Coptic is the latest form of the Egyptian language. It emerged in the first and second centuries CE, when people began to transliterate the language of Egypt into Greek characters along with a few other letterforms derived from demotic. Scholars classify these early texts as “Old Coptic,” but it is perhaps better to think of them as “New Coptic,” since the authors responsible for these early texts were experimenting with creative new ways of writing the Egyptian language. As a transliteration of Egyptian largely into Greek characters, Coptic may have helped bridge the linguistic gap between Greeks and native Egyptians who lived together in Egypt at the time.
The language flourished among Egyptian Christians from the fourth through the seventh centuries. Many read the bible in Coptic translation, and composed literature, magical texts, and private letters in the language. Coptic was even used occasionally as the language of bureaucracy. While Coptic is no longer spoken today, it lives on as one of the liturgical languages of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The Greek New Testament has been translated into countless languages over the past two millennia, but the Coptic version is one of the earliest and most important. Sometime around the third century CE, Christians who wanted to make their scriptures more accessible to Egyptian speakers produced Coptic translations of the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writings. On account of its early date, the Coptic version is especially important for scholars who seek to recover the earliest attainable text of the New Testament. When early Greek manuscripts preserve two or more conflicting variants of the same biblical verse, scholars often appeal to the reading preserved in the Coptic manuscript tradition to help settle the dispute. Thus the Coptic translation of the New Testament plays an important role in helping scholars establish the earliest Greek text of the New Testament.
One of the most important Coptic manuscript discoveries occurred in the upper-Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, where in 1945 local farmers unearthed twelve complete ancient books containing numerous Coptic texts. Thanks to this chance discovery, we now have dozens of previously unknown early Christian texts, many of which represent unusual forms of Christianity that did not survive long after ecclesiastical leaders deemed them heretical. Perhaps the best-known text from this manuscript hoard is the assemblage of sayings attributed to Jesus known as the Gospel of Thomas. Along with several other texts from the Nag Hammadi Library, the Gospel of Thomas has led scholars to rethink many traditional assumptions about early Christianity.
Most prolific and skilled among ancient Coptic writers was Saint Shenoute the Archimandrite. Shenoute was a monastic leader active during the fourth and fifth centuries CE, who oversaw a federation of male and female monastic communities. The value of Shenoute’s numerous sermons lies not only in what they reveal about early Christian monasticism, but in what they can teach us about the Coptic language. Shenoute’s Coptic is studied by philologists today and serves as the basis for many Coptic grammars.
If you’d like to learn more about Coptic language and literature, see the brief bibliography below. For those interested in learning the language, I’d recommend Bentley Layton’s Coptic in 20 Lessons: Introduction to Sahidic Coptic with Exercises and Vocabularies (Peeters Publishers, 2007).
Coptic Encyclopedia, 8 vols. Available online
Rebecca Krawiec, Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery (Oxford University Press, 2001)
Marvin Meyer and James Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures (HarperOne, 2009)
Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith, Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton University Press, 1999)