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February 27, 2013

coptic psalter2 Figure 1: The Coptic title of Brit. Mus. Oriental 5000, which means The Psalter Book.

coptic psalter Figure 2: The title page of Budge’s book (1898). Only 250 copies were printed.

budge2Figure 3: Sir Earnest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge (1857-1934), English scholar, Egyptologist, Orientalist and Sometime keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities in the British Museum.

In 1898, E. A. Wallis Budge edited a book under the title, The Earliest Known Coptic Psalter: The text, in the dialect of Upper Egypt, edited from the unique papyrus codex Oriental 5000 in the British museum, which the reader can access it here.[1] Budge was right in claiming at that time that it was the earliest known Coptic psalter; but as we shall know from the next article, it isn’t. However, Budges. Coptic psaltery remains the earliest known complete Coptic psaltery in the dialect of Upper Egypt (or Sahidic), and that is why I stressed that in the title of this article.

Budge estimates the date of the original manuscript to the end of the sixth or the beginning of the seventh century; i. e. before the Arab occupation of Egypt, or what I prefer to call the Coptic Classic Period. It underwent a few repairs, however, in the eleventh or twelfth century. The manuscript, which had been previously in the British Museum (Brit. Mus. MS. Oriental 5000), is now in the British Library; and it forms part of the Edfû Manuscripts (or Edfû Codices). Budge describes the circumstances of the great finds (it was found with another important manuscript: Brit. Mus. MS. Oriental 5001):

About two years ago[2] whilst certain Egyptian peasants were digging up and carrying away the light soil, which is so much valued for “top-dressing” by the farmers, from the ruins of an ancient Coptic church and monastery in Upper Egypt, their tools struck upon a rectangular slab of stone. An examination showed that this slab formed the cover of a stone box or coffer which had been firmly fastened in the ground, and when, after some difficulty, it was removed, a parcel of books, carefully wrapped in coarse linen cloth, was found lying beneath it. The books were two in number and, though written up on papyrus, they were found to be bound in stout leather covers, after the manner of European books in general. That these volumes had lain in the box for several hundreds of years there is no possibility of doubting, but there is no way of ascertaining the exact period when they were first placed in it. It is the opinion of some that the church and monastery which once stood upon the site where the books were found had been in ruins for some centuries, and the general appearance of the place supports this view. There is no reason for supposing that the books were buried along with the body of any ecclesiastical official or monk, for it is certain that they had been expressly written for use in the church of the monastery, and that they were not the private property of any member of it. It would seem that at some period of trouble or persecution an official of the church carefully prepared the box in the event of its ever being necessary to hide books, and that when the need arose he wrapped these volumes in linen with the greatest care, and laid them in it. Their wonderful state of preservation testifies to the wisdom of the choice of a hiding place and the thoroughness with which he carried out the self-appointed task. That they were believed by him to be books of no ordinary kind is evident, and though it is early yet to pronounce a definite opinion upon the value of their contents, it seems clear that the discovery of a complete copy of the Psalter in the dialect of Upper Egypt, and of a volume containing ten complete Homilies by Fathers of the Monophysite Church[3]—for such in fact are the contents of the book—bids fair to rank among the greatest of the great “finds” which have been made in Egypt during the last few years. [Preface; pp. vii, viii]


[1] It was published by Messrs. Kegan Paul in London.

[2] The book was published in 1898 but Budge wrote his Preface in 1897.

[3] Budge later published these homilies in his book, COPTIC HOMILIES IN THE DIALECT OF UPPER EGYPT; edited from the papyrus codex Oriental 5001 in the British museum (1910).

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