The Coptic language has been in the news recently. Loudly. And everywhere; also in BAR.a Perhaps more than is good for it. Remember the Coptic “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” whose claim to authenticity trumpeted worldwide by elevated authorities was promptly pulverized into subatomic particles and laughed off the stage? But about that, not here. Not now. Not again. About consequences, more later. A total, formal and unconditional retraction of articles and statements claiming authenticity would be a great start, from a professional perspective. And we’ll get to the ethics when we get there. Also, should competence be an issue, as has been suggested? Now, let’s all think about that.
Meanwhile, on a lighter note: What is Coptic? And who are the Copts? How do Coptic and the Copts fit into world history, all 5,000 years of it? The matter is of some complexity, and clear and succinct definitions are not easy to fashion. BAR readers may 054 find the following short story of the Copts and their origins, spanning thousands of years, useful for general orientation in an arcane subject. Coptic is the language of Egypt when Egypt was largely Christian. The fascinating story begins 5,000 years ago.1
History is by definition the period from which we have written sources. What comes before is prehistory. In this sense, history begins in about 3000 B.C.E. with cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphic writing in Egypt. In other words, the history of humankind starts in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Over the centuries, the Egyptian language changed in five successive stages (Coptic being the fifth). In the first three, Egyptian was written with hieroglyphs—pictures denoting words or sounds. The fourth stage is Demotic, written in a highly cursive variant of hieroglyphic writing also called Demotic. Demotic emerged around 650 B.C.E. when contacts between Egypt and the Greek world began to intensify.
In 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. Nine years later, at his death in 323, his general Ptolemy started a dynasty of Greek immigrant kings—almost all called Ptolemy—that lasted about 300 years. The Rosetta Stone, the British Museum’s top attraction, was composed in this period. It dates to 196 B.C.E. Issued in Memphis, it publishes a decree in hieroglyphic writing, in Demotic and in Greek. The fact that the Greek version could obviously be read and understood greatly inspired efforts at deciphering the two other versions, even if critical keys to the decipherment were not yielded by the Rosetta Stone as is typically assumed.2 Coptic played a key role in the decipherment as the only stage of Egyptian that could be understood, and the 055 056 decipherer, Jean-François Champollion, studied it in great detail.
At the time Greek was spoken in Egypt mainly by a minority upper class, concentrated in the cities, and especially in the new capital built by Alexander himself, Alexandria. Most of the Egyptians, however, spoke Egyptian.
The last ruler of Ptolemy’s dynasty was Queen Cleopatra. At her death in 30 B.C.E., Egypt was conquered by Rome. Egypt was henceforth a province of the Roman Empire.
Modern Egyptians call their country Miṣr or, more colloquially, Maṣr. Miṣr was the name for Cairo, which was founded only in the tenth century C.E., but the name itself has an ancient Semitic origin, appearing in Hebrew as Miṣraim, in Syriac (an Aramaic dialect) as Meṣren, in Ugaritic as Mṣrm and in Babylonian and Assyrian sources as Muṣur and Muṣri. The name “Egypt” derives from the ancient Greek word for Egypt, Aiguptos. “Coptic” derives from the same Greek word—but with a detour through Arabic. The two occlusives p and t in the word “Coptic” are the same p and t as in the word “Egypt.”
We are now getting closer to Coptic (a language) and the Copts (a people); the story is getting warm, so to speak. Cleopatra died a little less than 30 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. During its first three centuries, Christianity spread slowly and gradually. That all changed in the fourth century C.E., when the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity a licit religion (in 325 C.E.) and then was himself baptized on his deathbed in 337 C.E.
By about 450 C.E. Christianity had become the religion of the majority of Egyptians. Thus, over the course of four centuries, the 3,000-year-old ancient Egyptian religion had to make way for Christianity. Only isolated pockets of the old religion in the deep south of Egypt survived. And in the sixth century, the Byzantine emperor Justinian ordered even those closed. Over the course of four centuries, Egypt had become a Christian country.
With the Roman rule of Egypt, the use of both hieroglyphic writing and Demotic (its cursive derivative) dramatically declined. The Greek language was supplanting Egyptian for administrative purposes. Under Roman rule, there was much pressure to write all kinds of documents in Greek and not in Egyptian.
The precise course of events is by no means clear, but what is clear is that around 300 C.E. or a little later, a fully developed, fully standardized way of writing Egyptian with Greek letters augmented by a few Demotic signs emerged. That is what we now call Coptic. It is the fifth stage of the Egyptian language.
