Historical Definitions and Synonyms for “Copt” and “Coptic” The Construction of Communal Identity in Pre-Modern Egypt at the Nexus of Language, History, and Ethnogenesis

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Maged S. A. Mikhail



This study scrutinizes the meaning and use of “Copt” and “Coptic” in the middle ages, when three interrelated—yet distinct and, at times, contradictory—“sets” of definitions circulated among Christians and Muslims. The first set comes from linguistic etymologies and mythical histories. In that context, this study contests the historicity of “Copt” in the earliest versions of the written Talmud. A second set of definitions emerged from Arabic historical and ethnogenetic narratives, while a third set reflects religious communal identity. Here, the evidence suggests that “Copt” and “Jacobite” were not only used interchangeably, but that “Jacobite” was often preferred and, at times, exclusive to the Copts. Significantly, the communal boundaries of the third set of definitions blatantly transgress those of the second, and even the first. In addition, this study demonstrates that pre-modern texts switched from one definition to the other without pause, which places a greater burden on scholars to clearly discern the contexts of any attestation for “Copt[-ic].” The three sets of definitions parsed here challenge contemporary usage among the Coptic community, church, and academics, which largely depend on the paradigm of the nation state.


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