Canon Law


Codified law governing a church. The Coptic church has no codex juris canonici, as the Roman church does, but it has remained closer to its sources, which it has grouped in chronological or systematic collections.

From the Coptic period, the church of Egypt was concerned with Coptic translation of the sources of church law, but these most frequently occupied a codex either by themselves or along with other works, such as biographies or sermons. Thus there are the Apostolic Canons and the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Apostles, or the DIDASCALIA and the Testament of the Lord.

A single codex has come down, the content of which forms a veritable corpus canonum. It was reconstructed by W. E. Crum (1915, pp. 13-14) and completed by R.-G. Coquin (1981, pp. 42-43). The law of the Copts is also known from ostraca and papyri, the data of which were collected by A. A. Schiller (1938). With profit one may also consult A. Steinwenter’s small book Das Recht. It will thus be possible to attain, for want of direct sources, to the “law in action” of which Schiller speaks.

Coptic law is further distinguished from the law of the Roman church because since the Muslim invasion the patriarch, in his capacity as head of the Coptic nation, has exercised the functions of civil law. For this reason the documentation of the law of the Copts includes elements that in the West would be in the province of civil law—everything that concerns what is called the law of personal status, such as inheritance and marriage.

The collections that have survived may be divided into the chronological and the systematic.

Chronological collections consist of three main groups.

  1. The anonymous collection in Berlin. This is preserved in a single undated manuscript, Berlin Arabic 10181, folios 51-219. An analysis of this codex is in Riedel (p. 129). Unfortunately, the end of the manuscript is
  2. The collection of Macarius, a monk-priest of the monastery of John Colobos in Wadi al-Natrun. He compiled a collection of canons, probably in the first half of the fourteenth century, that is of the same type as the anonymous Berlin one. It has survived in eleven manuscripts, some of which are incomplete. Three are copies of ancient manuscripts made in the eighteenth century. The oldest and most complete manuscript is Paris, National Library, Arabe 251. It has been analyzed by Troupeau (1972, Vol. 1, pp. 208-209). This manuscript is dated from A.M. 1069/A.D. 1352. The collection can be divided into four major parts: (a) the pre-Nicene canons, which include the canons attributed to the apostles and those of the provincial councils; (b) the canons of the Council of NICAEA; (c) the canons of the kings (Byzantine emperors), borrowed from the Melchites and attributed by the Copts to the Council of Nicaea; (d) the canons of the medieval patriarchs—CHRISTODOULUS, CYRIL II, GABRIEL II, and CYRIL III.
  3. Anonymous Jacobite collection, the name given by Riedel (1900, p. 136). It contains almost the same elements as that of Macarius, with some modifications. It is chiefly represented by the manuscripts Arabe 238-239 at the National Library, Paris (Troupeau, pp. 200-202). The manuscripts are dated by R.-G. Coquin to the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries, but some parts of the first manuscript were restored in the sixteenth In systematic collections, the canons on which Coptic law is founded are arranged according to the matter with which they deal. The Coptic church very early took steps to arrange them in systematic order so as to obtain a coherent whole, easy to consult.

The first systematic collection that has survived is that of Abu Sulh (or Salih, according to the vocalization of the name). He appears to have been concerned about translating the Coptic documentation at his disposal into Arabic in such a way as to form a legal compendium for his church. It is not known when he lived, but his work is dated to the tenth or eleventh century.

Gabriel II ibn Turayk, twelfth-century patriarch of Alexandria, is well known for his work of renovation and reform. He produced three important series of canons (Graf, 1947, pp. 324-27), a revision of two liturgical books, and, undoubtedly, biblical translations into Arabic. It is known from the testimony of Bishop Mikha’il of Damietta, AL-SAFI IBN AL-‘ASSAL, and Abu al-Barakat IBN KABAR that he compiled a nomocanon in seventy-four chapters, to which was added as an appendix a summary of the canons of the kings.

