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The Coptic language is derived from the old Egyptian tongue with numerous Greek words intermingled. This language did not cease to be spoken in Egypt, until towards the middle of the seventeenth century. The study of the Coptic literature is at present in a very imperfect state. Learned men have been studying the language for over two centuries, but much of that study was given to the hieroglyphs, and the importance of studying the Coptic Bible has only recently been realized. The great decadence of learning among the Copts, the neglect into which their sacred books had fallen, rendered the study difficult, and its results uncertain, and unsatisfactory. The Coptic MSS are in a very bad condition, and we can not hope to give a full treatise on this subject in the present condition of the science.

The Coptic language existed in several important dialects, of which the first is the BOHAIRIC. This name is derived from Bohairah, the Arabic name for Lower Egypt. It was spoken principally in the Delta of the Nile, and at Alexandria, and, for a time, was the only Egyptian language known to Europeans, who called it simply the Coptic tongue. Later, it was called the Memphitic, in contradistinction to the Thebaic dialect. The term Memphitic applied to this language, is incorrect; for it was only in later times, when the Coptic patriarchs transferred their seat from Alexandria to Cairo, that it spread at Memphis. The usage of the best scholars is to call it Bohairic.

THE SAHIDIC DIALECT is derived from Es-Sahid, the Arabic designation of Upper Egypt. It was at one time spoken through all Upper Egypt. It has been called Thebaic from Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt, but it is uncertain, whether the tongue originated at Thebes, and it is more scientific to call it Sahidic, until new discoveries may bring forth a more correct appellation.

Much uncertainty prevails regarding the third dialect, which current usage calls the FAYOUMIAN. It was discovered by Giorgi (Frag. Evang. Joh. Græco-Copto-Thebaicum, Rome, 1789). He termed it Ammonian, believing that it had been spoken in the Oasis of Ammon. According to Quatremère, it was spoken in the greater and minor Oasis. Zoega calls it the Bashmuric, while Stern denies the identity between the Fayoumian and the Bashmuric.

There was a dialect spoken in middle Egypt in the province of Memphis, when this city had a certain importance, to which the name of Memphitic would rightly belong, were it not for fear of confounding it with the Bohairic. It was first made known by the publication in 1878 in Paris, by M. Revillout of some documents on papyrus coming from the old monastery of St. Jeremias, near Serapeum.

The fifth dialect is made known from some fragments found in the excavations of the cemetery of Akhmim, the ancient Chemmis or Panopolis; M. Bouriant who first published these fragments has termed this dialect the Bashmuric.

By strong proper characteristics we can divide these dialects into Northern and Southern. The Northern dialect is represented by the Bohairic, the other four dialects are grouped in the Southern family, of which the Sahidic bears the greatest divergency from the Bohairic.

Concerning the antiquity of these dialects the data is very uncertain.

Athanasius, Bishop of Kos, in the eleventh century testified, that the Bohairic and Sahidic alone possessed literary importance in his age. In that epoch, the monophysite patriarchs moved their seat from Alexandria to Cairo, through which cause their tongue, the Bohairic dialect, began to prevail over the Sahidic, which latter receded further southward. The Sahidic had at that date absorbed the other Southern dialects, but was itself in a state of decadence owing to the ascendancy of the Arabic in all Egypt. Thus the Bohairic became the sole sacred tongue of all Egypt. The Arabic has now almost entirely supplanted it as the spoken language of the people.

Quatremère (Recherches, pp. 118) testifies that Marcel possessed a copy of a complete version made at Cairo, by the Patriarch of the See from old Coptic MSS. After the death of Marcel, this copy was bought by J. Lee Hartwell. This copy was seen in Hartwells Library in 1847 by Bardelli, professor of Sanskrit and Coptic, in the University of Pisa. It was then incomplete, containing only Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, the Psalms, the twelve Minor Prophets, the four Gospels, the fourteen Epistles of St. Paul, the Epistle of St. James, and the first Epistle of St. Peter; in all, forty-one volumes in 4to. The missing volumes perished in the burning of Marcels house at Cairo. The books bear an Arabic translation opposite the Coptic text. These books are somewhere in England, though, thus far, they have not all been located.

The ruin of the Sahidic literature is greater. Only fragments remain of the several books which have been dug out of the ruins of convents, and sold by the Arabs to explorers and tourists. These are scattered through the libraries of Europe.

Before speaking of the date and nature of the Coptic Scriptures, we shall first briefly notice some of the principal publications of this version in Europe.

In 1731 Wilkins published at London the Bohairic Pentateuch. In 1837, de Lagarde published a complete edition of the Pentateuch, but in neither of these editions was use made of the Vatican MS, the most ancient and best of all known Coptic MSS.

Of the other historical books we have only fragments gathered from Coptic liturgical books. De Lagarde collected these and published them in 1879. In 1846 Tattam published the Book of Job. The Bohairic Psalter was published in 1744 by Tuki from MS 5 of the Vatican. Other editions of the Psalter have been given by Ideler, Schwartz, de Lagarde, and F. Rossi.

The fragment of Proverbs 1:1–14:26, were published in 1875, in Latin characters. The same chapters were published again by Bouriant in 1882. The last named savant has also published fragments of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus.

In 1836, Tattam published at Oxford the Bohairic text of the Minor Prophets.

Baruch was published in 1870 at Rome from a MS of Cairo by Mgr. Bsciai.

In 1849, Bardelli published the Bohairic text of Daniel, which contains all the deuterocanonical fragments. In 1852 Tattam published a second edition of the same text, with a Latin translation.

In 1852, the Coptic text of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezechiel was published by Tattam at Oxford.

This is the only edition yet published of these three Prophets.

