Coptic Orthodox Christianity is the indigenous form of Christianity that, according to tradition, the apostle Mark established in Egypt in the middle of the 1st century AD (approximately AD 60). It is the national church of Egypt. The church is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches. Its leader is the Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of the Holy See of Saint Mark. The current incumbent is Pope Shenouda III.
Egypt is often identified as the place of refuge that the Holy Family sought in its flight from Judea: "When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt I called My Son" (Matthew 2:12-23). The Egyptian Church, which is now more than nineteen centuries old, was the subject of many prophecies in the Old Testament. Isaiah the prophet, in Chapter 19, Verse 19 says "In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border."
The first Christians in Egypt were mainly Alexandrian Jews such as Theophilus, whom Saint Luke the Evangelist addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When the church was founded by Mark during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, a great multitude of native Egyptians (as opposed to Greeks or Jews) embraced the Christian faith. Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Mark's arrival in Alexandria as is clear from the New Testament writings found in Bahnasa , in Middle Egypt , which date around the year 200 AD, and a fragment of the Gospel of Saint John, written in Coptic, which was found in Upper Egypt and can be dated to the first half of the second century. In the second century Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into the local language, namely Coptic.
The Catechetical School of Alexandria
The Catechetical School of Alexandria is the oldest catechetical school in the world. Founded around 190 by the scholar Pantanaeus , the school of Alexandria became an important institution of religious learning, where students were taught by scholars such as Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and the great Origen, who was considered the father of theology and who was also active in the field of commentary and comparative Biblical studies. Origen wrote over 6,000 commentaries of the Bible in addition to his famous Hexapla. Many scholars such as Saint Jerome visited the school of Alexandria to exchange ideas and to communicate directly with its scholars. The scope of this school was not limited to theological subjects; science, mathematics and humanities were also taught there. The question and answer method of commentary began there, and 15 centuries before Braille, wood-carving techniques were in use there by blind scholars to read and write.
The Theological college of the catechetical school of Alexandria was re-established in 1893. The new school currently has campuses in Alexandria, Cairo, New Jersey, and Los Angeles, where Coptic priests-to-be and other qualified men and women are taught among other subjects Christian theology, history, Coptic language and art - including chanting, music, iconography, and tapestry.
Monasticism and Missionary Work
In the third century, during the persecution of Decius, some Christians fled to the desert, and remained there to pray after the persecutions abated. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, which was reorganized by the saints Anthony the Great and Pachomius in the 4th century. By the end of the century, there were hundreds of monasteries, and thousands of cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian hills. A number of these monasteries are still flourishing and have new vocations till this day.
Egyptian monasticism attracted the attention of Christians in other parts of the world, who visited Egypt, many bringing monastic ideas home with them, and spreading monasticism through the Christian world. Saint Basil, organizer of the monastic movement in Asia Minor visited Egypt around AD 357 and his rule is followed by the eastern Churches; Saint Jerome, en route to Jerusalem, stopped in Egypt and left details of his experiences in his letters; Saint Benedict founded monasteries in the 6th century on the model of Pachomius, but in a stricter form.
Council of Nicaea
In the 4th century, a Libyan priest called Arius started a theological dispute about the nature of Christ that spread throughout the Christian world. The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) was convened by Constantine to resolve the dispute and eventually led to the formulation of the Symbol of Faith, also known as the Nicene Creed. The Creed, which is now recited throughout the Christian world, was authored by Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria.
Council of Constantinople
In the year 381, Timothy I of Alexandria presided over the second ecumenical council known as the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which completed the Nicene Creed with this confirmation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit:
- "We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-giver, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified who spoke by the Prophets and in one Holy Universal Apostolic Church. We confess one Baptism for the remission of sins and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming age, Amen."
