Coptological Studies


Coptological studies may be divided into several periods. The oldest began in the first centuries, when the Greek alphabet with the additional letters from demotic was used to elevate the spoken Egyptian language into a written language. This made it possible for many Egyptians to read the Old and New Testaments or Gnostic writings. The inventor of this Coptic alphabet is unknown. The glosses in magical texts are probably to be regarded as further preliminary stages. After the invention of the alphabet, rules had to be created for the of these writings from Greek into Coptic.

Bilingual Greco-Coptic word lists were prepared, and later trilingual lists including Latin. In addition, bilingual manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments were written. The of Coptic literature from one dialect into another—for example, the translation of Sahidic literature into Bohairic—also began at this time, as did the effort that can be detected in Bohairic to replace Greek loanwords with Coptic words. As a result of bilingualism, Greek documentary formulas in the realm of law were translated into Coptic.

A new phase in Coptological studies began after the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT, when Coptic was gradually superseded by Arabic as the colloquial language and the language of literature and business. To preserve the knowledge of the Coptic language, including Bohairic as the language of the church, Coptic-Arabic word lists (scalae) and grammatical summaries were prepared, which were to be of the greatest importance for the next phase of Coptological studies.

Arabic versions were added to the Coptic literary texts, especially the Old and New Testaments, and many literary writings were translated into Arabic. The Bohairic dialect remained the language of the church.

A new phase began in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, when European travelers brought Coptic manuscripts from Egypt to Europe, and scholars concerned themselves with the deciphering of these manuscripts. The first one we know to have possessed Coptic manuscripts was the Arabist Giovanni Battista Raimondi (1540-c. 1610).

About 1600 the French bibliophile N. C. F. de Peiresc (1580-1637) obtained Coptic manuscripts from Coptic monasteries through travelers in Egypt, and stimulated Claude Saumaise to coptological studies. In 1626 the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle returned from Egypt with Coptic manuscripts, among which was a scala written in the year 1319. The Italian Franciscan Thomas Obicini occupied himself with this manuscript (Vat. Copt. 71) until his death in 1632. Anastasius Kircher, who next studied this manuscript, published it in the year 1643.

In the following period as well, the influx of Coptic manuscripts from Egypt into European collections continued the interest in the Coptic language. A large number of scholars in many lands devoted themselves seriously to this language and culture, Kircher, through his untenable statements about the Egyptian hieroglyphs, had brought his correct Coptic researches into discredit. Theodor Petraeus (1630-1672) brought the first Coptic manuscripts to Germany.

Robert Huntington’s Coptic manuscripts, bought in Egypt, are now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Joseph Simon Assemani, who had been sent to Egypt by XI, returned with Coptic manuscripts to Rome in 1715.

Johann Michael VANSLEB, who traveled in Egypt in 1664, 1672, and 1673 and collected Coptic manuscripts there, laid the foundation for the Paris collection, and Cardinal Stefano Borgia (1731-1804) did the same for the important Coptic collection in Naples. Bernardino Provetti (1776-1852) sold Coptic manuscripts at Turin.

J. Bruce brought the Gnostic codex named after him from Luxor to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and Robert Curzon also returned to England from his journey with manuscripts. Henry Tattam came home from Egypt in 1838-1839 with Coptic manuscripts that were housed in English collections. Konstantin von Tischendorf bought manuscripts for Leipzig.

In the course of the eighteenth century these Coptic manuscripts were copied and studied by a large number of scholars, of whom only a few need be mentioned: P. E. Jablonski copied manuscripts in Paris, Leiden, and Oxford; C. G. Woide, the Paris and Oxford manuscripts; C. Scholtz, the Berlin Coptic manuscripts. Such manuscript copies, along with the first printed Coptic texts, formed the basis for the earliest Coptic grammars and dictionaries.

Thus, for his Coptic dictionary La Croze used manuscript copies of the New Testament by Jablonski and the first Psalm published in 1663 by Petraeus. This dictionary was frequently copied before its publication in 1775. D. Wilkes’s edition of the Coptic (Bohairic) New Testament in 1716 was based on transcripts of texts in Oxford, Rome, and Paris. In 1799 Woide printed Oxford Sahidic manuscripts. In the nineteenth century Tattam and M. G. Schwartze in particular were editors of New Testament writings. No less important were the reports that travelers in Egypt, such as R. Pococke and R. Curzon, wrote about their journeys.

