In recent years, southern California has become home to a number of vibrant academic and ecclesiastical programs for the study of Coptic Christianity in the Diaspora.
The most recent gathering of students and scholars devoted to the subject of Egyptian Christianity took place 13-14 July 2012 at a conference co-sponsored by the St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society and UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Mr. Hany Takla—president of the St. Shenouda Society (www.stshenouda.org) and lecturer in Coptic language at UCLA—organized the annual conference now in its fourteenth year.
“The Society##s mission is ‘Preserve, Revive, and Promote the Heritage of the Christians of Egypt,’ ” says Mr. Takla. “The annual conferences are designed to bring the Coptic community and the academic community together to further our main goal. Also such conferences give an opportunity to students in the field of Coptology to participate with scholars in an academic environment.”
Students and scholars from across the United States spoke at UCLA on topics such as Pope Shenouda’s scholarly influence in the Diaspora, the Jesus Prayer, depiction of martyrs in Coptic monastic art, Pope Cyril IV’s reformist papacy, the impact of European intervention on Coptic life, and connections between the monastic practices of the Desert Fathers and Buddhist non-violence. The conference also included special tributes to His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, who passed away 17 March 2012, and Fr. David Johnson, a Jesuit priest and prominent scholar of Coptic and Syriac literature, who passed away 24 November 2011.
This national prominence is a testament to the interest and relevance of the subject in the Southern California region, which is home to tens of thousands of Coptic Christians who have supported the UCLA conference and program.
In Southern California, Claremont Graduate University (CGU) has arguably become the most visible center of scholarship on Egyptian Christianity. The university’s School of Religion offers master and doctoral degrees and students can incorporate Coptic Studies into their programs. A Coptic Studies Council exists at the university to coordinate public lectures, conferences, and coursework, and partners with other religious councils representing traditions as diverse as Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism.
Dr. Gawdat Gabra, world-renowned Coptologist, art historian, and former director of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, teaches and supervises the Coptic Studies program. Recent courses have included “The Religious Heritage of Egypt,” “Egyptian Monasticism and Coptic Art,” “Coptic Old Testament,” “Coptic Hagiography,” “Coptic Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers,” and “Christianity and Monasticism in Egypt under Islamic Rule.” In addition to coursework and supervision of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations (http://www.cgu.edu/pages/9567.asp), Dr. Gabra leads annual visits to Egypt to tour the rich history of monasticism and Coptic Christianity in the country. On one such trip in 2008, students, faculty, deans, and administrators from Claremont were even granted an audience with His Holiness Pope Shenouda.
“Teaching Coptic Studies now includes more than Gnosticism as is clear from the offered courses,” says Dr. Gabra. “And I have taught students from Egypt, Indonesia and Korea in addition to American students.”
One of these CGU students was Dr. Dan Sharp, who recently completed his PhD with a dissertation on the Coptic Gospel of John, and now serves as Assistant Professor in the Religious Education Department at Brigham Young University in Hawaii.
Dr. Sharp did not initially intend to research Coptology but came to the field under the guidance and mentorship of the faculty and visiting academics he discovered in Claremont. “The greatest asset Claremont has to offer are its people,” says Dr. Sharp, who throughout his program worked with Mr. Richard Smith, Dr. Gabra, and Dr. James Royse, and whose research took advantage of the library and archival resources of nearby Claremont School of Theology (CST).
Claremont has also proven itself to be an international center for Coptic scholarship through its online presence. In 2009 Claremont Graduate University acquired the rights and copyrights to the eight-volume Coptic Encyclopedia originally published in 1991 by Macmillan. An electronic version of the encyclopedia is now housed and publicly available in the archives of the Claremont Colleges Digital Library (http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/col/cce). The encyclopedia will be continuously expanded and updated by scholars and editors across the world.
In addition to the tremendous academic resources in Los Angeles and Claremont, the Coptic Church has sponsored a conference on its own. The Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii sponsors an annual conference on Patristics (study of early Christian writers) currently is in its sixth year. The conference is co-sponsored with the St. Athanasius and St. Cyril Theological Library and attracts participants from across the region.
This variety of resources has rightly earned the region a reputation as a vibrant and attractive destination point for scholars and prospective students of all things Coptic.
Donald Westbrook is in the PhD program at the Department of Religion, Claremont Graduate University. He holds an MA from Fuller Seminary and BA from UC Berkeley. He was on the staff that published the eight-volume Coptic Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1991) in electronic form at the Claremont Colleges Digital Library.