The Identity of a Coptic Apocryphal Fragment in the British Library (Layton no. 100)

(This post is based on my article “A British Library Fragment from a Homily on the Lament of Mary and the So-Called Gospel of Gamaliel,” forthcoming in Aethiopica. International Journal of Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies)

Among the scholarly books that I often use in my research is Bentley Layton’s catalogue of the Coptic manuscripts in the British Library.[1] This book is a description of the items which were acquired by the library after the publication of Walter Ewing Crum’s monumental catalogue (1905).[2] I find it brilliant for several reasons. First of all, Layton establishes a new method for describing the manuscripts, which was adopted by other scholars after him.[3] Secondly, it is one of the few catalogues which tries to take into consideration all the identifiable fragments of a codex. Given that most of the Coptic codices came to us in pieces, with the leaves scattered all over the world, Layton’s attempt to reconstruct the original manuscripts is very important.

For the sake of brevity, I shall explain right away the title of this post. Among the unidentified Coptic manuscripts in the British Library, there are several Sahidic fragments described by Layton in his catalogue as parts of two unknown “apocryphal works.” Here is the brief description of the first piece (= no. 99): “The harrowing of hell, in which Jesus commands the forces of hell to open their gates.” More recently, these two fragments (London BL Or. 6954[44]-[45]) were mistakenly attributed by some scholars to the Gospel of Bartholomew. However, I have already pointed out in a previous post that the fragments in question are not really apocryphal, rather they belong to the sermon entitled In divinis corporis sepulturam (CPG 3768) by ps.-Epiphanius of Salamis. Another Coptic fragment of the same text, and codex, is kept today in the National Library in Paris.

But what about the second “apocryphal work,” can we establish its identity? This is no. 100 in the catalogue and its content is described by Layton as follows: “A lament of the Virgin, addressing accusations to Pilate and the High Priest.” In August 2010, I have personally collated the fragment in the British Library, and effected a transcription which can be found here. As regards its identity, I identified it as part of an apocryphal homily attributed to a certain Cyriacus, bishop of Behnesa (ancient Oxyrhynchus), whose text is fully preserved only in Arabic and Ethiopic (details on the Ethiopic version here). The Arabic text, on which my identification is based, was published after a Garshuni manuscript by Alphonse Mingana in the second volume of his Woodbrooke Studies.[4] The Coptic corresponds almost literally to pages 192-193 of this edition.

The homily of Cyriacus came to be known by the title “Lament of the Virgin,” which was conventionally established by Mingana. It is usually considered to be an apocryphal Passion narrative, being connected with other similar texts like the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Ethiopic Book of the Cock (“Matzhafa Dorho”), the Gospel of Bartholomew, or the Martyrdom of Pilate (attributed to the same Cyriacus).

The story was allegedly written by Gamaliel the Elder, and later retold by Cyriacus of Behnesa (the Coptic Encyclopedia article about Cyriacus, written by R.-G. Coquin, can be read here).  Some scholars, like Marcus A. van den Oudenrijn, consider that the main source of the text attributed to Cyriacus is the lost Gospel of Gamaliel. Like many other Coptic writings, the “Lament of the Virgin” claims that the first witness of the resurrected Christ was not Mary Magdalene, but rather Mary the Mother. She is described as stricken by grief,  sitting near the empty tomb and lamenting the death of her son. The British Library fragment contains her discourse, in which she accuses Pilate and the High Priest because they have crucified Christ without a proper trial. Here is the parallel translation of the Arabic:

…she wept and said: “Woe is me, O my child, because of this dreadful death which you have incurred. I did not find a Governor to inquire into the injustice done to me, nor a judge to gauge the pains of my heart. O Governor, if you had judged with justice according to the law, the Son of the King would not have been killed while hungry and thirsty. O High Priest, if you had judged with justice, Judas would have been worthy of crucifixion instead of my Son. If you had pondered over your decision, O Governor, you would not have crucified my Son in His nudity. If you had judged with equity, O High Priest, you would not have released a robber from death, and killed the Prince. If you had judged with equity, O Governor, you would not have killed a valiant man while war is looking you in the face. If you had judged with equity, O High Priest, you would not have uttered insulting words to your Master.

I hear that at a time when people are at war, if it happens that they capture the son of the King, they take great care of him and do not kill him, but send him to his father as an honour, why then, O High Priest, when you asked (my Son) the truth and He told it to you, you hated Him?” (trans. A. Mingana)

For those interested in Coptic manuscripts, few words are in order about the British Library fragment of the “Lament of the Virgin.” The call number of the fragment is BL Or. 7027, f. 75 and it had been retrieved from the cover of a Coptic paper codex acquired by the British Library in June 1909. The latter manuscript (today BL Or. 7027) contains the Life of Onnophrius by Paphnoute of Scetis and a Homily on the Nativity attributed to Demetrius of Antioch.[5] The colophon of this codex is dated Tobe 3, 721 Era of the Martyrs (= December 29, 1004) and mentions that it was copied by the scribe Victor for the Monastery of Saint Mercurius in Esna, Upper Egypt.[6]

Thus, the fragment from the “Lament of the Virgin” must logically be dated before 1004 AD. We do not know, however, how much time passed before the parchment codex to which it originally belonged was considered rubbish and was used by the scribe Victor in order to strengthen the binding of his newly copied codex. The paleographical evidence, as relative as it is, suggests a 10th century dating. Although the original source of the fragment is unknown, its resemblance to other codices copied in Esna might indicate that it comes from the same scriptorium.


