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The Coptic Life of Shenoute - Coptic Wiki

The Coptic Life of Shenoute

THE COPTIC LIFE of Shenoute is best known in its Bohairic version. In Bohairic, a virtually complete version of the Vita Sinuthii, that is the Life of Shenoute, has come down to us. It gives an account of Shenoute’s life from his birth to his death and is attributed to Shenoute’s successor, Besa. The Bohairic manuscript, which stems from the Monastery of St. Macarius, is now conserved in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and was published by Amelineau in 1888 with a French translation and again eight years later by in his well-known edition.[1]

The Vita Sinuthii has also come down to us in the Coptic Sahidic dialect. In Sahidic, only twenty-six leaves of the Vita Sinuthii from the library of Shenoute’s monastery have survived. They are conserved in the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris, the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples, the Coptic Museum in Cairo, the British Library in London and the Papyrus Collection of the Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna. Only two of these leaves, the single one from Vienna and one fragment from Naples, are unpublished, the rest of the fragments were published by Amelineau, Crum, and Munier.[2] Unfortunately, Amelineau’s edition, which consists of twenty fragments from Paris, Naples and Cairo, is not reliable.

The codicological relationship between the fragments of the Vita Sinuthii from Shenoute’s monastery have been systematically investigated for the first time with the result that—apart from two leaves—the fragments can be related to four different codices.[3] The main bulk of fragments, thirteen leaves altogether, belong to Codex MONB.FR which was reconstructed by Orlandi as part of his work on the Corpus dei Manoscritti Copti Letterari (CMCL). Emmel put together three leaves to form Codex MONB.WX, which is parallel to codex FR. Codex MONB.WU, consisting of two leaves, and Codex MONB.WV, consisting of six leaves, were established during the course of my work.

Furthermore, two Sahidic fragments of the Vita Sinuthii of unknown ori­gin have come down to us. One of them, a single parchment bifolio in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities of the British Museum, was published by Shore.[4] The other one, consisting of six leaves from a paper manuscript, is kept in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and has not yet been published. These leaves are in a poor condition as they had once been folded and used to increase the strength of a book cover. They once belonged to the private collection of Raphael Tuki and were incorporated in the Borgian Collection of the Biblioteca Vaticana as late as 1913 by Henry Hyvernat.[5]

The discovery of eight unpublished leaves and the fact that most of the editions of the published fragments can only be called preliminary and the results of the codicological reconstructions underline the necessity of a new edition of all the Sahidic fragments of the Vita Sinuthii.

The Vita Sinuthii has also been translated into Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopic. In Arabic and Ethiopic, complete manuscripts of the Vita Sinuthii survive. Amelineau published an Arabic version, using four different manuscripts for his edition.[6] Again Amelineau’s work cannot be relied upon, and already had called for a new edition.[7] This call is supported by the fact that two unpublished Arabic versions of the Vita Sinuthii can be found in the British Library alone.[8] The Arabic version is more than twice as long as the Bohairic version. Its length results—generally speaking—from additional epi­sodes and from material added to episodes that are also reported in at least one of the other versions. In 1982 published a critical edition of an Ethiopic version, based on three witnesses, with a French translation.[9]

With regard to its length the Ethiopic version takes an intermediate position between the shorter Bohairc and the longer Arabic version. In Syriac, two versions of the Vita Sinuthii have been published, one of them only in very fragmentary condition.[10] The other one has survived in a complete manuscript and is now conserved in the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris. It is far shorter and simpler than the other versions. In contrast to this short Syriac version, I will refer to the Bohairic, Arabic, and collectively as ‘long versions.’

After the different versions of the Vita Sinuthii had been published, the main question was which version represented the presumable Sahidic origi­nal. Nearly all scholars agree that the presumable original was written in Sahidic.[11] Amelineau, Ladeuze, Leipoldt, and others noticed that the Sahidic fragments also represented different recensions and they were even sure that some of them did not derive from Besa.[12] According to Leipoldt, the Sahidic fragments had lost their “pristina puritas,” their earlier purity.[13] But which version has preserved it?

