The Coptic language is now recognized in four principal dialects, Bohairic (formerly Memphitic), Fayumic, Sahidic (formerly Theban), and Akhmimic. The relative antiquity of these as literary idioms is much debated. But the fact is that no Bohairic manuscript and probably no Fayumic manuscript is older than the ninth century, while some Sahidic and Akhimimic codices are apparently as old as the fifth and even the fourth century. In the ninth century Bohairic was flourishing, in Northern Egypt, particularly in the Province of Bohairah (hence its name) south-west of Alexandria and in the monasteries of the Desert of Nitria, while Sahidic was spread throughout Upper Egypt or Sahid (hence the name of Sahidic) inclusive of Cairo, having already superseded Fayumic in the Province of Fayum (ancient Crocodilopolis) and Akhmimic in the region of Akhmim (ancient Panopolis). Later (eleventh century?) when the Patriarch of Alexandria moved his residence from that city to Cairo, Bohairic began to drive out Sahidic and soon became the liturgical language of the Copts throughout Egypt.
There are versions of the Bible in all four dialects. All of them are now incomplete, but there is hardly any reason to doubt that they once existed in their entirety. It is now considered certain that they were made independently and that their differences are to be traced to a difference between the Greek recensions from which they were translated. There is much discussion between specialists as to the age of the Coptic versions, especially as to which of them was made first. The present writer in his "Étude sur les versions coptes de la Bible" (Revue biblique, 1897, p. 67) concluded that some Coptic version must have been in existence as early as the end of the second century. On the other side Forbes Robinson (Hastings, "Dict. of the Bible", IV, 570) does not think that there is sufficient ground for believing that a Coptic version existed before the fourth century (see also Burkitt in Cheyne, "Encycl. Biblica", IV, 5008 seq.). However, in proportion as older manuscripts are discovered, and Coptic versions are submitted to closer study, the pendulum of opinion is swinging back to the former view. Leipoldt agrees that the Sahidic version was completed about A.D. 350 ("Gesch. der christlichen Literaturen", VII, 2, Leipzig, 1907, p. 139). Dr. Kenyon goes one step further: "If, therefore, we put the origin of the Coptic versions about A.D. 200, we shall be consistent with all extant evidence, and probably shall not be very far wrong" ("Textual Criticism of the New Testament", 154, quoted by Budge in "Coptic Biblical Texts", p. LXXXIII). More emphatic still is Horner: "If, with Harnack, relying on Leipoldt we may conjecture, though we cannot prove, that the Sahidic version partly goes back to the third century, there seems some reason for supposing that need of a vernacular version arose as early as the time of Demetrius [A.D. 188]. Where history fails us, the internal character of the Sahidic supplies confirmation of a date earlier than the third century. . .the traces of early mixture shown by the definite tinge of Western influence can hardly be explained except by reference to a date as early as possible. If Christianity did not exist at all in Upper Egypt before A.D. 150, then we must come down to the date of Demetrius as the earliest possible date of the version; but if, as is more likely, the Christian religion had spread by means of the Nile immediately after it began to be preached in Alexandria, and had already become infected by heretical and semi-pagan superstitions in the second century, we may provisionally conclude from the character of the Sahidic version that it was made at that time" ("The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect", III, Oxford, 1911, p. 398).
All agree as to the great value of the Coptic versions. The Sahidic version is especially of importance for the study of the Septuagint, as it was made, it seems from Greek manuscripts free from Hexapla influence. However, the critical value of those versions cannot be fully realized until we have a more comprehensive study of them, based on critical editions as we already have for the New Testament in Boharic and for the Gospels in Sahidic by Horner. The following is a synopsis of the material on hand for the study of the several Coptic versions. (See the writer's "Étude des versions coptes de la Bible" in "Rev. bibl." (1896-7) for a fuller account of the Boharic material and in the case of the other three versions for an account up to that date.
