Friday, 23 November 2007

Why I'm Studying Coptic

Somebody pm'd me and asked about my PhD project, explaining they were interested in how my studies in Coptic were going.

Interested in Coptic Matthew? I asked. Are you crazy?

In prior years, our interest in the ancient versions was that they might help us with text critical issues. For example, in 1 Tim 3:16, we're not sure if the text is supposed to read "who" or "God." Whichever is the correct reading, Paul goes on to connect the word to Jesus. If "God" is the correct word, then here you have an iron-clad reference to Jesus' deity. If "who" is correct, then you lose this prooftext for his deity.

The difference between "God" and "who" is that God is spelled theos--actually, the th is one letter, the letter theta. Theta looks like a round 0 with a dash going through it. In contrast, "who" is spelled os.

The reason why these two words were confused is that Christians always "abbreviated" theos with the first and last letters: theta and sigma with a line over both letters. Thus, the two words looked nearly alike: who--OS; and God--OS (with a dash in the 0 and a line over top).

Since Coptic and the other two ancient versions (Latin and Syriac) were translated in the second or third centuries, and since they have completely different translation words for "who" and "God," they tell us what their Greek manuscripts read. In these languages, you can't confuse "who" and "theos." This is especially important since we don't have any manuscripts of 1 Tim 3:16 earlier than the fourth century.

But my particular project goes in a different direction. I'm working on a specific manuscript named Codex Schøyen. It came to light back in 1999 and is owned by a private collector in Norway ( It supposedly dates to the early fourth century (300-325), and if true, it is the oldest substantial copy of Matthew's gospel we have; it is the earliest text of Matthew in 11 whole chapters.

Few have published on the manuscript. Only two monographs exist, the authors of which have died since 2003 (Schenke and Boismard). Their work was methodologically faulty and their theories probably untenable. Apart from these two, Tjitze Baarda, a retired professor in the Netherlands, has written three articles. As far as I know, however, I'm the only one working on it now. (I invite additional information….)

Of course, this manuscript is already extremely important due to its old age. But what makes this manuscript even more interesting is that its text is rather different from all the other manuscripts of Matthew. We would use the technical term "wild," relatively speaking. Nearly every verse has two or three unique readings, often more. For example, the paralyzed man lowered through the roof had been paralyzed for 18 years; when Matthew was called and left his tax collector's booth, it was to Peter's house that they went for a meal (with many tax collectors and sinners); they don't accuse Jesus of blasphemy when he forgives sin; the text almost never says "behold" (in stark contrast to biblical Matthew); instead of Jesus' fame getting spread throughout "all the land," it spreads in the district (without "all"). The list could go on and on.

But otherwise, each verse of Codex Schøyen corresponds to our biblical Matthew. This project is important, especially in these last 10 years, because some scholars are making dramatic claims that the biblical text changed wildly in the late first, second and third centuries. The two dead scholars referenced above used Codex Schøyen to accentuate this claim.

My task is to give a more reasoned explanation for the peculiarities of this text. I have a long way to go before really understanding how this text was ever produced, but I think I will be able to explain a good number of peculiarities simply as translation technique, and a good number of peculiarities as normal text critical issues. Hopefully this will de-mystify this manuscript, and keep it from being the poster child of the chaos mongerers and extreme sceptics.

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