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Coptic Society

I. Introduction:

People, especially Copts, often ask why do they need to study Coptic. The cause of their dilemma is that Coptic is rarely used even in its last stronghold, the Coptic Church. The answer to such a perplexing question lies in two distinct but closely related principles. The first is called the Ecclesiastical Principle and the second is referred to as the Coptic Principle. Both of these principles hold explanation for the importance as well as the necessity for keeping such language alive among people in general and Copts in particular.

II. The Ecclesiastical Principle:

The Ecclesiastical Principle is a 3-component concept that describes the Coptic Church in general terms. Its components are derived from the official name used by the Church but in reverse order. These components are as follows:

  1. Church,
  2. Orthodox,
  3. Coptic.

1. Church: The first Component, the Church can be assumed to be the substance of Christianity, i.e., the Bible. This is due to the fact that the Coptic Church like any true Christian Church is build upon the Bible, the authentic Word of God.

2. Orthodox: The Orthodox component is understood as the authority of the fathers of the Church within the confines of the Coptic Church. An authority that is second only to the Bible because their writings are mere inspired explanation and expansion of the meaning of the Bible.

3. Coptic: The last component of this trio is Coptic. The value of this component is embodied in the second principle to be discussed here, the Coptic Principle. It suffices to say here that this component is what gives the Coptic Church its identity and its distinctive flavor that sets it apart from any other Christian Church.

III. The Coptic Principle:

The Coptic Principle is an extension of the third component of the Ecclesiastical principle. It is in turn explained within the concept of a 3-component system. Such system will help explain the great benefits that can be achieved the Copts or others by the learning the language. These components are as follows:

  1. Identity,
  2. Link to the past,
  3. Key to the treasures of the Coptic Church.

1. Identity:

The Coptic language provides a Copt with an identity that spells out an impressive commentary upon the character of such person. It exemplifies in him an unyielding spirit that was tried and came out victorious. A spirit that had to endure endless attempts by those that ruled Egypt for the past 2300 years to replace such language with that of their own. If such was achieved then they can subject the Copts to cultural and religious slavery that would forever made them subservient to such foreign rulers. It was attempted first by the Greeks, through their Helenizing approach. Then it was continued along the same principles by the successive Arabic and Moslem dynasties that ruled Egypt since the 7th century AD. The significance of such character can also inspire the Coptic youth to fight off the many harmful pressures, whether in spirit or in body, that are facing them in this turbulent Society of ours.

2. Link to the Past:

The Coptic language is the bridge that links the Copts with their ancient Egyptian roots. It provides them with a continuous written record of their civilization that span over 6000 years, the longest in existence. A civilization that is truly been considered, then and now, a marvel of human achievement. Their accomplishments encompassed most areas of human endeavors such as art, architecture, medicine, and of course their remarkable embalming techniques. A recount of such achievements and others will require many volumes. And to do them justice, it is best left for the experts who have already scratched the surface but has not yet gone deep enough. One last word that needs to be said about such link is that to successfully claim such lineage to greatness, a common language is needed. Coptic, of course, is such a language. It embodies the same Egyptian language of ancient times that was formerly written in the picturesque Hieroglyphs, the practical Hieratic, and the handy Demotic characters.

3. Key to the Treasures of the Coptic Church:

This third and final category of the Coptic Principle has the most significant values that Coptic brings. By learning Coptic the hidden treasure of the church, the source of its greatness, will become accessible. This will make the Copt more rooted in his Church that has truly survived the test of time.

These treasures has come down primarily in literary form. They were left by the fathers of the Coptic Church over the centuries as the fruit of their labor of love for the Almighty. They cover many areas of Christian knowledge and experiences that are essential for the spiritual well-being of the Copts or anyone interested in learning about God. The discussion here will cover the basics of such treasures but only briefly. These treasures are as follows:

