Canonical documents are preserved either in chronological collections, in which the texts appear in the order in which they were published, or in nomocanons, in which texts are grouped according to subject to facilitate consultation. It appears that the Greeks invented this method of presentation and were imitated by the Copts, not in the Coptic period, before the Arab conquest, but in the Islamic era.
It seems that the first author to compile a nomocanon was the patriarch GABRIEL II IBN TURAYK (1131-1145). This is known from the testimonies of MIKHA’IL, bishop of Damietta, in his Nomocanon (chap. 34, principal article [National Library, Paris, Arab. 4728, fol. 74v], and chap. 72, title article [National Library, Paris, Arab. 4728, fol. 177v]); al-SAFI IBN AL-‘ASSAL in his Nomocanon (preface [Borg. Arab. 230, fols. 74v-75v]); and Abu al- Barakat IBN KABAR in his religious encyclopedia Misbah al- Zulmah (1971, pp. 203-204) that the patriarch had compiled a nomocanon. The manuscript was thought not to have survived, but R.-G. Coquin found this text among the manuscripts of the Patriarchal Library in Cairo.
Ibn Kabar, however, preserved the table of the chapters, which allows one to compare it with that of the manuscript Canon 3 and thus discover in it the Nomocanon of Gabriel II. In addition, Mikha’il of Damietta had reproduced in an appendix to his own Nomocanon the compendium that Gabriel II had composed of the four “Books of the Kings,” thus saving the work of his predecessor from oblivion. The details were given, in a German translation, by W. Riedel (1900, pp. 114-15).
The second Coptic author to compose a canonical nomocanon was Mikha’il of Damietta, under the patriarchs MARK III and John IV. Of this nomocanon he made two editions, the first of which was completed in 1188; both are extant. The date 1188, which he himself gave, is the only certain date in his life, for neither the date of his birth nor that of his death is known.
The third nomocanon is the one that had the greatest success. It was translated into Ge‘ez (Ethiopic) under the name of Fetha Nagast, becoming thus the code of civil and religious law in Ethiopia. This is the one by the eldest of the children of the Awlad al-‘Assal family, AL-SAFI IBN AL ‘ASSAL. This person was the secretary and juridical counselor of the patriarch CYRIL III IBN LAQLAQ (1235-1243).
His Nomocanon was probably written to order, and since the patriarch was not satisfied with a first composition, which is preserved in manuscript, he demanded a second, which has been edited by Murqus Jirjis as Kitab al-Qawanin (1927). Some idea of its content is found in the analysis given in German by Riedel (1900, pp. 65-66, 115-19). Al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal seems to have begun to write in 1235. He would have been dead before 1260. Even today it is still the Nomocanon of al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal that is quoted.
- Coquin, R.-G. Les Canons d’Hippolyte. PO 31, fasc. 2, pp. 279-83. Paris, 1966. This presents the various nomocanons.
- Riedel, W. Die Kirchenrechtsquellen des Patriarchats Alexandrien. Leipzig, 1900; repr. Aalen, 1968.