca. 598 he became bishop of Keft (Qibt) and died ca. 631-2.  His Life exists (a) in Sahidic, attributed to his disciple John; (b) in Bohairic, attributed to Moses, bishop of Keft; (c) in two Arabic versions.  The texts have the same basic content, but many divergences.  A miracle worked by the saint is recorded in Bohairic and included in the Synaxary.  One discourse is preserved from the period when he was a monk, and fragments of others in his life and elsewhere.  There are letters attributed to him (Nau, Journal Asiatique, 1917, p.415).  There is also a Prophetic letter, perhaps related to the “revelations” of ps.Methodius, containing predictions of the Arab conquest and even the Turkish invasion of the 12th century, published in Revue de l’Orient Chretien 191, 88, 318.

11. LIVES OF THE SAINTS.  There are a considerable number of these.  A full list with bibliography can be found in O’Leary, col.1617.  These include lives of Athanasius, Dioscorus of Alexandria, Epiphanius, Gregory Thaumaturgus, John IV of Alexandria, John Khame (the black), Macarius the Great (d. 390), Macarius of Alexandria, Samuel of Kalamon, Serapion of Thmuis, Severus of Antioch, Simeon Stylites.  Interesting is Takla Haymanat, an Ethiopian saint whose cult was spread in Egypt.  He visited the patriarch Gabriel (915-923) in Egypt.

 12.  FICTION WRITING.  In all the Coptic Lives, even in the Life of Shenouda himself, there is a considerable amount of material which is plainly invented, and marked by the introduction of improbable marvels.  Some Coptologists have thought of this as a characteristic of Coptic literature, and indeed of ancient Egyptian literature also.  In some cases the Coptic folk-story continues a much older tradition.  The  legend of Hilaria, the female monk who was the daughter of the emperor Zeno, is itself merely a recasting of the ancient Egyptian story of the princess Bent-Resh, and belongs to a well-known genre of folk-tale where a woman dresses as a man.  The legend of St. Marina also belongs to this class of story.  But in others the Coptic novel really contains a foreign story.  The novel of Eustathius and Theopiste is a version of the story of Eustace Placidas.  The novel of Gesius and Isidore is a tale of voyages and adventures, finding the relics of John the Baptist at Emesa.  The Cambyses Romance, attributed to Callisthenes, recounts the invasion of Egypt by that Persian king, based on Greek histories, Herodotus, the OT, and reworked in Coptic.  Cambyses is identified with Nebuchadnezzar, and the Persians, Babylonians and Assyrians are all confounded.  The legend is Byzantine, tho, rather than Egyptian, but set in Egypt.  The Alexander Romance, also attributed to Callisthenes, is also an import from Greek into Coptic.  The legend of Maximus and Domitius is a Syriac import, again of Byzantine origin, and extant in Bohairic.  The legend of Salome resembles that of St. Abraham of Qiduna, and again relates to the type of story found in Hilaria and Marina.  There is also a cycle of legends called Onnophrius, about travelling the desert.  There is also a legend of Thalassion, of the kind where a message is sent reading “kill the bearer”.

 13. APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM.  This collection of sayings of the Fathers exists in many languages, and was made between 460-470 and 500 AD, among the followers of the abbot Poemen.  However even in 425 a prior collection existed, as Sulpicius Severus quotes from it.  The main collection exists in Greek, Bohairic, Sahidic, Latin (quoted by S. Benedict), Armenian, Georgian, and Arabic.  The Arabic version is late and of not much importance; the Armenian and Georgian versions of much importance.  The original language was Greek. 

