BMCR 2020.09.53

The rise of Coptic: Egyptian versus Greek in late antiquity

, The rise of Coptic: Egyptian versus Greek in late antiquity. The Rostovtzeff lectures. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. 224 p. ISBN 9780691198347. $45.00.

[Chapter titles are listed below.]

In The Rise of Coptic Jean-Luc Fournet investigates Coptic’s emergence in late ancient Egypt and how it eventually achieved legal recognition. Fournet accounts for a formidable chronological period, roughly covering the third to seventh centuries ce, and also a wide array of primary sources, both literary and documentary. Above all, Fournet argues for a picture of bilingualism in late ancient Egypt, wherein Greek-speaking Egyptians forged a new language that would aid their navigation of public and private milieus in the age of Greek-language hegemony. The book’s four chapters correspond to Fournet’s four lectures at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in 2017, a part of Rostovtzeff Lectures series.

In Chapter 1, “An Egyptian Exception?”, Fournet looks at two bodies of evidence: the first attestations of Coptic in the third century, which are literary, and the appearance of documentary Coptic in the fourth century. This divergence in the data, Fournet claims, suggests that Coptic first emerged as a private language, used by educated elites; eventually Coptic became useful for a diverse range of Egyptians, long after its success in private and elite milieus. The main question for Fournet, moreover, is how to account for the multitude of Coptic letters in the fourth century, but at the same time a lack of official legal texts. After debunking several hypotheses for this feature of the data, Fournet concludes that there was an “Egyptian exception.” That is, compared to the Syriac-speaking East, where Syriac was commonly used in public and legal contexts, Coptic was initially relegated to private communication between Egyptians. These same Egyptians, however, continued to use Greek in public domains, even though they used in Coptic in private communications.

In Chapter 2, “Why Was Greek Preferred to Coptic?”, Fournet further pursues the issue of Coptic’s absence in the legal record. The answer, Fournet claims, points towards the linguistic and historical circumstances of Coptic itself, first and foremost Coptic’s many dialects, and therefore lack of linguistic unity. Legal documents, Fournet writes, demanded precision and intelligibility—the latter a feature that sits at odds with the regional qualities of Coptic dialects (p. 45). Fournet’s emphasis on Coptic’s dialects is sensible, but here Fournet’s argument risks much ambiguity. For instance, he claims that the regional dialect Sahidic was never spoken (pp. 46–47), thereby rendering it an “artificial language,” which raises more questions than answers. Fournet is on more reliable ground when arguing that Coptic could not compete with the antiquity and prestige of Greek. Thus Fournet concludes Chapter 2 with the claim that Coptic was invented by elites as a part of the Hellenization process. Following the logic of this hypothesis, Fournet argues that only when elite Greek-educated Egyptians treated Coptic as a complementary language to Greek that it started to disseminate to the wider population, as we see with the rise of documentary Coptic in the fourth century and later. Compelling as this is, Fournet misses here the opportunity to engage with the Nag Hammadi Library, which some have argued is the product of a group of bilingual Hellenized Egyptians.[1] Coptic as a feature of Hellenization has been known for some time, but what is new here is the ambitious attempt to explain the evidentiary gap in the extant Coptic sources.

In Chapter 3, “The Rise of Coptic and the Byzantine State,” Fournet analyses Coptic legal texts in the century prior to the Arab conquest, an important period that witnessed the decline of Greek literary and documentary papyri along with the concomitant rise of Coptic. Fournet provides quite a number of hypotheses for this reversal in the data. Yet even with this reversal, Fournet argues, one may glean from these Coptic texts, which are reproduced in the appendices, a strong indebtedness to Greek legal texts, and furthermore this indebtedness suggests that the writers of the first Coptic legal texts were “digraphs,” or “truly bilingual” (p. 82). It was these scribes, according to Fournet, that helped fashion the Coptic legal lexicon. Beyond the linguistic qualities of the documents, Fournet interestingly argues that justice functioned differently in this pivotal period. That is, Egyptians had increasingly turned away from official channels towards private settlement (p. 104).

In the final chapter, aptly titled “The Role of the Church and Monasticism in the Growth of Legal Coptic,” Fournet focuses on the role that monasticism, and by the same token, “the Church,” played in the rise of an official Coptic that moved beyond private epistolary communication (p. 115). An initial problem arises with Fournet’s definition of “the Church,” however, and it remains vague throughout the book. Beyond issues of definition, this chapter mainly treats three dossiers of texts. Fournet’s argument at times borders on an excessive attention to detail, such as the discussion of the wills from the Monastery of Phoebammon. However, the main point is that the wills of this monastery, in the span of a few years, shifted from Greek to Coptic. Fournet accounts for this change with reference to the ten years of Sasanian domination (619–29), which “softened the linguistic constraints weighing on the writing of wills as well as other documents” (p. 129). However much this political context influenced the writing of wills, what is more compelling is Fournet’s detection of a change in the context and function of these wills: the addition of narrative and “spiritual” elements to legal texts. The reader will find this approach explored in the documents of Abraham, Bishop of Hermonthis (p. 133), where the texts demonstrate what legal documents look like when they are produced not by professional notaries, but by monks and clerics. Fournet concludes this chapter with several convincing claims about the role and function of bishops in this new Egyptian landscape. Indeed, Fournet’s analysis presents bishops at the end of the sixth century exercising a form of civil authority that is not so much complementary to that of the state, but more likely compensating for the state’s inadequacies.

Through all of Fournet’s methodical and nuanced argumentation and his meticulous analysis of primary sources, the reader will take away an impression of Coptic’s unique origins, being wholly indebted to Greek, along with its brief moment as an autonomous language in the public domain, just before the advent of the all-encompassing control of Arabic in Egypt. This study is sorely needed for Coptic studies, which many have bemoaned as lacking even the most rudimentary achievements of contemporary Greek, Latin, and Syriac papyrology and linguistics. The ancient Coptic landscape is still unfolding, and not even Fournet himself would be much surprised to see the terrain continue to morph. Fournet’s chief contribution is his mastery of such a broad chronological spectrum of Coptic texts. Coptic scholars on the whole tend to work in heavily demarcated periods, but this book represents one of the few attempts to account for such a diverse range of documents. As such, it is written for Coptic scholars, but those who study Greek papyrology, late ancient Christianity and monasticism, and even Roman law will also benefit from reading The Rise of Coptic.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: An Egyptian Exception?
Chapter 2: Why Was Greek Preferred to Coptic?
Chapter 3: The Rise of Legal Coptic and the Byzantine State
Chapter 4: The Role of the Church and Monasticism in the Growth of Legal Coptic
Appendix 1: Coptic Endorsements in Greek Legal Texts
Appendix 2: Five Samples of Fourth-Century Coptic Letters
Appendix 3: The First Legal Documents in Coptic before the Arab Conquest


[1] See Khosroev, A. L. Die Bibliothek von Nag Hammadi: einige Probleme des Christentums in Ägypten während der ersten Jahrhunderte. Altenberge: Oros Verlag, 1995.