Greek and Coptic Papyrus Codices and Scrolls

                             By Dr. Fayek M. Ishak

                   Member of the Medieval Academy of America



Papyrology  which  is  the  study   of  all  writings   on  papyrus  should be
distinguished from inscriptions on  stones or wooden  tablets. The plant  that
bears the name "papyrus"  grows in abundance in  the  scattered swamps of  the
Nile Delta. The ancient Egyptians  made of it  a suitable material for writing
and supplied most  of the surrounding  areas with papyri.  The  Greeks who are
lovers of philosophy  and literature recorded most  of their entries on papyri
particularly in the classical age.

It  is amazing that after  the christianization of  Greece and Egypt that many
scrolls were discovered in Egyptians tombs and  they were deposited in jars or
wooden boxes. Greek texts were  found side by  side with Coptic codices in the
early decades of our era. The word "Codices" is the plural of "codex" which is
a wooden  tablet  or an   ancient manuscript  of the   Scriptures or  the  old

It should be  borne in mind that with  the Hellenization  of Alexandria, Greek
manuscripts flooded Egypt. It is  no accident that poems  by Sappho, the first
book of the  Homeric "Iliad" and the satirical  drama "Ichneutae" of Sophocles
were among the  scrolls  discovered in the  last century.  To have  had  Greek
education  and  to speak   Greek fluently were   the  two prominent  assets of
scholarship in Alexandria, the fountain-source of intellectual life throughout
the period that followed Alexander's conquest.

The purely philosophical influence  of Alexandrine scholarship is particularly
noticeable in the works of St. Clement of Alexandria,  the prolific Origen who
was the pupil of Ammonius Saccas, the early exponent of Neoplatonic philosophy
and mysticism and St.   Pantaenus who is well  known  for his contribution  to
Alexandrine Christianity.

It is also  worth noting  that the Greek  alphabet  is basically used in   the
Coptic language  with the addition of 7  characters derived from demotic which
was the common language of the ancient Egyptians.  This addition was essential
for the inclusion of sounds not found in the Greek tongue. A.F. Shore tells us
[1] that:

"in Heidelberg   a  "cartonnage" fragment  from  Akhmim,  dated  to the  third
 century  A.D.,  contains     a   few  Greek   words    with   their   demotic
 equivalents written    in Greek letters. In  the    demotic London and Leiden
 magical  text, written  in  the  third century  A.D.,    there are over   600
 glosses  in Greek   letters. A number  of  magical  texts  have survived from
 the   first three centuries   A.D. (and  are)  characterized by   the  use of
 Greek   letters  and  a  large   number  of  demotic   signs  (known  as  Old
 Coptic). "

What is even more  important, the same author emphasizes,  is that  the Coptic
version of  the Holy Bible,   together with the   early Greek Biblical papyri,
offers one of  the most fruitful sources of  Biblical text in manuscript prior
to the  persecution of Diocletian  (303 A.D.)  and  the  recurrent attempts to
burn the Scriptures [1].

One should   mention   also  in  this  respect   the  important discovery   at
Sheneset-Chenoboskion in Upper Egypt  of thirteen papyrus codices. The codices
are all written in the Coptic language and in the dialect that is prevalent in
that area known as "Sahidic". Most of  the codices have striking affinities to
Greek counterparts. In the main they contain  explications and elaborations on
the  Gospels, epistles, prayers and  doctrinal  arguments. The  bulk of  these
writings deals at large with  the sayings of  our Lord Jesus Christ before and
after  Crucifixion and the Resurrection,  His teachings and  His advice to the

Eminent papyrologists like Ernst von Dobschutz and  Hermann Freiherr von Soden
(1852-1914) have indicated that the  old text of  the New Testament belongs to
the second century and is written on papyrus fragments:

"The very earliest that is known is a tiny piece of papyrus  leaf with a small
 portion of the  Gospel according to  John. This  was  discovered in the  John
 Reglands Library in  Manchester, England, among papyri  acquired  in Egypt in
 1920 by B.P. Grenfell... According to its style of handwriting the papyrus is
 dated  in the  first  half of the  second   century A.D., probably  about 125
 A.D. (that's only few decades after the death of St. John, the evangelist and
 disciple). As  far as  it goes the  text  agrees with Codex  Vaticanus, Codex
 Sinaiticus, and Codex Ephraemi Syri Rescriptus."

