Egyptian Versions of the Bible

Only grudgingly have Egyptian sands and monastery ruins yielded information about the history of the Coptic (Egyptian) Bible. Of the translators we know nothing; of the time, very little. We do know that Greek was the theological language of the Egyptian Church until after the Council of Chalcedon (451), when the see of Alexandria severed its connections with Rome and Constantinople and pursued its own Monophysite paths. Although Coptic literature flowered most fully after Chalcedon, as Greek was rejected and the vernacular Coptic (the last stage of the Egyptian language) became the common tongue of cleric, monk, and layman, the beginnings of translation probably go back to the third century.

Whether the Sahidic translation from Upper (southern) Egypt or the Bohairic from Lower (northern) Egypt came first we have not yet discovered. Nor have scholars decided whether one translation was influenced by the other or whether they were made independently from the Greek.

The Sahidic version can only be pieced together from fragments and codices that range in date from the fourth to the fourteenth century. No single manuscript has been discovered covering the NT let alone the whole Bible. Though for liturgical purposes the gospels and Psalms may have been given priority by the translators, it is evident from the fragments discovered that the whole Greek Bible, as well as many apocryphal books, was available to the Sahidic-speaking Copts. The text seems to have followed the Neutral tradition prevalent in Egypt, with many affinities to the great Vaticanus manuscript (B), although with some Western readings.

The Bohairic version exists in more substantial manuscripts than the Sahidic and can be more readily reconstructed. The extant manuscripts, however, are generally younger; the earliest of the major ones (Curzon-Catena) dates from 889. The scarcity of earlier manuscripts (a fragment of Philippians from a fourth or fifth-century codex is a notable exception) is due both to the more moist climate of Lower Egypt and the frequent raids which sacked the library of the monastery of Wadi 'n-Natrun, the most productive center of Bohairic literature. The text of the NT follows closely the Alexandrian tradition, particularly Codex L, though it includes Aristion's ending of Mark.

Of the Akhmîmic version (Akhmîm in Upper Egypt) we have only fragments and scattered sections of both Testaments. Though the whole Bible may have been translated into Akhmîmic, little effort was made to preserve it once Sahidic replaced it as the language of the region.

A handful of verses from the gospels and a few fragments of Pauline epistles are our only legacy of the Faiyumic (Nile Valley, west bank) version, while a copy of the gospel of John is the chief biblical vestige of the Sub-Akhmîmic or Asyutic (Asyut, Upper Egypt) dialect.

The OT, extant mainly in Sahidic and Bohairic manuscripts, probably stems from the third century. In general it follows the so-called Hesychian recension of the Septuagint. The main value of the OT fragments is for Septuagint studies, while the various Coptic versions of the NT play a not insignificant role in helping to fill in the details of the history of textual transmission of the NT. The growing horde of fragments and codices is eloquent testimony to the vitality of Egyptian Christianity in the centuries before the Muslim invasion.

For OT bibliography, see O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament, An Introduction (tr. P.R. Ackroyd, 1965), pp. 713-14; for NT bibliography, see A. Vöobus, Early Versions of the New Testament (1954), pp. 211-41.