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Biblical Manuscripts of the Monastery of St. Shenoute the Archimandrite - Coptic Wiki

Biblical Manuscripts of the Monastery of St. Shenoute the Archimandrite

THIS CHAPTER WILL deal primarily with the survey of the published biblical manuscripts that came from the library of the Monastery of St. Shenoute. In addition to the history and the state of research on the subject, I will include brief comments on the extent and the character of this part of the collection. Based on manuscript identified so far, it will also address the role that the Fayoum area may have played in shaping the contents of the library.

For more than two centuries scores of scholars have contributed to identifying and publishing the remains of the biblical codices of this once great library. However, without the recent labors and publications of P. Nagel,[1] Franz J. Schmitz,[2] Karlheinz Schussler,[3] and Tito Orlandi,[4] the study presented here would have been nearly impossible to prepare in the short period of time it took.

History of the Library[5]

The library of a monastery is an indicator of the vision of its abbots and the literary usage of its monks. Its contents are an indicator of the history of that usage. Its current fate, however, is a measure of its decline. In that respect we had the greatest Coptic library in Upper Egypt in the fifth century and dare to say the greatest Coptic library ever assembled in all of Egypt to date. During the ninth to twelfth centuries the library of the monastery was esti­mated by Orlandi to contain at least 1,000 codices of varying sizes that may have reached 500 pages each.[6]

His average of 200 pages per codex would yield at least 200,000 pages, of which he estimates that we know of about 10 percent. A library such a long history would probably have gone through the typical three major stages that Coptic manuscripts have undergone: the papyrus stage from the fourth to the eighth to ninth centuries, the parch­ment stage from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, and the paper stage from the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries and later. According to Walter E. Crum, St. Shenoute in his writings mentioned the existence of what is commonly understood to be papyrus codices,[7] although among the surviv­ing fragments of the library they are virtually absent.

The of the parchment stage of the library[8] provides us with the typical codex material found there according to Orlandi.[9] The paper stage is not voluminous but is understandingly less dismembered, and would be primarily for liturgical purposes. In summary, we can image a library in the fifth and sixth centuries with thousands of small or medium papyrus volumes, especially of biblical codices to serve the thousands of monks and nuns that were there. When parchment replaced papyrus, there was more emphasis on larger, lectern­sized, mainly biblical and literary volumes arranged for liturgical functions. Both the Fayoum scriptoria and the monastery scriptorium were involved in this massive conversion process.

The paper stage in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries came at the time when the monastery and its Sahidic dialect was on the decline, so lectionaries became more abundant, Arabic translation of the bare essential liturgical texts were made, and biblical and literary works were lost in their entirety. However, there is nothing to explain the loss of virtually the entire papyrus collection or the totally missing biblical and literary works that would not be expected to be lost at that stage. Either a catastrophic event befell them or they were buried in a location at this monastic site that has not yet been discovered. Although I fear the former, I am hopeful of the latter.

History of Research on Biblical Manuscripts of the Monastery

The location of the library of the monastery, being conjectured as the mys­terious parallel narthex of the church,[10] was moved at a later date to the upper back room north of the Sanctuary area, a room, based on the pub­lished account of Crum[11] and later Orlandi,[12] that must have served as the staging area for the new parchment volumes being produced. I am basing this on the Coptic inscription in the north wall of the chamber room that Orlandi republished, which can be loosely translated as “small and larger unbound Four Gospels.”[13] This is an indication of storage of an unfinished product that was manufactured in the monastery scriptorium. It is interest­ing to note that only the mention of the Gospels, Catholic Epistles, and Acts on the north wall and psalms on the west wall were visible. Could it be that the rest were copied elsewhere, or is this all that Canon W.T. Oldfield[14] could have read at the time of his visit?