14.  HISTORY.  Severus of Ashmounein, the author of the History of the Patriarchs, today extant only in Arabic, refers to archives and historical documents preserved in the monastery of S. Macarius in the Wadi n’Natrun, and names the authors of the archives, the deacon Apa Cyrus (Baqira) and Michael, son of Apater of Damanhur.  Since this monastery was the patriarchal seat, it would be necessary to refer to legal precedents, and that such an archive would naturally come into existance.  Fragments exist, although none attributable to those authors.  A long fragment in Bohairic describes part of the life of Timothy Aelurus, and is possibly the work of the Abbot George who wrote a history of the patriarchs from Cyril I to Alexander II.  Another fragment in Sahidic published by Crum traces the events of the year 541.  A Bohairic fragment discusses the controversy over John IV, of which an Arabic version exists.  A fragment of a translation of the Church History of Eusebius exists.  The remains of a Coptic version of the Lausiac History of Palladius are also extant.  The great chronicle of John of Nikiu no longer exists in Coptic, but a fragment in Sahidic recording the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses and very similar to John’s text is extant.  John of Maiuma, ca. 515, compiled in Greek a collection of anecdotes which he called the Plerophoriae,  using material by Peter the Iberian (d.488) who was involved in the consecration of Timothy Aelurus, and this Plerophoriae is mentioned in a 6-7th century catalogue.  There are remains of a Sahidic version of the work also.  A fragment of a history of the time of Justinian has been published by Crum as A coptic palimpsest in Proceed. society bibl. arch. 1897, p.310-322.

15.  THEOLOGICAL DIALOGUES.  A papyrus codex of the 6-7th century, published by Crum (Der papyrus-codex…,1915), begins with the Sahidic text of a session with questions posed by deacons Anthimus and Stephen to Cyril of Alexandria, and continues with a number of question-and-answer sessions, interspersed with letters.  There also exist some questions and answers on sentences in the gospels.

16.  THE PASSIONS OF THE MARTYRS.  Most Coptic martyrdoms describe saints during the Great Persecution under Diocletian.  All of them are related, and follow a similar model.  Delahaye has stated that none of them bear any resemblance to the historical martyrdoms.  The classic model for them all is ps.Josephus, also known as IV Maccabees, where Eleazar is martyred by the pagans.  Some form a cycle of stories.  There are also martyrdoms which are really apocryphal acts, or else translated from Greek but embellished.  Finally there are the panegyrics to the martyrs, which is a related form of literature.  More important are the “new martyrdoms” which record those put to death under the Arabs, such as the martyrdom of John of Phanidjoit in 1209 AD, certainly the work of an eye-witness (Amelineau, Journal. Asiatique 1887, p.134-189), of Michael of Damietta, of Salib, etc.  O’Leary gives a list of martyrdoms printed.

17. LITURGICAL BOOKS.  Coptic literature is ecclesiastical, and liturgical above all else.  The Coptic liturgy that remains is above all the Bohairic rite.  I.e. that of Alexandria, as developed in the monastery of S. Macarius in the Wadi n’Natrun.   Some of it has been translated from Greek.   The definitive edition of the rite is much later than the Arab conquest.  The most ancient manuscript is 10th century, from a period when Severus of Ashmounein was starting to write history in Arabic.  Nearly all the Bohairic manuscripts of the Vatican are acta, with a note against them of the day on which they were to be read as part of the liturgy.

18.  POETRY.  Poetry is found principally from the 9-10th centuries.  There are two volumes of Sahidic hymns in the Morgan collection (XIII, XIV) but most poetry is in Bohairic.  There is a Byzantine element in Coptic poetry, and many pieces have a dramatic structure.  It is possible that in the 9th century popular Coptic poetry existed, but if so it has left no traces.  The hymns are a very important part of Coptic worship.  Among the hymns are the Theotokies for each day of the week.  All these hymns are of two metres, “Adam” or “Batos”, the first in a short metre, the second longer.  The hymn for Sunday commences with the word “Adam”, that forWednesday with “Batos”, hence the names.  The “Adam” hymns are recited for the first three days of the week, and the “Batos” hymns for the rest.  Each strophe contains four verses.  The Difnar (antiphonary) is a collection of hymns for every day of the year, and celebrate the principal saints.  Rhyme only appears in Coptic verse under Arabic influence, and following Arabic models.  The Triadon is a poem of the 13th century, preserved in a single manuscript in Naples.  Originally of 750 verses, only 428 remain.   It is written in neo-Sahidic, indeed one of the last compositions in Sahidic, and gives a summary of the history of the bible and the lives of the saints.  The style is tortuous.