Council of Ephesus
Another theological dispute in the 5th century occurred over the teachings of Nestorius, a Patriarch of Constantinople who taught that God the Word was not hypostatically joined with human nature, but rather dwelt in the man Jesus. As a consequence of this, he denied the title "Mother of God" (Theotokos) to the Virgin Mary, declaring her instead to be "Mother of Christ" (Christotokos). When reports of this reached the Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark, the incumbent acted quickly to "correct" this breach with orthodoxy, requesting that Nestorius repent. When he would not, the Synod of Alexandria met in an emergency session and a unanimous agreement was reached. Pope Cyril I of Alexandria, supported by the entire See, sent a letter to Nestorius known as "The Third Epistle of Saint Cyril to Nestorius." This epistle drew heavily on the established Patristic Constitutions and contained the most famous article of Alexandrian Orthodoxy: "The Twelve Anathemas of Saint Cyril." In these anathemas, Cyril excommunicated anyone who followed the teachings of Nestorius. For example, "Anyone who dares to deny the Holy Virgin the title Theotokos is Anathema!" Nestorius however, still would not repent and so this led to the convening of the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431), over which Cyril presided.
The First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus confirmed the teachings of Saint Athanasius and confirmed the title of the Holy Ever-Virgin Mary as "Mother of God". It also clearly stated that anyone who separated Christ into two hypostases was anathema, as Athanasius had said that there is "One Nature and One Hypostasis for God the Word Incarnate" (Mia Physis kai Mia Hypostasis tou Theou Logou Sasarkomeni). Also, the introduction to the creed was formulated as follows:
- "We magnify you O Mother of the True Light and we glorify you O saint and Mother of God (Theotokos) for you have borne unto us the Saviour of the world. Glory to you O our Master and King: Christ, the pride of the Apostles, the crown of the martyrs, the rejoicing of the righteous, firminess of the churches and the forgiveness of sins. We proclaim the Holy Trinity in One Godhead: we worship Him, we glorify Him, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord bless us, Amen."
The Orthodox faith is considered to have prevailed at the council. Unfortunately, Cyril of Alexandria died soon afterwards. Saint Dioscorus, the archdeacon of Alexandria (considered a saint by the non-Chalcedonians but a heretic by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics) was elected as Cyril's replacement. The Nestorians took the opportunity of Cyril's death to revive their campaign against Cyrillian Christology.
Council of Chalcedon
By the time the Council of Chalcedon was called, politics had already started to intermingle with Church affairs. When the Emperor Marcianus interfered with matters of faith in the Church, the response of Saint Dioscorus, the Pope of Alexandria who was later to be exiled, to this interference was clear: "You have nothing to do with the Church." It was at Chalcedon that the emperor would take his revenge for the Pope's frankness.
The Council of Chalcedon abandoned Cyrillian terminology and declared that Christ was one hypostasis in two natures. However, the Council's finding were rejected by many of the Christians on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire: Egyptians, Syrians, Armenians, and others. From that point onward, Alexandria would have two patriarchs: the "Melkite" or Imperial Patriarch, now known as the Eastern Orthodox Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, and the non-Chalcedonian national Egyptian one, now known as the Coptic Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria. Almost the entire Egyptian population rejected the terms of the Council of Chalcedon and remained faithful to the national Egyptian Church (now known as the Coptic Church). Those who supported the Chalcedonian definition remained in communion with the other leading churches of Rome and Constantinople. The non-Chalcedonian party became what is today called the Oriental Orthodox Church.
The Chalcedonians sometimes called the non-Chalcedonians "monophysites", though the Coptic Church denies that it teaches monophysitism, which it regards as a heresy. They have sometimes called the Chalcedonian group "dyophysites". A term that comes closer to Coptic doctrine is "miaphysite", which refers to a conjoined nature for Christ, both human and divine, united indivisibly in the Incarnate Logos. The Coptic Church believes that Christ is perfect in His divinity, and He is perfect in His humanity, but His divinity and His humanity were united in one nature called "the nature of the incarnate word", which was reiterated by Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Copts, thus, believe in two natures "human" and "divine" that are united in one without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration. These two natures did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye.
