What Is Coptic and Who Were the Copts in Ancient Egypt?

A short history of ancient Egyptian language

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2015.—Ed.


 
codex_glazier

WHAT IS COPTIC, AND WHO WERE THE COPTS? Dated to the fourth–fifth century C.E., the Codex Grazier is written in the Coptic language—the fifth and final stage of ancient Egyptian language—and contains part of the Book of Acts (Acts 1:1–15:3).

What is Coptic, and who were the Copts in ancient Egypt?

The Coptic language is the final stage of ancient Egyptian language. Even though it looks very different from texts written in Old Egyptian using hieroglyphs, the two are related. In his article “Coptic—Egypt’s Christian Language” in the November/December 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Leo Depuydt gives a short history of the development of ancient Egyptian language and shows where the Coptic language fits in that timeline, as well as answering the question: Who were the Copts.

What Is Coptic?

The Coptic language developed around 300 C.E. in Egypt. It is Egyptian language written using the Greek alphabet, as well as a couple of Demotic signs. This script was much easier to learn than the earlier writing systems used in ancient Egypt: hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic scripts.

Coptic was the lingua franca of Egypt when Egypt was predominantly Christian. Many assume that the Coptic language was developed primarily to spread Christianity, but Depuydt disagrees. He supports the great Belgian Coptologist Louis Théophile Lefort’s theory that the Coptic language was created by another group—the Jews.
 


 
In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.
 

 

Who Were the Copts?

Egypt’s Coptic period—also called Egypt’s Christian period—lasted 500 years, from the fourth century to the ninth century C.E., when the majority of Egypt’s population was Christian. The major shift in religion—from the old Egyptian religion to Christianity—occurred in Egypt between 200 and 400 C.E. This change was undoubtedly accelerated when Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion in 313 C.E.

We refer to Egyptian Christians from this period as Copts. (This was not a term they called themselves, nor did they refer to their language as “Coptic.”)

Another shift in religion brought about the end of Egypt’s Coptic period in the ninth century. Arabic-speaking Muslims conquered Egypt in 640 C.E. Although Christianity and Coptic remained the predominant religion and language for several centuries after the conquest, eventually most of Egypt’s population adopted the new religion, Islam, and language, Arabic, of their conquerors.

Egyptians stopped speaking Coptic between 1000 and 1500 C.E. Depuydt estimates that there were few Coptic speakers in Egypt during the 12th or 13th centuries and that by 1500 C.E., nearly everyone spoke Arabic. However, far from going extinct, the Coptic language survived—as did a Christian minority in Egypt—and is still read by the clergy of the Coptic Church today.
 


 
Learn about early Christian amulets with incipits used to ward off evil in Coptic Egypt in Bible History Daily >>
 

 

The Five Stages of Ancient Egyptian Language

As mentioned earlier, the Coptic language is the final stage of ancient Egyptian language. Now that we’ve looked at the end of Egyptian language, perhaps we should look at its beginning.

The Egyptian language holds the record as being the longest written language in the world: It was spoken and written for more than 3,500 years. It is also possibly the oldest written language in the world. The earliest attestations of primitive Egyptian language date to before 3000 B.C.E., making it a potential rival of the oldest form of Sumerian.

Egyptian language can be divided into five main stages, which mark how the spoken language changed over the course of three and a half millennia. These stages are: Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic and Coptic. Depuydt summarizes the stages:

The first three [stages] are (1) Old Egyptian, (2) Middle Egyptian and (3) Late Egyptian and date roughly to, respectively, the (1) Old Kingdom (2600–2100 B.C.E.), (2) First Intermediate Period, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (2100–1500 B.C.E.), and (3) New Kingdom (1500–1000 B.C.E.). All three are written either in hieroglyphic writing, which consists of pictures denoting meanings or sounds, or in hieratic, a cursive form of hieroglyphic writing … The fourth phase of Egyptian is Demotic, written in a highly cursive form of hieroglyphs also called demotic and attested from about 650 B.C.E. onward … The fifth and final phase of the Egyptian language is Coptic, which is written with the Greek alphabet augmented by a handful of signs borrowed from Demotic. Full-fledged written Coptic emerged around 300 C.E. Coptic ceased being spoken sometime between 1000 C.E. and 1500 C.E., but the clergy has remained able to read it (more or less) down to the present day.

To learn more about Egypt’s Coptic Christian period and the Coptic language, read Leo Depuydt’s full article “Coptic—Egypt’s Christian Language” in the November/December 2015 issue of BAR.

——————

BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Coptic—Egypt’s Christian Language” by Leo Depuydt in the November/December 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 22, 2015.
 

 

Learn more about Coptic texts in Bible History Daily:

Ancient Amulets with Incipits by Joseph E. Sanzo

Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake?

“Down the Rabbit Hole”: Owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Papyrus Unmasked

The Sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of the Lots of Mary
 


 

Learn more about Coptic texts in the BAS Library:

Simon Gathercole, “The Gospel of Thomas: Jesus Said What?” BAR, July/August 2015.

Hershel Shanks, “The Saga of ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,’” BAR, May/June 2015.

Birger A. Pearson, “Did Jesus Marry?” Bible Review, Spring 2005.

April D. DeConick, Biblical Views: “What’s Up with the Gospel of Thomas?” BAR, January/February 2010.

Helmut Koester and Stephen J. Patterson, “The Gospel of Thomas,” Bible Review, April 1990.

Robert J. Miller, “The Gospels that Didn’t Make the Cut,” Bible Review, August 1993.

James Brashler, “Nag Hammadi Codices Shed New Light on Early Christian History,” BAR, January/February 1984.
 