The same author goes on saying that the second  oldest manuscript "consists of
three small fragments of a codex leaf purchased in Luxor in 1901 and preserved
in the Library of Magdalen College at Oxford."  Its date is believed to be the
latter  part of the  second  century and what remains   of it contains certain
parts of the Gospel of St.  Matthew.

Only a little later after the beginning of the third century do we come across
a notable codex composed of eighty-six leaves most of  which are in possession
of the University of Michigan and they contain the  letters of St. Paul to the
Romans, Hebrews, Corinthians   I &   II, Ephesians,  Galatians,   Philippians,
Colossians and Thessalonians I.   This codex is known   as the Chester  Beatty
Papyrus of Paul's letters.  It is named after Beatty --  an American living in

It should be  noted, however, that  the Codex Vaticanus  to which a  reference
above was given,  contains in the  main the Greek  Holy Bible.   Papyrologists
after studying the style of this codex have concluded that it is most probable
that it was   written in the  fourth century  and that it  was written nowhere
other than in Alexandria.

The Codex Sinaiticus   actually derives its name from   the Convent of   Saint
Catherine  at  Mount Sinai,  where   it  was discovered  by  Dr.   Constantine
Tischendorf (1815-1874) in 1859. It is supposed  to be the greatest manuscript
discovery  ever  made at any   time. The  Codex includes a    copy of the  Old
Testament in  Greek  and the entire  New Testament.  It remained  in Leningrad
until it was purchased by the British Museum in 1933 and it was then deposited
in the Manuscript Department of its library.

This invaluable  Sinaitic  codex has two  hundred  and forty-two  leaves which
compose the Old Testament and one hundred and forty-eight leaves composing the
New Testament. Most probably  it was written  by more  than one scribe  as the
textual study of H.J.M. Milne and T.C. Skeat  amply testifies. The conclusions
worked out by these two scholars were published in a  volume bearing the title
"Scribes and Correctors of Codex Sinaiticus", (London, 1938).

The  Codex Coislinianus  with its  Alexandrine  text was in possession  of the
Laura Convent on Mount Athos and is dated in the sixth century.  The surviving
leaves  of this  codex  are  only forty-one and    are divided among   various
libraries in Leningrad, Kiev and Mount Athos.

Worthy of our  readers'  observation, however, is the  fact  that the original
Greek version   of the New  Testament  was translated  into Syriac, Coptic and
Latin mainly to help  the natives of  different lands understand  the Biblical
text in their own language [3]. But it is not  surprising to find translations
varying  from  one translator   to another   according to the   variations  of
competence, degree  of proficiency  in the  Greek language   and, to a  lesser
extent, the variation of the original Greek manuscripts.

This will throw some light  on the Coptic   translations of the New  testament
which appeared in  parts in the Sahidic dialect  in  the early decades  of the
third century. Eminent Coptologists like Budge, Henri Hyvernat, Chester Beatty
and Horner have unanimously  agreed that the Shidic  version of the Holy Bible
is  somewhat   older than the Bohairic  version.   The  manuscripts which have
survived whether in fragmentary or complete form are  dated between the middle
of the fourth and the late sixth centuries [4].

It is of special interest to note that the  first printed version of the Greek
New Testament appeared rather late in 1514. Previously a fragment of the Greek
Holy Bible was printed at Milan in 1480 and  another fragment of the Gospel of
St. John was printed in  Greek at Venice.  At any rate  the publication of the
Greek New Testament  offered to many scholars  the opportunity  to compare the
original  text with Latin,  Coptic,   Syriac, and  Armenian versions with  the
subsequent result of  attempting in the following centuries  to be as close as
possible to the original Greek text.

[1] A.F. Shore, "Christian  and Coptic Egypt," The  Legacy of Egypt, edited by
    J.R. Harris (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1971), page 420 & page 424.
[2] Jack  Finegan,  "Light  from  the  Ancient  Past", (Princeton:   Princeton
    University Press, 1946; reprinted 1969), page 417.
[3] Merrill  M. Parvis  and Allen P.   Wikgren, ed. "New Testament  Manuscript
    Studies: the materials and the making  of a critical apparatus." (Chicago:
    Univesrity of Chicago Press, 1950). 
[4] George  Horner,   ed. "The  Coptic  Version of  the New   Testament in the
    Southern  Dialect",   otherwise   called  Sahidic  and   Thebaic  (Oxford,
    1911-1924), 7 vols.