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Coptic Versions


International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)



1. Alphabet

2. Dialects.




I. Language and Alphabet.

1. Alphabet:

The Coptic alphabet consists of the Greek uncial letters, plus seven characters taken from the Egyptian demotic to express sounds not represented in the Greek It can be traced back to the 4th century, as the oldest Coptic manuscripts belong to the end of the 4th or beginning of the 5th century. The language still prevailed in Egypt in the 9th century, but was no longer understood in Middle Egypt in the 12th. Its last speaker died in 1633.

2. Dialects:

There were at least five written dialects and subdialects of Coptic. Of these the most important from a literary point of view was the

(1) Buchairic, the dialect of Lower Egypt, often called Coptic paragraph excellence, and also (wrongly) Memphitic. It is used as the ecclesiastical language in the services of the Coptic church. The other four dialects are somewhat more closely allied to one another than to Buchairic, which shows greater traces of Greek influence. These dialects are,

(2) the Sahidic (Sa`idi, or dialect of upper Egypt), also called Thebaic;

(3) the Bashmuric--or rather Bushmuric--(for which Fayyumic has been suggested);

(4) the Middle Egyptian proper (known from manuscripts found in the monastery of Jeremias near the Theban Serapeum), differing but little from (3); and

(5) the Akhmimic (Akhmim = the ancient Chemmis). Akhmimic is more primitive and more closely related to ancient Egyptian than any other. Only a few fragments in it (of Exodus, Ecclesiastes, 2 Maccabees, the Minor Prophets, and Catholic epistles) have yet been found. The last three dialects are often classed together as "Middle Egyptian" and (4) is then called "Lower Sahidic."

II. Versions.

In all 5 dialects more or less complete versions of the Bible once existed. They were the earliest made after the early Syriac At latest they began in the 3rd century, though some (e.g. Hyvernat) say as early as the 2nd. It is thought that the Sahidic version was the earliest, then the Middle Egyptian and finally the Buchairic. The latter represents an early and comparatively pure Greek text, free from what are generally termed western additions, while the Sahidic, on the other hand, contains most of the peculiar western readings. It sometimes supports Codex Sinaiticus, sometimes Codex Vaticanus (B), sometimes both, but generally it closely agrees with codex D (Bezae), especially in the Acts. A Coptic (Sahidic) MS, written considerably before 350 AD, and published by the British Museum in April, 1912, contains Deuteronomy, Jonah, and Acts, and is older than any other Biblical manuscript (except a few fragments) yet known to exist. It proves that this Sahidic version was made about 200 AD. It in general supports the "Western" text of codex Bezae (D). Much of the New Testament especially still exists in Sahidic, though not Revelation. In Bubairic we have the Pentateuch, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, the 12 Minor Prophets, and fragments of the historical books of the Old Testament, besides the whole New Testament, though the Book of Revelation is later than the rest. In the other dialects much less had been preserved, as far as is known. In Bushmuric we have fragments of Isaiah, Lamentations, Ep. Jeremiah, and a good many fragments of the New Testament. In more than one dialect we have apocryphal gospels (see Texts and Studies, IV, number 2, 1896) and Gnostic papyri, etc. The Old Testament was translated from the Septuagint. The Psalms seem to have been translated about 303 AD.

III. Chief Editions.

The Buchairic Psalms were first published in 1659. Wilkins published the Buchairic New Testament at London in 1716, and the Pentateuch in 1731; Schwartze the Gospels in 1846-47; de Lagarde the Ac and Epistles in 1852. He also edited the Psalms (transliterated) in 1875, 151 in number, of which the last celebrates David’s victory over Goliath. He added fragments of the Sahidic Psalter and of the Buchairic Proverbs Tattam published the Minor Prophets in 1836 and the Major in 1852 an edition of the Gospels in London in 1847, and of the rest of the New Testament in 1852 (SPCK), with a literal Arabic version. Horner’s edition of the Buchairic New Testament (4 volumes, 1898, etc., Clarendon Press) and of Sahidic Gospels (1910, 3 vols) is the standard edition Ford published part of the Sahidic New Testament in 1799. Various editions of parts of Old Testament and New Testament have since appeared: e.g. Ciasca published fragments of the Sahidic Old Testament (Sacrorum Bibliorum Fragmenta Copto-Sahidica Musei Borgiani) at Rome, 1885-89.


Realencyclopadie fur prot. Theol. und Kirche, III; Hyvernat, Etude sur les versions coptes; Revue biblique, 1896, 1897; Zeitschrift fur agypt. Sprache; Journal of Theol. Studies, I, 3; Nestle, Text. Crit of Greek New Testament; Forbes Robinson, Texts and Studies, IV; Oesterley in Murray’s New Bible Dict.

W. St. Clair Tisdall