The Bohairic Version of the Coptic Language NT
Last Updated: Jan 9, 2009
The Bohairic Version & John 8:1-11
I. Introduction: - Sir Frederic Kenyon on the Coptic NT
The Coptic Versions - early history
The Egyptian Language - and Coptic Script
Dating the Coptic - early translations
Various Coptic Dialects - and areas spoken
The Bohairic Version - the most popular text
The Extant Manuscripts - mostly 10th -14 cent.
The Bohairic Text-Type - like Aleph/B
Example MS - Curzon Catena
II. The Bohairic Text - for John 8:1-11
Excerpts from: Sir Frederic Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the NT (1901)
The Ancient Versions
5. The Coptic Versions. (p. 151 fwd)
Turning southwards from Jerusalem we reach a new group of versions, of which the first and the most important are those which were made in the adjoining country of Egypt. Here, and especially at Alexandria, a flourishing colony of Jews had been established since the days fo the earliest Ptolemies; and here the great Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Septuagint, had been prepared. Here, therefore, there was ground on which Christian preaching might work at once, and there is evidence that it did so work.
The story of Apollos (Acts 18:24-28), the Jew of Alexandria, suggests that some imperfect exposition of Christianity had reached Egypt within a few years after our Lord's ministry, though it is possible that his knowledge on the subject had only been acquired since his arrival in Asia Minor; 1
But whether St Mark (as tradition tells) preached there or not, it ay be taken as certain that the generation of the Apostles did not pass away without the Gospel having been carried into Egypt. At first, however, this would not imply a translation of the Scriptures into the Egyptian tongue, since the community first addressed woudl be the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, next to whom would come the considerable Greek colonies in that town and in Egypt generally, the existence of which is amply established, not only by the statements of historians, but by the Greek papyri of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods which have come to light in such great numbers of late years.
These documents, indeed, show that not only Greeks and Romans but even native Egyptians not infrequently used the Greek language for business purposes, although in many instances the parties were too illiterate to write with their own hands. For some time, therefore, the Scriptures in the Greek tongue would have been sufficient for the purpose of the missionaries; the more so as they would hardly have been able to use any other.
The hieroglyphic script of ancient Egypt was by this time obselete for practical purposes, while it is not likely that the Christian missionaries would have been able to use the demotic characters, as they were called, which were then the form of writing in everyday use among the native Egyptians.
The Coptic Egyptian Script
In the course of the 2nd century, however, a new kind of writing came into existance, which formed a sort of bridge between Greek and Egyptian. It was, in fact the Egyptian language (somewhat modified by its contact with Greek) written in Greek characters, with the addition of six other letters borrowed with modifications from the demotic alphabet for the representation of special Egyptian sounds.
To this the name Coptic was subsequently given; and it is in the Coptic dialects that the native Egyptian versions of the Scriptures were written. The date of the adoption of the Coptic script is somewhat uncertain, and it is a matter of some importance with regard to the probable date of the original Coptic versions.
The earliest known specimen of it occurs in a horoscope, written on papyrus and now in the British Museum.
Astronomical calculations show that this horoscope (the bulk of which is in Greek) was calculated for a nativity in either 95 or 155 A.D., the former being the more probable of the two; and the palaeographical indications also suit the earlier date best. The Coptic in this document is of a very primitive type; 2 but it is sufficient to make it practically certain that this form of Egyptian writing established itself in general use in the 2nd century, and that was therefore available for the translation of the Scriptures before 200 A.D.
Whether advantage was immediately taken of it is uncertain. It has usually been supposed that it was, and that the principal Coptic versions date back to the 2nd century. 3
In favour of this view a passage is cited from the Life of St. Antony, the authorship of which is attributed to St. Athanasius, and in which St. Antony, when about twenty years of age (i.e., about 270 A.D.), is said to have been greatly affected by hearing the Gospel read in church. Since he is known to have been unacquainted with Greek, this passage is taken to imply that the Bible which he heard was in Coptic, which would prove that a Coptic version was in existence soon after the middle of the 3rd century, and would make it very possible that it was made at the beginning of that century, or perhaps somewhat earlier.