As the Ethiopic version had not been published at that time and since the knowledge about the Syriac fragments was limited, the main ques­tion was whether the original text was preserved in the Arabic or the Bohairic version. Amelineau voted for the longer Arabic version, calling the Bohairic version an “abrege”[14] that is an abridgement, of the original version. According to Amelineau the translator of that version was interested only in the edifying and miraculous parts of the Vita and omitted all the historical information in the Sahidic original. Furthermore, the translator left out or changed the connecting phrases between different episodes of the Vita so substantially that some parts of the text remain more or less incomprehen­sible. In addition to that, the title of the Bohairic version states that the text gives an account only of a few (6ankou’i) of Shenoute’s miracles. Amelineau interpreted that as a signal of the translator who did not want to report all the miracles, but only a few of them.

But Amelineau’s point of view did not convince any of his fellow schol­ars. Ladeuze, Nau, and held that the Bohairic version is closer to the presumable Sahidic original than the Arabic version.[15] Their objec­tions against Amelineau’s line of argumentation are as follows: Besa himself states in his introduction to the Bohairic Vita that he is able to talk about only a small selection of Shenoute’s miracles. Besides, those parts in the Arabic Vita that are better understandable than their Bohairic parallels prob­ably underwent later revisions. Moreover, the Arabic version reports many more miraculous deeds of Shenoute, it even exaggerates miraculous talents as compared with the Bohairic version. This also seems to be the work of a later editor. Furthermore, Ladeuze pointed out that those episodes that are reported only in the Arabic version were most probably added to the text in the course of the revisions of the text.[16]

A comparison of the Bohairic and the Arabic versions shows that both Amelineau and his opponents are right in some respects. The Arabic version gives more detailed information about life in Shenoute’s monastery, as Amelineau suggested. For example, only the Arabic version states how many men and women belonged to the White Monastery.[17] On the other hand the Arabic version relates more miraculous deeds than the Bohairic version, as stated. But this is mostly due to the fact that the Arabic version is more than twice as long as the Bohairic version.

However, the Arabic version shows a special affinity to angels. In this respect, the super­natural element is indeed exaggerated in the Arabic version or neutralized in the Bohairic version. With regard to the depiction of Shenoute’s asceticism, of his work as the leader of the White Monastery, and of his commitment to the poor there are hardly any differences between the two versions. Again the Arabic version merely gives more examples than the Bohairic.

In two respects, however, the Arabic and the Bohairic versions differ considerably from one another. In the Arabic text Shenoute is shown to be very self-assured and combative with regard to the Church, that is, the local clergy and the patriarchs in Alexandria. In the Bohairic (and the Ethiopic version) the conflict between Shenoute and the Church is levelled out. In addition to that Shenoute’s fight against pagans, but especially against the heretic Nestorius, is depicted much more aggressively in the Arabic version.

Therefore one can say that the Arabic version seems to be much more rooted in Shenoute’s monastery. It draws a more detailed picture of Shenoute and his monastery, whereas the Bohairic (and the Ethiopic) version gives a more generalized account of Shenoute’s life and work. The Arabic ver­sion seems to address people who are closely linked with Shenoute and his monastery, whereas the Bohairic version appeals also to a wider pub­lic. Regarding the contents, it is much more plausible that the Bohairic version is a shortened and generalized form of the presumable original, as Amelineau had suggested.

Does the Arabic version therefore represent Besa’s original text? Before this question can be answered let us have a closer look at the Sahidic fragments. As already mentioned, it has been observed that the Sahidic fragments also represented different recensions of the Vita. An analysis of the newly established codices led to the same results. Some of them are very close to either the Arabic or the Bohairic version, and will not be referred to individually in the following remarks. In contrast to that, the parallel Codices FR and WX show a high degree of independence from the other versions. For example, they differ from the long versions with regard to the manner in which the individual episodes are introduced.

Most of the epi­sodes narrated in FR and WX have long introductory in which a speaker frequently addresses his listeners directly, for example like this: “But lest we protract this speech, I am going to tell of a miraculous deed that [Shenoute] himself wrote down in his holy sermons.”[18] It is obvious that FR and WX are composed as speeches. In contrast to that, only the prooimia of the long versions make it clear that they are introductions to speeches. The episodes in the main body of the long versions, namely, the Bohairic, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions, usually start with a formula equivalent to “once upon a time”[19] without any reference to a narrator or an audience.