 

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  1. Kurt says

    The Sahidic Coptic text is especially interesting for two reasons. First, as indicated above, it reflects an understanding of Scripture dating from before the fourth century, which was when the Trinity became official doctrine. Second, Coptic grammar is relatively close to English grammar in one important aspect. The earliest translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures were into Syriac, Latin, and Coptic. Syriac and Latin, like the Greek of those days, do not have an indefinite article. Coptic, however, does. Moreover, scholar Thomas O. Lambdin, in his work Introduction to Sahidic Coptic, says: “The use of the Coptic articles, both definite and indefinite, corresponds closely to the use of the articles in English.”

    Hence, the Coptic translation supplies interesting evidence as to how John 1:1 would have been understood back then. What do we find? The Sahidic Coptic translation uses an indefinite article with the word “god” in the final part of John 1:1. Thus, when rendered into modern English, the translation reads: “And the Word was a god.” Evidently, those ancient translators realized that John’s words recorded at John 1:1 did not mean that Jesus was to be identified as Almighty God. The Word was a god, not Almighty God.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200271401

  2. Robert says

    For a fact the Coptic language was in use before the year 300. According to some authorities it was in use from around the 1st century onward. We have manuscript evidence that dates before 300.

    By the way, the above comment on the translation of John 1:1 is spot on. The Coptic translators knew Greek as a comtempory living language, so their translation often sheds light on aspects of the Greek text that today seem ambiguous to scholars studying what is now a ‘dead language’. In this case the translators utilized the Coptic indefinite article, something Greek does not have, to communicate something the Greek communicates through the use of a pre-verbal, anarthrous, predicate nominative, count noun.

    Another interesting example is the translation of Lu 23:43 preserved in manuscripts such as Barcelona 181. Which indicates a comma should be placed after the word ‘today’. See A Coptic Grammar, Layton, Bentley pg 420.

  3. T. says

    “…Coptologist Louis Théophile Lefort’s theory that the Coptic language was created by another group—the Jews.”

    I think this sentence begs the question, why would the Jews have created this language for followers of a religion other than Judaism?

  4. Roland says

    So what did the Egyptians use between 1000 B.C.E and 650 B.C.E?

  5. Wes says

    It appears that at least one noted Egyptian Coptic did not buy into the implications of Kurt’s argument: Athanasius of Alexandria.

    My understanding is that Coptic possesses articles that denote gender and number. That a Coptic perhaps might have translated the end of John 1:1 with an article could reflect more on grammar than theology. If we render from Arabic into English, we would likely omit many indefinite articles preceding nouns. If we rendered from Russian, we would have no indefinite article to render from. We would have to know more about how Copts were inclined to treat nouns in their texts. Moreover, as far as I can tell, extant copies of John in Coptic do not pre-date extant Greek versions of John. They are both about 4th century.

    As for the argument that Coptic holds the key to Luke 23:43, I’ve looked at all the other instances of “Amen, amen, I say to you” and “truly, I say to you”, a mini-concordance of a sort. It seems that the four gospels did not use “today” as such a qualifier in their pronouncements, except that one significant time. There is a genuine instance of such an attestation, however, and it is also in Acts (20:26) which we presume is by the same author as Luke. From Miletus Paul sends a message to elders in Ephesus, and when they came to meet with him he says… “Therefore I DECLARE to you THIS DAY that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you.” I argue that if the author of Luke and Acts were to record Christ making a declaration on that day, he would use “ martiromai imin en ti otmeron”. He said instead, “amin lego otmeron met emoi esi”, if you can make out the transliteration. I leave why the Coptic version is as it is to conjecture, but I suspect we might switch sides on arguments about other Coptic text inclusions.

  6. johanes says

    It is a great opportunity to read all great comments.I learn a lot. Thank you very much to you all and BAS. I just realize that there was time when Eqgypt was dominated by Christian. In Indonesia, Egypt is a Moslem country since the beginning. Happy Sunday evening from Indonesia

  7. Paul says

    Interesting how a very introductory piece on coptic language is used in the replies for a giant leap in theological statement making.
    As the man said, “when we talk about God we are talking about ourself”.
    Thanks for the piece (and the replies).
    Paul H.

  8. pharaoh says

    WE are the copts = we are the only descendants of the ancient egyptians .. but most of moslems in egypT Arabs invaded egypt in the 7th century and killed million of the copts and take their places in egypt.. and by the 12 century the copts became a miniorty because of the continuous killing of the copts . also due to the continuous immigration of arabian tribes from Saudia and Yemen to Egypt .. but we stand alive till now .. we are about 30 millions in egypt and abroad .. we are still using the coptic language which is the language of the ancient egyptians but with exchanging heirlyghlophic letters by greece letters and newly synthesied 7 letters from the egyptian origin … thanks

  9. hosam says

    Pharaoh: your sources please?

    For the genocide?

    Also Egyptians are around 90 million, you are saying 30 million are Coptic, that’s 1/3 of the population? this means that out of every 3 Egyptians you meet, 1 is Coptic, the other two are (other Christians, Jews, Muslims)?
    Again, sources please?

    I doubt this is the suitable outlet for your claims, this is a Historical journal, not a place to spread ignorance and lies as if they were facts. I am certain there are many pages for that.

  10. Greg says

    For examples, please see the article in Wikipedia: “Persecution of Copts.” Friction between competing religions would seem inevitable and sometimes explosive. Freud theorized that love and aggression are the key drives in all humans. To characterize these differences of interpretation and opinion as being ignorant or lies seems aggressive and escalated the tone of the discussion. To what end?


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