Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Origins (and Origen) of the Coptic Church

The Cathedral of Saint Mark in Cairo, Seat of the
Patriarch and Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church
In our last entry I wrote about Pope Shenouda III and how the Coptic Orthodox Church emerged out of one of the five great Patriarchates of Christianity, the Patriarchate of Alexandria which traces its origins back to the Evangelist Mark. 
     I want to look a bit at the Coptic Orthodox Church because it is one of the Christian Communities of the Near East that is in grave danger today.   Blog entries of December 24th and 26th spoke of the Palestinian and Iraqi Christian communities and I had always intended to get back to the Coptic Christians of Egypt but there is so much happening these past few months to comment on that I haven’t had the chance to do an entry on the Copts. 
      In the ancient world of Greek and Roman culture, the first three centuries of the Christian, or Common, Era, Alexandria—situated on the Mediterranean coast at the Nile Delta was the great center of learning where Philosophers and scientists met and exchanged idea.  The philosophy of the day was neo-Platonism and it was in Alexandria that Plotinus, probably the most influential of the Neo-Platonists studied.  In addition to the Greek and Roman pagan philosophers, it was also a center of Jewish studies, having a huge Jewish community. Some scholars think from the evidence of certain medical and scientific knowledge available in Alexandria that there may have been Buddhist monks from India in Alexandria.  That is not as farfetched as it may sound because we know the trade routes took sailors and merchants down the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean to Indian ports. There was an ancient synagogue dating to this era in the city of Cochin in Kerala. Christians gravitated to Alexandria as well, Alexandria becoming the catechetical center of ancient Christianity with Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, and Origen all teaching there.  At the time of the Council of Nicea it was a priest from Alexandria by the name of Arius that had triggered the heresy of Arianism which the Council was called to correct, but it was also a Patriarch of Alexandria Athanasius who led the opposition to the heresy.  Indeed Athanasius is the personification of Christological orthodoxy. 
     It was only in the fifth century at the time of the Council of Chalcedon the Church of Alexandria (and several other Oriental Churches) could not agree with the Churches of Constantinople and Rome regarding the precise way in which Divinity and Humanity are each and both characteristic of Jesus.  This is a complicated issue—far more complicated than I want to get into here and far more complicated than I need to get into here—and so let us just say that while agreeing that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, they differed on precisely how that should be explained.  
      While it may seem a bit trivial to us, or at least while we may see that there is essential agreement and the disagreement is more a matter of definition, it was a serious enough difference that the Chalcedonian Churches (Rome and Constantinople) no longer shared Eucharistic fellowship with the Churches that did not accept the doctrine as defined by the Council of Chalcedon (451). 
Egypt was part of the Byzantine Empire and the Imperial Court ascribed to the Chalcedonian formula—consequently the Emperor made life very difficult for the Christians of Egypt who rejected the Council’s doctrines.  It was a case of Christian persecuting Christian and ultimately it undermined the place of Egypt in the Empire.  In 639 when the Arab armies came into Egypt, the loyalty of the people to the Emperor in Constantinople had been weakened by these religious disputes, empowering the conquerors to take Egypt into the Caliphate without much resistance.  While initially the vast majority of Egyptians remained Christians, over the next six centuries through intermarriage and for economic advantage most of the Egyptian population had become Muslim.  Today between 10 and 12 percent of the Egyptian people are Coptic Christians.   More on this next time.

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