A History Of Christianity In Egypt

A History of Christianity in Egypt A History of Christianity in Egypt 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.

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It was through Christianity that the Egyptian culture survived the Roman Dominion. 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. Constantine 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 Maximinu …


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