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Abraham of Hermonthis and the Use of Legal Cultural Archetypes within the Coptic Church

Nicholas Venable

University of Chicago

This paper examines the use of legal documents and dispute resolution procedures within the chancery of Abraham of Hermonthis, a seventh century bishop from upper Egypt. It does so using a dossier of Coptic ostraca, which the author has examined in person, that have so far only appeared in a mid-twentieth century unpublished dissertation.

The thirteen ostraca, which are a mix of legal documents and letters, are held at the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin. These documents form part of the dossier of the bishop Abraham of Hermonthis, who was active during the late sixth and early seventh centuries C.E., in the region around Thebes. They represent unique examples of the product of a particular bishop’s chancery, or secretarial staff, and the documents often conceptualize institutional structures within his diocese as legal relationships. Moreover, they provide evidence of a bishop’s direct involvement in legal disputes and the presence of a legal culture based in Roman law within a bishop’s chancery in the early seventh century.

Martin Krause edited and translated these ostraca in his 1956 dissertation Apa Abraham von Hermonthis: ein oberägyptischer Bischof um 600, as well as several dozen others that had been published in BKU and O.Crum. Unfortunately, Krause’s dissertation has never been published and fewer than a dozen copies exist in research libraries worldwide. The ostraca have received relatively little scholarly comment, most likely because of this lack of a generally available edition. Notable exceptions to this lack of scholarship on the subject are Eva Wipsyzcka’s Les ressources et les activités économiques des églises en Égypte du IVe au VIIIe siècle and Georg Schmelz’s Kirchliche Amtsträger im spätantiken Ägypten. Wipsyzcka studies these documents for what they reveal about the economic activities of priests and monks and the donations of laypeople that helped to sustain ecclesiastical activity. Schmelz, on the other hand, provides a careful study of the offices of bishop and priest, explaining the institutional powers and responsibilities of each of these positions.

My paper builds on these two excellent studies of the ecclesiastical implications of these documents by examining what they reveal about the practice of law in this period. Specifically, it examines how Roman imperial cultural archetypes shaped dispute resolution and even the forms of church documents in Late Antique Egypt.  The documents that I will examine are drawn from the thirteen unpublished ostraca, and they fall into two broad categories. The first demonstrates Abraham serving as an arbitrator or mediator resolving disputes within his community. This includes documents like P. Berl. Inv. 8727, which records the results of Abraham’s arbitration of a conflict between the headmen of two villages.

The second category consists of church documents drawn up in the form of legal documents known from earlier periods, such as guarantees and contracts. These contracts were used for ecclesiastical activities, such as restoring a priest who had been disciplined or arranging for the bishop to perform baptisms in another community. Of particular interest are guarantees drawn up on the occasion of the ordination of a deacon in which other priests stand as guarantors for the deacon’s good behavior. These guarantees both demonstrate the influence that the practice of law had on the mechanisms the church used to conduct its internal affairs and provide evidence about the nature of social networks within the clergy of these village communities.

Taken as a group, these ostraca provide unique insight into the legal culture of late Byzantine Egypt. They form a cohesive group of texts that shows a single bishop involved in the resolution of legal disputes and managing the internal institutions of his diocese using the language and forms of Roman legal documents.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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