Coptic Literature

Since the publication of the article EGYPT, under which Coptic literature was treated, important discoveries of entirely new Sahidic material have taken place, and considerable portions of the Sahidic Version from manuscripts known already have been given to the public by very competent scholars.


The most important of these discoveries was undoubtedly that of the library of the Monastery of St. Michael in the Fayûm (Spring, 1910). Most of the fifty-eight volumes of which it consisted found their way to Paris, where they were purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (Dec., 1911), in whose library (at New York) they are now preserved. 5000 volumes remained in Egypt, and, with a few fragments of the same origin, are kept in the Egyptian Museum at Cairo. With the exception of one Fayûmic and one Bohairic manuscript the whole collection is in the Sahidic dialect. This had its home in Upper Egypt, but evidently it had spread in the Fayûm as a literary language as early as the eighth century, for some of our manuscripts are dated in the first quarter of the following century. The numerous colophons, however, all in the local Fayûmic idiom, show that the latter still obtained as a spoken language. One of the most important features of the Morgan collection is that it consists of complete volumes, while other collections, yet reputed so valuable, those of Rome, Paris, and London (see below under British Museum Collection), to name the principal ones, consist mostly of fragments. It is an inveterate habit with the Arabs of Egypt to tear the manuscripts they discover or steal, so as to give each member of the tribe his share of the spoils, and also in the hope of securing higher prices by selling the manuscripts piecemeal, a process fatal to literature, for while some leaves so treated will be scattered throughout the public or private collections of Europe and America, a good many more will either meet destruction or remain hidden indefinitely by the individual owners. Most of the manuscripts of the Monastery of St. Michael had already been divided into small lots of leaves and distributed among a number of Arabs when they were rescued at the cost of untold toil and expense.

Mr. Morgan's collection is no less remarkable as a group of dated manuscripts of absolutely certain provenance. We had a number of much older volumes or fragments, the ages of which, however, could not be determined with sufficient approximation, for lack of points of comparison, chronologically not too distant. The only points of comparison, so far, were two manuscripts dated A. D. 1006 (British Museum Or. 1320) and 1003 (Naples, Zoega, XI). There are indeed a few colophons in Paris with dates almost 100 years earlier but those colophons are generally separated from the manuscripts to which they belonged and consequently are of little or no use, the script of colophons being as a rule different from that in the body of the manuscript. Now the Morgan collection contains eighteen dates ranging from A. D. 832 to 914, so that our point of comparison is thrown practically 200 years nearer the older manuscripts in question. Many of the manuscripts are still in their original bindings, which are possibly the oldest, and certainly the best-authenticated, specimens of the art of bookbinding in that remote period. They consist of thick boards made of layers of papyrus sheets taken from older manuscripts. The covering is brown or deepened leather stamped with geometrical patterns, or cut though so as to show pieces of the same material, but of different colours (generally red or gold), slipped between the board and cover. In one case the decoration, exceedingly elaborate, was obtained by means of narrow strips of red parchment delicately stitched on the gilded cover of the boards and on the inner face of one of the boards, the name of the monastery is reproduced in the same manner on the turned-in edge of the leather covering. A dozen of the volumes are adorned with full-page miniatures representing the Virgin with her Divine Son at her breast or sitting in her lap, angels, martyrs, anchorites, and other saints. A wealth of decorations from the vegetable and animal realms runs along the margins and around the titles of the individual treatises, in almost all the volumes. It is the earliest and most complete attempt at illustrating and decorating yet discovered in Sahidic manuscripts.

The library of the Monastery of St. Michael was clearly a liturgical library, that is all its books were used in church. The following classified list of contents will give a fair idea of what a Coptic monastic library of that time was while it will also show the 1acunæ with which it has come down to us.


(1) Old Testament

Six complete books of the Sahidic version, namely, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, I and II Kings (Samuel), and Isaias, excepting i, 1-19, and vii, 7-viii.

(2) New Testament

The Four Gospels (excepting Luke, iv, 33-ix, 30; ix, 62-xiii, 17), the fourteen Epistles of St. Paul, and the seven Catholic Epistles (I and II Peter, I-III John, James, and Jude). There is also a manuscript of the Bohairic Version of the Four Gospels, fragmentary, unfortunately, and without indication of provenance or date, and it remains to decide whether it belonged to the Monastery of St. Michael. Still it is probably older than any of the manuscripts so far known of that version and on that account it may prove of considerable value for textual criticism.


  • (1) A complete Lectionary containing much valuable information as to the liturgical, sanctoral, and the general run of the ecclesiastical year, and explaining several popular names for the various Sundays which, so far, were either unknown or obscure and liable to misinterpretation.