  • a. Language:
    The language, or rather the development of the script is a treasure in itself. Among the Christians, its appearance was a sign of Christian charity, for it was developed for the primary purpose of translating the Scriptures in order to preach the Gospel to the native population of Egypt. More details about such work will be included in the discussion of the history of the language.
  • b. Bible:
    The Coptic Version of the Bible is truly the greatest of all the treasures of the Coptic Heritage. Its value has been recognized by biblical scholars from every corner of the Globe. Many reasons contributed to such a high significance being attributed to it. First it utilized Greek originals that did not survive the winds of the persecutions nor the sands of time. Secondly it reflected the conservative, or orthodox, nature of the Egyptian Christians who translated such sacred texts in a method as literal as possible. They even made special adjustments in the grammatical system to project such a method. Thirdly they presented a better ancient understanding of some certain obscure verses or words in the Greek originals. This was due to the antiquity of the Version as well as the scholarship of those that contributed to it. Because of these factors and others, the Coptic Version is always used as an important witness in the scholarly publications of the Greek Scriptures, Old and New Testaments.
  • c. Writings of the Fathers:
    The Coptic language handed to us a great collection of the writings of the fathers of the Church. Such writings carry an authority in the Church second only to that of the Scriptures. In essence they are an extension to the Bible. Such collection that survived can be divided into two groups. The first one is a collection of translation from Greek originals of writings of Egyptian and non-Egyptian Church fathers. The second group is a collection of writings of Egyptian Fathers.

    The collection of translations from Greek originals are characterized either as being commentaries on the Bible or dealing with spiritual subjects that are suitable more to the monastic community who used them more. The collection of original Coptic writings featured a more variety of subjects. However they still projected the monastic flavor. In other words, most of the Coptic writings did not address the more theoretical aspects of theology as other Greek writings did.

    The value of the first collection, that of translated texts, lies in either being an ancient witness to the Greek original or at times the only surviving witness to such writings. The Copts did not translated every thing that came into their hands. They rather translated only those of the more widely known or accepted fathers; and of course those which they considered to be pertinent to their ascetic nature. The most popular writer was St. John Chrysostom. The writings of Saints Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory the Theologian were also popular but not as much as those of St. John Chrysostom.

    The second collection, that of original Coptic writings is the more valuable one. It include writings from Alexandrian fathers who usually wrote in Greek, like Saints Athanasius, Theophilius, and Cyril the Great. They also included the monastic writings of St. Pachomius and his disciples as well as those of bishops from the Pre-Arab invasion like Pisentius of Qift, Constantine of Asyut, Mena of Pshati, and Rufus of Shotep. However the greatest of them all is without a doubt the writings of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite, which was the most voluminous with a wider variety of subjects. Worthy of mention here are the substantial writings of St. Besa (Wissa), St. Shenouda’s disciple.

    The writings of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite are truly the crown jewels of Coptic Literature. Their style, their variety, and their subject matters make them worthy of such distinction. The literary style of St. Shenouda was a unique one. It blended many of the great feature of his time as well as his own added flavor. It dealt with more subjects that are not normally expected to be seen within the writings of a monastic leader. They addressed laymen, clerics, and even high government officials. Their subject matters dealt with what such a variety of people needs along Christian lines. However they presented the reader with a feature that is unprecedented. This feature was the simplification of St. Cyril the Great’s theoretical theology into a practical one that the masses can understand and apply.

  • d. Lives of the Saints:
    The Coptic Church never had a shortage of saints throughout its long illustrious history. Though many of the acts of such saints have survived to this day, still many more perished as a result of the gradual loss of the language. The importance of the lives of the saints lies in the simple fact that they present to us portraits of the living Bible. They furnish proofs for the authenticity of the Bible teachings and the application of its teachings in people’s life.

    Lives of the Saints are available in many languages and churches other than those in use in Egypt and recognized in the Coptic Church, Coptic Lives however provide a unique brand. They consist of two major collections. The first are those of the martyrs who watered the flowering Church with their blood. The second are those of the monastic fathers who converted the desolate desert from an abode for demons to a haven for saints. There are also many acts of clergy as well as laymen that have reached this honored status.

    The value of the Coptic lives lie in their antiquity as compared to the parallel ones available in Arabic and also in their exclusive presence in such language. The Coptic Synaxarium, being the most complete record of the saints of the Coptic Church, preserves only mention of names of some of these saints while their complete acts are preserved in Coptic. This category covers many of the saints of Upper Egypt who seem to have been forgotten by the compilers of the Synaxarium who lived mostly in Lower Egypt.

