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

A short history of ancient Egyptian language


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.


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

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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.


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.

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


Posted in Post-Biblical Period, The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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  • FRED says

    As a Christian I sometimes copy some of the data and some of the remarks as I find them a resource–however to change all the dates to AD xxx or xxx BC. I do not use the new terms of the last 20 years. It is just another way to degrade.

  • Alex says

    @ Pharaoh. The idea that the copts were killed in masses and/or replaced by the invading Arabs is ludicrous. The Arabian peninsula was underpopulated and in the first century of Islam the Arabs conquered such a large territory that it was impossible to imagine masses of Muslims migrating to these new territories. Like everywhere else the new religion was embraced by lots of opportunists, especially to avoid paying the extra the tax due by the infidels. This happened nearly everywhere, from Palestine or Syria to Egypt or Spain or, later on, to India, Bosnia or Albania.

  • eugene says

    It is not at all surprising that a Coptic mss would contain the indefinite article in Jn 1:1. It is true the three hypostases creed was codified in 381, however, this by no means settled the debate. The emperors changed the theological position in the empire back and forth numerous times during this period. The Arians of North Africa would be inclined to render by interpolation the aforementioned text with the indefinite.

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