Coptic Christian Church

Coptic Christian Church

The Coptic period covers most of the first six centuries of the Common Era. Copt derives from the Greek word Aegyptus, in turn derived from Hikaptah, or Memphis, the original Egyptian capital. Coptic Christianity is the form that arose in Egypt in the first century c.e.

By tradition Coptic Christianity began when St. Mark, the African-born gospel writer, went to Alexandria, Egypt, sometime between 48 and 61 c.e. Previously, Egyptian Christians were mostly Alexandrian Jews, and some Greeks became Christian.

Between his arrival and his martyrdom in 68 c.e., Mark founded the church and converted many native Egyptians. The religion grew rapidly in its first half-century, and by the second century it spread into the rural areas. Scriptures were translated into Coptic, the local language.

The rapid conversion of Egyptians to Christianity led to Roman persecution of those who denied the emperor’s divinity. An edict of 202 prohibited conversion to Christianity. An edict of 250 required all citizens to carry a certificate at all times, issued by local authorities, affirming that the bearer had sacrificed to the gods.

Failure to comply resulted in punishments, including beheading, being tossed to the lions, or being burned alive. The government closed the Catechetical School of Alexandria, forcing members to meet secretly elsewhere. The state limited the number of bishops to three. The era of persecution culminated under Diocletian (284–305). His election as emperor began the Coptic Anno Martyrum, year of the martyrs.

Despite the persecution, the church flourished. The third century saw the formation of the church hierarchy, from the patriarch in Alexandria to the lowest priest and the monks residing in the eastern and western deserts. The Catechetical School succeeded Alexandria’s library and museum, which were world renowned even before Christianity. Located in the School of Alexandria, the library held millions of papyrus scrolls, all the knowledge of the ancient world.

Ptolemy Soter established the library in 323 b.c.e. The school was the site where 70 Jewish scholars created the Septuagint when they translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek in 270 b.c.e. These same scholars set the order of books in the Old Testament, including the Apocrypha. Beginning as a scientific and literary institution, the library evolved into a university for philosophy and theology.

The Catechetical School of Alexandria was the earliest major Christian theological school. The Catechetical School housed and taught the scholars who provided the philosophical underpinnings of Christianity. The school’s first dean, Pantaenus (d. 190 c.e.), headed a school whose faculty included Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and Origen.

Pantaenus was replaced by Clement of Alexandria, noted for his work in converting educated Greeks to Christianity. Origen (c. 215) was a philosopher and biblical scholar who wrote more than 6,000 commentaries on Old and New Testament books as well as homilies that are the oldest known Christian preaching. He is known as the father of theology.

Following Origen was Dionysius (the Great) of Alexandria, who became patriarch of the church (246–264). Didymus the Blind lost sight at age four but mastered grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, music, poetry, mathematics, and memorized the testaments. His pupils included Gregory Nazianzus, Jerome, Palladius, and Rufinus the historian.

Didymus devised a system of engraved writing, 1,500 years before the creation of Braille. These scholars made the Catechetical School a center of Christian learning and a magnet for scholars from around the world. The Catechetical School was the birthplace of the question-and-answer method of commentary.

While enduring Diocletian’s persecutions, the Coptic Church had to deal with the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus because man had a beginning and God is eternal. Although Arius was excommunicated, he continued to preach and converted two Libyan bishops and the Nicomedian Eusebius.

Arianism spread through Egypt, Libya, Palestine, and Asia Minor before finally reaching the attention of Constantine the Great. Followers of Arius and Constantine fought in Alexandria and Nicomedia, leading the emperor to call the approximately 1,800 bishops to Nicaea to settle the dispute.

The Council of Nicaea (325), the first ecclesiastical council sanctioned by the emperor, included only six Western bishops because the heresy had not reached Europe. It involved more than 300 bishops from the East, representing all Christian traditions. At Nicaea, Arius chanted his beliefs, supported by dance bands and singers. Athanasius, representing the Coptic patriarch, presented a logical argument in opposition.

The attendees debated before calling for a creed, which Athanasius wrote and the Council of Constantinople (381) adopted unanimously. The Copts and other Oriental Orthodox Churches deny that they are Monophysites because Monophysitism is heresy. Copts believe that Christ is both human and divine, united indivisibly by the Word and perfect in all respects.

There were two patriarchs at that time, the Eastern Orthodox pope and patriarch of Alexandria and the Coptic pope and patriarch of Alexandria. Egyptian Coptic religion gave rise to the Christian monastic movement.

Monastics believe in unceasing prayer, intense meditation, self-discipline through fasting, vigils, celibacy, poverty, and the renunciation of the flesh and the world. It began as early as the second half of the third century, spreading throughout the Christian world. Monasticism flourished even after the Edict of Milan (313) ended the Roman persecution of Christians.

Coptic monasticism has three levels. First, Antonian monasticism entails a life of seclusion, austerity, and asceticism. St. Anthony exemplifies this approach. When an anchorite attains a higher level of holiness, he attracts many disciples in the second stage, and security becomes a concern.

Settlements arose in the eastern and western deserts, and communal living became the norm for monks who spent the week alone in their cells or caves and joined together on Saturday and Sunday for prayers, teaching, and service. Cenobitism, or Pachomian koinonia, was the third stage of monasticism. Founded by Pachomius, a former soldier, this form included strict military discipline, regulating every hour of every day and imposing punishment for default.

At the end of the fourth century Egypt’s deserts housed between 100,000 and 200,000 monks. The total Egyptian population was about 7.5 million. Cenobite monasticism attracted Greeks, Romans, Nubians, Libyans, Ethiopians, Cappadocians, and others. Each monastery had a section for each nationality and provided a fellow citizen to guide the monks.

Prominent Christians who went to the deserts included John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople; the Italian Jerome and Rufinus; Cappadocian father Basil the Great, who organized the monastic movement in Asia Minor; the French saint John Cassian, and Benedict who followed the Pachomian model in the sixth century, but made it stricter.

Coptic Christianity was devoted to missionary work from the time of St. Mark. In exile, in the armies of Rome, as travelers, Copts spoke and lived their faith, drawing converts as well as persecution. Coptic missionaries were in the British Isles long before the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury in 597. Some credit the Copts with bringing Christianity to the Irish (Irish Christianity was a great civilizing agent in the Middle Ages).

Coptic missionaries preached in Africa, Arabia, Persia, India, and Europe. Nubia became Christian in 559. Coptic Christians Frumentius and Aedesius converted Ethiopia. Alexandria by the fourth century was the largest Christian city in the world.

Monasticism attracted the pious but also attracted misfits and scoundrels, as well as young peasants, illiterate and easily formed into monastic mobs that could be used against heretics and political rivals in the church. Monks also served in the city’s hospitals.

Those who came to study at Alexandria returned to their lands full of Coptic knowledge and the urge to spread it by writing, establishing monasteries and schools, and otherwise proselytizing. According to the Melkite patriarchs, who served as both civil and religious rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire, Egyptian Copts were heretics because they rejected the agreement of Chalcedon.

Despite massacre, torture, and persecution by both religious and civil authorities, the Copts outlasted the state church persecution. Finally, in 642 Arabs conquered Egypt. Under Arab rule, the capital of Egypt relocated to Cairo. Coptic Christians continued to practice their religion.

Periodic persecution, particularly during the 10th and 11th centuries, and the European Crusades accelerated a gradual process of conversions to Islam, and by the end of the 12th century Egypt was predominantly Muslim. In the 20th century Coptic religion was strong, with 40 million adherents worldwide.