In any case, the library continued to exist in what was probably con­sidered a sacred room, which apparently was later, in the late eighteenth century, regarded as a treasure room. In about 1778 the librarian of the Vatican Library, J. Assemani (?), may have obtained the Borgia folios.[15] His success may have alerted Professor Charles G. Woide of Oxford and Admiral Jacobo Nani of Venice, who were able to obtain a significant number of from this collection by 1784. Before 1808 France was a recipient of some of these treasured folios.[16]

In the nineteenth century, French collectors[17] and others, especially English travelers, secured more of that collection for the libraries of their countries or for their own research.[18] It seems that most of the transactions were kept confidential or were con­ducted through agents of the monastery. Acquisitions by the Institut franfais d’archeologie orientale du Caire (IFAO)[19] in Cairo in the last quarter of the nineteenth century may have alerted French scholars in Egypt that there was a treasure well of these manuscripts that had not yet run dry.

So through the efforts of Gaston Maspero,[20] Emile C. Amelineau, and others in the mid 1880s, France acquired everything that was left in that small cham­ber, including the small scraps of parchment.[21] About four thousand and fragments in all made their way to the Bibliotheque nationale (BN) in Paris.[22] However not everything that belonged to the library was there at the time, because there were still hundreds of that were later acquired by a host of institutions in Europe, Egypt, and the United States. Biblical manuscripts were well represented in most of these acquisitions.

As a result, many orphan and fragments of the same biblical codices resided in multiple collections in many countries. Some are currently scattered over as many as ten different collections.[23]

The first copies of the biblical codices appeared in Giovanni L. Mingarelli’s edition of the Nani folios,[24] followed by Friedrich C. Munter’s publication of the Daniel fragments a year later,[25] and Agostino Giorgi’s publication of fragments of the Gospel of John from the Borgia collection later in that decade.[26] Then, a decade later, Woide used the Oxford in the appendix to his edition of the Greek New Testament.[27] The catalog edition of the Borgia Coptic collection by Georg Zoega in 1810[28] prompted more publications of biblical parts of this collection such as that of W.F. Engelbreth[29] who republished the Fayoumic fragments from that collection. Later in the century C. Cuegney published some of the biblical fragments that were in Paris at the time.[30]

However, thanks to Amelineau’s cataloguing[31] of the massive French acqui­sitions that began in 1890[32] and his publications of fragments from the BN and other collections,[33] publication of these texts came into vogue. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Agostino Ciasca[34] and P.J. Balestri[35] published the Borgia biblical collection and even integrated the that Mingarelli and others had published earlier. In 1892, Maspero published the Old Testament folios of the BN,[36] catalogued earlier by Amelineau.

This was followed by the publications of Marius Chaine[37] and Louis J. Delaporte[38] of some of the New Testament fragments of that collection in the early twentieth century. Within the next few decades after 1883 Oscar von Lemm published many of the biblical fragments of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Berlin.[39] Carl Wessely published the fragments[40] and J. Schleifer published the British library fragments.[41] Also, Pierre Lacau,[42] E. Chassinat,[43] and Henri Munier[44] published much of the IFAO and the Egyptian fragments in Egypt.

These publications started to take shape in a diplomatic edition rather than the continuous text format of Amelineau, Ciasca, and Maspero. In England G. Horner was compiling an edition of all the fragments of the Sahidic New Testament.[45] He used most of the fragments that were known in his time, including the hundred of fragments he acquired for the British in 1875. This publication is still referenced whenever Sahidic New Testament texts are published in lists or texts.

In 1912-1913, Adolphe Hebbelynck published two articles,[46] listing all the manuscripts in the Borgia Collection of this library from the Old Testament and the Gospels with the known related fragments from other collections. He relied on the earlier works of Crum,[47] Wessely,[48] and others in compiling the list. Later A. Vaschalde published a series of articles[49] listing all the published fragments of the Coptic Bible. This ushered in a new era of publications that included works by Hebbelynck,[50] Walter C. Till,[51] and others, which published some of the fragments from the above collections that escaped the first round of publishing.

