One of a group of works in Coptic literature dealing with episodes in the life of one or more specific characters, mostly saints and martyrs.
There are two basic types of cycle: homiletic and hagiographical. The difference lies simply in the different literary forms used, with the homiletic cycles being made up of texts produced in the form of homilies, and the hagiographical cycles being in the form of Passions of martyrs.
The hagiographical cycles (see HAGIOGRAPHY) are the better known (just as they have also been known for a longer time), especially because of the studies of E. AMÉLINEAU and later those of H. Delehaye. The homiletic cycles are coming to be recognized only today. Until now, the individual texts have often been falsely attributed to the more famous fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, and broadly based study is needed in order to gather them together again and date them with reasonable accuracy.
For both types the first criterion for recognizing the unity of a cycle (at any specific point in the tradition) is content, that is, on the basis solely of the characters mentioned and the events described. Where this criterion reveals a unified narrative, the works in question can be described as forming part of a specific cycle.
Recognition of a cycle does not necessarily entail attributing the various works to one single author nor even to a group of contemporary authors or to one specific time. However, it is still the first step toward solving these questions. We shall therefore list the more important or recognizable cycles, referring the reader to the specific entries in this Encyclopedia for detailed information on the individual works; only after this shall we speak of attributing dates and authors.
One further word of warning is needed. From an objective viewpoint these homilies are recognizable only by means of the titles they bear in manuscripts. It should be borne in mind that these titles are frequently far from accurate indications of the true content of the homilies in question. Even when we use these titles, we shall therefore always add a short note on the actual content.
Cycle of Athanasius Athanasius was always considered a central figure not only in the Egyptian tradition in general but also (after CHALCEDON) in the specifically Coptic tradition. He was seen both as the founder of the Egyptian church as a well-defined autochthonous entity and as the champion of orthodoxy, of which the Egyptian church then became the depositary.
Coptic literary tradition therefore devoted great attention to Athanasius, creating around him a web of events based on historically attested episodes, which soon gave way to a complex, but still fairly unified, legend. This legend included two exiles, one in lonely, barbarian lands, the other in the Egyptian desert, where he was hidden by some monks; relations with barbarian peoples who were converted to Christianity; and struggles with the emperor Constans, an Arian, resulting in attempts to kill the saint.
Most of these episodes were already included in the Coptic History of the Church (perhaps fifth century) in the chapter relating to Athanasius. They were later recalled in various works having Athanasius as the subject or attributed to him. Of the former category, two have been preserved: the Life of Athanasius (this manuscript lacks its beginning; ed. Orlandi, 1968; papyrus manuscript now in Turin, and some codices from the White Monastery) and the Encomium of Athanasius attributed to CYRIL I of Alexandria.
The texts whose authorship was credited directly to Athanasius are mostly homilies of a moral nature, although they do contain certain autobiographical allusions to the legendary events of his life. In On Murder and Michael the Archangel, Athanasius speaks of his exile, of a stay in the convent of Pachomius, and of another stay with an anchorite (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, M602, unpublished; Italian translation in Orlandi, 1981).
In To the Isaurians, Exegesis of Luke 11:5-9, Athanasius speaks of friendship, a visit to the convent of Pachomius, and an episode at the Council of Nicaea (Pierpont Morgan Library, M577, unpublished; Italian translation in Orlandi, 1981). The Pierpont Morgan Library also holds a manuscript of On Pentecost and the Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Man (MS M595, unpublished). The homily Exegesis of Leviticus 21:9ff. and on the End of the World is very important because it can be dated fairly precisely, since it refers to the Arab domination of Egypt in the form of prophecy. Certain details enable us to deduce that the homily dates to the second half of the seventh century (cf. Orlandi, 1981).
Cycle of Cyril of Jerusalem This cycle seems to have its source in an interest in Jerusalem and in a certain type of apocrypha that claimed to originate there (for other details, see the article on CYRIL OF JERUSALEM). It consists of several homilies that were to be added to the eighteen authentic Catecheses as numbers 19, 20, and 21, and of certain other additional texts (cf. Orlandi, 1974; Campagnano, 1980). On the Passion (divided into two homilies) comments on the relevant passage from John’s gospel, but includes other excursuses, among them one on the Virgin (which will be considered in connection with the following homilies).
In Praise of the Cross includes many legendary episodes from the time of the crucifixion and from later times (Constantine and Eusignius, Constantius and the luminous Cross, etc.). On the Virgin includes a description of the childhood of the Virgin and the Dormition.
Other homilies would appear to have been added to this cycle at a later stage: two further ones On the Passion, and another also entitled On the Passion, which in fact contains an apocryphon with a revelation of the Risen Jesus to the disciples.
Cycle of Theophilus Among the Copts, Theophilus of Alexandria was known as a great destroyer of pagan monuments. His legend was based, in fact, on passages from the Greek church historians echoed in the Coptic history of the church. The legend tells of the discovery of great treasures in the ruins of various temples that Theophilus destroyed, treasures he used, with the consent of the emperor Theodosius, for the construction or embellishment of churches in honor of different saints.
Insofar as we are able to reconstruct it from the works that have come down to us, his cycle was made up of the following: a homily on the destruction of the shrine of Serapis (Serapeum) and the construction of the Martyrium of Saint John the Baptist; a homily on the building of the church of the Virgin on Mount Kos (Qusqam); a homily on the building of the church for the relics of the Three Saints of Babylon; and a homily on the building of a church in honor of the archangel Raphael on the island of Patres. (For all these homilies, see THEOPHILUS of Alexandria.)