    The collection of Coptic martyrdoms mostly includes those martyrs of the Diocletian Persecution (303-311 AD.) The most notable ones are those of St. Menas, St. Anoub, St. George, St. Theodore, and countless others. There are also acts of martyrs of earlier persecutions such as St. Mercurius, and those of later ones such as St. Macarius of Tkoou. There is even a 13th century Coptic martyrdom, that of St. John of Phanidjoit.

    The collection of lives of monastic fathers includes Those of the early fathers such as St. Antony the Great, St. Pachomius and his disciples, St. Macarius and his disciples, St. Onophrius, and St. Shenouda the Archimandite. It also include those of the later fathers such as St. Samuel of Qalamun, St. Apollo, and many others.

    Unfortunately the hand of man sometimes corrupts the natural beauty of such acts with unnecessary fabricated details. Such wild imagination distorts the saintly image of these acts and their value for the edification of the Christians as they were meant to be. However sorting the truth from fiction is not an easy task because what would sounds like a fabrication to some may still be factual. Careful study of these acts, God’s willing, will yield desirable fruits. But caution should be exercised before deleting any details unless they are judged to be impossible to have occurred on historical, theological, and spiritual grounds. May God help those who undertake this worthy and blessed task.

  • e. Liturgical Services:
    The Coptic Church, in extension of its religious practices and beliefs of ancient times, regulated man’s interface with God through an elaborate and comprehensive system of liturgical services. These services cover every aspect of human life in order to strengthen the tie between the Creator and His beloved creation and regulate man’s life in accordance with what God has intended. Such services are made of selections from the Bible mixed the writings of the fathers of the Church and handed down by the saints of the Church. A powerful combination indeed!

    All these services are made even more beautiful by their poetical arrangement and the magnificent Coptic music that accompanies them. The beautiful melodies that are collectively called Coptic Music has been determined, by the musicologists that studied it, as the richest in Christendom. If music moves the soul then Coptic music must makes it dance. The Church fathers used this powerful tool not only to beautify the words of the services but to vary and enhance their meanings. I would dare to say that in the case of the Coptic Liturgy, the music is responsible for up to 50 percent of the meaning being conveyed. Moreover, the varying tunes provide the believers with an instant way of sharing in the spirit of the Church commemorations. If what was just said is unclear, then one should only observe the services of the Holy Week and the Resurrection service that follows it for instant clarification.

    The services include the three great liturgies, those of St. Basil, St. Gregory, and St. Cyril, where man is elevated to heaven to partake in the greatest gift ever given, the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. Other services include Baptism and Confirmation that make the person eligible to partake in the sacraments. Also there are services for the sacrament of Marriage and that of Unction to spiritually and physically heal, God’s willing, man’s afflictions. Also the Church consoles her members through the beautifully arranged funeral services. Every order in the Church, from a reader to a patriarch, its possessor participates in ordination services that vary in proportion to the rank being bestowed. There are also the magnificent services of the Holy Week, the Washing of Feet or Laqan, and the Genuflection among others.

  • f. Canon Law and Documents
    To regulate man relationship to God, the Church instituted many laws that were based and biblical principles as well as human needs. Coptic preserved the most ancient of the manuscripts of the Apostolic constitutions, which were last compiled in Egypt. Other collections in Coptic are those of the Councils of Nice and Ephesus and those of St. Athanasius and St. Basil.

    Another aspect of this treasure is the documentary evidence that Coptic has yielded. These documents include contracts such as those between individuals or between groups. It also includes a collection of private letters. These documents that survived were parts of archives of officials or towns. Their value lie in that they provide us with a window to observe regional history as well as to study the non-ecclesiastical common law that the people were practicing at the time. This provides a great help in studying the real history of the Copts, not only of Church dignitaries. These documents range in age from as early as the 4th century to as late as the 11th century. Such treasure has been nearly untapped by Copts not only because of its relative non-ecclesiastical nature but mostly because of the difficulty encountered in reading its script. To put it in perspective, its documents look like something that a doctor might have written!