This nomocanon, which was thought lost, was rediscovered in a manuscript at the library of the Coptic patriarchate in Cairo (canon 13, no. 570 in Simaykah’s Catalogue). Unfortunately this manuscript is incomplete at the beginning and the end, for it contains only fifty- seven chapters. The appendix with the canons of the kings is preserved in the nomocanon of Mikha’il of Damietta, which reproduces it literally.

Bishop Mikha’il of Damietta, twelfth-century bishop under the patriarchs MARK III ibn Zar‘ah and John VI ibn Abi Ghalib, is known above all through his controversy with Mark ibn Qanbar on the subject of auricular confession. He was still alive when Mark died in 1208. Among other works, he compiled a voluminous nomocanon, probably after 1188, according to the preface of the Arabe 4728 manuscript at the National Library, Paris.

The Berlin manuscript Arabic 10180 is a second recension, perhaps by Michael himself. Riedel (1968, p. 89) has given an analysis of this manuscript. The text of each canon is provided with a siglum that serves to designate it within the nomocanon.

Al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal, one of the three writers of the family of ibn al ‘Assal (probably al-Safi Abu al-Fada’il), compiled a nomocanon that has become almost the official manual of Coptic Egypt. This nomocanon has survived in two different recensions. The author was the counselor and chief of protocol of Patriarch Cyril III ibn Laqlaq. It is believed that he had completed his work on the orders of the patriarch, who was not satisfied with it. He set to work again, and produced the second recension.

It was proclaimed by the patriarch and approved at the synod of 1238. This book was also translated into Ge‘ez and became the official book of the civil and religious law of Ethiopia. It was edited and translated into Italian by Guidi (1897, 1899). It has been published twice in Egypt, by Philuthawus Awad (al-Majmu’) and by Mikha’il Jirjis (Kitab). All of the serious studies on the personal statutes of Coptic law are based on the nomocanon of Ibn al ‘Assal; this is the case in particular with the work of Philuthawus Awad, al-Khulasah.

Although it is not a canonical collection, the encyclopedia of Abu al-Barakat, entitled Lamp of Darkness, should be mentioned. In the fifth chapter, “Catalogue of the Canons Received and the Councils Transmitted,” Abu al-Barakat transcribes the title and the table of the development of Coptic law from the Canons of the Apostles down to the nomocanon of Ibn al-‘Assal.

This work was probably compiled about 1320. Since September 24, 1955, the “mixed tribunals”—tribunals of judges belonging to the different Christian communities of Egypt—have been suppressed and the Muslim judge must deliver sentences in conformity with the law of the parties to the case. For this reason the work of Ibn al-‘Assal remains in force.


  • Abu al-Barakat ibn Kabar. Misbah al Zulmah. Cairo, 1971.
  • Coquin, R.-G. “Le Corpus canonum copte. Un nouveau complément: Le manuscrit IFAO, copte 6.” Orientalia 50, no. 1 (1981):40-86.
  • Crum, W. E. Papyruscodex saec. VI-VII der Phillippsbibliothek in Cheltenham. Schriften der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft in Strassburg 18. Strasbourg, 1915.
  • Guidi, I., trans. Il “Fetha nagast” o legislazione dei re, 2 vols. Rome, 1897-1899.
  • Mikha’il Jirjis. Kitab al-qawanin. Cairo, 1922. Philuthawus Awad. Al-Majmu’ al-Safawi. Cairo, 1908.
  •  . Al-Khulasah al-Qanuniyyah fi al-Ahwal al-Shakhsiyyah li- Kanisat al-Aqbat al-Urthudhuksiyyin, 2nd ed. Cairo, 1913.
  • Riedel, W. Die Kirchenrechtsquellen des Patriarchats Alexandrien. Leipzig, 1900; repr. Aalen, 1968.
  • Schiller, A. “Prolegomena to the Study of Coptic Law.” Archives d’histoire du droit oriental 2 (1938):341-65.
  • Steinwenter, A. Das Recht der koptischen Urkunden. Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 10. Munich, 1955.
  • Troupeau, G. Catalogue des manuscrits arabes, Vol. 1. Paris, 1972.


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