Undergraduate Study of Coptic Language and Culture

Coptic text written on early paper.

Coptic is normally studied by undergraduates as a subsidiary language to main subject Egyptology and can also be taken with main subject Classics.

Coptic, the fifth and final recorded stage of the Ancient Egyptian language, was the language of Christian Egypt. It is written with the Greek alphabet, supplemented by a small number of characters of Egyptian origin. Coptic texts also employ a considerable amount of Greek vocabulary. Thus, some prior knowledge of Greek is helpful in learning the language, but it not obligatory. Because Coptic is a stage of Egyptian, knowledge of earlier stages of the language is very useful, but again it is not essential and many people study Coptic to a high level without a background in Egyptology. The earliest known Coptic texts date to the 3rd century CE; they had forerunners in pagan `Old Coptic' of the 2nd century. Coptic died out as an every day spoken language during the Middle Ages. It is still employed today in the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Coptic as a subject is of interest not only to Egyptologists, but also to students of Late Antiquity, Theology, and Church History. The range of texts read in the undergraduate Coptic course is very wide. It includes Coptic translations of Old and New Testament books, Apocryphal works, writings and biographies of eminent monastic figures, and religious poetry. Although Coptic is closely associated with Egyptian Christianity, it also preserves substantial numbers of Gnostic and Manichaean works, and a representative selection of these is studied. Non-literary sources read include wills, contracts, deeds, and other legal documents, receipts, pleas for assistance to officials, and private letters. The span of time covered by this material is roughly the 4th century to the 10th century CE.

Bronze Coptic crucifix.

The organization and mode of teaching the subject are broadly similar to those employed for Egyptology. Most instruction takes place in the Griffith Institute. Classes are made up of undergraduates from several colleges, and are quite often attended by graduate students as well. The Griffith Institute Library, which is part of the Ashmolean Library, has a comprehensive collection of books on Coptic language and literature. Works of related historical interest are available in the Bodleian and Theology Faculty libraries.

Study of Coptic begins in Michaelmas Term of an undergraduate's second year, with an introductory grammar course. Three one-hour sessions are devoted to this weekly. The textbook used is Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Sahidic Coptic (Macon, 1983). This is organised in thirty lessons. The material in each lesson is presented in class, along with vocabulary which is assigned for memorization. There are written exercises which test students' comprehension of the material covered in the classes. They are expected to prepared one of these for each class.

In the third year, which is the second year of undergraduate study of Coptic, Michaelmas and Hilary Term are devoted to the study of texts written in the other major Coptic literary dialects: Bohairic, Akhmimic, and Subakhmimic. As each additional dialect is introduced, its distinctive syntactic, lexical and orthographic features are elucidated and compared with those of the dialects studied previously. The mode of instruction is the same as before: classes meet three times weekly, and students are expected to prepare material for translation and interpretation in each session.

In Hilary and Trinity Terms, some time is devoted to unprepared translation of Sahidic Coptic. During Trinity Term there are also special revision classes, in which students have the opportunity to go over the material covered in the previous five terms.

The final examination includes three papers in Coptic: Sahidic and Subakhmimic Prepared Texts; Bohairic and Akhmimic Prepared Texts; and Coptic Unprepared Translation. The second paper includes general questions on Coptic Egypt and the third includes questions on Coptic grammar and language. As noted above, candidates can opt to do a fourth Coptic paper on a subject of their own choosing as well.