In the eighteenth century the Uniate Copt RUFA’IL AL-TUKHI went from Egypt to Rome, where he brought out in print—even though defectively—a Coptic grammar and liturgical books with an Arabic translation: the Anaphora (1736), Horologion (1750), Pontifical (1761-1762), and Ritual (1763).

In addition to the scholars who pursued their Coptological studies out of interest in the content of the Coptic texts or in the Coptic language, other scholars concerned themselves with the Coptic language in order to decipher the hieroglyphs with its aid. They started from the correct assumption of some relationship between the Coptic language and the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Only the three most important among many scholars need be mentioned: the Swedish diplomat and Orientalist Johann David Akerblad (1763-1819), the English doctor Thomas Young (1773-1829), and the Frenchman Jean François CHAMPOLLION (1790-1832), who finally deciphered the hieroglyphics.

The nineteenth century marks further progress in Coptological studies, insofar as the increasing specialization within the known scientific disciplines led to the development of new disciplines.

In 1845 Schwartze was named extraordinary professor of Coptic language and literature at the University of Berlin. Coptology thus became an independent scientific discipline at a German university, even though limited to Coptic language and literature, the areas in which Schwartze worked. Schwartze died just three years after the establishment of Coptology in Berlin. Colleagues in related disciplines published manuscripts he left after his death.

In Berlin, Coptology was replaced by Egyptology, also a newly founded discipline. K. R. Lepsius was its first representative. His successor, A. Erman, founded the “Berlin school,” which investigated the early Egyptian period as well as the Coptic language, and published Coptic literary and nonliterary texts.

The Berlin school, through its representatives at the University of Berlin—K. H. Sethe, H. Grapow, and F. Hintze (b. 1915)—held fast to this tradition and also exercised a great attraction for many scholars. In addition to the German Egyptologists who devoted themselves to Coptological studies we may mention above all W. E. CRUM, who on Erman’s advice specialized in Coptology.

Many of Erman’s pupils later worked in disciplines related to Egyptology— above all, C. Schmidt, who earned his living as a but was the leading German Coptologist of his time.

Erman’s pupil G. Steindorff founded the Leipzig school, from which came J. LEIPOLDT and S. MORENZ. Erman himself was a pupil of Georg Ebers (1837-1898), professor at Leipzig, as well as of Lepsius. He also trained Coptologists, including O. von Lemm.

In France, G. Maspero formed a school similar to that of Erman in Berlin. Many of his pupils devoted themselves to Coptological studies, including Amélineau, Bouriant, Chassinat, Daressy, Gayet, Lacau, Lefebvre, Piehl, and Spiegelberg. Maspero was a pupil of Mariette, who, like Champollion, the decipherer of the hieroglyphics, concerned himself with Coptology.

In England only a few Egyptologists at the universities in London, Oxford, and Cambridge were active in Coptology. The most important was F. L. Griffith at Oxford. The last Oxford Egyptologist who also worked as a Coptologist was J. W. B. Barns. The Egyptologists E. A. W. BUDGE and H. R. H. HALL, who held posts in the British Museum, were active in Coptology. It was regrettable for Coptology that the leading Coptologist, Crum, could not exercise any public activity in a university or a museum, and therefore was not able to establish Coptology at an English university.

Fortunately for him, he possessed sufficient financial means to devote his full powers to Coptological research. His friend H. F. H. Thompson, who in addition to his own labors supported him in his work on the Coptic Dictionary, likewise lived as a private citizen. A hopeful new beginning for Coptological studies in the person of C. Allberry, who was charged with the edition of the Chester Beatty Manichaean manuscripts, came to a sudden end in World War II.

More numerous are the scholars who taught in theological faculties, or were active as parish ministers or members of the clergy, and who in their researches devoted themselves to the Coptic Old and New Testaments, church history and the history of dogma, or confessional and liturgical studies.

Besides the Egyptologist Griffith, the classical archaeologist MICHALOWSKI has gained a reputation in connection with the young discipline of Nubiology. Murad Kamil became the preeminent scholar in Ethiopic studies and the relations between the Coptic and the Ethiopian church.

In the realm of legal history, A. A. Schiller and A. Steinwenter have won lasting credit for their research into Coptic law, while in the history of medicine the Egyptologists Grapow and Erichsen should be mentioned.

