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Coptic Translations Of Old Testament - Coptic Wiki


The earliest of the Coptic translations of the Old Testament, like those of the New Testament, remain obscure. Christianity first took root in Alexandria, a city predominantly inhabited by Greeks, who had no need of a translation of the Greek Bible (the Old Testament in the form of the Septuagint). It was only when the Christian mission extended inland, and thus to the lower levels of the population, outside the world of Greek language and education, that the need arose for a translation of the Holy Scriptures into the native Egyptian language. No information, and no manuscript evidence, has survived from this period, which began at the latest at the start of the second century. The oldest indirect witness, Athanasius’ Life of Antony, brings us to the period about 270.

During the church service, the young Antony heard readings from the Gospel of Matthew, which caused him to give up his possessions and devote himself to the ascetic following of Jesus. Since Antony, as the Life frequently emphasizes, knew only Coptic and no Greek, we may conclude that by the second half of the third century the Gospels had been translated into Coptic. There is nothing to suggest a merely oral translation of the passages read (after the fashion of the Targums).

It is legitimate to deduce from the Gospels the existence of the Old Testament in Coptic or at least parts of it (the Psalter and the Prophets), since the Coptic church from the beginning considered both Old and New Testaments as a unity and accordingly translated them for use in public worship. The oldest extant Coptic manuscript, from the end of the third century, is an archaic translation of Proverbs in the dialect designated as Proto-Sahidic (Papyrus Bodmer VI).

The fourth century saw the flowering of the Coptic translations, first in Sahidic, the classical literary language of Coptic. The translation of the Old Testament was largely or even entirely completed. We have to assume this process took several decades; so enormous a task could not be accomplished at one stroke, especially since there were no forerunners or convenient aids. The following books of the Old Testament are attested in fourth-century manuscripts: Genesis (fragments in the boarding of Nag Hammadi Codex VII), Exodus (Papyrus Bodmer XVI), Deuteronomy (Papyrus Bodmer XVIII and British Library, Or. 7594, in the last-named papyrus with Jonah and Acts), Joshua (Papyrus Bodmer XXI), Jeremiah with Baruch (Papyrus Bodmer XXII), Isaiah (Papyrus Bodmer XXIII).

Curiously, the oldest codex of the most-used book in the Coptic Bible, the Psalter, is no earlier than about 400 (Berlin Psalter, ed. A. Rahlfs). The manuscript tradition is supplemented by the Old Testament citations in the original Coptic literature (Pachomius and his disciples), which extend over practically the whole Old Testament.

The increase in translation activity is closely connected with the development of the Coptic monasteries. In accordance with the rules of Pachomius, a knowledge of reading (and presumably also of writing) as well as the learning by heart of portions of was already obligatory for candidates and novices, and all the more for the monks (Praecepta. 49, 130, 139, 140). Thus the monasteries became places for the fostering of Coptic literature, including the biblical texts, as is shown by the remains of the once monastery libraries (e.g., the White Monastery at Suhaj in Upper Egypt, the Hamuli monastery in the Fayyum, the monastery of at Saqqara, and the monastery of Macarius in the Nitrian Desert).

The Coptic translation of the is no more uniform than Coptic itself; it is characterized by a variety of dialects, the examples of which vary in their age, and in origin in terms of both the place and the textual basis of the translation. Among the literary dialects of Coptic—Akhmimic, Lycopolitan (also called Subakhmimic), Middle Egyptian, Fayyumic, Sahidic, and Bohairic (we may here disregard the further specification that is gaining ground in the study of the Coptic dialects)—only the Lycopolitan dialect has (so far) yielded no Old Testament translations. Only the Sahidic (or, simplified, the Upper Egyptian) and the Bohairic (simplified, the Lower Egyptian) attained more than regional diffusion.

In the regional or local dialects only individual books are attested (often only fragmentarily), but it is not known how much of the stock that once existed has been lost. There was a complete Old Testament translation only in Sahidic, but it has not survived in its entirety. The tradition varies from book to book, and ranges from multiple attestation of the same document to mere fragments. There is no standard edition comparable with Horner’s New Testament.

From the other literary dialects the following Old Testament books have survived: Akhmimic—Genesis (frag.), Exodus (frag.), Proverbs (complete), Minor Prophets (almost complete), Sirach (frag.), Daniel (frag.), 2 Maccabees (frag.), Psalms (a fragment is extant that presents problems with regard to dialectal classification, representing perhaps a preliminary stage of Lycopolitan); Middle Egyptian—Genesis (frag.), Psalter (unpublished manuscript in the in Old Cairo), Job (frag.), Ecclesiastes (fragmentary codex Papyrus Michigan 3520, unpublished), indirectly Hosea and Amos through a Greco-Coptic glossary (ed. and Bell, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 11 [1925]:241-46); Fayyumic— Exodus, Numbers, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel with Susanna (all in fragments); Song of Solomon, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes in the bilingual Papyrus Hamburg I (Greek and Old Fayyumic). It should be noted that in the older literature the designations for the Fayyumic and Middle Egyptian dialects (and translations) were used indiscriminately; these are, however, clearly distinct dialects.

