A History Of Christianity In Egypt Essay

, Research Paper

The history of Christianity in Egypt dates

back verily to the beginnings of Christianity itself. Many Christians hold

that Christianity was brought to Egypt by the Apostle Saint Mark in the

early part of the first century AD. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, in his

Ecclesiastic History states that Saint Mark first came to Egypt between

the first and third year of the reign of Emperor Claudius, which would

make it sometime between AD 41 and 44, and that he returned to Alexandria

some twenty years later to preach and evangelize. Saint Mark’s first convert

in Alexandria was Anianus, a shoemaker who later was consecrated a bishop

and became Patriarch of Alexandria after Saint Mark’s martyrdom. This succession

of Patriarchs has remained unbroken down to the present day, making the

Egyptian Christian, or Coptic, Church one of the oldest Christian churches

in existence. Evidence for this age comes in the form of the oldest Biblical

papyri discovered in remote regions of Upper Egypt. These papyri are written

in the Coptic script and are older than even the oldest Greek copies of

the Bible ordered by Constantine in AD 312.

The Egyptians before Christianity had always

been a deeply religious people, and many readily embraced the young religion,

having had their old beliefs effectively destroyed by the coming of the

Roman Empire and the final dethroning of the god-king Pharaohs. Many of

the concepts of Christianity were already familiar to the Egyptians from

their ancient religion, such as the death and resurrection of a god, the

idea of the judgement of souls and a paradisiacal afterlife for the faithful.

The ankh too, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life, is very similar to

that of the cross revered by Christians (especially in the form of the

Coptic cross, seen at right), itself also a symbol for eternal life. Furthermore,

the belief that God had chosen Egypt as a safe place for His infant son

to hide him from Herod was a great source of pride to the Egyptian Christians.

It was through Christianity that the Egyptian culture survived the Roman


The Church Suffering and Victorious

Yet these formative years were not without

problems. Throughout this time Christianity in Egypt was locked in an often

deadly struggle against the polytheistic religions of the Greco-Roman culture

as well as the Hellenistic movement that began in Alexandria spread to

other large cities. To counter Hellenistic philosophy that often criticized

the young religion the Christian leaders in Egypt established a catechetical

school in Alexandria, the Didascalia, founded in the late second century

AD. This school became the heart of what can only be called Christian philosophy,

and great teachers and orators such as Clement and Origen were able to

battle the Hellenistic philosophers on their own ground and advocate Christianity

in an orderly and intellectual manner. It was also in this great university

of Christian learning that Christianity first underwent rigorous studies

that created its first theology and dogma, as well as making the new faith

accessible to all. Pantaenus, the founder and first dean of the Didascalia,

helped the Egyptian people bridge the gap between Dynastic Egypt and the

new era by promoting the use of the Greek alphabet instead of the Demotic

(”cursive” hieroglyphics) in translations of the Bible as well as in the

writing of religious theses and letters. Additionally, the school educated

everyone who came to it in Greek, opening the study of religion to just

about everyone, and making as many people as possible literate.

Yet the greatest persecutions on the young

religion came at the hands of the Roman government. Emperor Nero had set

the precedent in AD 64, about the same time as the martyrdom of Saint Peter.

It was unusual, for the actual offense was simply to be a Christian or

to profess the Christian faith, rather than any kind of criminal acts that

might go along with it (such as those later falsely attributed to Medieval

heretics). An arrested Christian could receive a pardon simply by offering

incense on a Roman altar, but many refused to do so, citing scripture passages

urging faith in the one God. Thus the true “crime” of the persecuted Christians

was their refusal to do homage to the Roman gods, including the emperor.

Those who did refuse to bow to the Roman religion were imprisoned, often

tortured, thrown to the wild animals in the coliseum, or suffered execution

by any number of other means. Rather than discouraging the Christians,

these actions encouraged them and reinforced their faith, echoing the words

of Jesus that those who suffered persecution because of his name were truly

blessed. These heroes of the Christians were called “martyrs,” a word that

means “witnesses.” In the first century this persecution was largely done

by the government, though after a few decades they seem to have lost interest

(or become fearful of the sect) and in the second and early third centuries

the mobs took over the persecutions. Decius and Diocletian, in the 250s

and early 300s respectively, brought the imperium back into the persecution,

but it was clear by this time it was a losing battle as Christianity had

penetrated even into the highest levels of society.

It was in Egypt that some of the greatest

defiances of the Romans by Christians were done. While their Roman counterparts

worshipped in catacombs and underground vaults, the Egyptian Christians

built their churches openly and performed their ceremonies in full view

of the Empire. And for every one that the Empire struck down, more would

be converted by the example of the martyr. Diocletian was particularly

brutal, executing so many Christians in 284 alone that the Coptic Church

dates its calendar, the Calendar of the Martyrs (Anno Martyri) from that

time. Despite these persecutions, Christianity seems to have grown rapidly

in Egypt, spreading to Fayoum in 257 via Anba Dionysius, and in 260 even

down into the Thebaid. But in 306 something happened that would change

the destiny of Christianity forever: Constantine became emperor.


Actually, he became one of the emperors.

The Roman Empire of the time used the Tetrarchy, or Rule of Four. There

was one Augustus and one Caesar each for the eastern and western parts

of the Empire. One of Constantine’s first acts as Augustus was to end the

persecution of Christians where he had been campaigning in Gaul (France),

Spain, and Britain. It is unknown where Constantine got his initial respect

for Christianity, but it is thought that his mother was a Christian. Shortly

afterwards Galerius, the Eastern Augustus, issued an edict of toleration

for Christianity, ending persecutions in Greece and the surrounding area.