  • (2) A Breviary and

  • (3) an Antiphonary, two books of which we had nothing but a few fragments that challenged all attempts at reconstruction. The sanctoral of the antiphonary is the oldest document of that kind in the Coptic literature.


Over 100 homilies, discourses, eulogies, Acts of martyrs, lives of saints, and miscellaneous treatises, to be read in church on the various Sundays and feasts of the liturgical year. These have been recently classified by categories of feast, retaining, however, in each category, the order of the calendar.

  • (1) Feasts of Our Lord: Nativity (Choiac 29=25 Dec.), discourse by Demetrius, Archbishop of Antioch; Epiphany (Tybi 11=6 Jan.), two discourses by St. Epiphanius of Constance (Cyprus), and St. Peter of Alexandria; Passion, discourse by St. Athanasius of Alexandria; Resurrection (Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, Easter Wednesday, and Whitsunday), one discourse by Evodius, Archbishop of Rome (probably error for Antioch), one by St. John Chrysostom, and five discourses by St. Cyril of Jerusalem; Pentecost, discourse by St. Athanasius of Alexandria; Feast of the Holy Cross (Thoth 17=14 Sept.), discourse by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, also a discourse by Theophilus of Alexandria on the Cross and the Good Thief, not assigned to any date.

  • (2) Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Nativity and Death (Tybi 21=16 Jan.), discourse by St. Cyril of Jerusalem; Assumption (Mesori 16=15 Aug.), discourse by Theophilus of Alexandria.

  • (3) Feasts of Angels: St. Gabriel (Choiac 22=18 Dec., Feast of the Annunciation?), discourse by Archelaus, Bishop of Neapolis; St. Gabriel's Investiture in Heaven, by St. Stephen; St. Michael, patron saint of the monastery (Athyr 12=8 Nov.), two discourses by Macarius, Bishop of Tkôou and Severus of Antioch; St. Michael's 1nvestiture in Heaven, by St. John the Evangelist; three discourses by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Severianus, Bishop of Gabala, and Timothy of Alexandria. There are also discourses without mention of date in the titles, but very likely pronounced also on Athyr 12: two by St. Basil, five by St. Athanasius, Eustathius of Thrakê, Severianus, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory the Theologian, also one by St. Athanasius on St. Michael and St. Gabriel.

  • (4) Feasts of Apocalyptic Spirits: The Four Incorporeal Animals (Athyr 8=4 Nov.), discourse by St. John Chrysostom; The Twenty-four Elders (Athyr 24=20 Nov.), discourse by Proclus of Cyzicus.

  • (5) Feasts of Patriarchs and Prophets: Isaac (Mesôri 24=17 Aug.), dormitio; Joseph (without date), his history by Ephrem the Anchorite; Jeremias (without date), Paralipomena.

  • (6) Feasts of Saints of the Gospels and Acts: St. John the Baptist (Thoth 2=30 Aug) discourse by Theodore, Archbishop of Alexandria; Sts. Peter and Paul (Epiphi 5=29 June), discourse by Severianus of Gabala; the Twelve Apostles, St. Mark, and St. Luke (same day), Eulogy of the Twelve Apostles and Life of St. Mark (acephalous; author unknown. In Cairo); St. Stephen [no date in the Lectionary (see above)], Stoning of St. Stephen (Thoth 15=12 Sept.), Life (politeia).

  • (7) Feasts of Martyrs: Shnûfe and Brothers (Phaôphi 7=4 Oct.), Acts of martyrdom; Cyprian [and Justina] (Phaôphi 20=17 Oct.), Conversion of Cyprian, his Acts of martyrdom; Menas (Athyr 10=6 Nov.), Acts of martyrdom, eulogy by John, Archbishop of Alexandria, miracles; Cosmas and Damianus (Athyr 22=18 Nov.), Acts of martyrdom (acephalous); Mercurius (Athyr 25=21 Nov.), Acts of martyrdom, two eulogies by Acacius of Neo-Cæsarea and St. Basil of Cæsarea; Paêse and Thecla (Choiac 8=4 Dec.), Acts of martyrdom; Ptelemê (Choiac 11=7 Dec.), Acts of martyrdom; Psote (Choiac 27=23 Dec.), Acts of martyrdom; Leonitius the Arab and Publius (Tybi 1=27 Dec.), Acts of martyrdom; Theodore the Anatolian, Leonitius the Arab and Panegyris (Tybi 12=7 Jan.), Acts of martyrdom; Philotheus (Tybi 16=11 Jan.), Acts of martyrdom; Apa Ioule and Ptelemê (Tybi 21=16 Jan.), Acts of martyrdom; Apa Elia (Pharmouthi 16=11 April), Acts of martyrdom, eulogy by Stephen of Huês (both in Cairo); Victor, son of Romanos (Pharmouthi 27=22 April), eulogy by Theopemptos, Archbishop of Antioch; Coluthus (Pachôn 24=19 May), Acts of martyrdom, eulogy by Isaac, Bishop of Antinôou; Phoibamôn (Payni 1=26 May), Acts of martyrdom, miracles; Claudius (Payni 11=5 June), Acts of martyrdom, eulogy by Severus of Antioch, two eulogies by Constantine of Siout; Epiana (Epiphi 8=2 July), Acts; Nabra (same date), Acts (in Cairo); Theodore Stratelatês (Epiphi 20=14 July), Acts of martyrdom, narrative by Anastatius, Bishop of Euchaitos; The Seven Sleepers (Mesôri 20=13 Aug.), Acts of martyrdom, Isidorus, his mother Sophia, and his sister Euphêmia (no date legible), Acts of martyrdom (Cairo).

