Greek and Coptic Papyrus Codices and Scrolls
by Dr. Fayek M. Ishak - Member of the Medieval Academy of America
This article has been taken from the Coptic Encyclopedia Web Site

Papyrology, which is the study of all writings on papyrus, should be distinguished from inscriptions on stones or wooden tablets. The plant that bears the name "papyrus" grows in abundance in the scattered swamps of the Nile Delta. The ancient Egyptians made of it a suitable material for writing and supplied most of the surrounding areas with papyri. The Greeks who are lovers of philosophy and literature recorded most of their entries on papyri particularly in the classical age.

It is amazing that after the christianization of Greece and Egypt that many scrolls were discovered in Egyptians tombs and they were deposited in jars or wooden boxes. Greek texts were found side by side with Coptic codices in the early decades of our era. The word "Codices" is the plural of "codex" which is a wooden tablet or an ancient manuscript of the Scriptures or the old classics.

It should be borne in mind that with the Hellenization of Alexandria, Greek manuscripts flooded Egypt. It is no accident that poems by Sappho, the first book of the Homeric "Iliad" and the satirical drama "Ichneutae" of Sophocles were among the scrolls discovered in the last century. To have had Greek education and to speak Greek fluently were the two prominent assets of scholarship in Alexandria, the fountain-source of intellectual life throughout the period that followed Alexander's conquest.

The purely philosophical influence of Alexandrine scholarship is particularly noticeable in the works of St. Clement of Alexandria, the prolific Origen who was the pupil of Ammonius Saccas, the early exponent of Neoplatonic philosophy and mysticism and St Pantaenus who is well known for his contribution to Alexandrine Christianity.

It is also worth noting that the Greek alphabet is basically used in the Coptic language with the addition of 7 characters derived from demotic that was the common language of the ancient Egyptians. This addition was essential for the inclusion of sounds not found in the Greek tongue. A.F. Shore tells us

[1] that: "in Heidelberg a "cartonnage" fragment from Akhmim, dated to the third century A.D., contains a few Greek words with their demotic equivalents written in Greek letters. In the demotic London and Leiden magical text, written in the third century A.D., there are over 600 glosses in Greek letters. A number of magical texts have survived from the first three centuries A.D. (and are) characterized by the use of Greek letters and a large number of demotic signs (known as Old Coptic). "

What is even more important, the same author emphasizes, is that the Coptic version of the Holy Bible, together with the early Greek Biblical papyri, offers one of the most fruitful sources of Biblical text in manuscript prior to the persecution of Diocletian (303 A.D.) and the recurrent attempts to burn the Scriptures [1].

One should mention also in this respect the important discovery at Sheneset-Chenoboskion in Upper Egypt of thirteen papyrus codices. The codices are all written in the Coptic language and in the dialect that is prevalent in that area known as "Sahidic". Most of the codices have striking affinities to Greek counterparts. In the main they contain explications and elaboration on the Gospels, epistles, prayers and doctrinal arguments. The bulk of these writings deals at large with the sayings of our Lord Jesus Christ before and after Crucifixion and the Resurrection, His teachings and His advice to the disciples.

Eminent papyrologists like Ernst von Dobschutz and Hermann Freiherr von Soden (1852-1914) have indicated that the old text of the New Testament belongs to the second century and is written on papyrus fragments:

"The very earliest that is known is a tiny piece of papyrus leaf with a small portion of the Gospel according to John. This was discovered in the John Reglands Library in Manchester, England, among papyri acquired in Egypt in 1920 by B.P. Grenfell... According to its style of handwriting the papyrus is dated in the first half of the second century A.D., probably about 125 A.D. (that's only few decades after the death of St. John, the evangelist and disciple). As far as it goes the text agrees with Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Ephraemi Syri Rescriptus."

The same author goes on saying that the second oldest manuscript "consists of three small fragments of a codex leaf purchased in Luxor in 1901 and preserved in the Library of Magdalen College at Oxford." Its date is believed to be the latter part of the second century and what remains of it contains certain parts of the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Only a little later after the beginning of the third century do we come across a notable codex composed of eighty-six leaves most of which are in possession of the University of Michigan and they contain the letters of St. Paul to the Romans, Hebrews, Corinthians I & II, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians I. This codex is known as the Chester Beatty Papyrus of Paul's letters. It is named after Beatty -- an American living in England.

It should be noted, however, that the Codex Vaticanus to which a reference above was given, contains in the main the Greek Holy Bible. Papyrologists after studying the style of this codex have concluded that it is most probable that it was written in the fourth century and that it was written nowhere other than in Alexandria.

The Codex Sinaiticus actually derives its name from the Convent of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, where it was discovered by Dr. Constantine Tischendorf (1815-1874) in 1859. It is supposed to be the greatest manuscript discovery ever made at any time. The Codex includes a copy of the Old Testament in Greek and the entire New Testament. It remained in Leningrad until it was purchased by the British Museum in 1933 and it was then deposited in the Manuscript Department of its library.

This invaluable Sinaitic codex has two hundred and forty-two leaves which compose the Old Testament and one hundred and forty-eight leaves composing the New Testament. Most probably it was written by more than one scribe as the textual study of H.J.M. Milne and T.C. Skeat amply testifies. The conclusions worked out by these two scholars were published in a volume bearing the title "Scribes and Correctors of Codex Sinaiticus", (London, 1938).

The Codex Coislinianus with its Alexandrine text was in possession of the Laura Convent on Mount Athos and is dated in the sixth century. The surviving leaves of this codex are only forty-one and are divided among various libraries in Leningrad, Kiev and Mount Athos.

Worthy of our readers' observation, however, is the fact that the original Greek version of the New Testament was translated into Syriac, Coptic and Latin mainly to help the natives of different lands understand the Biblical text in their own language [3]. But it is not surprising to find translations varying from one translator to another according to the variations of competence, degree of proficiency in the Greek language and, to a lesser extent, the variation of the original Greek manuscripts.

This will throw some light on the Coptic translations of the New Testament that appeared in parts in the Sahidic dialect in the early decades of the third century. Eminent Coptologists like Budge, Henri Hyvernat, Chester Beatty and Horner have unanimously agreed that the Shidic version of the Holy Bible is somewhat older than the Bohairic version. The manuscripts, which have survived whether in fragmentary or complete form, are dated between the middle of the fourth and the late sixth centuries [4].

It is of special interest to note that the first printed version of the Greek New Testament appeared rather late in 1514. Previously a fragment of the Greek Holy Bible was printed at Milan in 1480 and another fragment of the Gospel of St. John was printed in Greek at Venice. At any rate the publication of the Greek New Testament offered to many scholars the opportunity to compare the original text with Latin, Coptic, Syri, and Armenian versions with the subsequent result of attempting in the following centuries to be as close as possible to the original Greek text.

  1. A.F. Shore, "Christian and Coptic Egypt," The Legacy of Egypt, edited by J.R. Harris (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1971), page 420 & page 424.
  2. Jack Finegan, "Light from the Ancient Past", (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946; reprinted 1969), page 417.
  3. Merrill M. Parvis and Allen P. Wikgren, ed. "New Testament Manuscript Studies: the materials and the making of a critical apparatus." (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950).
  4. George Horner, ed. "The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect", otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic (Oxford, 1911-1924), 7 vols.

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