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
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
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
"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
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 .
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 . 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 .
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.
 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.
 Jack Finegan, "Light from the Ancient Past", (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1946; reprinted 1969), page 417.
 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).
 George Horner, ed. "The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the
Southern Dialect", otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic (Oxford,
1911-1924), 7 vols.