It is one even more striking feature of FR and WX that they do not seem to have been written by Besa. Besa is not mentioned in any pericope of FR and WX, not even in the account of Shenoute’s death where he plays an important role in the long versions. Furthermore, the narrator of FR and WX never states that he saw any of Shenoute’s wonderful deeds with his own eyes, but he constantly names witnesses, sometimes very vaguely with formulas such as: “it has been said that,”[20] sometimes more precisely, for example: “and our monastic fathers, who lived at the time of our father Apa Shenoute, have [also] said that,”[21] or “those who have met him in his body have testified to us that.”[22] The last two phrases propose that the author of FR and WX was neither an eyewitness to the miracles performed by Shenoute nor one of his contemporaries. Therefore the author of FR and WX was by no means Shenoute’s disciple and successor, Besa. Amelineau, Ladeuze, and had already noticed this peculiarity and excluded some of the Sahidic fragments, which are now designated to Codex FR, from the Vita Sinuthii.

In contrast, the long versions are attributed to Besa in their titles and—in correspondence with that—‘Besa’ emphasizes in their introductions that he saw the miracles of Shenoute with his own eyes, or that at least he heard about them from Shenoute himself. Furthermore, the impression that Besa was the author of the long versions is reinforced by the fact that he is men­tioned in many of their episodes. Besa appears as the first-person narrator of these episodes, introducing himself either as “I, Besa,” or just “I” without the name. However, the number of times Besa appears in the long versions varies considerably from version to version.

In the Bohairic and Ethiopic versions, he is mentioned in 15 percent of the episodes, whereas he is men­tioned in 25 percent of the episodes of the Arabic version. This difference is explained by the fact that—on the one hand—Besa plays a role in epi­sodes that are narrated only in the Arabic version. On the other hand, in some episodes Besa is mentioned only in the Arabic version despite the fact that the same episode also occurs in the Bohairic and Ethiopic ver­sions. Furthermore, it is remarkable that the figure of Besa shows hardly any original features, except for a few episodes which were probably all taken from a single source, namely the panegyric on Macarius of Tkow.

We may therefore conclude that neither the speeches in the Sahidic codi­ces FR and WX nor the long versions of the Vita Sinuthii were originally composed by Besa. This is in accordance with Volkmar Keil who already in 1978 expressed his doubts about the traditional opinion that saw Besa as the author of the Vita Sinuthii.[23]

The genesis of the Vita Sinuthii may have taken place in the following way: In correspondence with the Coptic tradition, speeches of praise were given in honor of Shenoute every year on the day of his commemoration in his monastery. At least some of these speeches were preserved and cop­ied, but also revised in the monastery library. For the scribes not merely copied the texts but also reworked them, as Tito Orlandi has pointed out, thus “creating new texts from pieces of existing ones.”[24] With regard to the speeches in commemoration of Shenoute, the scribes seem to have extended the part concerning the life and miraculous deeds of Shenoute by inserting episodes known, for example, from oral tradition or from Shenoute’s own writings. During the course of these revisions, those parts of the texts that showed the features of a speech, such as the rhetorical introductions to indi­vidual episodes, mostly vanished.

The revisions of the texts probably served a special purpose, which was described by Karl Heinz Kuhn with regard to a commemorative enco- mion on John the Baptist. Kuhn asked: “Is it not possible that books of homilies were compiled for certain occasions, in this case for the com­memoration day of John the Baptist? Any preacher, or any copying scribe, would be at liberty to select from the material assembled there, and thus to produce a refashioned suitable in length and character for his particular public.”[25]

This model could explain the contents of codex FR, which contains either two speeches of praise or one speech plus an appendix. At some stage there seemed to have been a desire to collect everything known about Shenoute in one work. This compilation prob­ably was the size of the Arabic version. Parts of it have come down to us in three Sahidic fragments.[26] It is the expression of a self-confident monas­ticism in Shenoute’s monastery. Furthermore, an introduction was added to this long compilation, which attributed it to Besa, presumably because he was felt to give final authority to the contents.