Mr. Forbes Robinson, however, argues that what St. Antony heard may have been only an oral paraphrase from a Greek Bible; just as in the early days of Christianity in England, the Vulgate was paraphrased into Englsih for the benefit of the uninstructed converts.
Dating the Coptic Translations - (c. 200 A.D.)
But even if this be admitted as a possible (though by no means certain) explanation of the passage, clear evidence of the existence of a Coptic Bible not much later is provided by the life of St. Pachomius (the great organiser of Egyptian monachism), whose monks (common Egyptians, without knowledge of Greek) were required to be zealous in the study of the Scriptures.
This was at the beginning of the 4th century, and affords a fair presumption that the original Coptic version was made not later than the middle of the 3rd century, while it is of course consistent with an even earlier date. There is therefore not much disagreement between the best authorities, whose estimates only range between the latter part of the 2nd century and the middle of the 3rd.
In favour of the earlier view it may be noted that (as will be shown below) the types of text contained in the Coptic versions are unmistakably early, the Sahidic NT in particular being of a type which we know to have been prevalent in the 2nd century, while it can hardly have flourished much later than the middle of the 3rd.
Similarly the original Sahidic OT was evidently pre-Origenian in character, not containing those insertions from the Hebrew which Origen made in his Hexapla, and which thenceforth appear in all editions of the Septuagint; from which it may fairly be inferred that this version was not made substantially later than the death of Origen, while it may be decidedly earlier. It therefore we put the origin of the Coptic versions about 200 A.D., we shall be consistent with all the extant evidence, and probably shall not be very far wrong.
Memphitic and Thebaic Dialects
Different dialects of Coptic were spoken in different parts of the country, but their number and their divergences have only lately begun to be made known to us. Two ov them stand out in importance above the rest, and until recently were the only two of which scholars had any knowledge.
They belonged to Lower and Upper Egypt respectively, and the former used to be entitled the Memphitic version, and the latter the Thebaic, from the most important towns in the two districts.
Bohairic and Sahidic Dialects/Versions
Fuller information, however, has shown that the district of Memphis had its own dialect, which is not that of the principle Lower Egyptian version; hence this is now generally termed Bohairic, from Bohairah, the Arabic name of the coast district of Lower [Northern] Egypt, while its rival is called Sahidic, from the Es-sa'id, the Arabic name of Upper [Southern] Egypt. These are the names assigned to them by Athanasius, Bishop of Kos in the Thebaid in the 11th century, and they are now generally adopted by scholars.
The Bohairic dialect was that of the sea-coast, including Alexandria, the literary capital of Egypt; it was the most literary of all the dialects, and ultimately it superceded them all and became the accepted language of the Coptic Church, as it remains to this day, when the language is otherwise dead.
The Sahidic dialect had its home in the district about Thebes. Athanasius of Kos mentions the former existence of a third dialect, which he calls the Bashmuric, from the district of Bashmur, which appears to have lain in the marshes of the [Nile]Delta; but of this no remains now exist.
Fayyumic and Ackmimic Dialects/Versions
On the other hand, at least three additional dialects have been found amont the papyri which have come to light of recent years. The first of these, when only a few fragments of it had been discovered (about a century ago), was provisionally named the Bashmuric, but is now shown to have belonged to the province of the Fayyum, which, lying by itself away from the Nile, not unnaturally had a dialect of its own in which most of the discoveries of papyri in the last 30 years have been made. This dialect is consequently now known as Fayyumic.
Another dialect, found in documents from the neighbourhood of Memphis, is generally termed Memphitic4 or Middle Egyptian; while in Upper Egypt, apart from the Sahidic, a distinct dialect has been found in papyri from Akhim (Panopolis), which is provisionally entitled Ackmimic. This last is marked by the possession of a new letter, which is not found in the other dialects.
