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Correspondence Of Bishops - Coptic Wiki


The inhabitants of Christian Egypt reveal a delight in writing, so far as they were able to write. Many transactions, especially those of legal content, were fixed in written form. Among the papyri and ostraca found in numerous archives and deriving from the antiquities trade, there are letters from bishops to the faithful of their dioceses, and from to their bishops. It was one of the duties of the bishop to have the Easter letter from the patriarch of Alexandria read in the churches of his diocese. A companion piece to an Easter letter, from the diocese of Hermonthis, is preserved in the British Museum ( 91; Crum, 1905, no. 464). The bishop, not mentioned by name, writes that he has sent the archpriest Apa Kyrus with the holy Easter letter of the patriarch, in order that it may be read in the churches of Djeme. There must have been similar letters in large numbers from all the Egyptian bishops.

The correspondence of two bishops from the sixth and seventh centuries in Upper Egypt particularly deserves to be mentioned.

Bishop Abraham of Hermonthis

Abraham, who resided in the monastery of Phoibammon, situated near Djeme, sent numerous letters to the of his diocese, both clerical and lay. He also received letters from these persons (114 writings are dealt with in Krause, 1956, Vol. 2). Part of the correspondence was found by the excavator E. Naville in the course of pulling down the monastery during the excavation of the temple of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III at DAYR AL BAHRI, begun by the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1893. While some of the correspondence reached the museums of Cairo and London, another part, comprising more than 500 texts, was thrown on the excavation rubbish heaps, and was not found until the years following 1922, during the inspection of Naville’s dumps by the Metropolitan of Art. The discovery was divided between museums in Cairo and New York. In 1959-1960 the Metropolitan Museum sold these texts and others to Columbia University (Schiller, 1976, p. 104). In addition, texts were found during the excavation of built into pharaonic temples or anchorite settlements. Some reached museums via the antiquities trade in Luxor. Only some of the texts have been published.

While 114 texts from this correspondence were known in 1956, since then the number has grown to about 200. The existence of a large number of other writings, no longer extant, can be inferred from the texts that recapitulate the early history of transactions. For example, in Crum’s Coptic Ostraca (CO) we read, “After I entreated you, you ordained me a deacon at the monastery of the holy Apa Victor.” Since the bishop himself, on the evidence of his testament, could not write, he employed four scribes. It has become evident that for many transactions there were set forms, into which only the relevant personal and place names had to be inserted.

This correspondence, the most comprehensive and best- preserved on ostraca, shows the activity of an Upper Egyptian bishop around 600. It includes texts on the ordination of deacons and priests (see ORDINATION, CLERICAL, and CLERICAL INSTRUCTION) as well as documents relating to appointment to office. For these documents of appointment there was also a set form, in which clergy, for the most part deacons, were named as titular heads of churches (and monasteries). The task of these titular heads was to watch for or prevent any negligence and to instruct their subordinates, that they might walk in the fear of God. The disobedient among clergy and laity were to be excluded from communion (see EXCOMMUNICATION), until they came to the bishop. The titulars were to be punished if they overlooked any negligence.

In a letter addressed to the bishop, the writer, a cleric, pledges that he himself or his father will sleep in the church, will provide for the lamps during the night, and will hold divine service. Otherwise he is to be excluded from communion (CO 41). In another letter (Berliner koptische Urkunden) (BKU 69) three persons declare themselves ready to build a church by a specified time.

The bishop provides for the conduct of public worship and the celebration of communion in his diocese in circular letters and on special occasions. He commissions clergy to administer communion where temporarily there are no clergy, often because the incumbent has fallen ill. The wafers necessary for the celebration are inspected and blessed by the bishop, and he insists on the mixing of water and wine for the chalice in the correct proportions, as laid down by the Fathers. Anyone who adds more water is threatened, together with all his household, with exclusion from communion.

Anyone who does not comply with a commission to administer communion is excluded from communion (CO 53) or from the clergy (Winlock et al. [Ep.] 154; CO 485).

