The Complete Digital Edition and Translation of the Coptic-Sahidic Old Testament
The Coptic Old Testament is one of the oldest and most extensively preserved daughter translations of the Greek Septuagint (LXX). It exists in various dialects of Coptic and in very early textual witnesses, thus forming a unique source for the study of the versions of the Bible. The Coptic translation of the Bible is also the most monumental testimony to the last linguistic stage of the Egyptian language, Coptic, and opens up the possibility, for linguistic research, to trace the written language with the longest lifespan in the world (approximately 4000 years!) to its latest stage.
After early precursors in the 3rd-4th centuries, the Old Testament was systematically and completely translated into the Sahidic dialect of Coptic presumably in the last quarter of the 4th century. The Sahidic dialect progressed via the Bible translation to become the literary standard of Coptic, and it remained the literary and liturgical language of Egyptian Christians until the 12th century. Due to the decline in the numbers of Christians in Egypt, which had been dominated by Islam since the 8th century, the use of Coptic as a literary language since the 12th century was almost exclusively limited to the monasteries of the Wadi Natrun west of the Nile Delta. The Bohairic dialect in use there now became the ecclesiastical and liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church, while Coptic as a spoken language was to be completely supplanted by Arabic. However, not all books of the Old Testament were translated into the Bohairic dialect, rather only those most important for the liturgy, so that since the Middle Ages the Coptic Church no longer possessed a complete Old Testament (according to the canon of the LXX).
The Sahidic manuscripts still kept in its original place, such as the monastery church of the Monastery of Apa Shenoute west of Sohag (so-called "White Monastery"), fell into disuse or were left behind in abandoned monastery buildings. It is estimated that the monastic library of the Monastery of Apa Shenoute in the 10th-12th centuries still possessed around 1000 codices, including about 100 biblical codices. From the 18th century onwards, the manuscripts, which were kept in a room next to the apse of the monastery church, were sold in portions, first to Western missionaries and then to travellers and scholars. It was not until 1883 that scholars discovered the source of the manuscript finds and attempted to secure the remainders, which unfortunately was not successful in the long term. With the increase in interest in Egyptian antiquities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Coptic manuscripts as well were sold in increasingly smaller portions – it was not uncommon for a single leaf to be cut up – in order to maximise profits. As a result, the majority of the surviving Sahidic manuscripts are no longer in Egypt, but are scattered over some 110 collections and museums in Europe and North America.
All attempts by scholars over the last 100 years to reunite, virtually and in a publication, even only the manuscripts from the Monastery of Apa Shenoute failed because of the magnitude of the task. The Academy project is now taking on this task using the technical revolution of the 'digital age'. The individual manuscript leaves and fragments will be collected and catalogued in an online database. Every manuscript leaf or fragment is represented by a digital photo, on the basis of which the Biblical text is transcribed and analysed. The manuscripts are virtually reconstructed into codices which can be browsed on-screen. Based on the transcribed text, first a diplomatic edition is created. The evaluation of the entire handwritten tradition and the comparison with the Greek Septuagint text finally flows into a critical edition of the individual books of the Old Testament. Based on the text of the critical edition, a concise edition of the Coptic-Sahidic Old Testament will be produced and translated into various modern languages (German, English, Arabic). The text of the Coptic-Sahidic Bible is thus recovered for scholarship, and Coptic Christians are given back their traditional Old Testament.
The online database also provides the international scholarly community with a virtual research environment (VRE) into which scholars worldwide can feed their research results on the Coptic Bible but also on Coptic literature in general. The database is being set up in close cooperation with colleagues from the Institute for New Testament Text Research (INTF) in Münster, who are dedicated to the Coptic tradition of the New Testament, among other areas. In future, the research results of both institutions will be accessible via a joint internet platform. It is also planned to link the Greek New and Old Testaments so that the tradition of the Greek and Coptic Biblical texts from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages can be followed online. The long-term goal of the project and its numerous international cooperation partners beyond the funding period of the Union of German Academies Programme is the virtual reconstruction of the entire literature in Coptic.