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Storyworlds in Transition: Coptic Apocrypha in Changing Contexts in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Periods


This project proposes the first systematic study of Coptic apocrypha covering the entire timespan of Coptic literary production, and it aims to do so with unprecedented methodological sophistication. Apocrypha is here defined as (1) texts and traditions that develop or expand upon characters and events of the biblical storyworld; (2) and/or contain a claim to authorship by a character from that storyworld or a direct witness to it. A great number of such apocryphal texts and traditions has been preserved in Coptic manuscripts from the fourth to the twelfth centuries. Most of these texts are attributed to apostles or other important early Christian figures, and over time such materials were also increasingly embedded in pseudepigraphical frames, such as in homilies attributed to later, but still early, heroes of the Church. The manuscripts in which this literature has been preserved were almost exclusively produced and used in Egyptian monasteries. Although the use of such apocrypha were at times controversial, the evidence clearly indicates the widespread use of such literature in Coptic monasteries over centuries, and this project will investigate the contents, development, and functions of apocrypha over time, as they were copied, adapted, and used in changing socio-religious contexts over time. The period covered by the project saw drastic changes in the religious landscape of Egypt, from its Christianity having a dominant position in the fourth century, through the marginalization of Egyptian Christianity in relation to the imperial Chalcedonian Church after 451, to a period of increasing marginalization in relation to Islam following the Arab conquest of Egypt in the mid-seventh century. The project will investigate how these changing contexts are reflected in the Coptic apocrypha that were copied and used in Egyptian monasteries, and what functions they had for their users throughout the period under investigation.

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