BMCR 2005.08.04

Titoli e autori nella tradizione copta: studio storico e tipologico. Biblioteca degli ‘Studi di egittologia e di papirologia’, 2

, Titoli e autori nella tradizione copta : studio storico e tipologico. Biblioteca degli "Studi di egittologia e di papirologia" ; 2. Pisa: Giardini, 2005. 131 pages ; 30 cm.. ISBN 8842713031. €120.00 (pb).

In the notes to his medieval detective story ‘Il nome della rosa’, U. Eco comments on the complex nature of the ‘title’ of fictional work. The present work, submitted for a Ph.D. at the University of Rome under the supervision of the indefatigable Tito Orlandi, is a full-scale study of the subject in non-fictional work in Coptic. Dr Buzi points out in the Preface that the only other study of book titles in Coptic is the one made by P.-H. Poirier of the works in the collection known as the Nag Hammadi ‘library’. The rest of the book is divided into three sections, further subdivided into chapters. There is a bibliography, but no indexes. In such a highly structured work these latter are largely unnecessary, though a list of the authors followed by the titles of their works and perhaps an index of Coptic words would not have been a waste of space. The main section of the book is section three.

Part One (La tradizione manoscritta) contains two chapters.

Chapter One examines the title in general and the title in various literary traditions, Greek, Latin and pharaonic Egyptian. In general, the title may be said to be two things: initially, a self-referential expression of the content of a work (of writing, music etc.) and, subsequently, a way of referring to it as a work to be distinguished from others. In Greece there is a phase of transition from oral to written culture (5th-4th cent. BC in which titles of books become important, though the written form of the text is still regarded principally as a mnemonic support of the oral one. Over the centuries this changed, together with the function and use of libraries, which gradually move from being static places of mere conservation to dynamic areas of use, both consultation and text reproduction. Demetrius of Phalerum instructed the Ptolemies in principles of library organization along Aristotelian lines, which his successor Callimachus expanded to detailed catalogue entries under each alphabetically arranged author. The rolls of Herculaneum show a title usually at the end of the work, the name of author in the genitive, title where the first word is usually ‘peri’ and vol. no. (if necessary). It is quite clear from the examination of texts from other places that the position of the title can vary, and indeed the title gradually moves from the end to the beginning. Where books (rolls or codexes) contained more than one work, it was quite normal to indicate the contents of them by means of a title. Where these objects were stored in containers of some sort, it was also quite normal to indicate the contents of the container, again by titles usually on a bit of papyrus or parchment. It is clear in some cases that titles were added to works quite a long time after they had been produced. Dr Buzi examines the Latin title and books in general with the help of observations from writers such as Cicero. Titles of book in pharaonic Egypt tended to be rubrics (the importance of red can be gauged from the hieroglyph for the writing palette which has one place for black ink and one for red) at the beginning of the work; at the end there is a sentence such as the following, “It is come, its beginning to its end, as it was found in writing”; if there is a name, it is usually that of the copyist. Longish texts, such as the Instruction of Amenemope, could be divided into ‘houses’, the equivalent of chapters.

Chapter Two has a few preliminary observations about the title of Coptic works, in particular the criteria used in the selection of them for this study. It is not always easy to identify titles: in most cases it comes at the beginning or the end in an ornamental box of some sort, but in some it comes at the end and is difficult to distinguish from that other signal device known as the colophon. Buzi provides a useful glossary (p.31) of terms suitable for describing title and authorship of Coptic manuscripts. Most titles have been added later, but the time span involved in the production of these texts, 3rd to 1th cent. AD, the geographical area and the ‘ambiente’ are responsible for considerable diversity, and examples of this diversity are provided on p.31, taken from the Clavis Patrum Copticorum, a research instrument made available through the excellent work of Tito Orlandi. The ‘cellular base’ elements of the Coptic title are listed on p.32, and these elements (14 of them) are used throughout the rest of the book, in abbreviated form, to parse the titles cited. Thus, ‘gen’ is the abbreviation of ‘genere letterario’ and is used before what is usually the first word of the title, e.g. ‘logos’ and so on. The example provided on p.33 gives only the Coptic, but it should be made clear at this point that those unfamiliar with Coptic need have no fear about understanding the rest of the book, because translations are provided. The only slight problem is that the parsing provided in the Coptic text is not replicated in the translation. So, unless you happen to know, for instance, what a verb looks like, you will not be able to identify this word in the translation. With the aid of this parsing device Dr Buzi distinguishes 5 categories of title: (i) subject title, (ii) simple structure title, (iii) simple expanded structure title, (iv) complex structure title, (v) expanded complex structure title. Examples of them all are provided on pp.33-34, with separate chapters devoted to each category on pp.94ff. The ‘ subject title’, according to Dr Buzi, does not have a ‘proper structure’ and consists of ‘key-words’, whereas the slightly more elaborate simple structure title contains what she calls an ‘appellative’. The difference between the two seems to be that in the ‘subject title’ the ‘genre’ (though this term is used loosely in relation to Coptic texts) is followed directly by the name of the author, thus ‘Exegesis of St Theophilus the Archbishop’, this phrase in turn followed by a verbal phrase incorporating the ‘subject’ of the work, ‘he having delivered it about the Cross and the Thief’; whereas in the ‘simple structure title’ the verbal phrase concerning the delivery comes immediately after the genre statement, thus ‘A discourse which was delivered by John the Archbishop of Constantinople about Repentance and Continence’. This is made clearer in Chapters Five and Six. The other categories identified by Dr Buzi become increasingly elaborate. The two examples cited above are quoted by Dr Buzi, who provides examples of categories (iii) and (iv), but not of (v), for which the reader is referred to an article by Tito Orlandi. Dr Buzi concludes the chapter with a brief discussion of the ‘thorny (spinosa)’ question of literary genre: discourse, homily, catechesis (written often in a form that looks like ‘kathegesis’) and so on. These terms were probably not definable in any precise way, much like the modern overused English term ‘essay’. One is, however, on safer ground with the term ‘martyrology’ or ‘hagiography’, the former involving the death, the latter the exemplary life of the subject of the work.