Maximinus Daia (not to be confused with Maximinus the Thracian) however,

responded by increasing persecutions in his territory of Egypt.

The story is told that once before the

Battle of Milvian Bridge (by which Constantine took complete control of

the Western Empire) when the odds were greatly against him, Constantine

beseeched God for help, praying in the Christian fashion, and won the day.

He later adopted the Chi-Rho, a stylized monogram of the first letters

of “Christus,” as his standard, and led his armies to victory after victory.

Because of this, Constantine was even more well-disposed towards the Christians,

though he himself was not baptized a Christian until his deathbed. In 313

together with Licinius, the eastern Augustus, he developed a policy of

religious tolerance throughout the Empire and for the first time in many

many decades there was a social peace. People were free to worship as they

pleased and the Christian Church was allowed to own property, making it

much easier to build permanent churches. Additionally, Christianity was

made the official state religion, freeing it at least from persecution

by the Imperium. Constantine’s order giving religious freedom to all under

his rule is known as the Edict of Milan or more properly, the Edit of Tolerance,

and was the forerunner of other religious laws such as those found in the

American Constitution and the Lateran Treaty of 1949, part of which created

Vatican City.

Feeling that his power in Egypt was threatened,

Maximinus, still carrying out his persecutions against the Christians there,

marched an army across Asia Minor into Europe and confronted Licinius.

Licinius, following Constantine’s example, prayed in the Christian fashion

with his army before the battle and defeated Maximinus. With this, Licinius

brought the new Roman policy of religious tolerance to Egypt and ended

the persecution of the Egyptian Christians.

After this, Constantine became more and

more involved in the workings of Christianity. His dream was to travel

to the Holy Land and be baptized in the Jordan River, but this was abandoned

when he discovered that the eastern churches were in upheaval, mostly due

to the stir caused by the beliefs of Arius, now called the Arian Heresy.

In 325, in response to this disharmony, Constantine ordered the Council

of Nicaea. This council was the largest gathering of Christian bishops

in the history of the Church so far, and though the majority of those present

were representing the eastern churches of Egypt and Greece, there were

delegates from Rome, and thus the sobriquet “ecumenical” (meaning “of the

whole world”) was attached. Constantine attended as well, describing himself

as “bishop of external things,” and kept a secular position on the issues,

but it was clear that he wanted Christianity to be united and harmonious.

The Nicene Creed, the great contribution of the Council and a prayer still

used by Christians to this day, was composed by Saint Athanasius, a young

Egyptian deacon who would later follow Alexandros as patriarch of Alexandria.

The Foundations of Monasticism

Egypt is regarded by many Christians,

regardless of denomination, as the home of Christian monasticism, and it

is very easy to see why. The sheer number of Christian monasteries scattered

about the East is astounding, from the 300 that were in Constantinople

alone to the isolated Saint Catherine’s at Mount Sinai. Yet it was Egypt

that was seen as the heart of the monastic idea. The anonymous work, History

of the Monks in Egypt, written at some time in the fourth century, says

of Egypt:

There is no town or village in Egypt

or the Thebaid that is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls, and

the people depend on their prayers as if on God Himself…Through them

the world is kept in being.

Christian monasticism emerged as a genuine

movement during the early fourth century, but the spirit of monasticism

was already present in Christianity with its ideas of asceticism and moderation.

For the Christian East, the monk was by definition a solitary role, and

there have been more Christian hermits in this area than in any other in

the world.

It is Saint Anthony of Egypt who is credited

with the founding of monasticism, along with his fellow countryman Saint

Pachomius. Yet even they were only expanding on an idea that had already

existed. After the death of his parents in the 270’s, Anthony had entrusted

his younger sister to a parthenon, or convent of women. Thus priories of

what are today called nuns were already established long before Saints

Anthony and Pachomius even began their work. Indeed, it is women who are

to be truly credited with the origin of the monastic vocation. Yet Anthony

still deserves the praise due to him, for his true innovation was to move

the monastic community away from the distractions of society and the city

and into the wilderness, which he did, founding his first hermitage in

AD 305.

Unlike monasteries in the West, the monasteries

of Egypt and the surrounding area had no centralized orders, rather, each

one was an autonomous unit. Many of the early monasteries in the East were

founded and maintained by the rulers and nobility, others by groups of

the citizenry wishing to have prayers said for themselves and their families.

The size of the monasteries also varied greatly. Some were highly organized

enterprises, owning large amounts of land and commercial interests, while

others were hermitages of only three or four members. After Saint Anthony,

there were two basic types of monasticism in Egypt, and later on, the world.

There was the eremetical, or hermit, style and the cenobitic, monasteries

in which the residents led a communal life.

These Egyptian ascetics each lived very

similar lives to the others of their type. They took vows of chastity and

poverty, and if part of a monastic community, obedience to the abbot. They

practiced long and frequent fasts, some abstained from alcohol and meat,

and they supported themselves by doing services for the lay people nearby,

such as helping with labor or the selling of some small handicrafts. The

largest monasteries were often self-sufficient, owning farms and herds,

as well as making everything they needed, from the clothes they wore to

the bread that was on their table. If they did make any money for anything

they did, they kept only what they needed to subsist and gave the rest

to the poor. While crowds of the poor often joined monasteries (vows of

poverty being nothing new to them, and at least they would have food, clothing,

and shelter), later on many of the upper class joined as Christianity spread

across class and caste. Quite a number of the latter were educated and

were employed by the Church in various intellectual occupations such as

catechists, clerks and doctors. From the very beginning, the early Christian

Church had a place and a task for everyone.



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