Because of the elaborate style, the prooimium seems to have been inserted by a scribe who was highly educated and who knew the rules of ancient rhetoric. At what time all this happened is difficult to say because of the fragmentary state of the Sahidic texts and the poor editorial state of the Arabic version. However, if we presume that the long compilation had the full extent of the Arabic version published by Amelineau its genesis must be dated to the end of the seventh century, because it referred to the Arab invasion and the follow­ing fighting.[27]

This long compilation was already shortened in Shenoute’s monastery, as can be seen from the fragmentary codex WU. As the work spread across the walls of Shenoute’s monastery it was generalized in such a way that people who did not belong to could also identify themselves with the story narrated. The Bohairic and the Ethiopic version are examples of such abridged versions.

To sum up, the so-called Vita Sinuthii should not be regarded as a biog­raphy of Shenoute originating from a single Urtext written by Besa. Rather, the texts known to us mark different stages in the text’s development, from speeches of praise, delivered on the day of commemoration of Shenoute, to collections of episodes from Shenoute’s life, many of which are surely the product of someone’s pious imagination. It was only at some later stage of this process that the texts were attributed to Besa in order to give the work complete authority.

Nina Lubomierski

[1] Amelineau 1888-95: 1-99; 1906-1913, vol. 1: 7-76. Fragments of the Bohairic Version were published by Evelyn-White 1973: 163.

[2] Amelineau 1888-95: 237-47, 633-49; Crum 1905: 164-65; Munier 1916 : 63-65, pl. XIII.

[3] The Sahidic Codices from Shenoute’s monastery are designated according to the system that has been established by the CMCL. The prefix MONB standing for Monasterio Bianco is omitted in this study once the codices have been introduced.

[4] Shore 1979: 134-39, pls. XXIV-XXV.

[5] Hyvernat 1896: 549. The fragment has been assigned the call number Borg. Copt. 134 ff. 2-7.

[6] Amelineau 1888-95: 289-480.

[7] 1964: 53; cf. Crum 1904: 130 n. 3.

[8] Cureton and Rieu 1846-1871: 670; Rieu 1894: 26-28.

[9] 1982.

[10] Guidi 1889 (only in fragmentary form); Nau 1899-1900.

[11] Except for Nau 1899-1900: 361-63.

[12] Amelineau 1888-95: LIX; Ladeuze 1898: 124; 1903: 13f.

[13] 1906-1913, vol. 1: 2.

[14] Amelineau 1888-95:VII.

[15] 1898: 12; Ladeuze 1898: 125-27; Nau 1899-1900: 360.

[16] Ladeuze 1898: 136.

[17] Amelineau 1888-95: 331.

[18] Amelineau 1888-95: 237,12-238,1: einataoue on 6n 2om mpeneiwt mprofhths apa 4enoute … ‘ekas xe nnenta4e P4a’e epe6ouo. 5na’w nou6wb n4Phre ea3sa63 ntot3 ene3 etouaab.

[19] E.g. the formula “au4wpi [de] [on] noue6oou “ can be found in the beginning of the paragraphs ( 1906-1913, vol. 1) §§ 14; 22; 25; 36; 42; 68; 70; 73; 74; 91; 93; 94; 115; 119; 125; 138 and 151.

[20] FR 45 i.28 (Amelineau 1888-95: 642, 9) and FR 58 i.6 (Amelineau, Monuments, 240, 3): au’oos de on. WX frg. 2r ii.26f : pe’au. (Amelineau 1888-95: 244, 8)

[21] FR 47 ii.19-27.

[22] FR 59 ii.23-27.

[23] Keil 1978: 40-41. Cf. Emmel 2004b: 92 note 149

[24] Orlandi 2002: 220.

[25] Kuhn 1966: (textus), XVIII.

[26] Kodex WV, GB-BL Or. 3581B f. 72 and VA-V Borg. Copt. 134 ff. 2-7.

[27] Cf. Amelineau 1888-95: LVIII; 1898: 14.