Searching for Shenoute: A Copto-Arabic Homilary in Paris, BN arabe 4796

Introduction and Review

Will students of the Arabic literature of the Copts be able to contribute to the current intensive study of the literary corpus of St. Shenoute the Archimandrite? The idea that they might is by no means farfetched. After all, Arabic recensions of Coptic texts have frequently proved invaluable to Coptologists, sometimes providing a template for the identification and reconstruction of fragmentary Coptic originals.[1] Might not Arabic texts provide the same service for works of Shenoute?

Unfortunately, the results up to now are, in Stephen Emmel’s word, “disappointing.”[2] We do, of course, possess the Arabic translation of the Life of Shenoute attributed to his disciple Besa,[3] as well as that of Good is the Time for Launching a Boat to Sail.[4] An edition of the Arabic version of the pseudo- Shenoutian Sermon on Christian Behavior has been announced,[5] and there are at least three Arabic apocalyptic texts (fictitiously) attributed to the saint.[6]

There was not much more than that to report when, in January 2004, Mr. Hany Takla invited me to give some attention to two collections of homilies found in of the Bibliotheque nationale (BN) in Paris.[7] The first of these collections is a seventeenth-century of seventy-one folios catalogued as BN ar. 4761.[8] Since I have reported on this collection elsewhere,[9] I will limit myself to a very brief descrip­tion here. The consists in a set of nine homilies attributed to St. Shenoute, for the seven Sundays of Lent.

Significantly, a statement of waqf on its final folio shows that it was once a part of the White Monastery library. The homilies are consistent in theme: they commend the disci­plines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, as well as the good works of love, forgiveness, and long-suffering. With great urgency they stress the neces­sity of attending to one’s eternal salvation through repentance now in this life, before death makes repentance impossible; of prayer for forgiveness; and of the good works that alone will avail a person before God on the Day of Judgment.

While these ideas are not necessarily foreign to St. Shenoute, it quickly becomes apparent that the collection of BN ar. 4761 is not a translation from Coptic, but rather an Arabic composition that reflects an Islamic environ­ment and that fits in well with other late medieval Copto-Arabic literature. The preacher uses Qur’anic terminology freely, and indulges in several bursts of saj‘ or rhymed Arabic prose. Soteriological passages reflect ideas common in Copto-Arabic catechetical texts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Illustrative material comes from a variety of traditions, many of them shared by medieval Christians and Muslims: stories of Alexander the Great;[10] the sayings of Luqman the Wise;[11] and the story of Barlaam and Yuwasaf (known in the West as Iosaphat).

This collection is interesting in itself, providing a fine display of late- medieval Copto-Arabic resources for preaching. More than that, it provides tantalizing clues as to how St. Shenoute was remembered and portrayed in his own monastery, where the was once housed and read. The Shenoute of BN ar. 4761, like the original, preaches the necessity of repen­tance in this life, before it is too late. What is intriguing (and perhaps a little ironic) is the way that the Shenoute of BN ar. 4761 becomes a profoundly enculturated preacher, ready to commend to his congregation the figures of Alexander (the Macedonian pagan conqueror!), Yuwasaf (who began his lit­erary career as the Buddha!), or Luqman (the sage of Qur’anic renown!).[12]

Paris, BN ar. 4796: Homilies for Sundays at the Evening Raising of Incense

Let us move on to the other collection, a set of twenty-six homilies for the evening raising of incense for Sundays in the first half of the church year, preserved as the first work in the Paris, BN ar. 4796. (A brief table of contents, with the Gospel passages on which each homily is based, is given in the Appendix.) The manuscript is a copy that Amelineau had made of a manuscript that contained a statement of waqf to the benefit of the Monastery of St. Antony in Luxor. The manuscript’s first few leaves are missing, but Troupeau attributed the collection to St. Shenoute on the basis of the colophon at fol. 82r: “the maymar of the great saint, Anba Shinudah the Archimandrite, is complete.”[13]

The homilies are quite brief, and space allows that I give here a transla­tion of one of them, appointed for the eve of the third Sunday in Hatur.

A Sample Homily (English Translation)
Paris, BN ar. 4796, fols. 30v-32r

The eleventh homily, appointed for His saying, “Come, you who are weary, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle, humble and calm of heart.” [Matthew 11:28-29] It includes a well-grounded argu­ment that the yoke of our Lord is lighter than concern for worldly things. It is read on the night of the third Sunday of the month of Hatur.

