My Research Interests

Home   Research Interests   What's Up   Coptic Links

Diversity among the earliest Christians

Before official Christianization of the Roman Empire, various forms of Christianity flourished which held widely divergent views concerning the mission and nature of Jesus Christ.  Until the last half of the twentieth century this diversity was documented only the writings of the Church fathers.  These writers were not always intimately acquainted with these groups, and they also were had their own religious agendas.  Recent manuscript discoveries have redefined Christian origins research and particularly the study of 'heretical' sects.

Several different finds have revealed manuscripts which escaped destruction by orthodox Christian authorities.  These include the so-called gnostic Christian writings in the Nag Hammadi codices and codex Tchacos (e.g. the gospel of Judas) as well as the Manichaean texts from Medinet Madi and Kellis.  Because manuscript destruction was legislated simultaneously with the rise of Coptic monasticism and its incumbent literary movement, it is no surprise that these manuscripts survive in the ancient Egyptian language.  For early Christianity scholars, Coptic is the new Greek.  My my curriculum vitae is available for download.

As a participant in the NEWCONT project, my contributions have focused on digitizing relevant manuscripts and the problems of dating early Coptic witnesses.  My chapter in a forthcoming book will contend that scholars have unscientifically dated Coptic manuscripts early, often based on no more than their person gut feeling or faulty assumptions from Greek paleography.  Ironically, the Coptic manuscript tradition preserves more securely dated manuscripts than the Greek, and these witness deserve increased attention.

My involvement in the area attracted international media attention with the events surrounding the announcement of the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife"  (Youtube video, LiveScience article, Deutsche Welle article) in September 2012.  I argued that this fragment could be identified with a high degree of certainty by two independent means — papyrology/paleography and composition.  (The composition line of argumentation arose from scholarly engagement of Andrew Bernhard, Simon Gathercole, Francis Watson and others.)  The fragment was no more than a quickly copied reconstruction of a particular PDF transcription of the Gospel of Thomas, and must have been prepared in the last decade.  I was also confident that the forgery could be identified, if the handwritten note associated with the fragment were to be made public.   In April 2014, I was able to demonstrate that a fragment of John's gospel in Lycopolitan Coptic which was written in the same hand, with the same ink and with the same writing instrument was also a forgery.  As a result, most scholars now consider both fragments to be inauthentic (Atlantic article).

The New Testament in Greek and Coptic

Although the original copies of the New Testament writings are lost,  numerous ancient manuscripts remain to speak for the earliest readings of the biblical texts.  The amount of ancient documentation is so large that scholarship has been, at times, at a loss as to what to do with it all.  There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts which testify to some portion of the New Testament which predate the printing press.  Additionally, there are thousands more lectionaries, early translations (Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, just to name a few), and citations of the New Testament. 

My Cambridge PhD concerned the use of the Coptic translations of John's gospel of which there were no less than six different versions.  More than one thousand references are made to these texts in the critical apparatus of the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece.  I analyzed these citations alongside parallel readings in the other manuscripts mentioned above.  The Coptic translations are, generally speaking, formally equivalent to the type of Greek texts which are found in the early papyri.  It may be, however, that some of the readings which we regard as variants can be explained more easily by language contact, translation technique, or the history of manuscript transmission. This project represented a significant contribution to New Testament textual criticism (I hope that my research will affect future critical editions), and also adds to our knowledge of early Coptic literature in general.  This research has been published in the standard series for New Testament textual criticism (ANTF, de Gruyter), and was recognized with with 2008-2012 International Association of Coptic Studies Award for Academic Excellence (IACS bulletin).

My current research considers the text and translation of the Sahidic Apocalypse.  With few early witnesses to the Book of Revelation, the Sahidic version serves as an important witness in reconstructing the earliest achievable text.  Furthermore, the Coptic Apocalypse tradition tells the story of an eastern portion of the church that used this text in theological arguments and in their liturgy, which contrasts with the Byzantine and Syriac traditions, where the text was marginalized.

Digital editions

As a collaborator with the International Greek New Testament Project (Birmingham, England), I coordinated digital transcriptions and imaging of several minor dialectal translations of John's gospel in support of the upcoming Editio Critica Maior of the Greek text (protype).   By December 2013, digital TEI XML transcriptions and images of the known Sahidic Apocalypse witnesses will be freely available within the Münster-based Virtual Manuscript Room (current progress).  I have served as external board member for the AHRC-DFG funded Workspace for Collaborative editing (Trier, Birmingham, Münster).  Via Coptic Links above, one may find a variety of resources related to Coptic studies, including a digital keyboard specifically designed according to Coptic (not Greek) priority which contains all the crucial Unicode 5.2 distinct superlinear strokes.

With the help of my colleague Matthias Schulz, I am developing a searchable Sahidic database which now contains the New Testament and the Psalms, but which will hopefully one day extend to the wider Coptic literary tradition (Firefox addon, Chrome addon).  Such a tool has been a desideratum for those involved in the reconstruction of the approximately 10,000 scattered parchment fragments of the White Monastery of Sohag which now lay like an enormous unsolved jigsaw puzzle among the famous European libraries.

Christian Askeland  (email)