In the 1980s, Franz J. Schmitz and Gerd Mink began to expand the scope of Hebbelynck’s work by publishing lists of all the known fragments of the Sahidic New Testament, whether they belonged to this library or to others. This yielded three volumes on the Gospels[52] and one on the Catholic Epistles.[53] Nagel, then in East Germany, was working on a simi­lar project for the Old Testament. This yielded two articles that primarily used Hebbelynck’s edition in being limited to Borgia’s first 32 codices.[54] However, he put more emphasis on the codicology of these codices and identified more fragments. In the 1990s, Schussler began to compile his own listing of the codices of both Old and New Testaments.[55] His work has yielded seven volumes so far, with data on 180 codices. However, this cre­ated three different reference numbers to the biblical codices of the library over and above Orlandi’s overall scheme of identifying the library’s codices as a whole.

Also, more fragments from the library were published during the same period by Nagel,[56] Schussler,[57] and Anne Boud’hors.[58] The lat­ter published material from among the smaller fragments that Amelineau placed together in BN Copte 132 and 133 as well as the material from De Ricci’s collection that were cataloged under BN Copte 161. She also pub­lished fragments from the library that are now in the Louvre [59] and Strasbourg University.[60] Further, whole book publications from other loca­tions either included a collation against or selections from codices belonging to this library such as those of James Drescher[61] and Frank Feder.[62]

The Current Extent of the Biblical Collection

In Orlandi’s published article about the monastic library, he mentions ninety-four Biblical codices out of about 325 identified codices or about 29 percent.[63] In his recently published Internet site[64] the number has grown to about 100. These are arranged as follows:

A) Old Testament:                              36

  1. Pentateuch[65]                                10
  2. Historical[66]                                    6
  3. Poetic[67]                                           12 (10 are Psalm codices)
  4. Major Prophets[68]                       6
  5. Minor Prophets[69]                      2

B) New Testament:                           64

  1. Gospels[70]                                      52
  2. Pauline[71]                                        4
  3. Catholic Epistles[72]                   2
  4. Acts[73]                                              5
  5. Apocalypse[74]                               1


The surviving manuscripts of the Old and New Testament books preserve the text in a mostly fragmentary way with portions of the same verse even being preserved in different collections. They are spread among twenty­seven collections in twelve different countries over three continents. The Paris, Vatican, and collections, in that order, hold the largest num­ber of known biblical fragments. The least fragmentary and most complete is Job, and to a lesser extent Ecclesiastes. The least preserved are the Minor Prophets with only fragments from four of the twelve books identified so far. Several of the Old Testament historical books did not survive in the library on the basis of what has been identified so far. The New Testament books, though fragmentary, preserve the majority of the text.

The Fayoum Connection

Arnold Van Lantschoot in his study of Coptic colophons[75] showed that Fayoum was the producing center for some of the codices found in the library. This concept was expanded decades later in Nanka S.H. Jansma’s work on the illuminations of the library manuscripts,[76] which showed that the more elaborately illuminated manuscripts were productions of Fayoum scriptoria. Lantschoot’s publications of these colophons showed that there were manuscripts produced in Fayoum for use in Fayoumic religious institu­tions, which were later rededicated to this monastery. All this indicates that by the tenth century, the authorities of St. Shenoute’s Monastery turned to the Fayoum scriptoria to help in the massive conversion of the library from the ancient papyrus codices to parchment. This, however, did not last, as these scriptoria were made extinct during the time of Caliph al-Hakim in the early years of the eleventh century.[77]

In 1808 Etienne Quatremere, in his study of Egypt and the available Coptic manuscripts in European collections in his time, published Fayoumic texts from BN Copte 78.[78] He referred to them with the designation Bashmuric. Zoega[79] later published his famous catalog of Coptic manuscripts in the Borgia collection, of which all the non-Bohairic fragments were acquired from the monastery circa 1778. In that catalog, Zoega published twelve folios from three manuscripts of what he also referred to as Bashmuric texts.[80] These folios were immediately republished by his fellow Dane Engelbreth and were com­mented on by Jean F. Champollion in a later work.[81]

