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HOW THE GREEK IN COPTIC LITURGY CONTRIBUTED TO THE DECLINE OF COPTIC, THE ARABISATION OF THE CHURCH, AND OUR LANGUAGE SHIFT FROM COPTIC TO ARABIC

September 24, 2017

A21

A page from the Liturgy of St. Cyril, showing on the right column what’s taken as Coptic, but in fact it is Coptic and Greek[1]

In a previous article, “How Patriarch Gabriel ibn Turayk contributed to the decline of Coptic, the Arabisation of the church, and our language shift from Coptic to Arabic,” we have seen how the Church leadership of the time (that is in the 12th century) failed the nationalist cause, and the religious one, by adopting Arabic as a Church language instead of Coptic. That dangerous move has cost the Copts a great deal not only in national terms but religious terms too, as it opened the gates wide for the Arabisation and Islamisation of the Copts, which meant, in the last resort, weakening of Christianity in Egypt. One of the things which Patriarch Ibn Turayk’s response, which I spoke about in the above article, was made on the basis that many Copts did not understand the language of the Divine Liturgy: an example of that, he tells us, was ‘the Doxa الذُّكصا’, or Dexology, the short hymn which praises the Trinity, and was (and still is) kept in Greek.

The three divine liturgies which the Coptic Church uses, those of St. Cyril of Alexandria,[2] St. Basilius of Caesarea,[3] and St. Gregorius of Nazianzen,[4] which are now fully translated into Arabic, were originally authored in Greek. Starting from the second half of the 3rd century, many ecclesiastical ecclesiastical books were translated into Coptic, in order that Egyptian Christians, whose majority spoke Coptic and were not versed in Greek, could understand Church prayers. The Liturgy according to Cyril of Alexandria was probably immediately translated into Coptic, while the other two liturgies probably took longer to be translated. The translation into Coptic campaign catered for the benefit of the mainly indigenous Egyptians who spoke Coptic, who, although many of them could get by with Greek, Greek was not their mother tongue, or a language that they were fluent in.

The translation of the Divine Liturgy, and other books, into Coptic was a momentous landmark in Coptic history, and Coptic language. Now, the Copts could pray in their own national tongue, and understand what they say. For some reason, however, not all the Liturgy was translated into Coptic – a considerable and important chunk of it, including the Doxology, which Patriarch Gabriel ibn Turayk was concerned about, remained in Greek. It is perplexing as to why the Church fathers left some Greek in the Liturgy that was meant to be used in churches where the Copts worshipped. Perhaps parts of the Liturgy was thought to be holier in Greek; perhaps these parts were well understood by the majority of the Copts, as bilingualism, at least on the spoken level, was not so low, particularly in urban areas.[5]

How much Greek there is in the Coptic Divine Liturgy? John Habib, a student of Orthodox Christian history and theology, who serves in the Coptic Diocese of the Southern U.S. as a reader,[6] has analysed the Greek in it; and he astonishingly found that 23% of ‘words and combined words separated by spaces’ were Greek – 77% only were Coptic.[7] What’s more interesting from my point of view is what the following table explains:[8]

Actor in the Liturgy

% sung in Coptic in the Liturgy by each actor

% sung in Greek in the Liturgy by each actor

% sung in both Coptic and Greek in the Liturgy by each actor

% sung in Greek by each actor (out of the actor’s all over part in the Liturgy)

Priest

60

4

64

6.25

Deacon

4

9

13

69.2

People

13

10

23

43.5

Total

77

23

100

 

In the Divine Liturgy, three actors contribute: the priest, the deacon and the people; with the people taking more role than the deacon. Of the 23% of the Liturgy sung in Greek, surprisingly, the people take the lead: 10% is sung by the people while 9% is sung by the deacon and 4% only by the priest. 43.5% of all the people’s role in the Liturgy is sung in Greek!

This is astonishing. The Copt who never knew Greek could not have fully understood his prayer. It was alright, perhaps, when Egypt was largely bilingual in the Roman period; but, with the advent of the Arab occupation, Greek gradually disappeared as a language, and by the 10th century it has disappeared in Egypt.[9] If many Copts were bilingual previously, speaking both Coptic and Greek – with varying degrees in Greek proficiency, it was not the case after the Arab had occupied Egypt in 640 AD – they became monolinguists, speaking only Coptic. What did this mean for the Liturgy? It meant that the Copts could not now understand 23% of the Liturgy – it became largely incomprehensible to them.

Coptic clerics in the Coptic Middle Period (mainly encompassing the Fatimid and Ayyubid periods, 969 – 1250) complained that the Copts could not understand anymore the Liturgy. None of them bothered to explain in what way, or tried to study the reason behind that. What was Greek in the Liturgy, they took as Coptic; and rather than rise up to the challenge, and get the Liturgy completely translated into Coptic, thereby getting rid of the incomprehensible Greek, they foolishly concluded that the Copts could not understand the Liturgy, such as the Doxology in it, and concluded that the only way to address the challenge was to Arabise the Liturgy rather than to completely Copticise it, by translating all Greek in it into Coptic, and spread the knowledge of Coptic within the nation to counteract the challenge of Arabisation.

The mistakes we have made in our history are many, and this is one of the great mistakes we have done. And until this day, when the Liturgy is unashamedly sung in Arabic in almost every Coptic church, the Greek parts in the ‘Coptic’ version remains Greek!

__________________________________

 [1] Page 90 of the Liturgy of St. Cyril published by the Metropolitan of Al-Ma’adi and its annexes (no date).

[2] St. Cyril the Alexandrian, patriarch of the Coptic Church (412 – 444).

[3] St. Basilius (Basil) the Great, bishop of Caesarea (370 – 379).

[4] St. Gregorius (Gregory) the Theologian, bishop of Sasima (372 – 379) and later archbishop of Constantinople (379 – 390).

[5] For bilingualism in Roman Egypt, read: Roger S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity (Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 230-260; and Alan K. Bowman, Egypt After the Pharaohs, 332 BC-AD 642: From Alexander to the Arab Conquest (University of California Press, 1996), pp. 157-164.

[6] Habib has a blog called ‘Orthodox Christian Meets the World’. You can access it here.

[7] For the methodology followed by Habib, click here.

[8] While the figures in columns 2, 3 and 4 are given by Habib, the figures in column 5 are derived by me.

[9]

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