In 1716, David Wilkins published the entire Bohairic New Testament. He made use of excellent MSS, and his work is the editio princeps of the Bohairic Version of Scripture.

In 1846, appeared the Gospels of Matthew and Mark in Coptic, by Schwartz; and in 1847, the Gospels of Luke and John, by the same editor. He had a better knowledge of Coptic than Wilkins, though his edition does not show it. Schwartz was prevented by death from finishing the edition of the complete New Testament. P. Boetticher, better known as Paul de Lagarde, completed it in 1852, on a more critical plan.

The first specimens of the Sahidic version published in Europe, were by R. Tuki in his Rudimenta Linguae Coptae, in 1778. In 1785, Mingarelli published fragments from SS. Matthew and John from MSS furnished him by Cav. Nani. Mingarelli, left the third part of the MSS unpublished at his death. In 1789, A. Giorgi published a fragment of St. John, with a Greek translation. About the same time, Münter, the Dane, published several fragments at Copenhagen. In 1778, Woide was commissioned by the University of Oxford to publish the Sahidic New Testament. Materials accumulated, and he died in 1790, without finishing the work. Henry Ford brought it to completion in 1799. It is enriched by excellent notes. In 1801 or 1802, Zoega was employed by Cardinal Borgia to edit the Coptic Scripture from MSS then in the Cardinals possession. In 1804, the Cardinal died, and left his library to the Propaganda. Zoega continued his work from the Propagandas deposit. The work went to press in 1805. Litigation with Cardinal Borgias heirs delayed it so that the edition did not appear till 1810, nearly a year after Zoegas death. It is the best collection of Coptic literature ever published. In the collection there are several Sahidic fragments.

Nothing more was done in Coptic publication, till in 1875 Peyron published the Sahidic Psalter. Since that time, important Coptic publications have been published by de Lagarde, Agapios Bsciai, Ciasca, Hermann, Bouriant, Amelineau, and Maspero.

Passing over some isolated and feeble testimonies of certain ones who would make the Coptic a version derived directly from the Hebrew, we look for the proofs of its real date in the rapid spread of Christianity in Egypt. The first Christians of Egypt were probably Hellenist Jews, who made use of Greek Scriptures, but from the advent of St. Mark the religion of Christ spread rapidly among the native people, so that at his death in 62, or at the latest, in 68, Egypt had many bishops.

During half a century after his death, peace reigned, and the faith of Christ was allowed to fix its roots deeply in Egypt. At the end of the third century, Egypt was solidly and universally Christian; it had bishops in every place, and monasticism, inaugurated by St. Anthony, was a strong and growing institution. The first evangelists of Egypt, doubtless, made use of the Greek tongue. In fact, for centuries, Greek remained the official liturgical and Scriptural tongue. This is clearly proven by several Græco-Coptic MSS which have been preserved for us. But it is probable that, at the same time, Coptic translations of Scripture were made in the second century. At that epoch, the native population formed the body of Christian laity and clergy. Now the common people knew no Greek. What is a probability in the second century, is a certainty in the third century.

Many passages in the life of St. Anthony (251–256) (Patr. Græca, Tom. XXVI. Col. 841, 944 et seqq.) prove that the saintly hermit knew no tongue but the native Egyptian; and yet he was moved to leave the world by hearing the reading of the passage concerning the rich young man (Matth. 19:16). St. Athanasius informs us that Anthony was well versed in Scripture, and, therefore, it must have been in the Coptic Scriptures. In fact, in the writings that have come down to us of St. Anthony, frequent quotations of both Testaments appear.

History bears record of a great number of bishops and monks of that epoch who were well versed in the Holy Scriptures, and yet they knew no Greek. The tongue of the monasteries was Coptic. St. Pacomius (292–348) did not learn Greek till at an advanced age (Rosweyde); and in the rules of his monastery (Patr. Lat. Migne, 23, Col. 70) it was established that the study of the Scriptures was one of the chief employments of the monks. Postulants were required to memorize the Psalter. Epiphanius informs us that Hierax, the heretic, being well versed in Greek and Coptic and in the Scriptures, seduced certain monks of Egypt by arguments drawn from the Scriptures. Hence we place the date of the Coptic Scriptures about the close of the second century.

Wetstein and Stern denied the antiquity of the Coptic version, but the former was ably refuted by Woide, and the latter by Headlam.

It is evident from these data that the Coptic version was made from the Septuagint, except in the Book of Daniel, where the text of Theodotion is taken for the basic text. The Bohairic and Sahidic versions are independent from each other, and seem to have been made from different recensions of the Greek text.

The Coptic versions are of great worth in textual criticism. They exhibit a reproduction of the Greek text before it had suffered the numerous modifications that came into it, after the issue of the Hexapla of Origen. The learned Catholic, A. Schulte, has given us a critical edition of the Prophets. The celebrated reference of Matthew 27:9–10, is found in both the Bohairic and Sahidic texts of Jeremiah.

The Bohairic New Testament is purer than the Sahidic, which gives indication of its remoter date.

Mgr. Ciasca has made a critical study of the Sahidic version. He finds that it has felt the influence of the hexaplar text, and it is probable that the version as we have it, is a later recension, made to accord with some recension of the Greek text.

The Sahidic New Testament, has been studied by Muenter. It is inferior to the Bohairic version.

The fragments of the Akmimian version, commonly called the Bashmuric fragments, were published by Bouriant. Krall has also given us a specimen of a fragment of the Minor Prophets. But it has not been studied sufficiently to judge of its critical value. The Fayoumian version and the version of Middle Egypt, which once were identified with the Sahidic version, must be considered as separate groups, but our knowledge of them is very imperfect.

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