Although from the eleventh century on, Bohairic replaced Sahidic as the literary language and the official language of the church throughout Egypt, the Old Testament was not completely translated into this dialect. The following books were completely translated into Bohairic: the Pentateuch, Psalms, Job, the Minor Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah (including Lamentations, Baruch, and Epistle of Jeremiah), Ezekiel, and Daniel. Proverbs was partly translated. The following are extant only in the form of liturgical pericopes: Joshua, Judges, 1-4 Kingdoms, 1-2 Chronicles, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach. Not attested are Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Esther, Judith, Tobit, and 1-2 Maccabees.

The utilization of the Coptic versions for the textual history and of the Old Testament presents two major problems: (1) the relation to the Greek original; and (2) the relationships within the Coptic. Evaluation is considerably hindered by the fact that there is no critical edition and no concordance for any dialect.

There is agreement on three points. First, the Coptic translation is not based on the Hebrew Old Testament (like the Peshitta or the Vulgate) but on Greek models that largely represent the Septuagint text (though not throughout). The range of the Coptic Old Testament follows the Alexandrian canon, not the Masoretic Hebrew. Second, the Sahidic and Bohairic versions are separate translations from the Greek, independent of one another. Third, the Akhmimic translation is a daughter or interlinear version of the Sahidic. Inasmuch as it is based on a Coptic original, it has only indirect testimony value for the Greek text to be presupposed.

The Middle Egyptian and Fayyumic Old Testament fragments have not yet been investigated from the standpoint of text history.

The Sahidic texts, notwithstanding all the variants, show a remarkable stability from the fourth to the twelfth century. They were revised over time but never achieved a normative standard version. The two main types are represented by the texts of the White Monastery (DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH) in Upper Egypt and the Hamuli monastery in the Fayyum. So far as there is agreement between these two main types, we can speak of a Sahidic consensus.

The main body of the Bohairic Old Testament manuscripts begins in the ninth century, but there are also some earlier fragments. The origin of the Bohairic version is closely bound up with the dominant role of the Nitrian monasteries from the middle of the sixth century, especially that of the monastery of Macarius as the seat of the Coptic patriarch. Papyrus Bodmer III (fourth century), which in addition to the Gospel of John contains the opening chapters of Genesis (1:1-4:2), is a special case in terms both of the history of the text and of dialectal history. At a series of places that deviate from the Bohairic standard, this text reflects Sahidic readings deriving from the Sahidic translation model. Papyrus Bodmer III therefore cannot (at least for the Old Testament) be assessed as a witness to the original Bohairic text of the Bible (contra M. K. Peters, 1984).

The Upper Egyptian version (Sahidic and Akhmimic) of the Minor Prophets is more closely related to the Hebrew than to the Septuagint text. This “hebraizing” tendency is not, as earlier assumed, to be traced back to a revision according to the Hebrew text but goes back to a special Greek version, possibly the fifth column (Quinta) of Origen’s Hexapla; the oldest witness of this textual tradition is the leather scroll with the Greek Minor Prophets from the Wadi Murabba‘at (50 B.C.-A.D. 50).

The discoveries of texts in recent decades offer no support to confirm the theory of Paul Kahle (1954, Vol. 1) that in pre-Christian times the Sahidic dialect had already spread throughout Egypt as an “official language,” and that its point of departure was Alexandria. In the beginning there were various dialects and a plurality of translations, which from about the seventh century were supplanted or absorbed by the two main dialects, Sahidic and Bohairic.

The texts were transmitted in manuscripts, lectionaries or horologies, excerpts, and quotations. The Bible manuscripts contain, according to their size, one or more books of the Old Testament, only parts of a book (e.g., Papyrus Bodmer XVI, XVIII), or even Old and New Testament writings in one and the same codex (e.g., Papyrus Bodmer III; British Library, Or. 7594). There is no evidence for the whole Old Testament in a single codex (and likewise no “complete Bible”). Among the lectionaries, mixed books (with pericopes from the Old Testament and the New Testament) predominate over those with only the Old Testament.