The only complete books of the Old Testament known to be extant in Bohairic are the Pentateuch, the Prophets with Lamentations, the Psalms, and Job. Of the others we have fragments only, mostly taken from lectionaries. The New Testament is complete. Chief editions: Pentateuch, Wilkins (London, 1731); P. de Lagarde (Leipzig, 1867); Prophets and Lamentations, Tattam, Prophetae majores (Oxford, 1852); Prophetae minores (ibid., 1836); Psalms, Tuki (Rome, 1744), Ideler (Berlin, 1837), Schwartze (ibid, 1851); Job, Tattam (London, 1846). The older editions of the New Testament have all been outranked by the recent Oxford edition; "The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Northern Dialect, otherwise called Memphitic or Bohairic", by Geo. Horner (4 vols. Clarendon Press, 1898-1905). The only new manuscript of importance is one of these recently acquired by the late J. P. Morgan of New York. It is supposed to have come from the Monastery of St. Michael in the Fayum as the rest of the collection. It contained once the four Gospels. Many leaves unfortunately are now missing. Still it may prove of considerable value as it is from one to two hundred years older than the oldest known Bohairic manuscript of the Gospels (Bodl. Huntington 17, A.D. 1174).
Of this version until recently we had almost nothing but fragments, representing several hundred manuscripts, chiefly from the monastery of Amba Shnudah (Shenoute) near Sohag province of Akhmim, generally known as the "White Monastery". The only complete books were those of the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), and some of the minor Epistles. Of late, however, this number has been considerably increased, see above. COPTIC LITERATURE, Morgan collection, and British Museum, Recent acquisitions. The most important editions since 1897 (besides those mentioned in the article just referred to) are the following:
(1) Rahlfs, "Die Berliner Handschrift des sahidischen Psalters" (Abhandlungen der königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenchaften, zu Gottingen, philolog.-hist. Klasse, IV, 4), Berlin, 1901. This codex, which Rahlfs ascribes to about A.D. 400, contained in the neighbourhood of 129 leaves out of which 98 are still extant in a rather dilapidated condition. The greatest lacuna (about thirty leaves), between leaf 94 and 95, covered Psalms 106-143. Six pages are reproduced in collotype at the end of the book.
(2) "A Coptic Palimpsest containing Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Judith, and Esther", by Sir Herbert Thompson (Oxford Univ. Press, London, 1911). This palimpsest is the manuscript Add. 17,183 of the British Museum known already from the descriptions of W. Wright, "Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum", II, 89, no. DCCCXII, and Crum, "Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts of the British Museum", no. 12. Specimens of the script, which can be dated in the seventh century, were published by the present writer in "Album de paleographie copte" (Paris, 1888), pl. VII, 1, and LVI, 1. Some twenty-five folios of the original manuscript are now missing, leaving as lacunae: Joshua, ii, 15-iii, 5; x, 26-36; xvii, 17-xviii, 6; xix, 50-xx, 1,6; xxii, 14-20; Judges, vii, 2-6, 15-19; viii, 11-19; viii, 28-ix, 8; x, 7-14; xvi, 19-xvii, 1; xviii, 8-21; xix, 8-15; xx, 16-23; xx, 48-xxi, 6; xxi, 15 end; Ruth, iv, 3-9; Judith, ii, 6-iv, 5; v, 6-14; v, 23-vi, 3; vii, 2-7; vii, 18-21; xvi, 7-xvii, 16; Esther (according to Sweet's Greek edition: A, 11-i,11; ii, 8-15; iii, 13-B, 4; iv, 13-C, 6; D, 9-vi, 5; viii, 2-E, 6; E, 17-viii, 12.
(3) "The Coptic (Sahidic) version of certain books of the Old Testament from a Papyrus in the British Museum: by Sir Herbert Thompson (Oxford Univ. Press, London, 1908). This papyrus (British Museum, Or. 5984), once in ordinary book form, now consists of fragments only, preserved in 62 numbered glass frames. Originally it contained the Books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticle of Canticles, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach). Of Job only xxxviii, 27-xxxix, 12 is left. Of Proverbs there are considerable portions from iv, 16 to the end; of Ecclesiastes, likewise from vi, 6 to ix, 6; of Canticle of Canticles, from the beginning to the end; of Wisdom, from the beginning to xix, 8; of Ecclesiasticus from the beginning to xl, 18. The script (illustrated by a plate reproducing Ecclesiasticus Prol., 1-i, 12) is pronounced by Crum (Proc. Of the Soc. of Bibl. Archaeology) to be "Perhaps of the sixth or seventh century".