  • (8) Feasts of Anchorites and Cenobites: Phib (Phaôphi 20=17 Oct.), life by Papohe; Samuel of Kalomôn (Choiac 8=4 Dec.), life; Archellitês (Tybi 13=8 Jan.), life by Eusebius "the historiographer of Rome"; Maximus and Dometius (Tybi 14 and 17=9 and 12 Jan.), lives by Pohoi; Hilaria (Tybi 21=16 Jan.), life by Pambô; St. Anthony (Tybi 22=7 Jan.), life by St. Athanasius, eulogy by John, Bishop of Ashmûnein; Longinus and Lucius (Mechior 2=27 Jan.), lives, eulogy by Basil, Bishop of Pemje; Pachomius (Pachôn 14=9 May), life (acephalous); Onuphrius (Payni 16=10 June), life; Apollô (Payni 20=14 June), eulogy by Stephen, Bishop of Huês.

  • (9) Feasts of Bishops: Macarius of Tkôou (no date, Phaôphi 21=18 Oct., more probably, however, on the same day as Dioscorus of Alexandria, Thoth 7=4 Sept.), eulogy by Dioscorus, Archbishop of Alexandria (when in exile at Gangra); St. Athanasius of Alexandria (Pachôn 7=2 May), two eulogies by Constantine, Bishop of Siout.

  • (10) Miscellaneous. it has as yet been impossible to assign the following treatises to any special days of the liturgical year, but it is very likely that they, too, were once part of the Synaxary; some of them may have been read on ordinary Sundays: from St. John Chrysostom, homily on the sinning woman who repented (Luke, vii, 34 sqq.); from St. Athanasius, two homilies, one on the parable of the man who borrowed three loaves from his friend (Luke, xi, 5 sqq.) and another on the resurrection of Lazarus; from St. Cyril of Alexandria, homily on some passages of the Apocalypse from John, Archbishop of Alexandria, answers on various questions of theology, put to him by one of his priests, Theodore by name; from Shenute, a volume on indifference in church-going. It is needless to say here that almost every one of the treatises under sections 1 to 6 of the Synaxary is either downright apocryphal or at least based on apocryphal literature.

An official and detailed catalogue of this rich collection is in course of preparation and there is every prospect that the editing and translating of these venerable relics will begin without unavoidable delay.


The British Museum acquired of late a number of valuable Sahidic manuscripts. Three of these, Or. 5000, Or. 5001 (both found together in a ruined monastery of Upper Egypt), and Or. 7594 (bought from a native antiquarian at Ghizer, Cairo) are on papyrus, and bear the appearance of high antiquity, especially Or. 7594, which the authorities of the British Museum date in the middle of the fourth century. The others, Or. 6780-6784, 6799-6804, 6806, 7021-7030, are on parchment, excepting a few on paper, and their dates of writing, so far as they are given, vary from A. D. 979 to 1053. These probably all come from the Monastery of St. Mercurius in the desert west of Edfû (Upper Egypt). The following is a summary of contents of the twenty-five manuscripts:


(1) Old Testament

Deuteronomy (excepting ii, 20-iv, 48; viii, 3-ix, 6; xiii, 17-xiv, 17; xviii, 11-xix, 1; xx, 6-xxii, 2; xxvi, 11-xxvii, 26, and a number of smaller lacunæ); Jonas (complete), Or. 7594 The Psalter (complete, including the uncanonical Ps. cli, Or. 5000, assigned to beginning of the seventh century).

(2) New Testament

The Acts of the Apostles (excepting xxiv, 16-xxvi, 31), and a number of verses lacunous or entirely missing [Or. 7594]; The Apocalypse of St. John (excepting i, 1-8; xxii, 15-21), Or. 6803, paper, eleventh or twelfth century.