It is often assumed that Coptic was developed to facilitate the evangelization of the Egyptian masses. Hieroglyphic and Demotic writing were just too difficult to be accessible to many. According to this assumption, the spread of Christianity precipitated the decline of hieroglyphic writing just as much as it precipitated the decline of ancient Egyptian culture and Egyptian religion in general. A great Belgian Coptologist, Louis Théophile Lefort, had another idea, with which I am inclined to agree. He showed that there 059 was a time when the Coptic Old Testament existed and the New Testament did not. Who would be in need of only the Old Testament but not the New Testament? The answer is easy: Jewish scribes, of course.b In short, Coptic may well have been a Jewish creation, Lefort argues. Of course Coptic may well have also been picked up later for the cause of Christian evangelization.
Sometime between 200 and 400 C.E., Egyptians became a predominantly Christian people. We now call Egyptian Christians of this time Copts and the Egyptian language of this time, written mainly in Greek letters, Coptic—although Coptic-speaking Egyptian Christians themselves never called themselves Copts nor their language Coptic.
The fourth century marks the beginning of what may be called the Christian period in the history of Egypt—or the Coptic period, because “Coptic” can mean “Christian Egyptian.” If one were to take a long walk anywhere in Egypt in the period from the 400s to the 800s, one would find the landscape dotted with churches.
What ended the 500-year Coptic Christian period in Egypt, which lasted from the fourth century to the ninth century? Only a few centuries after the new religion of Christianity had brought deep change to much of the inhabited world, a second new religion, Islam, brought equally deep change to the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Gradually, in vast areas that had evolved from minority Christian to majority 060 Christian, Christianity found itself returning to minority status after just a couple of centuries. This is the origin of the Christian minorities in the Near East.
The coming of Islam to Egypt was the beginning of the long process of the Islamization of Egypt, a process that in the end reduced the number of Christians in the Egyptian population to what may be about 10 percent.
The Muslim conquerors of Egypt spoke Arabic. What they found upon arriving in Egypt around 640 C.E was a Christian country in which a minority upper class spoke and did business in Greek and a majority lower class spoke and wrote (to the extent they wrote) a stage of Egyptian that we now call Coptic, but also did part of their business in Greek.
The history of early Christianity is complex, involving schisms, denominations, sects, councils, etc. Most significant to the history of the Egyptian or Coptic Church before the arrival of Islam was the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. At that council, the dominant patriarch of Constantinople and the patriarch of Alexandria parted ways. Most of the Coptic Church under the patriarch of Alexandria adopted the doctrine of Monophysitism (single [mono]-nature [physis]-ism), which holds that there is only one single nature in Christ, namely his divine nature. The Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches hold that there are two natures in Christ, both divine and human, a doctrine called dyophysitism (two [dyo]-nature [physis]-ism). The Copts are Monophysite Egyptian Christians.
The term “Coptic” cannot antedate the Muslim conquest of Egypt around 641 C.E., however, because the term is an Arabic form of the Greek word for Egypt.
When the Arab conquerors arrived, the people 061 were predominantly Christian. All traces of the native Egyptian religion had vanished by then. Moreover, the conquerors found two denominations of Christianity: the Monophysites and the Melchites—those in union with Constantinople. The word “Melchite” is derived from the Arabic word for “king,” malik. The term “Coptic” was and is, somewhat confusingly, applied both to all Egyptian Christians (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) and specifically to Monophysites.
For a couple of centuries after the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the Christians remained in the majority. But by the 11th or 12th centuries, the Copts had become a minority. And, of course, the number of speakers of Coptic Egyptian steadily declined. By the 12th or 13th century, presumably only a few Coptic speakers were left. By about 1500, almost everyone—if not everyone—spoke Arabic, as all Egyptians do today, including Christians, or Copts.
The past couple of years have been good to the Coptic language. It has received much attention. Never mind the circumstances, like Coptic being at the epicenter of a mind-bending phantasmagoric farce with few if any precedents in the history of higher learning. If you think this was bad, think again. This was worse than bad. But hey, one takes what one can get. After all, Coptic did make it out alive.
To historians and students of languages, Coptic is a subject of delightful intricacy. At first sight, it seems to be nowhere, but as one takes a closer look at all its multivaried connections to the course of human history—languages, religions, popes, prophets, empires, kings, queens, decipherments—Coptic appears to be everywhere.
The Coptic language has been in the news recently. Loudly. And everywhere; also in BAR.a Perhaps more than is good for it. Remember the Coptic “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” whose claim to authenticity trumpeted worldwide by elevated authorities was promptly pulverized into subatomic particles and laughed off the stage? But about that, not here. Not now. Not again. About consequences, more later. A total, formal and unconditional retraction of articles and statements claiming authenticity would be a great start, from a professional perspective. And we’ll get to the ethics when we get there. Also, should competence be an issue, […]