An interesting overview of Coptic Patristic literature in the Cambridge Ancient History

Quite by accident today I stumbled over a rather interesting overview of Coptic Patristic literature in a Google books preview of a volume of the Cambridge Ancient History, vol. XIII, The Late Empire, A.D. 337-425, ed. Averil Cameron &c, (1998) p.725 f. here.  It is quite difficult for the non-professional to get an orientation in this sort of field, and these couple of pages fill the bill admirably. 

It comes from section 7, pp.720-735, by Mark Smith of Oxford University.  Dr. Smith divides his topic into six sections:

  1. Magical texts
  2. The bible and apocrypha
  3. Patristic and homiletic works
  4. Monastic texts and martyrologies
  5. The Nag Hammadi library and related tractates
  6. Manichaean writings.

All are extremely interesting and well-referenced: here is the section on patristics.

Patristic literature in Coptic, at least for the period A.D. 337—425, consisted chiefly if not entirely of works translated from Greek. There is no evidence that any of the Fathers of the church, even those such as Athanasius or Cyril of Alexandria, who lived in Egypt and had extensive dealings with Egyptian monks, ever wrote in the language of that country.[42] According to a tradition preserved by Epiphanius,[43] a certain Hieracas (c. 270-3 60) was the first to write commentaries and other treatises in Coptic. No trace of his work has survived, unless it be an Akhmimic MS. of fourth-century date containing psalms or hymns which some have attributed to him.[44] This being the case, it is difficult to evaluate the tradition critically. For the purposes of the present discussion, Coptic patristic literature may be divided into two categories: works preserved in manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries, and those preserved in manuscripts of later date. Only a few texts fall into the first category. The treatise on the Pascha by Melito of Sardis is attested by three early manuscripts, one Akhmimic and two Sa’idic, as well as a few fragments.[45] One of the Sa`idic MSS., which also contains Jonah, 1 Peter, an extract from 2 Maccabees, and an Easter homily, was written at the end of the third or the beginning of the fourth century. The other Sa`idic MS. and its Akhmimic counterpart are certainly  of fourth-century date. The translation of this work into Coptic has been seen as further evidence for a connection between Asiatic Christianity and certain Christian circles within Egypt.[46] Among other texts, the Shepherd of Hermas is preserved in an Akhmimic manuscript of the fourth century[47] and a Sa`idic one of the fifth century.48 Coeval with the latter is a Middle Egyptian version of the Didache.[49] The First Epistle of Clement is attested by two Akhmimic codices, one dating to the fourth century,[50] the other to the fifth.[51] The latter contains the Gospel of John and the Episde of James as well. There are, in addition, miscellaneous letters and sermons preserved in MSS. of fourth- or fifth-century date. These are mainly fragments and their authors have yet to be identified.[52]

Thus far, matters are relatively straightforward. For various reasons, however, the second category of texts is more problematic. A number of genuine patristic writings are preserved in Coptic MSS. which postdate the fifth century. Full lists of these have been compiled by Krause[53] and Orlandi.[54] Among the authors attested are Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, and the Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, there is no way of knowing when the works of these writers were first translated and, consequently, it is impossible to say whether Coptic versions of them were in circulation during the fourth and fifth centuries. The point is well illustrated by the four discourses of Gregory of Nazianzus preserved in Sa`idic and Bohairic MSS. of the eighth—eleventh centuries.[55] These may have been translated as early as the fifth century, as the editor of two of them has suggested,[56] but firm evidence that they were is lacking.

The picture is further complicated by a number of late MSS. containing works that are falsely attributed to one or another of the church Fathers. Some are genuine patristic writings that have been credited to the wrong authors. Others are totally spurious, having been composed in Coptic long after the end of the period under discussion. Examples in the first category include a homily of John Chrysostom on the Canaanite woman, wrongly attributed to Eusebius of Caesarea,[57] and an exegesis of a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, written by Basil but credited to Athanasius.[58] Both are preserved in a Sa`idic codex of seventh-century date. A good exemplar of the second category is the cycle of homilies ascribed to Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria from 385 to 412.[59] Works of this type will not be taken into consideration here.

In general, it can be said that the translators of patristic literature into Coptic were not interested in theological questions as such. Rather, they were influenced by practical concerns. Texts were selected for translation either because they were valuable for liturgical purposes, or capable of providing moral instruction or spiritual edification.[60]

42 Arguments to the contrary are unconvincing, e.g. Lefort (1953a); cf. Draguet (1980) 111*—12*.
43 Haer. LXVII. 1.2—3.
44 Lefort (1939) 1-6; Peterson (1947).
45 See Goehring (1984); Crum and Bell (1922) 47-9 .
46 Orlandi (1986) 59.
47 Lefort (1952) ii-iv and 1-18.
48 Ibid. viii-ix and 25-6.
49 Ibid. ix-xv and 32-4.
50 Schmidt (1908).
51 Rosch (1910) 1-88.
52 E.g. Crum (1905) nos . 269, 279 , 285, 521, 1220; Till (1931).
53 Krause (1980) columns 707, 710-11.
54 Orlandi (1970) 69-88, 115-24. Cf. idem (1973), (1984).
55 For bibliography on the editions of the MSS. in question, see Lafontaine (1981) 38-40.
56 Ibid. 43. The same writer expresses a more cautious view at Lafontaine (1980b) 39 and (1980a) 201.
57 Mercati (1907).
58 Orlandi (1975) 52—3.
59 Orlandi (1985) 103-4; cf. idem (1973). 
60 Orlandi (1986) 71-2.

The abbreviated references point to the back of the book, where they are given in full: a system full of peril to the reader, if the editor fails to ensure that every volume does actually get included in the bibliography. 

Footnotes 53 and 54, containing lists of Patristic works in Coptic, are worth expanding here.  What a pity neither is in English or French!

Krause, M. (1980) ‘Koptische Literatur’, in W. Helck and W Westendorf (eds.), Lexicon der Agyptologie Vol. 3 (Wiesbaden) columns 694-728
Orlandi, T. (1970) Elementi di lingua e letteratura copta. Milan
Orlandi, T. (1973) ‘Patristica copta e patristica greca’, Vetera Christianorum 10: 327-41

The same volume also contains a useful article on Syriac.  It is a reminder not to neglect this series, which is a useful entry point to the literature.

In my teens I used to buy volumes of the CAH, saving up money from birthdays to do so.  Unfortunately I started at the beginning, rather than in the historical section, and ended up with 4 volumes of mainly dry archaeology reports.  Naturally my interest waned, and I stopped buying them.  In retrospect, if I had had a friend who could advise me, he would probably have told me to start in the Principate, with the early Caesars, and I might well have read through the series.  The auto-didact faces many problems, of course.   Those who receive reading lists at university are rarely grateful enough for them!


Leave a Reply