19.  CANON LAW.  The Didache (q.v.) is undoubtedly the most ancient piece of canon law.  It is followed by the great collections of Canones Apostolorum and Canones ecclesiastici, whose Sahidic text was published by P. de Lagarde and by U. Bouriant using a defective manuscript in the Jacobite Coptic Patriarchate, and the Bohairic was published by Henry Tattam (Apostolical Constitutions, 1848).  The Canones Apostolorum are a recension of the Constit. apost. vol. VIII, 47, and the Canones Ecclesiastici are a compilation of three documents: 30 apostolic canons, attributed to Clement of Rome; 32 canons of “ordinances” of the Egyptian church; and an epitome of the Constit. apost. VIII, 1-46.  There is also a ps.Hippolytus, and it is noteworthy that Abu’l Barakat mentions the “canons of Hippolytus” among the works well-known in Christian Egypt.  There are also Coptic texts relating to the councils of Nicaea and Ephesus extant.  A papyrus of the 6-7th century gives a set of Canons of Athanasius of Alexandria (publ. by Riedel and Crum, London, 1904 with two fragments of a parchment codex, one at Naples in the Borgia collection and the other in Vienna in the Rainer collection), and these are the basis of a Coptic-Arabic collection of 107 canons.  A papyrus of Turin, much disordered, gives a set of Coptic canons of St. Basil.  In the Coptic-Arabic literature of the middle ages there are new Coptic canons of Christodulos (1047-1077), Cyril II (1078-92), Macarius (1103-29), Gabriel ibn Turaik (1131-45) and Cyril ibn Laqlaq (1235-43).  There are also canonists who made collections of canons, such as Abu Solh ibn Bana (12th c.), Abu’l Fadail ibn al-`Assal (13th c.) and Macarius (14th c.).  For monastic communities there was the letter of Macarius.

20.  GLOSSARIES AND GRAMMARS.  Fortunately there are glossaries with a series of Coptic and Greek words.  There is such a glossary for the books of Hosea and Amos, another glossary in a 6th century London papyrus, and a Coptic syllabary at the university of Michigan.  Much later are the Coptic-Arabic and Greek-Coptic-Arabic glossaries.  In the 11th century there were grammarians explaining the Coptic language to those who only spoke Arabic.  The principal grammarian is As-Sah al-As`ad Abu’l Faraj ibn al-Assal, whose Muqaddima or “principles” are an introduction to Bohairic grammar.  There is also a version of the same text adapted for Sahidic.  Another well-known grammarian was Athanasius of Qos (11th cent.), whose work is extant.

21.  SCIENTIFIC WORKS.  There are Coptic texts on alchemy and medicine, but all of them are translated from Arabic.  Coptic was never used for these purposes prior to the Arab conquest — Greek was the language of choice.  A 9th century Coptic medical papyrus was discovered by U. Bouriant in 1892, containing 237 formulae, in no particular order, and published by E. Chassinat.

22.  GNOSTIC BOOKS.*  Gnosticism was very popular in Egypt.  The most important text preserved when O’Reilly wrote was the Pistis Sophia, which pretends to give the revelations delivered by Christ to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, 11 years after the Resurrection.  This is late and unintelligent production of Graeco-Egyptian gnosticism.  Some consider that it was composed in Greek and translated into Coptic, others that it was composed in Coptic based on a mixture of Greek and Coptic sources. The ms. is in the British Library, Add. 5114.  Two Gnostic treatises are at Oxford in the Bruce papyrus, of the 5-6th century, translated from Greek: the books of Jeu.  There is also a magical manuscript on the letters of the alphabet at Oxford, Bodl. Hunt. 393.

* O’Reilly’s information is rendered obsolete by the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, and also the Manichaean codexes at Medinet Madu and Kellis, but is given as far as it goes.  A series of discoveries of Coptic texts have been made throughout the 20th century.

Bibliography: O’Leary, Litterature Copte in Dictionaire d’archeologie chretienne et de liturgie, t. 9, 2e partie (Lit-Lydie), 1930, col.1599-1635.  Lengthy bibliographies are given for all texts referenced, and where they are published. The account must be considerably out of date, but is worth giving even in extract because few seem to have an overview of what exists.


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