A scientific discipline in Oriental studies that investigates the language and culture of Egypt and Nubia in the widest sense: literature, religion, history, archaeology, and art. Its range extends from late antiquity to the Middle Ages, or even down to the present. It touches on and intersects with a number of neighboring disciplines.
The greater part of its vocabulary connects it with Egyptology, as which it is still reckoned in many countries, because Coptic is the last branch of the Egyptian language: about four-fifths of the Coptic words derive from Egyptian, as their etymologies show (see J. Cerný, Coptic Etymological Dictionary [Cambridge, 1976]). The reproduction of the vowels in Coptic is important to the Egyptologist for the reconstruction of the vowels that were not written in Egyptian, and for the investigation of verbal accent, syllable structure, and metrics in Egyptian.
In terms of content, a continuity can be observed between the ancient Egyptian and the Christian period in the survival of ancient Egyptian elements (concepts, ideas, and usages), particularly in religion, literature, and art, but also in Coptic medicine.
Coptology is linked with classical philology by the stock of Greek and Latin loanwords in the Coptic language; the Greek, accounting for about 20 percent, far surpass the Latin. Their examination, which has begun, will experience a new florescence when all the loanwords have been collected.
In addition there are texts preserved in Coptic that were originally composed in Greek, but whose Greek version either has not survived or exists only in fragments or in a Latin translation. Here Gnostic and Hermetic writings from the Nag Hammadi discovery especially should be mentioned.
In association with Byzantine studies, Coptology investigates the Byzantine period in Egypt.
Work on the examination of Coptic codicology and paleography connects Coptology with papyrology. In addition to a few scrolls, early Coptic codices in particular have been preserved; they are roughly contemporary with the Greek. While Greek paleography has been well investigated, the Coptic has not advanced beyond preliminary work. Only with the appearance of COLOPHONS do we find ourselves on firm ground. Collaboration with the Greek papyrologists is necessary because Greek and Coptic documents often belong to the same ARCHIVES.
The Coptic nonliterary texts are important sources for the history and the cultural and economic developments of late antiquity. Especially from the sixth century on, they take their place alongside the Greek sources, later replace them, and are then the only sources.
The same holds good for epigraphy: gravestones, inscriptions on buildings, and graffiti are couched in Coptic as well as in Greek. In the forms used we can often demonstrate the translation of Greek models. While Greek inscriptions in Egypt became fewer after the sixth century, in Nubia they alternated with Coptic for another five hundred years.
In association with the history of religions, Coptology examines the Gnostic, Hermetic, and Manichaean texts, which often are preserved only in Coptic translation and have long been lost in their original language. The Coptic magical texts and spells also belong here.
The work of the Coptologist intersects with various theological disciplines (Old and New Testament, church history and history of dogma, confessional lore, and liturgics). Here reference should be made above all to the work on editions of the Coptic Old and New Testaments, to work in textual criticism, and to the editing of apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings of both Testaments.
In church history, the origins of Christianity in Egypt, its history beyond the split from the imperial church after the Council of CHALCEDON, and the theological disputes that were dealt with at the early Christian councils are all the objects of Coptological research. A special investigative task force is at work on monasticism in Egypt and the hagiography of Coptic Christianity. The investigation of local Egyptian church history is still in its beginnings.
The confessional historian, in association with the Coptologist, examines the history of the Coptic church and its dogmas after its separation from the imperial church.
We thus come to the period that extends from the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT down to the present. Here there are connections with Arabic studies and with the study of Islam. The Coptic language gradually lost its significance as a colloquial and literary language and was replaced, except as the language of the church, by Arabic.
The Copts translated their literary works into Arabic, and prepared Coptic-Arabic word lists, the scalae, and grammatical summaries, in order to preserve the knowledge of their language. Part of the Coptic literature is preserved only in Arabic translation. The Coptic language had previously influenced Egyptian Arabic in its phonology, and Coptic words had been accepted into Arabic as loanwords. The relations between Copts and Moslems are also a subject for research in both disciplines.
Along with classical, early Christian, and Byzantine archaeologists, those concerned with provincial archaeology, and historians of architecture, Coptologists are concerned with the study of Coptic art, iconography, and architecture. Here, on the one hand, they have established a survival of Egyptian building tradition in Coptic architecture, for instance, at the White Monastery in Suhaj (DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH), which Shenute had built at the beginning of the fifth century in the style of an Egyptian temple. Pictorial themes from late antiquity appear, above all on Coptic textiles.
Coptology is linked with Nubiology, a discipline only a few decades old, in the investigation of Nubia in the Christian period, which spans a period of more than a thousand years. The Christian epoch in Nubia came to an end only in the sixteenth century. Like the Ethiopian church, the Nubian was dependent on the patriarch of the Coptic church. The excavations carried out in Nubia before the building of the dam at Aswan have brought to light abundant source material (written and archaeological), which also sheds new light on the relations between the Coptic and the Nubian churches.
Research into the relation between the Coptic church and the Ethiopian church links Coptology with Ethiopic studies. The Ethiopian patriarch was an Egyptian Copt until Emperor HAILE SELASSIE broke with this ancient usage. Coptic literature was translated from Arabic into Ethiopic.
The field of Coptology also intersects with the study of the Christian East (see ORIENS CHRISTIANUS) which is concerned with the languages and literature of the Eastern Christian churches, including the Coptic.
We may link the investigation of the Coptic language with linguistics, which is still in its infancy, since it is only in recent years that linguists, following H. J. Polotsky, have concerned themselves with this task.
Coptology is connected with the history of law through investigation of Coptic law or of the law of the Coptic documents. So far only some of the sources, Coptic nonliterary papyri and ostraca, have been published. The older publications need to be replaced by new ones, since they no longer correspond to the requirements of modern text editions.
The investigation of the Coptic medical texts links Coptology with the history of medicine. Although ancient Egyptian medicine was treated in nine volumes by H. Grapow and his collaborators, many texts in the Greek and Coptic languages still await treatment.
- Krause, M. “Die Koptologie im Gefüge der Wissenschaften.” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 100 (1974):108-125.
- . “Die Disziplin Koptologie.” In The Future of Coptic Studies, ed. R. McL. Wilson, pp. 1-22. Coptic Studies 1. Leiden, 1978.