Framing apocryphal stories in Coptic literature
Late antique Egypt is renowned for the many apocryphal stories that have survived on either parchment or papyrus in the dry desert sand. These stories now offer scholars of varying disciplines a glimpse into a storyworld which provided life and color to Christian thinking. Many, if not most of these apocrypha are attested primarily in the Coptic language. The ERC-granted APOCRYPHA-project aims to undertake a comprehensive study of this large and very diverse corpus of texts in its entirety. At the basis of which stands the creation of a large database that aims to gather all relevant texts, providing an easily evaluable collection of data that spans hundreds of texts and even more hundreds of years.
My Ph.D.-thesis is an integral part of the APOCRYPHA-project, and will both contribute to, as well as profit from, the continued progression of the project. Its aim is the analysis of the literary framework that often, but not always, envelops Coptic apocryphal stories. “Framework” here means a piece of text of varying length that is clearly set apart from the actual apocryphal story, either by the use of a different point of view,by the use of a different time horizon, or both. Such frame texts aim to situate a particular apocryphal story in a larger chronological, historical and literary context. They attempt to provide the reader with several crucial pieces of information regarding the actual apocryphal story: Who is the apocryphon’s author? Where did he (or she) write it? When was it written? How was it transmitted to the present day? Who found the text and who copied it or read it out? When was it found? Why is it useful to consult this specific apocryphon? What does it add in terms of context to the storyworld of the Bible, which often seems to omit important bits of information in its brevity.
These frame texts appear in various forms. Some of them are short notes at the beginning or end of a work, only vaguely set apart from the actual apocryphon, while others take on the form of much more elaborate stories that provide a detailed report of the work’s finding and transmission. Some frame texts seem to do very little to situate an apocryphon, while others create a tightly woven fictionalcontext in which the apocryphal story becomes part of a sermon or an epistle. Up until now, these frame texts, which in their more elaborate forms are a striking feature of Coptic apocryphal literature, have not been systematically analyzed in their entirety. Now, my thesis shall attempt to fill this gap.
Key research questions beyond a simple comparative analysis will examine (1) the development of frame texts and narratives as a literary device in Coptic literature over time and (2) the relationship between frame text and apocryphal story, that is, what a frame texts provides to the overall composition of the work as whole. Was the creation or insertion of frame texts somehow necessary to ward off criticism against apocryphal texts, by contributing to the perceived legitimacy of the apocryphal story? Or should they be regarded as a literary device, aimed at making an apocryphal story more interesting by placing it into a narrative context, while also trying to prepare us as readers for the reading of the apocryphon, guiding, or even controlling how we are to perceive and understand the text?