The Coptic Church was misunderstood at the Council of Chalcedon. Perhaps the Council understood the Church correctly, but wanted to exile the Church, to isolate it and to abolish the Egyptian, independent Pope, who maintained that Church and State should remain separate. Despite all of this, the Coptic Church has remained very strict and steadfast in its faith.
From Chalcedon to the Arab Conquest of Egypt
Copts suffered under the rule of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Melkite Patriarchs, appointed by the emperors as both spiritual leaders and civil governors, massacred the Egyptian population whom they considered heretics. Many Egyptians were tortured and martyred to accept the terms of Chalcedon, but Egyptians remained loyal to the faith of their fathers and to the Cyrilian view of Christology. One of the most renowned Egyptian saints of that period is Saint Samuel the Confessor .
The Arab Conquest of Egypt
The Arab conquest of Egypt took place in AD 641. Although the Imperial forces resisted the Arab army under Amr ibn al-As, the majority of the civilian population, having suffered persecution for the differing Christian beliefs, were less hostile; in some cases they welcomed their new masters. Considered "People of the Book", Christians were allowed to practice their religion, under the restrictions of the Islamic Shari'a law.
Despite the political upheaval, Egypt remained a predominently Christian land, although gradual conversions to Islam over the centuries had the effect of changing Egypt from a predominantly Christian to a predominantly Muslim country by the end of the 12th century.
From the 19th century to the 1952 Revolution
The position of the Copts began to improve early in the 19th century under the stability and tolerance of Muhammad Ali's dynasty. The Coptic community ceased to be regarded by the state as an administrative unit and, by 1855, the main mark of Copts' inferiority, the Jizya tax was lifted. Shortly thereafter, Christians started to serve in the Egyptian army. The 1919 revolution in Egypt, the first grassroots display of Egyptian identity in centuries, stands as a witness to the homogeneity of Egypt's modern society with both its Muslim and Christian components.
Coptic Christianity today
The current Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of the Holy See of Saint Mark is Pope Shenouda III; the most recent Greek Orthodox Melkite Patriarch is Patriarch Theodoros II. These positions should not to be confused with that of the Roman Catholic Pope in Rome, nor with either of the other two bishops bearing the title of Patriarch of Alexandria (one in communion with the Roman Pope and the other the head of one of the canonical Eastern Orthodox churches).
By some accounts there are more than 40 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in the world: they are found primarily in Egypt (roughly 10 million), Ethiopia (roughly 30 million), and Eritrea (roughly 2 million), but there are significant numbers in Sudan and Israel, and in diaspora throughout the world. However, as applied to the Tewahedo Church of Ethiopia, which before 1950 was a part of the Coptic Church of Egypt, the word Coptic can be considered a misnomer because it means Egyptian. The Eritrean Orthodox Church similarly became independent of the Tewahedo Church during the 1990s. These three churches remain in full communion with each other and with the other Oriental Orthodox churches.
Since the 1980s theologians from the two groups have been meeting in a bid to resolve the theological differences, and have concluded that many of the differences are caused by the two groups using different terminology to describe the same thing. In 1990, the Coptic and Antiochian Orthodox Churches agreed to mutually recognize baptisms performed in each other's churches, making rebaptisms unnecessary. In the summer of 2001, the Coptic Orthodox and Antiochian Orthodox agreed to recognize the sacrament of marriage as celebrated by the other. Previously, if a Coptic and Greek wanted to marry, the marriage had to be performed twice, once in each church, for it to be recognized by both. Now it can be done in only one church and be recognized by both.
In the Coptic Church only men may be ordained, and they must be married before they are ordained, if they wish to be married. In this respect they follow the same practices as does the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Traditionally, the Coptic language was used in church services, and the scriptures were written in the Coptic alphabet. However, due to the arabisation of Egypt, service in churches started to witness increased use of Arabic, while preaching is done entirely in Arabic. Native languages are used, in conjunction with Coptic, during services outside of Egypt.
Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January which, since 2002, is an official national holiday in Egypt.