[1] B. Layton, Catalogue of Coptic Literary Manuscripts in the British Library Acquired Since the Year 1906 (London: British Library, 1987).

[2] W.E. Crum, Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1905).

[3] See, for example, L. Depuydt, Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library vol. 1 (Corpus of Illuminated Manuscripts, 4; Louvain: Peeters, 1993).

[4] A. Mingana, Woodbrooke Studies. Christian Documents in Syriac, Arabic and Garshûni vol. 2 (Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1928) 163-240.

[5] Both texts are published in E.A. Wallis Budge, Miscellaneous Coptic Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London: British Museum, 1915). A partial transcription of our fragment is supplied by Budge at xxxviii-xxxix.

[6] A. van Lantschoot, Recueil des colophons des manuscrits chrétiens d’Égypte Vol. 1: Les colophons coptes des manuscrits sahidiques (Bibliotèque du Muséon, 1; Louvain: J.-B. Istas, 1929) 211-213 (= no. 219).

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About Alin Suciu

I am a researcher at the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities. I write mostly on Coptic literature, Patristics, and apocryphal texts.
This entry was posted in Apocrypha, Cyriacus of Behnesa, Lament of the Virgin and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Identity of a Coptic Apocryphal Fragment in the British Library (Layton no. 100)

  1. Pingback: A New Fragment of the Life of Moses of Abydos (Formerly Attributed to a Homily on Penitence by Shenoute of Atripe) | Alin Suciu

  2. Pingback: Apocrypha Bibliography: M.-A. van den Oudenrijn – Gamaliel. Äthiopische Texte zur Pilatusliteratur | Alin Suciu

  3. What would you say the date of (the composition attributed to) Cyriacus is?

    I think that Stephen Shoemaker is working on similar materials. You two should trade notes.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  4. Where is your last recent (December 12) article about this fragment ? Deleted ?…

  5. Your draft is above and here (¹), your definitive article there (²), It deserves a review, even an unAcademic review by me… Meanwhile… :

    a) r.6-7 (i. e. recto l. 6-7), I read ΡϤ̅ΤΙϨΑΠ, you too (¹) ; but you have changed your mind : ΡϤ̅ϮϨΑΠ (² p. 66) ;
    b) all Ε in this fragment are regular, well drawn ; in r.11 ΕϤΟΒ×, the last letter can’t be a Ε ; I guess it’s a Θ ;
    c) v.13 : is there a Μ between ΕΝϨΗΤϤ̅ and ΝΕϢΑΥΡΟΕΙ ? ;
    d) « well » is used four times (r.15-16, v.1, v.5, v.7), written with a Ω ; I can’t imagine that in v.14, our scribe used a Ο ; I read Κ, Α, guess a Λ, but the last letter is far from being a Ϲ ;
    e) you read r.6-7 ΡϤ̅ΤΙϨΑΠ (¹), but you have changed your mind into ΡϤ̅ϮϨΑΠ (² p. 66) ; maybe, reading Plumley (³) and e. g. 1 Co 11:11 (⁴), this is unnecessary.

    1. https://suciualin.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/edition-of-ms-bl-or-7027-f-75.pdf
    2. http://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/aethiopica/article/view/659
    3. « An Introductory Coptic Grammar » (1948), § 88 Omission of the Article occurs § 91 In enumerating nouns, especially when the items are connected by ϨΙ, ΕΙΕ, ΕΙΤΕ, ΟΥΔΕ.
    4. « ΠΛΗΝ ΟΥΔΕ ΜΜΟΝ ΟΥϹϨΙΜΙ ΧΩΡΙϹ ΡΩΜΙ ΟΥΔΕ ΡΩΜΙ ΧΩΡΙϹ ϹϨΙΜΙ ϦΕΝΠϬΟΙϹ. » : ΟΥΔΕ…ΟΥ.ϹϨΙΜΙ…ΟΥΔΕ ∅.ΡΩΜΙ.

  6. Here are the Coptic and Arabic – with many errors, please, report ! – parallel versions of this fragment.

  7. I think you should ask a colleague to verify Mingana’s translation, which is sometimes incorrect. I don’t know a word in Arabic (ΟΥΔΕ in Coptic ΟΥΔΕ in Syriac), but see

    « enentakrïṇe kata pnomos ẇ pxh[g]ẹmwn » (“Had you judged according to the law, O governor”),

    which is

    « ܠܘ ܒܢܬ ܚܒܡܬ ܒܐܠܥܕܠ ܘܐܠܢܐܡܘܣ ܐܝܗܐ ܐܠܘܐܠܝ » (“O Governor, if you had judged with justice according to the law”)

    in Arabic ; but then

    « e[ne]ntak+xap kata pno[m]ọs ẇ paryhereus » (“Had you judged according to the law, O high-priest”)

    which is

    « ܠܘ ܒܢܬ ܚܒܡܬ ܒܐܠܢܐܡܘܣ ܝܐ ܪܝܝܣ ܐܠܒܗܢܗ »

    in Arabic ; that Mingana translates “O High Priest, if you had judged with justice” instead of “O Governor, if you had judged according to the law”…

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