A New Fragment from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The University of Pennsylvania Coptic Fragment E 16395

Dr. Janet Timbie, from the Catholic University of America, informed me some time ago that Robert A. Kraft has been working on a catalogue of the manuscripts and papyri held in the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Those interested in the Coptic manuscripts in this collection can check the webpage, Papyri and Related Materials at the University of Pennsylvania, which offers good quality reproductions, transcriptions and descriptions of these items.

The Pennsylvania collection of Coptic manuscripts is mainly formed of small papyrus and parchment fragments with very little surviving text. Even so, Robert Kraft has performed excellent work in identifying many of them. In this, and the following post, I should like to introduce two previously unidentified parchment fragments from the University of Pennsylvania Museum collection.

I shall start with fragment E 16395. This is a parchment fragment from a two-column codex elegantly written in uncial letters. The left hand column of the recto and the right hand one on the verso are wrinkled, those portions being very difficult to decipher solely on the basis of the photographic reproductions.

(source of the image)

(source of the image)

However, the decipherable text allows us to identify the fragment as part of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum). More precisely, the Pennsylvania fragment contains an apophthegm concerning Abba Arsenius the Great. This apophthegm says that Arsenius (named simply “the Roman”), came to live as a monk in the desert of Scetis after spending his life at the imperial court in Rome as a high dignitary. Although he gave up all his worldly goods, he kept a slave to serve him. After twenty-five years in the desert, Arsenius had became clairvoyant and attained a great fame. One day, an Egyptian monk came to visit him. The monk, who had previously been a poor villager, was struck by the comfort in which the famous ascetic was living. Being clairvoyant, Arsenius read the thoughts of the Egyptian and wanted to teach him a lesson. The latter is finally edified when he realizes that, being poor, he did not have much to give up when he became a monk, whilst the former dignitary had renounced a luxurious life to live in the desert.

The incipit of the Coptic fragment, “he had a slave to serve him,” corresponds to the Greek εἶχε δὲ καὶ ἕνα δοῦλον ὑπηρετοῦντα αὐτῷ.[1] The desinit “the Egyptian saw him wearing soft garments and having a mat under him” parallels the Greek Βλέπει δὲ αὐτὸν ὁ Αἰγύπτιος φοροῦντα ἱμάτια τρυφερὰ, καὶ χαράδριον καὶ δέρμα ὑποκάτω αὐτοῦ.[2]

It is nevertheless important to remark that this is one of the few surviving Sahidic manuscripts of the Apophthegmata Patrum. Only two other manuscripts of this important ascetic corpus are known: 1) a fragmentary parchment codex from the White Monastery (edited by Marius Chaîne; additional fragments signaled by Alla Elanskaya and Enzo Lucchesi);[3] 2) some papyrus fragments from the Monastery of Apa Apollo in Bala’izah.[4] The new fragment from Pennsylvania is thus an important witness for the transmission of the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers in Coptic.


[1] Cf. J.-C. Guy, Les Apophtegmes des Pères (Sources chrétiennes, 474; Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2003) 86.

[2] Idem.

[3] M. Chaîne, Le manuscrit de la version copte en dialecte sahidique des “Apophthegmata Patrum” (Bibliothèque d’études coptes, 6; Cairo: Imprimerie de l’IFAO, 1960); A. Elanskaya, The Literary Coptic Manuscripts in the A. S. Pushkin State Fine Arts Museum in Moscow (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, 18; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994) 11-40; E. Lucchesi, “Un petit complément au manuscrit de la version copte en dialecte sahidique des ‘Apophthegmata Patrum’, in U. Zanetti, E. Lucchesi (eds.), Aegyptus Christiana. Mélanges d’hagiographie égyptienne et orientale dédiés à la mémoire du P. Paul Devos Bollandiste (Cahiers d’orientalisme, 25; Geneva: P. Cramer, 2004) 163-164.

[4] P. E. Kahle, Bala’izah. Coptic Texts from Deir el-Bala’izah in Upper Egypt (London: Oxford University Press, 1954) vol. 1: 416-423.

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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.
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3 Responses to A New Fragment from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The University of Pennsylvania Coptic Fragment E 16395

  1. Pingback: Another Patristic Text Attested in Coptic: Gregory of Nazianzus Oration 16 (Pennsylvania University Museum E 16310) | Alin Suciu

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: Anthony Alcock – English Translation of the Coptic Sahidic version of the Apophthegmata Patrum | Alin Suciu

  3. Pingback: From the Library – 6/22/2016 – David and Anne's Place

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