Later in the century von Lemm published five folios from the Golenshiev collection in St. Petersburg[82] belonging to the Gospels of the Borgia collection. This was later republished by Alla Elanskaya in 1969 in her catalog of the Coptic collection of the State Public library of Leningrad.[83] In 1887, Jakob Krall[84] published one folio from among the 1,000 folios from the monastery that the Austrian National Library in had obtained. Two years later Maspero[85] published one of the folios in this dialect that he found in the BN collection. Also in the same year Urbain Bouriant published several of the fragments obtained by IFAO in Cairo from the monastery collection.[86]

They were later republished in a better edition by Emile Chassinat in 1902. This publication ushered in the designation used in reference to these codices until today, that is, Manuscripts A, B, and C. In 1909 Wessely[87] republished the lone folio from C, the Pauline Epistles, found in along with the folios from the same manuscript in Cairo that Bouriant and Chassinat had published earlier.

In 1910 J. David[88] published the Paris BN fragments of the Gospel of St. Matthew from Codex B, the Gospels. Then Hebbelynck[89] published one of the folios of fragments from Corinthians I found in the same collection from C. Lastly, in 1987 Boud’hors[90] published some of the smaller fragments from manu­scripts A and C that she identified. She also included a brief summary of where the manuscripts are and who published what. There is no doubt that a publication of all that remained of these manuscripts is sorely needed.

Now we ask the question, what are these manuscripts doing hundreds of miles away from where one would expect to find them? There are frag­ments from other Fayoumic manuscripts that were identified among those attributed to the library, but only the three manuscripts discussed above will be addressed. The identified complete folios or fragments of these three manuscripts can be summarized as follows:

  • Ms. A. Isaiah and Jeremiah: fifteen folios (Borgia, BN, IFAO)
  • Ms. B. The four Gospels (only fragments from Matthew, Mark, and John): fifteen folios (Borgia, St. Petersburg, BN)
  • Ms. C. Pauline Epistles (fragments from 10 of the fourteen epistles): eighteen folios (Borgia, St. Petersburg, BN)

These manuscripts are typical of those that would be read by monks. The order of the biblical books included in manuscripts B and C is typical of other manuscripts found in the monastery and in the Hamuli collection.[91] The size of manuscripts A and C is typical of a church reading book. One possible conclusion that can be drawn from such observation is that these manuscripts were once the property of a monastery (or a church) in the Fayoum area that was ruined some time in the tenth to twelfth centuries. They were probably carried to the Monastery of St. Shenoute along with other manuscripts by monks from Fayoum who joined the monastery. They may have been put to use for a while by such monks, but this would be very difficult to conclude from the available evidence.

The Character of the Collection

Because of the seemingly mixed origin of the present parchment collection, it can be assumed that there are at least two different types of biblical texts. The ones that were produced in the monastery would probably tend to exhibit a more standard Sahidic reading, which would be native to the monastery. The ones that were copied in Fayoum, and more probably those that were rededicated from that district, would exhibit a higher degree of vowel usage, which is typically found in Fayoumic.[92] This would serve as a good criterion for classifying and perhaps dating the manuscripts of the monastery, assuming that further study of the text can substantiate such a distinction.

The order of the Coptic Bible found in the monastery is very difficult to determine because we never had the entire text of either the New or the Old Testament included in a single manuscript, but the following observa­tions can be made:

  • The Pentateuch was arranged in the regular order found in the Septuagint with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in that order
  • The historical books are more difficult to place in order. From the catalogued material it seems as if Tobit followed Joshua in Codex MONB.IL and may have followed Judith, although none of that book survived in that codex. Judges was followed by Ruth and/or either by Kings (I and II Samuel and/or I and II Kings). There are no surviving fragments catalogued so far from Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, or Judith.
  • The Major Prophets would have Isaiah and Jeremiah in that order or in separate manuscripts. Ezekiel seems to have been written in a separate manuscript. Daniel seems to have followed Judges in one codex (MONB.IN) and followed in Codex MONB.IA. In any case it was treated more as part of the Historical Books than either the Major Prophets or even the Minor Prophets as it usually occurs in the Bohairic.[93]
  • The Minor Prophets is not well preserved in either of the two manuscripts catalogued so far. The only notable order is being followed by Micah in Codex MONB.JG.
  • The Gospels followed the traditional order of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John whenever they all were grouped in the same
  • The Pauline Epistles followed the typical Coptic order of I and II Corinthians followed by Hebrews. This occurred in both the Sahidic and Fayoumic manuscripts in the monastery.
  • The Catholic Epistles always began with I and II Peter, followed by the three John epistles, James, and concluding with Jude.
  • The Acts of the Apostles is usually found in separate manuscripts. Only in the Sahidic-Greek codex MONB.LU does one find it inserted between the Pauline Epistles and the Catholic Epistles. This was probably a more ancient text than the other ones found of that book.
  • Apocalypse may have followed the Catholic and Pauline Epistles, revealing an earlier version of a of selected books of the Bible.[94]


