Sunday, November 11, 2012

Reading the Gospel of Judas III: Lycopolitan

The language of the Gospel of Judas is Coptic. Coptic is the same language as the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, but it is written in Greek characters rather than hieroglyphics. One of the advantages of Coptic over the hieroglyphic writing system is that the hieroglyphic system did not write the vowels while Coptic does. On the other hand, hieroglyphs had a way of distinguishing different terms that were pronounced the same. (English has some similar ways of distinguishing homophones such as the difference between “write” and “right”.)

Egypt, however, was a large country covering more than a thousand kilometers of the Nile. Communication was not as good as it is now. Thus Coptic shows a variety of dialects, six major ones and over a dozen minor ones. These dialects originally were spoken in different locations. The different dialects show differences in spelling, word choice, word usage, and pronunciation.

When the Bible was first translated into Coptic, about the second or third century A.D., individual books were translated into different dialects depending on the location or the dialect of the individual doing the translation. Only later did the biblical text become standardized, about the fourth or fifth century. We can thus compare the translation of biblical books into different dialects and see how the dialects differ.

While each of the dialects was originally associated with a specific location, over time certain dialects became used outside the location originally associated with the dialect. There are historical reasons for the rise of each super-regional dialect. The earliest super-regional dialect was Lycopolitan, which was spread by the Manichaeans, a Christian sect arising during the third century. By the end of the fourth century, the Manichaeans had largely vanished from Egypt. At the end of the fourth century, Shenoute became the abbot of the White Monastery outside of Panopolis (modern Akhmim). Under Shenoute the White Monastery became the center for Coptic learning and the dialect of Shenoute’s sermons, Sahidic, became the dominant dialect throughout Egypt. Later in the ninth century, Sketis within the Wadi Natrun became the center of Coptic learning and its dialect, Bohairic, became the dominant dialect for Coptic learning and has remained so until the present day. The official dialect of the Coptic Orthodox church is Bohairic.

The Gospel of Judas is written in Lycopolitan. If we look at Lycopolitan, we see that the majority, if not all of the works written in Lycopolitan are Manichaean. Coptic Manichaean texts are all in Lycopolitan. There are works in Lycopolitan that are not necessarily Manichaean. For example, a manuscript of the gospel of John in Lycopolitan was found at Qau, near Lycopolis. But Manichaeans viewed Mani as the coming paraclete (or Comforter) prophesied in the gospel of John and so the gospel of John held a special place in Manichaean belief. Thus the fact that the Gospel of Judas is written in Lycopolitan shows that the text aligns more closely with Manichaean belief than Coptic Orthodox belief.