The Coptic pericope system has not been investigated, nor has the textual history of the lectionary pericopes. For excerpts, clay or limestone shards were used, in addition to leaves of papyrus or parchment (later also of paper). These served for the most varied purposes, from writing exercises to amulets. The quotations, which are found in all kinds of Coptic literature, form an important supplement to the manuscript and lectionary tradition, but here variants conditioned by the context must be carefully distinguished from genuine textual variants. In quotations in the Coptic translation literature, we have to consider whether the form of text in the original has influenced the citation in question or whether the Coptic biblical text already in existence was inserted. This relates both to translations from Greek into Coptic and to translations within Coptic (Bohairic transpositions of Sahidic originals).

A special form of textual tradition is represented by the bilinguals, which appear in all forms of the transmission except for quotations. In the first millennium this relates particularly to Greco- Sahidic bilinguals, and after about 1000 to Bohairic-Arabic texts.

In general the editing and explication of the Coptic Old Testament (in all the dialects) lags behind in comparison with the New Testament. The main tasks and problems for investigation are (1) collection, arrangement, and classification of the textual witnesses; (2) critical editions of the texts and concordances based upon them; (3) the relations of the Coptic versions to the Septuagint; (4) textual relationships within Coptic; (5) collection and examination of the citations in the Coptic original and translation literature. Investigations into comparative philology in Greek and Coptic, and into the objective evaluation of the textual variants, are still in their beginnings; such questions can be brought nearer to a solution only within the context of the Greco-Coptic translation literature as a whole, including the New Testament.