It is not to be supposed, however, that these dialects cover the whole field, or that they all occupy clearly defined provinces. On the contrary, the more papyri come to light, the more is it clear that the greatest amount of admixture of neighbouring dialects prevailed, especially with regard to Middle Egypt.
Future discoveries will no doubt enable Coptic scholars to reduce their subject-matter to greater order, and especially to show how far the intermixture of dialects, which is natural in colloquial correspondence and the business documents of daily life, extended into works of literature.
For the present it is probably most convenient to group all the dialects of Central Egypt together as Middle Egyptian, while provisionally classifying them into sub-species as Fayyumic, Memphitic, Akhmimic, and other local names, as may be found necessary.
a. The Bohairic Version
The Bohairic dialect, as stated above, ultimately superceded all the others, and consequently the remains of it now extant are the most plentiful. In it alone are there MSS containing complete books of the NT; and although no single MS contains the NT in its entirety, yet there is fairly plentiful evidence for each book of it.
The first scholar to make it known was T. Marshall, Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, from whose papers manyh readings were drawn for the NT of Fell in 1675 and Mill in 1707.
In 1716 the text of the whole version was published at Oxford by the Prussian, David Wilkins; but the execution of the task left much to be desired. The Gospels were re-edited by Schwartze in 1846-47, but with a very inadequate critical apparatus; and the Acts and Epistles by Lagarde (then known as Boetticher) in 1852.
ALl these editions, however, are in course of supersession by that now being issued from the Oxford U. Press by the Rev. G. Horner. Of this the Gospels have already appeared, 5 and the remainder is in course of preparation. Mr. Horner prints the text of the best MS (Huntington MS 17 in the Bodleian Library), and gives a very full critical apparatus. Thirty-four MSS were collated for St. Matthew, and six more examined; for the other Gospels it was found sufficient to collate about 20 MSS and to examine about ten.
In all, the character of 46 MSS (sought out from all the principal collections in Europe and Egypt) was ascertained with adequate certainty, and a thoroughly broad and solid foundation laid for our knowledge of the Bohairic version.
The Extant Manuscripts
The MSS of the Bohairic version, though fairly numerous (Mr. Horner's list,6 which does not claim to be complete, gives 36 copies of the Gospels, 18 of the Acts and Epistles, and 10 of the Apocalypse, besides Lectionaries), are all late in date.
The earliest is that known as the Curzon Catena, in the Parham Library (at present located in the British Museum), which is dated the year 889; but in this MS text and commentary (derived from various sources) are intermixed, often indistinguishably, so that its value as an authority is impaired.
Of the MSS of the Gospels, the oldest and best is the Huntington MS 17, already mentioned, of the year 1174 (Horner's A); and closely akin to this are a MS in the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris of 1250 A.D. (Horner's H).
These embody the purest text of the Bohairic Version; but there are also MSS of 1179 (Paris), 1184 (Cairo), 1205 (Rome), 1208 (Brit. Mus.), 1216, 1229, 1250 (Paris), 1257, 1272, 1291 (Cairo), besides others which though not precisely dated, may be as early as these. 7 Late though all these MSS are, there is good reason to suppose that they contain a substantially pure text. There are no such wide variations as we find among Greek MSS;
Rather the Copts seem to have resembled the Jews, who have not preserved the early copies of their Scriptures, but have copied them with the greatest fidelity, so that their MSS of the 10th century and later contain a text which has come down substantially unaltered from at least the 2nd century.
Indeed many of the Bohairic MSS which contain corrections have notes affirming that the variants are Greek, not Coptic, thus implying, as Mr Horner points out, that the Copts jealously perserved their own textual tradition.
The Text of the Bohairic Version
The later MSS have, it is true, suffered some corruption by the insertion of words and passages which bring them into closer conformity with the Textus Receptus; but these insertions can for the most part be recognized by reference to the earlier copies.
The Huntington MS 17, indeed, supplies an instructive example of this process of corruption; for while the main text is pure, most of the passages which we find inserted in the later copies are here written in the margin. It is easy to understand that these would, before long, find their way into the body of the text.
