If you didn’t already know, the Coptic Liturgical text today is filled with Greek. But how much of it is Greek? People have been giving and receiving all kinds of answers to that question, so I set out to get an actual answer. Here are the results, tips on telling the difference, and what the numbers may or may not tell us:
I looked at a typical, “common day” Coptic liturgy, beginning from the Liturgy of the Word through the distribution hymn Psalm 150. I counted the number of words or combined words separated by spaces (For more information on my methodology, see the end of this post).
Overall: 23% of the Coptic Liturgy is Greek. But when you look deeper into it, it turns out that the overwhelming majority of Coptic in the Liturgy is said by the priest, rather than the congregation (the people) or the deacons.
Results by role. There are three main roles in the liturgy: Priest, People (or congregation), and Deacon. While overall 23% of the Coptic Liturgical Text is Greek, the percentage by role is much more varied:
- Deacon: 69% Greek
- People: 42% Greek
- Priest: 6% Greek
One interesting thing I discovered is that nearly everything the priest says is Coptic, except for two main parts of the liturgy (the Anaphora, and the end of Liturgy just before the confession). If you were to take out those two main parts, you would leave the priest saying only one phrase in Greek, which is “Irini Pasi” (Greek for “Peace be with you all”).
HOW CAN YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE?
I feel confident guessing that most Coptic Christians do not know how to tell the difference between the Coptic and Greek texts in the liturgies they see today. People are constantly referring to Coptic hymns that are in fact Greek. Moreover, we have so many people passionately defending retaining “Coptic” deacon or people responses when in fact 3/4 of what the deacon says is Greek, and almost half of what the people say is Greek as well. Most of the Coptic to be found in the liturgy is actually what the priest says.
I for one did not know how to tell the difference before this exercise, so I catalogued some of the easiest ways to tell. But if there is was only one word to look for to help you tell the difference, it would be the following word:
And (nem, ke)
The easiest way to tell when something is Greek is to look for the word “and.” In Coptic it is pronounced “nem” but in Greek it is “ke” or κε (interestingly, the Coptic Liturgy writes the word the way it is pronounced, rather than the way it is supposed to be spelled in Greek, which is και).
For a much broader list, See This Comparison Chart
WHAT DO THE NUMBERS TELL US?
At first, when I looked at these numbers, they led me to a variety of initial conclusions. But upon further research, I realize that the inclusion of Greek in the Coptic Liturgy throughout history, and as it appears for us today, is due to a very complicated and nuanced set of circumstances. The one thing for certain that the numbers tell us and as informed by history, is that Greek was a common language in Egypt and at various times for various reasons the Egyptian Patriarchate and hierarchs wanted it to remain as a language for use in liturgical services.
Here is a little bit of the history regarding the Greek language in Egypt:
Note that Alexandria became a major hub for Greek culture and influence, which pervaded well into the time of the Muslim conquest of Egypt. According to the Cambridge History of Egypt, “At the time of the Muslim conquest, Coptic and Greek were the principal languages of Egypt.” Furthermore, it appears that upper-class Egyptians were often fluent in the administrative language of Greek, and mixed marriages between Egyptians and Greeks were increasingly common, yet Egyptians always retained their native Egyptian (or, what we would call now, “Coptic”) tongue and culture.
According to the book, Byzantine to Islamic Egypt, by Maged Mikhail, among the clergy of the Church, well into the ninth century, Greek was often utilized in official capacities, such as issuing synodal letters, festal epistles, and commemorative inscriptions.
“The language also enjoyed a certain popular currency among the laity who prayed long liturgical passages, if not whole liturgies, in it. Significantly, at certain locations in Upper Egypt and Alexandria, Greek survived as the liturgical language …. through Fatimid rule.”
Even more astonishingly we find Maged Mikhail writing the following:
“The Alexandrians defiantly retained the liturgical use of the Greek language. By the mid-1300s AD, Ibn Saba’ noted that immediately prior to patriarchal ordinations the Alexandrian clergy would secure a handwritten promise from the patriarch-elect: “not to change their Greek language, which they have retained since Mark the Evangelist.”
There are today many surviving Greek liturgies that seem to have been used by the Copts. One in particularly appears to be a Coptic Liturgy entirely in Greek with rubrics written in Coptic (found in a number of ninth-to-eleventh-century liturgical manuscripts at the British Museum and the John Ryland’s Library).
How we ended up with the Coptic Liturgical text today that includes so much Greek is not entirely certain, but the Church throughout most of its history happily and often enthusiastically sought the inclusion of Greek in their liturgical worship service, even after the Council of Chalcedon. (Clarification added 1/26/17—It appears that the liturgy, when put to text, was written in Greek first, and then further translations into Coptic and/or Arabic determined how much of the original Greek to retain, as explained by the author Maged Mikhail in his book mentioned previously.)
What we do know is that when we are defending retaining Coptic in the Liturgy, let us be aware of what it is we are defending. Genuine worship that is not in vain requires understanding. I am an advocate of retaining the Coptic and Greek influence in our liturgies and rites, but it must not take precedence over the ultimate goal of worship from the heart and with understanding.
I hope that this article also helps people more adequately frame their arguments for keeping “Coptic” in the liturgy, because most of what they are defending is likely not even Coptic. Not that I’m for this, but it is interesting to note that even if we changed all deacon and people responses to English (or something else other than Coptic or Greek), we would still have a majority of the Coptic Liturgical text in Coptic.
Note that my purpose here has been to simply provide some empirical information regarding the current makeup of the Coptic Liturgy, rather than advance any particular point of view as to what languages we should pray in.
I pray that you find this useful so that we are all more informed worshippers.
RESOURCES / FURTHER RESOURCES
- For the actual spreadsheet in Excel that I used for this calculation, click here. I copied and pasted the Liturgical Text in that spreadsheet and ran a formula to calculate “words” separated with spaces, then ran some pivot table analysis to determine percentages.
- For detailed methodology and notes, refer to the “Methodology and Notes” tab in the Excel spreadsheet provided.