  • The editions of the text are distributed over more than 100 separate publications, many of them journals. The most complete list of these publications is A. Vaschalde, “Ce qui a été publié des versions coptes de la Bible,” Revue biblique, new series 16, 28 (1919):220-43, 513-31; 29 (1920):91-106, 241-58; 30 (1921):237-46; 31 (1922):81-8, 234-58 (Sahidic); Le Muséon 43 (1930):409-31 (Bohairic), 46 (1933):299-306 (Fayyumic and Middle Egyptian), and 46 (1933):306-313 (Akhmimic/Subakhmimic). Vaschalde’s list is updated in W. C. Till, “Coptic Biblical Texts After Vaschalde’s Lists,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 42 (1959-1960):220-40; and in P. Nagel, “Editionen koptischer Bibeltexte seit Till 1960,” Archiv für Papyrusforschung 35 (1990).
  • The Coptic Old Testament texts of the Bodmer Papyri were published completely by R. Kasser: Papyrus Bodmer III, évangile de Jean et Genèse I-IV,2. CSCO 177-178. Proto-Bohairic, Dialect B4.
  • Papyrus Bodmer VI, livre des Proverbes. CSCO 194-195. Proto- Sahidic, Dialect P.
  • Papyrus Bodmer XVI, Exode 1,1-XV,21 en sahidique. Cologne and Geneva, 1961.
  • Papyrus Bodmer XVIII, Deutéronome 1,1-X,7 en sahidique. Cologne and Geneva, 1962.
  • Papyrus Bodmer XXI, Josué VI,16-25, VII,6-XI,23, XII,1-2, 19,
  • XXIII,7.15-XXIV,23 en sahidique. Cologne and Geneva, 1963. Also in Kasser’s L’évangile selon saint Jean et les versions coptes de la Bible, pp. 90-167 (Neuchâtel, 1966), together with the Chester Beatty manuscript inv. no. 1389, belonging to the same codex.
  • Papyrus Bodmer XXII et Mississippi Coptic Codex II, Jérémie XL,3- LII,34, Lamentations, épître de Jérémie, Baruch I,1-V,5 en sahidique. Cologne and Geneva, 1964.
  • Papyrus Bodmer XXIII, Esaie chap. 47,9-66,24 en sahidique. Cologne and Geneva, 1965.
  • Editions of other Old Testament texts in Coptic include J. Drescher’s handling of Codex M567 from the in New York in The Coptic (Sahidic) Versions of Kingdoms I, II (Samuel I, II), CSCO 313-314; P. Nagel, “Aufgaben und Probleme einer kritischen Edition der koptisch-sahidischen Version der Septuaginta,” in Acts of the Second International Congress for Coptic Studies, pp. 215-24 (Rome 1985); M. K. H. Peters, A Critical Edition of the Coptic (Bohairic) Pentateuch, Vol. 5, Deuteronomy (Chico, Calif., 1983), Vol. 1, Genesis (Atlanta, Ga., 1985), Vol. 2, Exodus (Atlanta, Ga., 1986); Septuagint and Cognate Studies 15, 19, and 22; and P. Nagel, “Griechisch-koptische Bilinguen des Alten Testaments,” in Graeco-Coptica, pp. 231-57 (Halle, 1984).
  • The following works deal with Coptic versions (within the framework of Coptic literature):
  • Hallock, R. N. “The Coptic Old Testament.” American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 49 (1932):325-35.
  • Kahle, P. E. The Geniza, 2nd ed. Oxford, 1959. German ed., Die Kairoer Genisa. Berlin, 1962.
  • Kahle, P. E., Jr. Bala’izah, 2 vols., esp. Vol. 1, pp. 263ff. London, 1954.
  • Kasser, R. “Les dialectes coptes et les versions coptes bibliques.” Biblica 46 (1965):287-310.
  • . “Petites rectifications a propos de l’histoire des versions coptes de la Bible.” Biblica 61 (1980):557-60.
  • Lefort, L. T. “Littérature bohairique.” Le Muséon 44 (1931):115-135.
  • Steindorff, G. “Bemerkungen über die Anfänge der koptischen Sprache und Literatur.” In Coptic Studies in Honor of W. E. Crum. Boston, 1950.
  • For studies of the various manuscripts, see A. Hebbelynck, “Les manuscrits coptes-sahidiques du Monastère Blanc: Recherches sur les fragments complémentaires de la Collection Borgia,” Le Muséon n.s. 12 (1911):91-153, and n.s. 13 (1912):275-362; and P. Nagel, “Studien zur Textüberlieferung des sahidischen Alten Testaments. Teil 1: Der Stand der Wiederherstellung der alttestamentlichen Kodizen der Sammlung Borgia,” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache 110 (1983):51-74, and “Teil 1B,” 111 (1984):137-64.
  • The following works discuss the history of the text and/or textual criticism (of individual books of the Old Testament): Barthélemy, D. Les devanciers d’Aquila. Leiden, 1963. Important for the preliminary stages of the Akhmimic version of the Minor Prophets.
  • Böhlig, A. Untersuchungen uber die koptischen Proverbientexte. Berlin, 1936.
  • Diebner, B. J. “Die biblischen Texte des Hamburger Papyrus Bilinguis 1 (Cant., Lam., Co., Eccl. Gr. et Co.) in ihrem Verhältnis zum Text der Septuaginta, besonders des Kodex B (Vat. Gr. 1209).” In Acts of the Second International Congress of Coptic Studies. Rome, 1985.
  • Dieu, L. “Les Mss. grecs des livres de Samuel, essai de classification.” Le Muséon 34 (1921):17-60. Discusses the relation of MS M567 to the Greek textual tradition.
  • . “Le texte copte-sahidique des livres de Samuel.” Le Muséon 59 (1946):445-452.
  • Grossouw, W. The Coptic Versions of the Minor Prophets. Monumenta Biblica et Ecclesiastica 3. Rome, 1938.
  • Nagel, P. “Payprus Bodmer XVI und die achmimische Version des Buches Exodus.” Ägypten und Altes Testament 14 (1988):94-152.
  • Payne, J. B. “The Sahidic Coptic Text of I Samuel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 72 (1953):51-62.
  • Peters, M. K. H. An Analysis of the Textual Character of the Bohairic of Deuteronomy. SBL Septuagint and Cognate Studies 9. Missoula, Mont., 1979.
  • . “The Textual Affiliations of Genesis 1:1-4:2 According to Papyrus Bodmer III.” In De Septuaginta. Studies in Honour of J. W. Wevers. Mississauga, Ont., 1984.
  • Rahlfs, A. Septuaginta-Studien Heft 2: Der Text des Septuaginta- Psalters. Gottingen, 1907.
  • Seidel, B. “Textgestalt und Textüberlieferung des koptisch-sahidischen Deuteronomiums.” Dissertation, University of Halle, 1986.
  • Till, W. “Die koptischen Versionen der Sapientia Salomonis.” Biblica 36 (1955):51-70.
  • Wevers, J. W. “The Textual Affinities of the Arabic Genesis of Bib. Nat. Arab 9.” In Studies on the Ancient Palestinian World. Toronto Semitic Texts and Studies 2. Toronto, 1971. Includes the Bohairic version. Ziegler, J. “Beiträge zur koptischen Dodekaprophetonübersetzung.” Biblica 25 (1944):105-142.
  • On comparative philology and translation equivalents, see H. J. Polotsky, “Modes grecs en copte?” in Coptic Studies in Honor of W. E. Crum (Boston 1950), also in his Collected Papers (Jerusalem, 1971); G. Mink, “Die koptischen Versionen des Neuen Testaments.
  • Die sprachlichen Probleme bei ihrer Bewertung für die griechische Textgeschichte,” in Die alten Übersetzungen des Neuen Testaments, die Kirchenväterzitate und Lektionare, ed. K. Aland, Arbeiten zur Neutestamentlichen Textforschung 5 (Berlin and New York, 1972); and W.-P. Funk, “Bemerkungen zum Sprachvergleich Griechisch- Koptisch,” in Graeco-Coptic (Halle, 1984).