Cycle of John Chrysostom and Demetrius In later Coptic tradition, JOHN CHRYSOSTOM’s fame was linked to his fight with the Empress EUDOXIA, after which (leaving aside the action of Theophilus of Alexandria) he died in exile. The cycle developed around this theme would seem to have its basis in an anonymous homily, The Life of John Chrysostom; this homily has links with a homily In Honor of the Archangel Michael, attributed to Eustathius of Thrace, and another, In Honor of the Twenty-four Elders, attributed to PROCLUS OF CONSTANTINOPLE, both of which refer to the same events, with novelistic variations. According to all these texts, John was supposed to have spent at least part of his exile in Thrace, where he converted the pagan population.
The theme was enlarged with the introduction of one DEMETRIUS OF ANTIOCH, the bishop by whom John Chrysostom claims to have been consecrated presbyter. A homily In Honor of the Martyr Victor attributed to John himself refers to him, and he is also personally credited with various homilies of a hagiographical nature, which, however, are not directly connected with the cycle.
Cycle of Basil of Caesarea A fairly large number of authentic homilies of BASIL THE GREAT were translated into Coptic in the “classical” period of translations (see LITERATURE, COPTIC). Later, however, there was an effort to present the figure of Basil as defender of Christianity against the barbarians, probably as propaganda against the Arab domination.
A number of homilies (only two of which have come down to us) were thus produced, set in the region of Lazica (Georgia, although the name is probably used to indicate an imaginary area) and celebrating the liberation of the region from the Sarmatian barbarians with the help of the archangel Michael.
Cycle of Evodius of Rome According to tradition, which must also have been recorded in the Coptic history of the church (though the relevant passage is lost), Peter’s successor in Rome was Linus. However, the Copts attributed at least three homilies to an Evodius of Rome, a figure based on the Evodius who was Peter’s successor in Antioch, and who therefore personally knew the apostles and possibly Jesus.
The content of these homilies (see EVODIUS) included older apocryphal narratives that had circulated without any named author, so that some ancient authority was needed for them. The first deals with the Passion and includes an interesting episode about the Jews in Rome at the time of Claudius; the second deals with the Dormition of the Virgin; and the third deals with the apostles.
The development of the Egyptian hagiographic literature from Passions of single martyrs (originally in Greek) to cycles including many Passions of different martyrs referring to one another (probably produced directly in Coptic) is described in the article HAGIOGRAPHY. We mention here the hagiographic cycles that were more productive, to place them beside their homiletical counterpart described above.
The Cycle of Victor, Claudius, and Cosmas and Damian seems to be the earliest, and to have been based on Greek legendary Passions common in Egypt in the fifth and sixth centuries. The authors of the cycle gave a special impression of the court of Diocletian in Antioch that introduces the subsequent cycles.
One of them is the Cycle of the Theodores, where around the well-known figures of the martyrs Theodore the General and Theodore Anatolius, the Copts produced a story about the war between Diocletian and the Persians, the capturing of a Persian prince, and the treachery of the bishop of Antioch.
This led to the legend of the “Egyptian” Diocletian (formerly named Agrippidas) and the family of the Christian general Basilides, with his friends and relatives. This is the most widespread cycle, to which the following Passions belong: Anatolius, Apoli, Besamon, Epima, Christodorus, Eusebius, Justus, Macarius, Camul, Ter, and Erai.
Finally, a cycle was composed around the person of Julius the “commentator,” the scribe who assisted at trials of martyrs and took note of their deeds and words. Probably his name was used simply to bring together a group of Passions that at first did not share any common feature. They are Are, Didymus, Heraclides, Macrobius, Nahrou, Panesneu, and Shenufe.
For many of the general problems about the production and characteristics of the cycles, the reader is referred to the article LITERATURE, COPTIC. Here we will say something on the probable period in which the cycles were written. The content and form of many of these cycles presuppose a cultural background and a literary style typical of the period of the bishop DAMIANUS (late sixth century). But since there was no need during this period for anyone to produce false texts, we must place these works in a somewhat later time, when the Arab dominion determined the appropriate circumstances for creating such falsifications. We can see the beginning of this process in some homilies by Constantine of Asyut and its advancement in the homily On the Arab Invasion (probably mid-seventh century) attributed to Athanasius.
We note also that in the late libraries (notably that from Tin, now in Turin, and that from the White Monastery) the codices written from the eighth century on contain the works belonging to the cycles not in their proper order but as single entities, in the order of the later synaxarial readings.
We can therefore designate an interval from the mid-seventh century to the mid-eighth century as the most logical time for the composition of these cycles. This, of course, is a simplification, since there are reasons to think that the individual texts were produced in many ways and circumstances; but taken as such it can clarify many of the problems posed by those texts.
- Campagnano, A., ed. Ps. Cirillo di Gerusalemme. Omelie copte sulla Passione, sulla Croce e sulla Vergine. Testi e Documenti per lo Studio dell’Antichita. Serie Copta 65. Milan, 1980.
- Orlandi, T. Testi copti: 1. Encomio di Atanasio. 2. Vita di Atanasio. Testi e documenti per lo Studio dell’Antichità 21. Milan, 1968.
- . “Patristica copta e patristica greca.” Vetera Christianorum 10 (1973):327-41.
- . Omelie copte. Turin, 1981.