It is necessary for us that we hasten to put down the weight of our concern for worldly matters, and that we are always found gentle, humble and glad, bearing the yoke of our Lord, so that he might give us the bliss of the Kingdom.

Now if someone says: “You there, how is it that his yoke is light, since he stipulates for his followers that they deny themselves, renounce their pas­sions, abandon their fathers, mothers, children, brothers and sisters, and [all] worldly pleasures—since otherwise they are not worthy of being his follow- ers?”—Then I say:

We must understand that whether the load carried by human souls is light or heavy depends solely on the reward that is their end. For example, let us suppose that two men, laborers in the employ of a certain king, worked exceedingly hard for one day. When they had completed their work, the king commanded that one of the men be granted a rest for one day, to be spent in happiness and [delight[14]], after which he would return to that work. As for the other [laborer], he too was granted a rest—but permanently, for­ever! Would not his labor be called exceedingly ‘light,’ by comparison with the duration of his rest? He could well say: “I labored for one day, and I have received eternal happiness!” As for the first man, he could well call his labor ‘heavy,’ by virtue of his speedy return to burdensome toil.

Thus it is necessary for us to understand that bearing the yoke of our Lord, while it entails toil for a time, will gain everlasting life; and the hope of that life will by no means be ‘heavy’ but rather ‘light’ in the view of those who have knowledge.[15]

And I say: Why do we not compare bearing the yoke of our Lord with the burdens of the world and the distress that they cause us? Which is lighter to bear?

Let us imagine two men: one an ascetic monk, and the other a rich man in [what we call] easy circumstances. Is it not true that the monk has only to be concerned with a single soul in matters of food, drink, clothing, shelter and so on—and that all of these requirements are very light and easily available, however they are obtained? As for the rich man in ‘easy’ circumstances, in his quest for pleasures he requires aides, retinue, maidservants, slaves, various people carrying out tasks, and so on: some preparing food, and others drink; some cleaning his houses, others making the beds, and others specialized in bodily pleasures. His costs and expenditures increase.

He resorts to stratagems to gather up from every direction enough [money to finance his household]. Then perhaps he is plunged into [bad] times when making money is impos­sible. His costs double. He is pelted with the arrows of illness, symptoms of disease, the loss of beloved things, the increased difficulty of the demands on him . . . and he will see that his condition is the harshest of all conditions and the most exceedingly difficult for the soul. He will reckon it the ‘heaviest’ of all burdens. So! Has it not now become clear that it is the condition of the first man [that is, the monk] which is ‘light’ and ‘easy’?

That condition is the one to which our Lord has called us (to him be glory!), saying: “Come to me, you who are weary, and I will give you rest, you who bear heavy burdens.” His meaning in saying this is that you are only laboring like this in order to obtain rest for your souls. This present world of yours is not the world of [true] pleasures and rest; indeed, you seek [true pleasures and rest] from a thing [that is, this world] that does not possess them—and you end up losing both. But if you bear with difficulties for a little while, in obedience to your Lord, and labor for a short time, then you shall obtain all the pleasures prepared for you, divested of any kind of toil or any sort of defect.

Our path, then, is to put down from our necks the weight of care about transitory matters, and to hasten to bear the yoke of our Lord with joy and happiness, so that we might obtain the life prepared for us in the Kingdom of Heaven.

And to our Lord be glory forever, Amen.

Characteristics of the Homilies

The foregoing homily is, in a number of ways, typical of the entire col­lection. Each homily has an introduction (printed in italics in the example above) that announces the appointed Gospel passage and a particular topic that the homily will address. The question and answer form—”If someone says . . . ,” “Then I respond . . . “—is common throughout the collection. Simple images from life—in the example above, the king and the laborers, or the monk and the rich man—are likewise common. Nearly all the hom­ilies end with a summary sentence introduced by fa-sabiluna: “Our path, then, is . . .” (as follows). And the message of the above homily, that one must put worldly things aside and turn to the things that lead to the bliss of the kingdom, is the constant theme of the entire collection.

The homilies frequently begin with . The preacher regularly compares his hearers with characters in the Gospel texts appointed for the evening, for example: the disciples, who by performed miracles;[16] the women who followed and served Jesus;[17] the sick who went to extraordi­nary lengths to seek out healing;[18] or even the demons who acknowledged and obeyed Christ.[19] The preacher’s constant question is: If they did these things, what about you?