Taking, then, the earlier MSS as substantially representing the Bohairic version in its integrity, it will be found that no such difficulties present themselves as in the case of the Old Syriac or (as will be shown below [in handbook]) the Old Latin.
It is an example of the -text of the NT in its purer form, of which the leading representative is the Codex Vaticanus.
It is not marked by the numerous erratic variants which are characteristic of the Codex Bezae and its friends.
Further, the translation is careful and obviously adheres closely to the Greek, so that it can be used with confidence as evidence for the Greek text. Its general agreement with the text of Aleph/B is shown by the fact that out of 21 passages enumerated on pp. 57,58, where those two MSS agree as against the Textus Receptus, the earlier MSS of the Bohairic support them in 15 and oppose them 6; while in two more cases where Aleph joins the TR, the Bohairic adheres to B.
The last twelve verses of St Mark are contained in all Bohairic MSS; but two copies (Hunt. 17 and Brit Mus. Or. 1315) give in their margins a short alternative ending which is practically identical with that found in codex L.
The passage Luke 22:43-44 is omitted in nearly all the better Bohairic MSS;
John 5:3,4 (the angel at the pool of Bethesda) is omitted by most of the better MSS, but appears in the best of all (Hunt.17);
John 7:53-8:11 is omitted by all the better MSS.
The Apocalypse apparently did not form part of the original version. In nearly all cases it is found in a separate MS; when otherwise, it is markedly distinguished from the other contents of the MS; and it is not noticed in the Copto-Arabic Bible vocabularies. It is probably that the version was made at a time when the Apocalypse was not universally recognized as a canonical book.
From the end of the 3rd century it seems to have been accepted; but in the middle of that century doubt were expressed about it. To this period, therefore, the origin of the version is ascribed by Lightfoot; 7 though the possibility remains that the version may have come into existence earlier, and have dropped the Apocalypse at that date.
On the other hand, the fact that the Bohairic version (unlike the Sahidic) contains Origen's insertions in the text of the OT (see above, p. 154) points rather to the end of the 3rd century or to some part of the 4th century. The point must remain at present somewhat uncertain; but the type of text contained in this version is distinctly in favour of as early a date as is compatible with the other evidence."
- Sir Frederic Kenyon, Handbook... pp. 151-159
1. The reading of the δ-text would exclude this possibility, since it has ος ην κατηχημενος εν τη πατριδι τον λογον του κυριου.
2. Mr. C. W. Goodwin calls it "the first effort of the system from which Coptic was shortly afterwards developed."
3. See Lightfoot (ap. Scrivener), Headlam (ibid. ed. 4), Hort, Hyvernat, etc.
4. The only objection to this name is its former use to denote the version which we now call Bohairic; but this is an objection which becomes daily of less importance, as the term Bohairic establishes itself in all textbooks. Middle Egyptian is wanted for a wider use, covering all the (as yet) ill-defined dialects which range between Bohairic and Sahidic.
5. The Coptic Version of the NT in Northern Dialect, otherwise called the Memphitic and Bohairic, vols. I & II, (1898).
6. In Scrivener, ii. 110-123; Gregory gives a somewhat longer list, but his additional MMS are almost all of the 18th and 19th centuries.
7. A few scattered leaves of earlier date have recently been found, but not many. [ c. 1901...]
Authorities: (given at chapter head)
Scrivener-Miller, op.cit., chapters by H. J. White, G. H. Gwilliam, A. C. Headlam, F. C. Conybeare, etc.;
Westcott and Hort, op.cit.;
Hyvernat, Etude sur les versions coptes de la Bible, in Revue Biblique, 1896-97;
Forbes Robinson, art. in Hastings, op.cit;
[G. Horner], The Coptic Version of the NT in the northern dialect (Oxford, 1898);
information from Mr. W. E. Crum.
Bohairic Version of the Coptic NT:
Prepared from the online Bohairic text provided by www.biblical-data.org.