Part Two (I testi) contains only one chapter, in which texts with translations of a selection from 800 titles in the Clavis Patrum Copticorum, ranging from the simplest category (i) to the most elaborate (v), are provided. The whole is subdivided into the following: 1. Homiletic and hagiographical works; 2. Biblical works; 3. Gnostic works; 4. Manichaean works; 5. The works of Shenute. Only works in the first subdivision are provided with the ‘cellular-base’ elements listed on p.32.

Part Three (Analisi dei titoli copti) contains ten chapters.

Chapter One is devoted to the titles of biblical texts, among the first texts to appear in the stage of Egyptian known as ‘Coptic’. Essentially, the Coptic version of the title reflects that of the Greek tradition, which in turn reflects that of the Hebrew. But the position of the title in the text deserves and receives consideration. Until the end of the 6th cent. the title came at the end of the text, but thereafter gives way to an initial title. A distinctive feature of the title is the handwriting, which is unlike that used in the text itself.

Chapter Two deals with gnostic texts. A summary of the main points of the study of Paul-Hubert Poirier on the titles of the Nag Hammadi texts is given on p. 79. Poirier examines the works in this group of texts that have been copied more than once, e.g. the Apocryphon of John, and concludes that they represent two completely diverse traditions. In general, it seems that the NH collection has features not found in other documents: while the title continues to come at the end of the text, there is a also a wide variety of annotations in the margin, blank space that precedes the text and so on. Since the texts were copied on a commission basis, the copyist, while enjoying a certain freedom, was limited by the wishes of the employer. A separate section is devoted to the work known as the Pistis Sophia, a parchment codex of 178 folios written by two quite different hands. It is in fact a miscellany, divided into four parts (books), of which the second gives the whole work the name by which it is now known. The general conclusion is that this relatively complicated work, in which similar texts were grouped together, bears the hallmarks of a ‘custom-made’ work compiled for personal use.

Chapter Three deals with Manichaean works. The titles in question include those from the recently discovered Coptic Manichaean texts from the Dakhla Oasis (Kellis). It may or may not be worth pointing out here that there are certain titles of works cited in Kellis Coptic letters, especially a long letter (P.Kell.Copt.19), published in ‘Coptic Documentary Texts from Kellis’ (Oxford, 1999) ed. A. Alcock, W.-P. Funk and I. Gardner.

Chapter Four deals with the works of Shenute, the most celebrated Coptic writer. The Shenute corpus has been reconstructed based on seven sources, listed on p.87. Dr Buzi analses in particular the titles of ‘canons’, the term used to describe works dedicated to the running of the monastery, and the letters of Shenute. One of the sources identified is the ‘florilegium sinuthianum’, which consists of a series of passages extracted from the ‘canons’.

Chapters Five to Ten provide analyses of the various categories of title listed on pp.33-34, with an additional chapter on the dossier of Agathonicus of Tarsus (c. 7).

Chapter Five deals with the ‘subject title’, and Dr Buzi describes it as one which ‘coincides completely and simply with the subject’. The most usual place for the title is at the end, but there may be an initial title. The undated Crosby codex which has ‘subject titles’ and both final and initial titles, but with a preference for the second, may be placed at the ‘origins’ of the tradition of Coptic titles.

The ‘simple structure titles’ (Chapter Six) essentially follow the Greek model. It is in this type that the ‘verbum dicendi’ (Dr Buzi’s phrase) makes its appearance. There are sometimes two different verbs, but each one expresses some aspect of oral delivery. It is noteworthy that the term ‘homily’ is used in works that have been translated from Greek, but that it is gradually replaced later on by terms such as ‘logos’ and even occasionally ‘bios’. In some cases there are two titles, at the end and at the beginning, some of the former containing colophon elements and some of the latter being quite long and elaborate. In some examples of this type use is made, as in the Nag Hammadi texts, of ‘internal titles’, e.g. in the miracles of St George, where each miracle is introduced by a title

Chapter Seven deals with the dossier of the fictitious character called Agathonicus of Tarsus, in which there is more than one corpus. There are various locations for the title, at the end, the beginning, at the side of the ‘incipit’ and so on. The dossier is useful for reconstructing the transitional phases between various types of title.

The ‘simple expanded structure titles’ (Chapter Eight) contain not only details of authorship, but of the occasion on which the text was delivered.

The ‘complex structure titles’ (Chapter Nine) are of help in reconstructing the final phase of Coptic literature. Detailed analyses of twelve texts are presented in an attempt to show what links and what differentiates the various schools. Those who produced the texts probably had a good overview of Coptic literary production and so made a well-informed choice of material to copy. The titles here and in the final even more elaborate category (Chapter Ten) provide evidence of the relationship between ‘l’attività creativa dell’ultima fase della letteratura copta e la sistemazione sinassariale’.

In conclusion, Dr Buzi repeats the point that attempts at generic classification in Coptic literature are futile because words like ‘homily’, ‘discourse’ and so on do not really have any discrete set of criteria. The emergence of the ‘expanded simple structure titles’ can be dated to the energetic literary production phase in the patriarchate of Damian towards the end of the 6th cent.

I have noted various minor errors in the Coptic texts and translations of them, but discussion of them would not be easy in the sort of online form required here, because there is no agreed system of transliteration for Coptic (which is necessary to reproduce the non-Greek letters in the script). I am compiling a list of them and will send it directly to Dr Buzi.