The preacher can also turn to situations in human life as grounds for his rebukes. People are on their very best behavior when in the court of an earthly king; so what about you, who talk business in church?[20] People make haste to seek out a physician when ill in body, and carefully follow his instructions, no matter how unpleasant; so what about you, who are in dire need of physicians of souls?[21]

The preacher can be quite specific and colorful as he rebukes his hearers’ attachment to worldly things. To the women (in Homily 13) he says: “What benefit is it to you that you wear sumptuous robes, hang precious jewels around your neck, and put bracelets on your hands and earrings in your ears?”[22] He comments that taking pleasure in such worldly things is like a prisoner taking pleasure in his prison![23] In another homily (Homily 17), the preacher addresses the men:

I see you, you there, going out from us and frequenting the beauty shops: you go and sit there, take a mirror in your hand, and look—sometimes at your face, and sometimes at the hair of your beard, and sometimes at the hair of your head. And then [the barbers] trim and adorn; they describe the cur­rent fashions and ask those who are seated around you to tell you how fine their handiwork is. Perhaps you are an old man—but you are not ashamed to be ornamented like a youth!

How strange it is that you expend such concern on the well-being of your transitory body, and neglect the matter of your eternal soul![24]

The preacher is especially harsh in his condemnation of drunkenness, which causes people “to fall from the rank of human beings so that they resemble irrational animals.”[25]

If you say, “How does a human being who speaks of good things resemble an irrational animal?” —I respond:

Even if they differ in appearance, they resemble them in their actions. This is because drunkenness and gluttony make people [wallow] in the unclean things of the earth like swine; others dig up corpses like dogs; others growl in rage like lions; others neigh after women and boys like horses; oth­ers snatch at things like wolves; others are deceptive like foxes; others engage in horseplay, strip themselves and tear their clothes, bash in their heads, and throw themselves into wells and other dangerous places like madmen. Truly I am ashamed to mention one by one all of the kinds of depravity that issue from drunkenness![26]

Whatever the specific rebuke, the preacher soon turns to exhortation: Turn away from passing, worldly concerns! Awake from your slumber! And turn to prayer and good works, to almsgiving and deeds of mercy, to the study of Scripture and other spiritual books—that is, the things that lead to the bliss of the Kingdom of the Lord, God and Jesus Christ.

Is There a Connection to St. Shenoute?

Does this collection of homilies have anything to do with St. Shenoute?

As one reads the last of the homilies (Homily 26), one encounters a sud­den break between fol. 78 and fol. 79: one passes in mid-sentence from an analogy involving sailors using all their expertise at sea to the words, “O friend of God, behold, the gates are opened so that you may enter!” In fact, the collection of homilies breaks off at this point. The next four folios turn out to be the end of an entirely different text—in fact, the very end of the Arabic Life of Shenoute. That is the “maymar of the great saint Anba Shinudah the Archimandrite” mentioned in the colophon on fol. 82.[27] The collection of homilies, in its present state, lacking both beginning and end, is simply anonymous. It contains no attribution to St. Shenoute; nor is there any reason for us to propose this attribution.

This is undoubtedly another disappointing result for those who are look­ing for material of direct relevance to the study of the Shenoutian corpus. Even the four-folio fragment of the Arabic Life of Shenoute is less than exciting; it offers a text very close to the fragment published by Galtier over a century ago,[28] and thus offers very limited help to a future editor of the Arabic Life.

Still, the collection of homilies is itself not without interest. Since each homily is based—rather loosely! —on a particular text from the Gospels, the collection provides a witness to the lectionary used by the community. A preliminary summary of results may be seen in the Appendix. We note that the lectionary assumed by the homilary of Paris, BN ar. 4796 appears to be very close to the katameros of Lower Egypt used in the Coptic Orthodox Church today and over the past several centuries,[29] although there are a few deviations that may be of interest to liturgical scholars. Quite apart from any technical liturgical information that may be squeezed out of the collec­tion, these homilies give us a window into the life and piety of the Coptic Orthodox community, where preachers used texts from the Gospels and a variety of examples taken from everyday life in order to cajole and scold members of their flock who, like most of us, enjoyed the distractions of this passing world.