In Egypt, Coptic laymen were mindful of their glorious past, and in the second half of the nineteenth century began, with the aid of the printing press, to make Coptic (Bohairic)-Arabic grammars and dictionaries available to their countrymen. Liturgical books and other works that previously had been reproduced only by transcripts were printed by them.

Iqladyus Labib should especially be mentioned. In the twentieth century the number of Copts pursuing Coptological studies has increased. Among them are Murqus Simaykah, the founder of the Coptic Museum, and his collaborators Yassa ‘Abd al-Masih and Georgy Sobhy, as well as such professors in the Egyptian universities as Sami Gabra and Murad Kamil.

The beginning of the newest phase in Coptological studies cannot be clearly identified. It began at the latest in 1930 with the discovery of the Manichaean codices, to which were added in 1946 the finds of the Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi and the manuscripts and other Coptic writings that later found their way to the Chester Beatty and Bodmer libraries (see BODMER PAPYRI) and to other collections (see PAPYRUS DISCOVERIES).

These finds awoke the interest of wider circles in Coptology, and prompted scholars in disciplines bordering on Coptology to cooperate in the publication of these important manuscripts. In Egypt the new interest was demonstrated by the foundation of the d’Archéologie copte in 1934 and by its subsequent activities, such as the publishing of the first Coptological journal and several series of Coptic and Arabic source documents, the building of a Coptological library, and the excavation of a monastery.

Later, scholars founded the Institute of Higher Coptic Studies, which, in addition to Coptological research, was to serve the further development of the Copts. The education of the Coptic clergy was improved in a newly founded theological faculty of the Coptic patriarchate.

The increasing interest in Coptic works of art found expression in art exhibitions: in 1941 in Brooklyn, in 1944 in Cairo, and in 1963 at the Villa Hügel in Essen. This last exhibition traveled via Zurich and Vienna to Paris. The exhibitions also exercised an influence through scientific catalogs and symposia.

In Egypt, ruined Coptic sites were excavated, for instance, the pilgrim town of Abu Mina. The many excavations carried out in Nubia by teams from many nations between 1959 and 1963, as a rescue operation prior to the flooding of the country through the new high dam, yielded such rich finds, especially from the Coptic period, that they led to the founding in 1972 of the International Society for Nubian Studies.

There was discussion between excavators and theorists at the international congresses of Nubiologists (the sixth took place at Uppsala in 1986). The period with its rich finds—we need only recall the wall paintings in FARAS and the discovery of numerous manuscripts at QASR IBRIM—occupied a large place in these congresses. After the completion of the campaigns in Nubia, excavations of Coptic ruins in Egypt were carried out in increasing numbers; of these we should mention above all the excavations in the KELLIA.

The work of the International Committee for the led, after its conclusion, to the formation of the International Association for Coptic Studies in 1976 and the First International Congress of Coptologists in Cairo. The fourth congress was held at Louvain in 1988. In addition to the holding of congresses, the association coordinates the work on the Coptic sources.

It supports scholars in their labors, and also sets in motion the accomplishment of such major tasks as the new edition of the Coptic New Testament and the first edition of the Coptic Old Testament.

Since the 1960s an increased interest in Coptology aroused by the discoveries, exhibitions, and excavations mentioned above has been apparent in universities. There are now professorships of Coptology or of Coptic language and literature at a number of European universities: Geneva, Halle, Munster, and Rome. In other universities (such as Yale and Paris) Coptologists have been called to professorships of theology, the history of religions, or the Orient.

In Cairo the COPTIC MUSEUM has been enlarged both in personnel and in space, a center for Coptic studies has been created, and a start has been made on assembling on an international basis a general catalog of the contents of the museum. By no means least to be mentioned is the international collaboration on the present Coptic Encyclopedia.

Alongside the increasing interest in Coptological studies and their development, we must, unfortunately, report some setbacks. The increasing specialization in the scientific disciplines has caused the concern with areas of Coptology in many of the disciplines bordering on Coptology to abate. This can be established above all in Egyptology, where the Egyptologist to an increasing extent is no longer concerned with Coptological problems, and often no longer even teaches the Coptic language.

In addition, it frequently happens in English and American universities that the posts of Coptologists, on the death or retirement of the holder, are not filled by Coptologists, but are devoted to other scientific desciplines. The latter threatens not only the development but also the existence of Coptological planning in universities and research institutes (such as the international archeological institutes in Cairo), as well as the continuance of scientific undertakings.


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