In conclusion, there is much work to be done on this subject. This can be summarized as follows:

  1. The acceleration of publishing the lists of grouped fragments under a codex as well as properly identifying their provenance.
  2. The inclusion of enough codicological data as well as sample photographs. This is being done by Schussler, but it is insufficiently done in the Schmitz publications.
  3. Classifications of manuscripts according to origin, whether they were produced in the monastery, produced in Fayoum on commission from the monastery, or rededicated from another place to the monastery. This can be done by first establishing the character of each of these origins, using colophons; illuminations based on Jansma’s study, and other codicological features.
  4. The preliminary publishing of the grouped fragments by codex in a diplomatic edition. Electronic media is the most appropriate method at this stage.
  5. The compilation of a concordance of biblical quotations from St. Shenoute’s writings and other abbots from the monastery to support the classification process mentioned above.
  6. The making available of preliminary data of all of the above to researchers and students in a similar fashion to Orlandi’s Internet site.
  7. The character of the bilingual, Greek-Sahidic texts need to be studied further, especially to determine the relationship between the Greek and the Sahidic texts. Is the Sahidic a translation from the included Greek text? Or were they placed together from two different sources, such as was observed in B ohairic-Arabic texts of the fourteenth century and later?[95]

To accomplish the above tasks, the academic community needs to draft an army of scholars, who can work at Amelineau’s energetic pace with the traditional precision of German scholarship. For such an army, all of us live in hopeful anticipation.


Hany N. Takla


[1] Nagel 1983-1984.

[2] Schmitz and Mink 1986-1991, Schmitz 2003.

[3] Schussler 1995-2004.

[4] Orlandi 2003.

[5] Cf Takla 2005.

[6] Orlandi 2002: 225-26.

[7] Crum 1905: xi-xii.

[8] According to C. Kotsifou there were documentary of the monas­tery purchasing parchment for use in manuscripts prior to the classical date of the eighth-ninth centuries that Takla 2005 has assigned as the beginning of that period. This can be reconciled by the fact that such earlier volume may have been smaller in size than the ones belonging to that parchment age of the library. Cf. Takla 2006: 24-25 and C. Kotsifou article in this volume.

[9] Orlandi 2002: 220.

[10] Grossmann 2002a: 141 n. 132.

[11] Crum 1904a.

[12] Orlandi 2002.

[13] Orlandi 2002: 213.

[14] Crum 1904a.

[15] Orlandi tentatively credits Assemani with the acquisition of the White Monastery fragments, now in the Vatican Borgia Collection, cf. Orlandi 2002: 228. Prof. S.L. Emmel relayed to me that Giorgi, in his publication of some of these fragments, has identified that a different person brought these fragments to the collection (Giorgi 1789). However, it was J. Assemani who did the initial cataloguing of the material.

[16] Bibliotheque nationale de Paris (BN). BN Copte 78.

[17] BN 102, Orlandi 2002: 227.

[18] Rev. G. Horner has obtained a few hundreds of these folios in 1875, Orlandi 2002: 228.

[19] Institut franfais d’archeologie orientale.

[20] Maspero 1892: 1 indicates that his discovery of the room was in 1883.

[21] Jansma 1973: 9 indicates that these manuscripts came to the library in four lots between March 1886 and October 1887. For more details on this pur­chase, consult Catherine Louis’s article on the subject in this volume.

[22] Orlandi 2002: 228.

