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COPTIC DEATH AND AFTERLIFE 3: TEMPORARY REST FOR SINNERS IN HADES: A COPTIC PERCEPTION

February 18, 2013

 dante_inferno_01Figure 1: The sufferers in Hades get temporary rest when visited by Christ (from Dante’s Inferno).

We have seen in our previous article “Coptic Purgatory: The Destiny of All Flesh? The Verdict of Apa CyrusApa Cyrus’ vision of Hades – a “river of fire” over which everyone is bound to pass, and by which all flesh [soul] shall be purged from sin. We have learned that vision from the Life of Apa Cyrus, which was written by Apa Pambo, the presbyter of the church in Shihet in the 5th century. The story, which the British E. A. Wallis Budge found in a Coptic manuscript from the early 11th century,[1] and which he published in his Coptic Martyrdom,[2] is found repeated in other sources, such as the Synaxaria, but with some changes.

The Synaxarium (or Synaxarion) in the Coptic Church is a liturgical book containing short narratives of the lives of saints[3] arranged on the days of the year, and read in the religious services of the Church throughout the year.[4] The book, which was written in Arabic in the Middle Ages by translating earlier sources from Coptic and Greek, is available in two forms: Arabic[5] and Ethiopic.[6] [7] So, what can we find more in the Synaxaria that is not included in the Life of Apa Cyrus by Pambo? What additional information can we garner from them to help us build a more comprehensive vision of Apa Cyrus on Hades?

The Arabic Synxarium, which is used in Coptic churches in Egypt, celebrates the life of Apa Cyrus (ابا كيرس) on the 8th of Apip in a very contracted form. But still one finds in it additional information that is not available in Pambo’s Life of Cyrus: when Pambo (انبا بموا) met Cyrus, we are told, Cyrus “showed him the [rising] smokes of Hades (دخاخين الجحيم) from afar; and told him that the Lord looks at Hades every Sunday night which gives the sufferers some rest.”[8] The Ethiopian Synaxarium, which celebrates the life of the saint on the 8th of Hamle, gives a longer biography, and seems to have been taken directly from another version of Bambo’s Life of Apa Cyrus. It expands on what we have just seen in the Arabic Synaxarium:

“And at the ninth hour of the day preceding the Sabbath,[9] I [Bambo] heard a great cry, which reached to heaven, and the mountains and the hills quaked at the cry of them. And I said unto him [Cyrus], ‘O my father, what is this cry and whose are the voices which I hear?’ And he said unto me, ‘O my son, this is the cry of the sinners who are in Sheol [Hades], to whom God giveth rest from their punishment on the day of His holy Resurrection, from the ninth hour of the day preceding the Sabbath until the sun setteth on the First Day of the Week; and they praise God because it is He Who giveth them rest on the First Day of the Week.’ And I marveled exceedingly, and I praised God because He had given them rest.”

This passage tells us that the sufferers of Hades, who are passing over the “river of fire”, in order to be purified, regularly get a weekly rest period from their punishment from 3 p.m. every Friday until the sun sets on the following Sunday, in respect of Christ’s holy Resurrection. This increases our understanding of what Apa Cyrus had in mind about Hades: the sinners who suffer in the “river of fire” are not totally abandoned for the period of their purgatory punishment, but get regular periods of rest from it. This vision does not seem to be peculiar to Apa Cyrus but represents a wider viewpoint within the Coptic ascetic community of the time, as we shall see in other articles.

Caution: Again I caution the reader that these articles are not a study in Coptic theology – they are simply studies in Coptic literature to find, from our literature, how Copts in the past perceived death and Afterlife.


[1] Brit. Mus. MS. Oriental No. 6783.

[2] E. A. Wallis Budge, Coptic Martyrdom etc. In the Dialect of Upper Egypt (1914).

[3] Or exposition of feasts and fasts.

[4] Except during Pentecost.

[5] The Arabic version is what is used in the churches of Egypt. It has been translated into Latin, German and French. The latter is by René Basset (1855 – 1924) under the title Synaxaire arabe-jacobite (rédaction copte), and was published in the Patrologia Orientalis between 1904 and 1929. It is based on two Copto-Arabic manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, one from the 14th century while the other is dated the 17th century. Basse’s Synaxarium is published in Arabic text at the top of the page and equivalent French text at its bottom. In 2000, the Coptic bishop, Anba Samuel published the Arabic text of Basse’s edition in four volumes under the title: السنكسار القبطى اليعقوبى لرينيه باسيه.

[6] The Ethiopian Synaxarium is a translation from a Copto-Arabic recension, and appeared towards the end of the 14th century. Its core contains stories of the saints venerated by the Egyptian Church. The Ethiopian Synaxarium is available in a French translation (published in the PO, beginning in the same year the Coptic Synaxarium was published) but also in an English translation by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge under the title The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church (1928).

[7] The reader can read more on the Coptic and Ethiopic Synaxaria here.

[8] السنكسار القبطى اليعقوبى لرينيه باسيه; Part III, p. 193 (Cairo, 2000). The English translation is mine.

[9] From Bambo’s Life of Apa Cyrus, we can find that Bambo visited Cyrus on Friday, 7 Apip 182 AM (1 July 466 AD) and on the following day, Saturday, the 8the of Apip, Cyrus died. The “ninth hour of the day preceding the Sabbath” is 3p.m. in the afternoon of Friday, 7 Apip, 182 AM (1 July 466 AD).

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