(4) "Sahidischgriechischa Psalmenfragmente" by C. Wessely in "Sitzungsber. d. kais. Akad. d. Wissenschaften, philos.-histor. Klasse", vol. 155, I (Vienna, 1907). In this the learned curator of the Rainer collection gives us some very important fragments of the Psalms, among which are twenty-four leaves of a papyrus codex containing once the whole Psalter both in Greek and Sahidic on opposite pages, and shorter fragments of two other bilingual parchment manuscripts of the Psalms, and other parchment fragments in Sahidic only. Another bilingual fragment of the Psalms, from the same collection, was published by Wessely in his "Griechische u. koptische Texte theologischen Inhalts I" in "Studien zur. Palæographie u. Papyruskunde", IX (Leipzig, 1909) no. 17.
(6) "Textes de l'ancien testament en copte sahidique" by Pierre Lacau in "Recueil de travaux relatifs a la philologie et a l'archeologie egyptiennes et assyriennes", XXIII (Paris, 1901). From the library of the Institut Francais, Cairo, one leaf of an Old-Testament lectionary (Borgia, XXXII), and six leaves of a manuscript of Isaias; from the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, one leaf of the latter manuscript.
(7) Winstedt. Some unpublished Sahidic fragments of the Old Testament in "Journ. of Theol. Studies", X (Oxford, 1909), 233-54. Those are the nos. 5, 15, 44, 19, 20, 40, 43, 45, 46, 47, 53, 51, 52, 56, 59, and 14 of Crum's "Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the British Museum" (London, 1905).
(8) "Sahidische Bibel-Fragmente aus dem British Museum zu London I and II" in "Sitzungsberichte der kai. Akademie d. Wissenschaften in Wien, philos.-hist. Klasse", vol. 162, VI, and 164, VI (Vienna, 1909-11) by J. Schleifer and "Bruchstucke der sahidischen Bibelubersetzung," (ibid., vol. 170, I, Vienna, 1912) by the same author. Those are the nos. 11, 43, 48, 47, 21, 51, 40; 1, 4, 5, 7, 10, 13, 23, 8, 938; 9, 934, 935, 936, 953, of Crum's "Catalogue" (see above), plus one fragment from Eaton College Library, London, and one from the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris (1317, fol. 36). With reference to the edition of the Paris Old-Testament fragments published by G. Maspero, "Mémoires de la Mission," etc. (Paris, 1886) we must mention:
(9) S. Gaselee's "Notes on the Coptic Version of the LXX, I" in "Journ. of Theol. Studies", XI (1909-10), 246-55, in which the writer supplies from the originals quite a number of corrections and some additions, to the text of the historical books in that edition.
(11) Finally, an excellent contribution to the Old-Testament Sachidic fragments by A. Hebbelynck in his "Manuscripts coptes sahidiques du Monastère Blanc, I", reprinted from the "Muséon" (Louvain, 1911). The author identifies the fragments scattered throughout Europe which belonged once to the same codices as the thirty-two Borgian fragments. We are informed that this work of identification will be extended to the other fragments of the whole Monastery outside of the Borgian collection.
(1) "Sacrorum bibliorum fragmenta copto-sahidica musaei Borgiani, vol. III, Novum Testamentum edidit P.J. Balestri O.S.A." (Rome, 1904), with forty full-page collotype specimens under special cover.
(2) "The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic, with Critical Apparatus, literal English translation, Register of fragments and estimate of the version", I-III (Oxford, 1911), with photographic specimens of the most important manuscripts. In this masterpiece of patient scholarship, the author (whose name does not appear on the title page), Rev. George Horner, has succeeded in reconstructing the whole of the Four Gospels (a few verses excepted) out of 744 fragments scattered throughout the public and private collections of the world. These fragments belonged once to some 150 different manuscripts, the identification of which by the author is perhaps not the least merit of his work. Unfortunately some valuable fragments, in particular those in the Rainer collection, now incorporated with the Imperial Library of Vienna, were not accessible to Horner in time to be used for his edition.