[23] Codex MONB.LB [Gospels], and Codex MONB.LU [Pauline Epistles]. The designation used here is based on the reference system used in Orlandi 2003.

[24] Mingarelli 1785: vi-lxxviii.

[25] Munter 1786.

[26] Giorgi 1789.

[27] Woide 1799.

[28] Zoega 1810. In this publication he listed the contents of the biblical codices with no text except for Fayoumic fragments discussed below.

[29] Engelbreth 1811.

[30] Cuegney 1880.

[31] Amelineau’s Catalog is unpublished but its is available at the BN.

[32] Jansma 1873: 12.

[33] Amelineau 1884, Amelineau 1886-1888a, Amelineau 1886-1888b.

[34] Ciasca 1885-1889.

[35] Balestri 1904.

[36] Maspero 1892.

[37] Chaine 1905.

[38] Delaporte 1905, Delaporte 1906, Delaporte 1908.

[39] Lemm 1885a; Lemm 1885b; Lemm 1890-1892; Lemm 1890-1906; Lemm 1912.

[40] Wessely 1908; Wessely 1909-1917; Wessely 1913; Wessely 1914.

[41] Schleifer 1909-1914; Schleifer 1912.

[42] Lacau 1901.

[43] Chassinat 1902.

[44] Munier 1914; Munier 1916; Munier 1919-1923.

[45] Horner 1911-1924.

[46] Hebbelynck 1911-1912.

[47] Crum 1905; Crum 1909.

[48] See note 40.

[49] Vaschalde 1919-1933.

[50] Hebbelynck 1913; Hebbelynck 1922a; Hebbelynck 1922b.

[51] Till 1933; Till 1934; Till 1937; Till 1939.

[52] Schmitz and Mink 1986-1991.

[53] Schmitz 2003.

[54] Nagel 1983-1984.

[55] Schussler 1995-2004.

[56] Nagel 1987; Nagel 1989a; Nagel 1989b.

[57] Schussler 1974-1975.

[58] Boud’hors1987.

[59] Boud’horset al. 1996.

[60] Boud’hors1998.

[61] Drescher 1970.

[62] Feder 2002.

[63] Orlandi 2002: 225.

[64] Orlandi 2003.

[65] Refers to books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

[66] Refers to books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, I & II Chronicles, Judith, Tobit, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and I & II Maccabees.

[67] Refers to books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Wisdom of Ibn Sirach.

[68] Refers to the books of the four Major Prophets and their associated books: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

[69] Refers to the twelve Minor Prophets Books: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Obadiah, Nahum, Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi.

[70] Refers to the Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

[71] Refers to the fourteen epistles of St. Paul: Romans, I & II Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Colossians, Philippians, I & II Thessalonians, Hebrews, I & II Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.

[72] Refers to Epistles of James, I & II Peter, I & II & III John, and Jude.

[73] Or the Acts of the Apostles.

[74] Or the Book of Revelation.

[75] Van Lantschoot 1929.

[76] Jansma 1973.

[77] Depuydt 1993: cxv.

[78] Quatremere 1808: 228-53.

[79] See note 29.

[80] Zoega 1810: 139-168.

[81] Champollion 1818.

[82] Von Lemm 1885a.

[83] Elanskaya 1969: 96-120.

[84] Krall 1887, vol. 1: 67-69; 2-3, 69-71.

[85] Maspero 1889.

[86] Bouriant 1889.

[87] Wessely 1908: 6-12.

[88] David 1910.

[89] Hebbelynck 1922b.

[90] Boud’hors1987: 87-98.

[91] Cf. Depuydt 1993.

[92] In compiling the text of Tobit from two different manuscripts, the manu­script used to fill the gap in the middle chapters was similar to the Sahidic Old Testament manuscripts of the Hamouli collection. Cf. Takla 1996-1997.

[93] E.g. BN Copte 96.

[94] E.g. British library Or. 7594, Papyrus codex.

[95] E.g. Vatican Copte 1, a tenth-century parchment codex of the Pentateuch with a fourteenth-century parallel Arabic column translation.