A New Fragment of the Life of Moses of Abydos (Formerly Attributed to a Homily on Penitence by Shenoute of Atripe)

In the field of Coptic studies, it often happens that an isolated manuscript fragment which does not bear any clear detail as to allow its instant identification, is wrongly attributed to a particular author or work. This is largely due to the deplorable state in which the Coptic manuscripts from the first millennium came down to us, but also to the haste with which some scholars edit random fragments or just poor scraps of papyrus and parchment, without the necessary patience to identify them. Enzo Lucchesi noted in one of his articles that this sad situation should give some thought “to those who will catalogue in the future the collections of Coptic manuscripts, but also to the papyrologists in general, because the homiletic look of a fragment, in the absence of a formal identification or precise textual parallelism, does not necessarily imply that it belongs to a homily”[1] (my own translation from French).
For my part, I had remarked in some articles on this blog that certain fragments attributed in the past to the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew came in fact from a homily by ps.-Epiphanius, that two leaves formerly considered to contain a work by Shenoute of Atripe are actually preserving the spiritual homilies of Pseudo-Macarius, or that an “apocryphal fragment on the Virgin” is to be rather restituted to a homily by Cyriacus of Behnesa.

In this post and the following one, I would like to discuss two fragments that belong to the Coptic vitae of two Egyptian monks, but which were wrongly attributed in the past to some homiletic texts.


CUL Or. 1699 F is a Sahidic parchment fragment which is currently preserved in the collection of Cambridge University Library. The piece came from the ancient library of the White Monastery, situated near present-day Sohag. The folio was bequeathed to the Cambridge library in 1939, together with numerous other Sahidic fragments that are inventoried as “Or. 1699,” by Sir Herbert Thompson (1859-1944), a former fellow who founded the chair of Egyptology at the University of Cambridge.

A series of letters and personal notes which belonged to Thompson (kept in a box as CUL Or. 1700) illuminate the source of the fragments in question. In August 2010, I spent one week studying the Coptic stuff in Cambridge and I found useful to transcribe some of  Herbert Thompson’s papers, as they are offering important details concerning the manuscripts. Thus, he wrote on a piece of paper the following note:

“This bundle of Coptic MSS is my private property. They were purchased by me from Rev. Prof. Hyvernat D.D. of the Catholic University of America in October 1914.”

In a letter sent by Henri Hyvernat to Herbert Thompson, dated 13 September 1914, the former announces his visit to England, where he is accompanying Msgr. Jean-Baptiste Chabot, the great Syriacist and founder of Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium series. Hyvernat writes to Thompson that he would like to sell him a cluster of Coptic fragments:

“Naturally I am anxious to see you and have a good talk with you about certain matters. The chief one is perhaps that of a lot of some 80 Coptic leaves for whom I am looking for a purchaser. They don’t belong to me and for obvious reasons I do not care to carry them around more than is absolutely necessary … Besides some biblical fragments, it contains quite a number of historical ones, some of which are of sure paleographical value…”

These details are sufficient to understand how the Coptic fragments, including the aforementioned Or. 1699 F, came into the possession of Herbert Thompson.

Like most of the other fragments, CUL Or. 1699 F was studied by Thompson himself, who left an unpublished transcription and translation (which is stored in the same box with the letters). He described the content of the folio as a “homily on penitence” by Shenoute of Atripe (ca. 348-466), although he mentioned that the text is not found among the works of the White Monastery’s archimandrite edited by Johannes Leipoldt. We do not know what motivated Sir Herbert Thompson to assign Or. 1699 F to Shenoute, but it is certain that no textual parallel of the fragment in the Shenoutean literary corpus has since been recorded. In spite of this, the same attribution of the fragment in question was made later by Ariel Shisha-Halevy.[2] On the other hand, Stephen Emmel was more cautious and counted it among the dubia in his magnus opus concerning Shenoutean literature.[3]

Upon closer examination, it became clear to me that CUL Or. 1699 F does not belong to any of Shenoute’s works, but rather to a Life of Moses of Abydos, a Coptic archimandrite who lived in the 5th-6th century and founded a monastery near Abydos (modern El-Balyana in the Sohag Governorate). Moses became known for his struggle against the pagan cults in the region and as a defender of the anti-Chalcedonian politics and theology. In the White Monastery, he used to be celebrated on 25 Abib.[4] Mark Moussa wrote an extensive paper about Moses in an issue of the Coptic Church Review.

The misleading element which precludes at first the attribution of the fragment CUL Or. 1699 F to a hagiographic work like the Life of Moses is certainly its homiletic character. However, this is due to the fact that it belongs to a part of the Life in which Moses instructs his fellow-monks by delivering a catechesis on repentance.

My identification of the Cambridge leaf as part of the Coptic vita of Moses the Archimandrite is based on the parallel text from a second codex containing the same work. More precisely, the text of the Cambridge fragment coincides with the still unpublished folios IFAO nos. 23v-25r, which are in the archive of the French Institute in Cairo. Here is a picture taken after the second manuscript:

In the CMCL database, the codex to which Or. 1699 F originally belonged has received the siglum MONB.EM (the second codex of the Life of Moses is conventionally called MONB.EL). Supplementary leaves from the same manuscript found their way in other collections in Paris, Naples or Vienna. Interestingly enough, the Thompson collection includes several such leaves, but apparently the paleographical connection between these testimonies and Or. 1699 F was never made by Sir Herbert Thompson.

Knowing that my friend Sami Uljas (Basel University) is about to edit the Cambridge leaves of the Life of Moses, I communicated to him my identification of CUL Or. 1699 F, and he has decided to include the new fragment in his edition. His article will be available soon in Le Muséon.

[1] E. Lucchesi, “Nouvelles glanures pachômiennes,” Orientalia 74 (2005) 86-90, at 88-89.

[2] A. Shisha-Halevy, Coptic Grammatical Categories. Structural Studies in the Syntax of Shenoutean Sahidic (Analecta Orientalia, 53; Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1986) 218.

[3] S. Emmel, Shenoute’s Literary Corpus 2 vols. (CSCO, 599 & 600. Subsidia, 111 & 112; Louvain: Peeters, 2004) 906.

[4] On Moses of Abydos, see A. Campagnano, “Monaci egiziani fra V e VI secolo,” Vetera Christianorum 15 (1978) 223-246; R.-G. Coquin, “Moïse d’Abydos,” in Deuxième Journée d’Études Coptes, Strasbourg 25 Mai 1984 (Cahiers de la Bibliothèque Copte, 3; Louvain: Peeters, 1986) 1-14; Idem, “La ‘règle’ de Moïse d’Abydos,” in R.-G. Coquin (ed.), Mélanges Antoine Guillaumont. Contributions à l’Étude des Christianismes Orientaux (Cahiers d’Orientalisme, 20; Geneva: Patrick Cramer, 1988) 103-110; Idem, “Moses of Abydos,” in A. Atiya (ed.), The Coptic Encyclopedia vol. 5 (New York: Macmillan1991) 1679-1681.


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 Moses of Abydos, Shenoute of Atripe and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A New Fragment of the Life of Moses of Abydos (Formerly Attributed to a Homily on Penitence by Shenoute of Atripe)

  1. Pingback: A Moscow Fragment from the Life of Shenoute (Formerly Attributed to a Homily on the Frailty of Human Life) | Alin Suciu

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s