(3) Since then, the New-Testament fragments of that rich collection have been published in autography with the most minute palaeographical details by the curator C. Wessely, "Griechische u. koptische Texte theologischen Inhalts, I-III" in "Studien zur Paläographie u. Papyruskunde", IX, XI, XII (Leipzig, 1909-12).
(1) By Pleyte and Boeser from the Leyden Museun in their "Catalogue des manuscripts coptes du Musée d'antiquités des Pays-Bas" (Leyden, 1897).
(2) By Leipoldt, from the Museum of Berlin in "Aegyptiselie Urkunden aus den königlichen Museen zu Berlin, koptische Urkunden", I (Berlin, 1904).
(3) By O. v. Lemm, from the British Museum, the Bibliothèque, Nationale of Paris, the Golenishef Collection, St. Petersburg, and the Berlin Library in his "Sahidische Bibelfragmente III" in "Bulletin de l'Académie imper. des Sciences," Ve, ser., XXV, 4 (St. Petersburg, 1906).
Most of the New-Testament publications in the fragments just mentioned have been used by Horner for his edition. But they are not the less welcomed in their independent actual condition, especially when printed page by page and line by line, as done, for instance by Wessely, O. v. Lemm, and Schleifer, so as to give to all students of the Coptic version the means of reconstructing as far as possible the ancient codices as they originally were.
E. Chassinat edited anew and more correctly the fragments once published by Bouriant (Bull. de l'Inst. Franc. D'arch. or. au Claire, II) and showed that they belonged to the same codices as the Borgian "Fragmenta Basmurica", I-III. Other additions to the same fragments were made from the Rainer collection by C. Wessely in "Sitzungsber. der kais. Akad. d. Wissensch. in Wien, philos.-hist. Klasse", vol. 158, 1 (Vienna, 1908), and Jos. David from the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris in "Revue biblique" (1910), 80 sqq. There are also a dozen more fragments rather short, on papyrus or on parchment, described and published as far as they could be deciphered by W. E. Crum, "Catalogue of the Coptic manuscripts in the British Museum" (London, 1905), nos. 493-510, 1221. Three of those, 500, 502 and 504 are bilingual, one side of the leaf, exhibiting the Greek and the other the Fayumic text. Since the completion of Crum's "Catalogue," the British Museum has acquired a new fragment, Or. 6948, Acts, vii, 14-28, ix, 28-39. It was published by S. Gaselee in "Journ. of Theol. Studies", XI, (1909-10), 514-7.
A considerable addition since 1897 has been made to the material for our knowledge of this version, in the discovery of a whole papyrus codex containing the Proverbs of Solomon. It is to be hoped that this valuable manuscript, now preserved in the Berlin Library, will soon be published. Apart from that the only other important additions are papyrus fragments of the Gospel of St. John (bilingual, Ch. x, complete in Akhmimic, vv. 1-10, in Greek; xi, complete in Akhmimic, vv, 1-8, 45-52, in Greek; xii, 1-20, in Akhmimic, xiii, 1, 2, 11, 12, in Akhm.) and the Epistle of St. James (I, 13-v, 20). They were published by Rosch, in "Bruchstücke des ersten Clemensbriefes" (Strasburg, 1910). The famous parchment codex of the twelve lesser Prophets in the Rainer collection is unfortunately still unpublished. But the short papyrus fragments published by Bouriant have been given out anew in a more correct edition by Lacau in "Bulletin de l'Institut Francais d'archéologie orientale", VIII (Cairo, 1911), 43-107 (see COPTIC LITERATURE in this volume; and EGYPT).
APA citation. (1914). Coptic Versions of the Bible. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: The Encyclopedia Press. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/16078c.htm
MLA citation. "Coptic Versions of the Bible." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 16 (Index). New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1914. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/16078c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to the Poor Souls in Purgatory.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1914. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.