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Coptic-Arabic Gospels

This bilingual copy of the Four Gospels from 1308 was made in 1663. The Arabic version is in a parallel column to the right of the Coptic text. This is the Gospel of St John.

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Coptic-Arabic Gospels

The Four Gospels in Coptic and Arabic, Nitria, Egypt, 1663. Gospel of John  BL Or. 425, f.116v.
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a gospel?

A gospel recounts the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings, which form the foundations of the Christian faith. He lived in Israel during the Roman occupation of the country. His mission to reform what he saw as corruption in the Jewish faith caused conflict with the religious hierarchy and led to his execution by the Roman authorities. After his death and subsequent reports of his rising from the dead, followers of Christ - meaning 'the anointed one' - developed his teachings into a new faith, independent of Judaism but keeping much of its scriptures.

Several gospels had been written by disciples of Jesus during the centuries following his death, but only four were authorised by the Council of Nicaea in 325 for inclusion in the Christian Bible. These four were attributed to St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John, known as the four Evangelists.

What is Coptic?

No longer used as an everyday language, Coptic was a descendant of ancient Egyptian, spoken from about 200-1100. It was written using an alphabet slightly modified from Greek. The Bible was translated into Coptic by the second half of the third century, from Greek.

An incomplete manuscript of the Four Gospels in Bohairic, the dialect predominant in the Wadi-al-Natrum and several monasteries, such as the Red Sea monasteries and the White monastery near Sohag, plays an important role in the preservation of the Coptic heritage. This is because Bohairic is the only dialect that continues to be used today as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic Church, along with Arabic.

The most recognisable Bohairic Coptic word in English is probably 'to:bi', which entered US English via Spanish as 'adobe', a word for 'brick', and which is now familiar as the name of a software company.

The earliest manuscript copies of the Four Gospels in Arabic date from the late eighth or ninth centuries, and were made from a variety of languages, including Syriac, Greek and Coptic. Perhaps the oldest dated Arabic copy of the Four Gospels is in the library at Mount Sinai, dated 859.

What is the Coptic Church?

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the Church of Egypt - the denomination of over half Egypt's Christians. According to tradition it was established by the Evangelist St Mark. It split from the rest of Christian Church in 451.

The Coptic Church has its own Pope, who is also Patriarch of All Africa. Since 1971 this has been His Holiness Pope Shenouda III (born 1923). In the 1950s he lived in a cave for six years.

What is on this page?

In this bilingual Coptic-Arabic copy of the Four Gospels, the Arabic is presented in a parallel column to the right of the Coptic text.