The bishop also makes provision for other sacraments: baptism, which takes place three times a year in Djeme (Papyri und Ostraca in Staatsmuseum [BP] 12501), and marriage, to which four circular letters are devoted. These repetitions show that there evidently were often infringements against the marriage laws. He quotes Luke 16:18 (CO 72) and emphasizes that only when there is unchastity can a woman be divorced from her husband. Anyone offending is excluded from communion (CO 72). In a further letter (CO 73) the bishop reiterates his position on marriage, and names various relations of kinship that stand in the way of a marriage, such as marriage to a niece and to brothers- or sisters-in-law, which is forbidden in the church canons.

The bishop also intervenes on behalf of poor people who were badly treated. Such an occurrence (CO 71) is the occasion of a circular letter, in which he compares the culprits to the evildoers of the Old and New Testaments and excludes them from communion. He uses almost the same wording in another circular (Jernstedt, no. 80), which is concerned with the hindering of poor men in their fishing. Again excommunication is threatened.

The bishop is also active in the exercise of his judicial power, AUDENTIA EPISCOPALIS, as peacemaker and mediator. He attempts to settle a dispute (BP 8727) and to mediate between two parties (CO 49). In of disobedience and offenses against Christian conduct, both laity and clergy are excommunicated by him as well as by the titulars of churches and monasteries. Clergy who are disobedient or offend against the church canons are deprived of their rank. Villages and monasteries are threatened with imposition of the INTERDICT. The bishop evidently encouraged the tradition of burying the dead as mummies (see MUMMIFICATION), for he commissioned a man to buy bands, which were employed for the wrapping of the dead, and shrouds.

Bishop Pisentius of Coptos

This bishop, who came from the ranks of the monks, did not govern his diocese from a monastery except during the PERSIAN INVASION OF EGYPT. The source of his correspondence, now chiefly in the Louvre, is unknown. In contrast with those of Bishop Abraham, most of the letters are written on papyrus. Only a small part of the correspondence has been preserved, for often letters of the bishop, mentioned in answers by those addressed, have not survived.

The correspondence is concerned—like that of Abraham–with questions of ordination, problems of administration of the clergy, frequently discussed problems of betrothal and marriage, care of the poor, administration of justice, and exclusion from communion or from the clergy. In addition, a number of contemporary bishops in neighboring dioceses are named in his correspondence—for instance, Bishop Antonius of Ape and Bishop Pisrael of Kus (Qus), who jointly investigated the complaints against a cleric, and Bishop Horame of Idfu.

The two sets of correspondence complement one another, and sketch a picture of church relationships in Upper Egypt in the sixth and seventh centuries such as has not yet been provided for other centuries and other regions of Egypt.


  • Crum, W. E. Coptic Ostraca. London, 1902.
  •  . Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the British Museum. London, 1905.
  •  . The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes, pt. 1, pp. 223-31. New York, 1926.
  • Jernstedt, P. Koptskije Teksty Gosudarstvennogo Muzeya Isobrazitelnykh Iskusstvimeni A. S. Pushkina. and Leningrad, 1959.
  • Krause, M. “Apa Abraham von Hermonthis. Ein oberägyptischer Bischof um 600,” 2 vols. Doctoral diss., Berlin, 1956.
  •  . “Die Kirchenvisitationsurkunden. Ein neues Formular in der Korrespondenz des Bischop Abraham von Hermonthis.” Meroitica 12 (1990):225-36.
  • Revillout, E. “Textes coptes extraits de la correspondance de St. Pesunthius, évêque de Coptos, et de plusieurs documents analogues (juridiques et économiques).” Revue égyptologique 9 (1900):133-77; 10 (1902):34-47.
  • Schiller, A. A. “A Checklist of Coptic Documents and Letters.” of the American Society of Papyrologists 13 (1976):99- 123.
  • Till, W. Datierung und Prosopographie der koptischen Urkunden aus Theben, pp. 168ff. Vienna, 1962.
  • Winlock, H. E.; W. E. Crum; and H. G. Evelyn-White. Monastery of Epiphanius. New York, 1926.