Two key traits characterize Coptic literature: First, most of it is Christian in purport, and, second, it is popular in tone.1
From the time of Alexander’s conquest onward, all sophisticated discourse in Egypt was conducted in Greek. Coptic was the vehicle of popular Christianity. At the center of Coptic Christian literature stands the historically important Coptic version of the Bible. Nearly complete versions have been preserved in two Coptic dialects and fragments in others.
The majority of Coptic literature relates to a Sunday church service: Bible readings, a sermon on a Bible passage or on a prominent saint or martyr, and liturgical texts to connect the two.
Coptic sources also provide crucial information about the earliest history of monasticism, which is not surprising since Egypt is widely regarded as the cradle of monasticism.
Another category of Christian Coptic literature is the so-called apocryphal gospels that fed the popular need for more information about Biblical characters, such as Jesus as a child, his mother Mary or the individual apostles.
One scholar has computed that roughly 40 million letters of Coptic literature survive.2 In English, that would correspond to about 100 books of 80,000 words—or 200 pages. In other words: There are fewer than 500 books of Coptic literature in existence—but considerably more than 20. Many of the world’s oldest well-preserved books or codices (as distinct from the rolls or scrolls from earlier times) are in Coptic. They are inscribed either on papyrus or parchment and date to the fourth century C.E.—hardly earlier.