An Intimate Conversation about The Future of Coptology

15-12-2011 10:12 AM

Patricia Eshagh

While Egypt’s pharaonic history is widely known and studied, its Christian history is not as widely understood. The Coptic Orthodox Church has existed from its inception in the first century AD to the present day; yet the world has been slow to recognise its rich history and substantial contribution to the history of Christianity. The discovery of Coptic manuscripts at Nag Hammadi in 1945 did much to enhance and popularise the field of Coptology, yet today it struggles to establish itself as a stand-alone academic discipline.
In July, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) hosted and co-sponsored the eleventh annual St Shenouda Conference of Coptic Studies. During that conference, three scholars were asked how they became interested in Coptology. They were also asked to comment on the future for Coptologists and to share their advice for students interested in pursuing an academic career in the field of Coptic Studies.
Dr Monica Bontty is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Dr Bontty’s interest in dead languages and their cultures guided her to UCLA where she received her PhD in Ancient Near Eastern Civilisations. Part of her training in the languages of these civilisations included coursework in Coptic. Dr Bontty has written several articles pertaining to Coptology and has taught courses in Coptic both at UCLA and at the St Shenouda Center in Los Angeles, California.
Dr Caroline Schroeder is Assistant Professor of Religious and Classical Studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Dr Schroeder became interested in Coptology after taking a course on early Christianity at Brown University with Dr Susan Harvey. Later, as a graduate student at Duke University, Dr Schroeder became interested in the social history of the early Christian period. Her studies on how the people of the early Christian period lived, particularly women ascetics, led her to Egypt and her research on St Shenouda. In 2002, she completed her PhD in Religion with her dissertation entitled Disciplining the Monastic Body: Asceticism, Ideology, and Gender in the Egyptian Monastery of Shenoute of Atripe. Since then, she has produced numerous articles on asceticism along with a book published in 2007 entitled Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe.
Dr Stephen Davis is Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University and the executive director of Yale Monastic Archaeology Project (YMAP), which is focused on two archaeological sites in Egypt: the White Monastery near Sohag, and the Monastery of St John the Little in Wadi al-Natrun. He became interested in Coptology while researching in Egypt for his dissertation entitled The Cult of Saint Thecla, Apostle and Protomartyr: A Tradition of Women’s Piety in Late Antiquity. In 1998, he returned to Egypt where he taught for four years at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC), the official seminary of the Coptic Evangelical Church. Dr Davis has written several books pertaining to Egyptian Christianity as well as numerous articles. In addition to his teaching and archaeological projects, he is working on a new book on the infancy gospel traditions and early Christian cultural memory.
Dr Davis admits that when he first visited Egypt, he could not imagine ever living there. However, that impression quickly changed as he spent more and more time in the country, immersing himself in its diverse languages and cultures. Through his experience as a teacher in Cairo and his work on important archaeological digs, he developed lasting friendships and an academic career that has contributed much to the field of Coptology.
When asked to comment on the future outlook for graduate students interested in pursuing academic careers in Coptology, all three scholars gave the same advice. Coptology works well as an area of concentration or as a sub-specialty. They suggested that students seek out ways to incorporate Coptology into more established, traditional fields such as the humanities or religious studies because tenure-track positions at colleges and universities tend to hire individuals who can teach core courses in the more traditional academic disciplines.
Dr Bontty suggested pursuing a cross-cultural approach where Coptology could be woven into more traditional areas such as art history, religion or anthropology. Coptology also works well as a research specialty. Dr Schroeder gave the example of an art historian who researches in Coptic materials.
All three scholars are satisfied with their chosen career paths and the enriching experience of working in the field of Coptology. Their publications and their presence at conferences around the world demonstrate the wide range of work being done in Coptic Studies as well as the inherently transdisciplinary nature of Coptology. For example, Dr Bontty presented a paper at the St Shenouda conference on the possibility of a Coptic connection between the first Christian community in Scotland known as “Candida Casa” and the White Monastery in Sohag, Egypt. Dr Schroeder presented her work and upcoming book on the lives of children in early Egyptian monasteries. Dr Davis talked about the archaeological discoveries made during the past five years through the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project at the White Monastery in Sohag.
Their efforts highlight the steady progress that is being made by international coptologists. It also emphasises the vast opportunity for further research and the potential for new discoveries. As more and more students and scholars discover the historical richness and diversity within Coptology in such areas as Coptic music, art, art history, archaeology, architecture, theology, political history, etc., it can hopefully gain in prominence and become a permanent offering in a variety of academic disciplines throughout the world.

Patricia Eshagh is a PhD student in the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, which analyses the influence of Coptic monasticism on the early monastic communities of Western Europe.

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