Paris, BN ar. 4796, fos. 1-78

Homilies for Sundays at the evening raising of incense



Folios in

PA 4796

Gospel quotations or allusions in the titles and incipits*

Gospel readings according to the present katameros**


(x marks a match)


Tut 1







Tut 2




Luke 4:38-41



Tut 3


Mark 1:32-34 or parallels

Mark 1:29-34



Tut 4


Matthew 9:23-26 or parallels







John 6:26



feeding of the 5,000












Mark 5:1-20

or parallels

Mark 4:35-41

adjacent passages




Matthew 14:23 or parallels





Hatur 1


Mark 4:12 or parallels

Mark 4:10-20



Hatur 2








Hatur 3








Hatur 4



17:17 or






Kihak 1



28:9? or Luke 7:38 / John 12:3?

Mark 14:3-9

parallel passages


Kihak 2


Luke 7:36­


Luke 7:36-50



Kihak 3


= 3 (Mark 5:1-20 or parallels)

Mark 1:23-31

different exorcism


Kihak 4


Luke 8:1-3

Luke 8:1-3



Tubah 1


Luke 4:38-39 or parallels

Luke 4:40-44

adjacent passages


Tubah 2








Tubah 3


John 5:2-9

John 5:1-18



Tubah 4


John 5:31,

39, 46

John 5:31-46



Amshir 1


(not given)

John 6:15-21



Amshir 2


John 4:46­


John 4:46b-53



Lent 1




Matthew 6:34,




Lent 2


Mark 1:12­13, Matt. 4:1-11 or

Luke 4:1-13

Mark 1:12-15

Paris ms. fits Mt./Lk. best


Lent 3








Lent 4




Luke 12:22-31

parallel passages


Lent 5


Luke 18:1-8 (end missing)

Luke 18:1-8


* Sometimes the homilies do not permit a choice between parallel passages in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Then the text listed is the one that provides the best comparison with the next column, followed by the words “or parallels.”

** According to Anonymous 1983.

Mark N. Swanson

[1] Good recent examples of this include van Esbroeck 1998 and Boud’horsand Boutros 2001.

[2] Emmel 2004b, vol. 1: 67.

[3] Amelineau 1888-1895, fasc. 1: xlviii-xciii and 289-478; Galtier 1905.

[4] Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 173-97.

[5] Lucchesi 2000: 422.

[6] Amelineau, 1888-1895, fasc. 1: lii-lviii and 338-46; Grohmann 1914; van Lent 1999.

[7] I am grateful to Mr. Hany Takla both for his invitation to undertake this investiga­tion and for providing me with copies of the in question.

[8] Some attention had already been given to this collection. See the provisional English translations of some of the homilies in Hanna and Takla 1994-1997, and an edition and French translation of one of the homilies in Ghica 2001.

[9] See Swanson 2005, with details supporting the paragraphs that follow.

[10] See Ghica 2001 for the homily centered on a story about Alexander.

[11] On the use of Luqman in these homilies, see Swanson 2006.

[12] Swanson 2005: 37-42.

[13] Troupeau 1972-1974, vol. 2: 47.

[14] Reading ibtihaj for niyah.

[15] The function of the four words that follow in the is not very clear to me (“Then-they gave—returning—to you”), and they have been omitted from the translation.

[16] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fol. 51v (Homily 18).

[17] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fols. 46v-47r (Homily 16).

[18] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fols. 54v-55r (Homily 3).

[19] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fol. 3rv (Homily 13).

[20] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fols. 21v-22r (Homily 8).

[21] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fol. 63rv (Homily 21), fols. 76v-78v (Homily 26).

[22] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fol. 38rv (Homily 13).

[23] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fol. 38v.

[24] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fol. 49v (Homily 17).

[25] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fol. 16v (Homily 6).

[26] Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fol. 16v-17r.

[27] Indeed, had the colophon referred to the homilies one would have expected the plural, mayamir, rather than the singular, maymar.

[28] Galtier 1905. Compare the fragment preserved in Paris, B.N. ar. 4796, fols. 79-82 with Galtier 1905: 110, line 5—112, line 8.

[29] I used a recent edition of the katameros with commentary: Anonymous 1983. On the characteristics of the Coptic Orthodox lectionary of Lower Egypt, see 1984 and Zanetti 1985.