Lections and antiphons for the feasts of St. Michael [Or. 6781], St. Mercurius [6801], and St. Aaron, cenobite [7029].


  • (1) Our Lord: discourse of Demetrius, Archbishop of Antioch, on the Nativity of Our Lord [Or. 7027], an account of the Descent of Our Lord to Hell, by the Apostle Bartholomew [*Or. 6804], discourse of St. Cyril of Jerusalem on the Cross [Or. 6799];

  • (2) The Blessed Virgin Mary: discourse of Theophilus of Alexandria on the Blessed Virgin Mary [Or. 6780], discourse of St. Cyril of Alexandria on the same [Or. 6782], twenty-first exegesis of St. Cyril of Jerusalem on the same [Or. 6784].

  • (3) Angels: discourse of Theodosius, Archbishop of Alexandria, on St. Michael [Or. 6781 and Or. 7021], another discourse on the same subject by Timothy of Alexandria [Or. 7029], discourse of Celestine of Rome on St. Gabriel [begins Or. 7028, continues on a fragment in the collection of Mr. Freer of Detroit, ends on Or. 6780], discourse by St. John Chrysostom on St. Raphael [Or. 7023], the investiture of Raphael, a discourse by Severus of Antioch [Or. 7028, two folios only], discourse by Timothy of Alexandria on Abbaton, the angel of death [Or. 7025].

  • (4) Apocalyptic: Apocalypse (? acephalous) "written by Timothy and Mark at the request of St. Paul" [Or. 7023].

  • (5) Saints in Gospel and Acts: discourse of St. John Chrysostom on St. John the Baptist [Or. 7024], death of St. John the Apostle [*Or. 6782], the Mysteries of John the Apostle learned by him in Heaven [Or. 7026].

  • (6) Martyrs: martyrdom of Eustathius and Placidus [*Or. 6783], martyrdom of Mercurius [Or. 6801], fragments of the same [*Or. 6802], miracles by St. Mercurius [ibid.], eulogy of the same by Acacius of Cæsarea [ibid.], eulogy of Theodore, Archbishop of Antioch [Or. 7030].

  • (7) Anchorites and cenobites: Life of Cyrus by Pambo of Scete [*Or. 6783], Life of John Calybites [ibid.], Life of Onuphrius [Or. 7027], eulogy of the same by Pisenthios of Coptos [Or. 6800].

  • (8) Bishops: eulogy of Demetrius, Archbishop of Antioch, by Flavius of Ephesus [*Or. 67831; Life of Pesynthius of Coptos [Or. 7026].

  • (9) Miscellaneous: "Asceticon" of St. Ephrem the Syrian [*Or. 6783], epistle of the same [ibid.]; three homilies of St. Athanasius - on mercy and judgment [*Or. 5001, 3], on the parable of the man who went out early on the morning to hire workmen for his vineyard [ibid., 5], and on the soul and the body [ibid, 9]; discourse of St. John Chrysostom on repentance and temperance [ibid., 1], exegesis of the same on Susanna [ibid., 2]; homily of St. Basil on the dissolution of the world and the temple of Solomon and on death [ibid., 8]; discourse of Theophilus of Alexandria on repentance and temperance, also that man must not put off repentance until surprised by death [ibid., 4]; homily pronounced by Proclus of Cyzicus in the great church of Constantinople, the Sunday before Lent, on the doctrine of Nestorius, who was present [ibid., 7]; homily of the same pronounced in the church of Anthemius, in Constantinople, on Easter Sunday, when he was installed, while Nestorius was present [ibid., 6); discourse of Eusebius of Cæsarea on the Chanaanite woman [ibid., 10]. See also: VERSIONS OF THE BIBLE, COPTIC, in this volume, and EGYPT, COPTIC LITERATURE, in Vol. V, 356-362.

On Or. 5000 and Or. 5001 cf. CRUM, Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts of the Brit. Museum (London, 1905), Nos. 940, 171; WALLIS BUDGE, The earliest known Coptic Psalter in the Dialect of Upper Egypt from the unique Papyrus oriental 5000 in the Brit. Museum (London. 1908); IDEM, Coptic Homilies in the dialect of Upper Egypt (from Or. 5001 text and English tr., London 1910). On Or. 7594 and Or. 6803 cf. WALLIS BUDGE Coptic Biblical Texts of Upper Egypt, with ten plates (London, 1912), with contributions by KENYON and BELL. On the St. Mercurius (Edfû) collection cf. RUSTAFJAELL, Light of Egypt, in which several of the Manuscripts are described and illustrated. The above account, however, is based on the writer's personal, though cursory inspection of most of the manuscripts. For those marked with an asterisk (*) he had to depend on the list kept in the Oriental Room of the British Museum.


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