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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > C > Coptic Literature

Coptic Literature

Since the publication of the article EGYPT, under which Coptic literature was treated, important discoveries of entirely new Sahidic material have taken place, and considerable portions of the Sahidic Version from manuscripts known already have been given to the public by very competent scholars.

The Morgan Collection

The most important of these discoveries was undoubtedly that of the library of the Monastery of St. Michael in the Fayûm (Spring, 1910). Most of the fifty-eight volumes of which it consisted found their way to Paris, where they were purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (Dec., 1911), in whose library (at New York) they are now preserved. 5000 volumes remained in Egypt, and, with a few fragments of the same origin, are kept in the Egyptian Museum at Cairo. With the exception of one Fayûmic and one Bohairic manuscript the whole collection is in the Sahidic dialect. This had its home in Upper Egypt, but evidently it had spread in the Fayûm as a literary language as early as the eighth century, for some of our manuscripts are dated in the first quarter of the following century. The numerous colophons, however, all in the local Fayûmic idiom, show that the latter still obtained as a spoken language. One of the most important features of the Morgan collection is that it consists of complete volumes, while other collections, yet reputed so valuable, those of Rome, Paris, and London (see below under British Museum Collection), to name the principal ones, consist mostly of fragments. It is an inveterate habit with the Arabs of Egypt to tear the manuscripts they discover or steal, so as to give each member of the tribe his share of the spoils, and also in the hope of securing higher prices by selling the manuscripts piecemeal, a process fatal to literature, for while some leaves so treated will be scattered throughout the public or private collections of Europe and America, a good many more will either meet destruction or remain hidden indefinitely by the individual owners. Most of the manuscripts of the Monastery of St. Michael had already been divided into small lots of leaves and distributed among a number of Arabs when they were rescued at the cost of untold toil and expense.

Mr. Morgan's collection is no less remarkable as a group of dated manuscripts of absolutely certain provenance. We had a number of much older volumes or fragments, the ages of which, however, could not be determined with sufficient approximation, for lack of points of comparison, chronologically not too distant. The only points of comparison, so far, were two manuscripts dated A.D. 1006 (British Museum Or. 1320) and 1003 (Naples, Zoega, XI). There are indeed a few colophons in Paris with dates almost 100 years earlier but those colophons are generally separated from the manuscripts to which they belonged and consequently are of little or no use, the script of colophons being as a rule different from that in the body of the manuscript. Now the Morgan collection contains eighteen dates ranging from A.D. 832 to 914, so that our point of comparison is thrown practically 200 years nearer the older manuscripts in question. Many of the manuscripts are still in their original bindings, which are possibly the oldest, and certainly the best-authenticated, specimens of the art of bookbinding in that remote period. They consist of thick boards made of layers of papyrus sheets taken from older manuscripts. The covering is brown or deepened leather stamped with geometrical patterns, or cut though so as to show pieces of the same material, but of different colours (generally red or gold), slipped between the board and cover. In one case the decoration, exceedingly elaborate, was obtained by means of narrow strips of red parchment delicately stitched on the gilded cover of the boards and on the inner face of one of the boards, the name of the monastery is reproduced in the same manner on the turned-in edge of the leather covering. A dozen of the volumes are adorned with full-page miniatures representing the Virgin with her Divine Son at her breast or sitting in her lap, angels, martyrs, anchorites, and other saints. A wealth of decorations from the vegetable and animal realms runs along the margins and around the titles of the individual treatises, in almost all the volumes. It is the earliest and most complete attempt at illustrating and decorating yet discovered in Sahidic manuscripts.

The library of the Monastery of St. Michael was clearly a liturgical library, that is all its books were used in church. The following classified list of contents will give a fair idea of what a Coptic monastic library of that time was while it will also show the lacunæ with which it has come down to us.

Bible

Old Testament

Six complete books of the Sahidic version, namely, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, and Isaias, excepting 1:1-19, and 7:7-8.

New Testament

The Four Gospels (excepting Luke 4:33-9:30; 9:62-13:17), the fourteen Epistles of St. Paul, and the seven Catholic Epistles (I and II Peter, I-III John, James, and Jude). There is also a manuscript of the Bohairic Version of the Four Gospels, fragmentary, unfortunately, and without indication of provenance or date, and it remains to decide whether it belonged to the Monastery of St. Michael. Still it is probably older than any of the manuscripts so far known of that version and on that account it may prove of considerable value for textual criticism.

Liturgy

Synaxary

Over 100 homilies, discourses, eulogies, Acts of martyrs, lives of saints, and miscellaneous treatises, to be read in church on the various Sundays and feasts of the liturgical year. These have been recently classified by categories of feast, retaining, however, in each category, the order of the calendar.

An official and detailed catalogue of this rich collection is in course of preparation and there is every prospect that the editing and translating of these venerable relics will begin without unavoidable delay.

The British Museum's recent acquisitions

The British Museum acquired of late a number of valuable Sahidic manuscripts. Three of these, Or. 5000, Or. 5001 (both found together in a ruined monastery of Upper Egypt), and Or. 7594 (bought from a native antiquarian at Ghizer, Cairo) are on papyrus, and bear the appearance of high antiquity, especially Or. 7594, which the authorities of the British Museum date in the middle of the fourth century. The others, Or. 6780-6784, 6799-6804, 6806, 7021-7030, are on parchment, excepting a few on paper, and their dates of writing, so far as they are given, vary from A.D. 979 to 1053. These probably all come from the Monastery of St. Mercurius in the desert west of Edfû (Upper Egypt). The following is a summary of contents of the twenty-five manuscripts:

Bible

Old Testament

Deuteronomy (excepting ii, 20-iv, 48; viii, 3-ix, 6; xiii, 17-xiv, 17; xviii, 11-xix, 1; xx, 6-xxii, 2; xxvi, 11-xxvii, 26, and a number of smaller lacunæ); Jonas (complete), Or. 7594 The Psalter (complete, including the uncanonical Psalm 151, Or. 5000, assigned to beginning of the seventh century).

New Testament

The Acts of the Apostles (excepting xxiv, 16-xxvi, 31), and a number of verses lacunous or entirely missing [Or. 7594]; The Apocalypse of St. John (excepting i, 1-8; xxii, 15-21), Or. 6803, paper, eleventh or twelfth century.

Liturgy

Lections and antiphons for the feasts of St. Michael [Or. 6781], St. Mercurius [6801], and St. Aaron, cenobite [7029].

Synaxary

Sources

On Or. 5000 and Or. 5001 cf. CRUM, Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts of the Brit. Museum (London, 1905), Nos. 940, 171; WALLIS BUDGE, The earliest known Coptic Psalter in the Dialect of Upper Egypt from the unique Papyrus oriental 5000 in the Brit. Museum (London. 1908); IDEM, Coptic Homilies in the dialect of Upper Egypt (from Or. 5001 text and English tr., London 1910). On Or. 7594 and Or. 6803 cf. WALLIS BUDGE Coptic Biblical Texts of Upper Egypt, with ten plates (London, 1912), with contributions by KENYON and BELL. On the St. Mercurius (Edfû) collection cf. RUSTAFJAELL, Light of Egypt, in which several of the Manuscripts are described and illustrated. The above account, however, is based on the writer's personal, though cursory inspection of most of the manuscripts. For those marked with an asterisk (*) he had to depend on the list kept in the Oriental Room of the British Museum.

About this page

APA citation. Hyvernat, E. (1914). Coptic Literature. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: The Encyclopedia Press. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/16027d.htm

MLA citation. Hyvernat, Eugène. "Coptic Literature." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 16 (Index). New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1914. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/16027d.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1914. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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