THE LOSS OF EPHNUTI : HOW THE COPTS LOST THE NAME OF THEIR GOD
COPTS MUST RESUME CALLING THEIR GOD “EPHNUTI” AND CEASE CALLING HIM “ALLAH”. IT MAKES A GREAT DIFFERENCE.
WE MUST STOP CALLING OUR DEITY “ALLAH”. ALLAH IS AN ALIEN GOD TO US. THE ADOPTION OF THE WORD BY THE COPTS IN THE MIDDLE AGE, AS THEY ABANDONED THEIR LANGUAGE FOR ARABIC, WAS A GREAT MISTAKE.
The Arabisation of the Copts – which is the process and phenomenon by which Egyptians (Copts) stopped talking in their own Egyptian (Coptic) language, and adopted Arabic as their main daily language – is a lamentable national disaster of Himalayan magnitude. This process is believed to have originated in the Coptic middle-class in the Cairo environ, mainly within Coptic clerks in the Muslim administration, starting from the late Fatimid period and accelerated in the Ayyubid period – that is in the late 11th – 13th centuries.
Copts started talking Arabic in their daily life and neglected teaching their children Coptic at their schools. Clerks learned classical Arabic and excelled in it. It was the way to get secure jobs and promotion. The Church found that the Copts in Cairo, and other larger centres of Muslim administration, had forgotten their language, and this impacted in their understanding of the liturgy and ecclesiastical sermons, and so it embarked, since the days of Patriarch Gabriel II (1131 – 1145), in Arabising the Church’s sacred books and services.
This process of ecclesiastical Arabisation of the Copts (i.e., Arabisation of their Church), which followed on the heels of the temporal Arabisation of their middle-class, seems to have been poorly thought after, rushed and crudely executed. It has been a disaster by all means on our national identity and religion. The Copts at the beginning of this process did not translate Coptic sacred scripture to Arabic – rather, they embarked on borrowing translated scripture into Arabic from Aramaic, Syriac or Greek by the Syrian and Chaldean Christians, who were first to get Arabised.
This resulted in a wholesale, non-selective, Arabisation sometimes with far reaching consequencies. The loss of control on this translation exercise is best demonstrated by the vanishing of the word Ephnuti (or Abnudi) from our daily vocabulary as we adopted the Arabic word Allah in its place to mean the ‘Supreme Being’ or ‘God’.
The Ancient Egyptians despite their polytheism had always retained a belief in a Supreme Being, God Almighty, which they gave the name ‘Neter’. As E. A. Wallis Budge says:
A study of ancient Egyptian religious texts will convince the reader that the Egyptians believed in One God, who was self-existent, immortal, invisible, eternal, omniscient, almighty, and inscrutable; the maker of the heavens, earth, and underworld; the creator of the sky and the sea, men and women, animals and birds, fish and creeping things, trees and plants, and the incorporeal beings who were the messengers that fulfilled his wish and word. It is necessary to place this definition of the first part of the belief of the Egyptian at the beginning of the first chapter of this brief account of the principal religious ideas which he held, for the whole of his theology and religion was based upon it; and it is also necessary to add that, however far back we follow his literature, we never seem to approach a time when he was without this remarkable belief. It is true that he also developed polytheistic ideas and beliefs, and that he cultivated them at certain periods of his history with diligence, and to such a degree that the nations around, and even the stranger in his country, were misled by his actions, and described him as a polytheistic idolater. But notwithstanding all such departures from observances, the keeping of which befitted those who believed in God and his unity, this sublime idea was never lost sight of; on the contrary, it is reproduced in the religious literature of all periods.
This word Neter was retained in the Coptic language as Nuti, the letter r having dropped out in Coptic through phonetic decay. When Christianity came to Egypt in the 1st century it was transmitted to Egyptians first in the Greek tongue, which used Theos for God. Later, when the Egyptians translate the Holy Scripture from Greek to Coptic, Theos was replaced by Ephnuti.
Here is an example in which the word Theos is in the Greek Bible is replaced by the word Ephnuti in the Coptic Bible: John 1: 1-2.
Figure 2: The Holy Gospel According to John (1:1-2) in Greek with English translation. God in Greek is Theos.
Figure 3: The Coptic version of John 1:1-2, in the Bohairic form. Translated from Greek, Theos is replaced by the Ancient Egyptian word for the Almighty God, Ephnuti.
The word Ephnuti continued to be used by the Copts to donate God. Ephnuti encapsulated not just the ancient Egyptian understanding of God as the Supreme Being but the whole concept of God as envisaged in Christian theology. To mention the word Ephnuti must have brought to the mind of the Copt all the attributes and actions of God that had been described in the Bible. That God – that Ephnuti – could not have been confused with any other god, such as the many deities worshipped by neighbouring peoples whose religions did not rest on the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But, when the Copts of the Middle Ages adopted Arabic and borrowed Arabic religious scriptures from the Syrians and others, they borrowed them with the word Allah standing for the Supreme God and, thereby, replacing Ephnuti! The Arabic version of John 1:1-2 reads as thus:
The word Allah is of course not a Muslim invention: it existed in Aramaic, Syriac and ancient Arabic (Sabaean), and simply meant God. The pre-Islam Meccans had Allah as one of their gods. It is, however, Islam which publicised the name more widely – Allah became the Muslim God; and in that sense he was coloured by Islamic theology and Muslims’ concept of the Deity, which was different from the understanding of God in Christian theology. The use of the word Allah, when speaking about different deities of different peoples, even those who use cognates of the name Allah, could be very misleading without qualification: the Islamic Allah is different from the pagan Meccans’, Aramaic and Syriac Allahs.
Thank God Almighty the Copts had a word for Him, Ephnuti, which the Christian believer could use without running the hazard of confusing his understanding of God with the Islamic concept of God. The two words are not interchangeable: they give two different concepts of the Deity.
And yet, when the Copts got Arabised, they abandoned even this very sacred, very special word which encapsulated their cultural concept of God, and used the word Allah instead to denote their God – that God which is different from the Allah of the Islam.
One of the defences for the Arabisation of the Church’s scripture and services is that the people had forgotten their national language and that led them to be disconnected from Christian heritage which was stored and read in Coptic. By using Arabic, instead of Coptic, it was hoped that the Copts would at least retain their Christian faith even though they had lost their national language. Well, many Copts in the past and present see this as a false argument. Rather than leading to the preservation of our religion, Arabisation has actually caused the weakening of our faith. The replacement of Ephnouti in Coptic daily life dialogue by Allah – which must have caused a lot of confusion in the minds of the simple Coptic folks of the Middle Ages, and affected their understanding of the Supreme Being – is a clear example of how that weakening could have been achieved by Arabisation. With the loss of Ephnuti, that beautiful Coptic word, I believe, many things have been lost.
1 فِي الْبَدْءِ كَانَ الْكَلِمَةُ، وَالْكَلِمَةُ كَانَ عِنْدَ افنوتى. وَكَانَ الْكَلِمَةُ هُوَ افنوتى.
2 هُوَ كَانَ فِي الْبَدْءِ عِنْدَ افنوتى.
How, I think, John 1: 1-2 should have been translated into Arabic, retaining the word Ephnuti.
 As pronounced using Old Bohairic.
 Egyptian Religion. Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life. By E. A. Wallis budge (1899); pp. 1-2.
 Ibid; p. 6.
 1. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2. The same was in the beginning with God.” John 1:1-2 (KJV).
 The Gospel of St. John: in Greek and English, interlined, and literally translated; with a transposition of the words into their due order of construction; and a dictionary, defining and parsing them: principally designed for the use of schools. By E. Friederici (New York, G. F. Bunce, 1830).
 The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Northern Dialect otherwise called
Memphitic and Bohairic with introduction, critical apparatus, and literal English translation
Volume II: The Gospels of S. Luke and S. John. Edited from ms. Huntington 17 in the Bodleian library at the Clarendon Press 1898.