Egypt, Early Church in

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There is no direct evidence for the presence of Christian communities in Egypt before the 2d century a.d. At Alexandria, the greatest port of the eastern Mediterranean, there was a considerable Jewish colony that flourished in the commingling of Oriental, Egyptian, and Greek cultures. This Hellenistic influence produced the Septuagint, and an apologetic literature intended to make Jewish revelation comprehensible to Greek rationalism; there was a considerable body of literature written or translated into Greek. This last class was later held suspect by the Jewish tradition because it had prepared the way for the universality of the New Testament.

The letter of Emperor Claudius (a.d. 41) regarding the influx of Jews from Syria is no longer considered evidence that Christians were dwelling in Egypt at that date; but Egyptians are mentioned among those who heard the Apostles "speak with foreign tongues" at Pentecost (Acts 2.10). A later passage of the Acts (18.2425) is concerned with Apollos, a Jew of Alexandria, "who had been instructed [in his country] in the Way of the Lord." If the words "in his country" found in some manuscripts of Acts are authentic, they bear witness to the antiquity of Christian propaganda in Egypt. The tradition that the Church of Alexandria was founded by St. Mark would be conclusive if it had been mentioned by clement of alexandria or origen, but the earliest report is that of Eusebius in the 4th century (Ecclesiastical History 2.16). It is impossible that Clement and Origen could have ignored the foundation of St. Mark. At the moment that the Church of Egypt entered history toward the end of the 2d century, it appeared solidly organized, drawing its members especially from the Hellenic milieu.

The peril of the Christians, regarded with hostility by the Jews, considered a Jewish sect by the Greeks, and banned by the Roman government, was great. Toward the end of the 2d century, the Gnostic writers Valentinus and Basilides spread their doctrines at Alexandria. gnosticism was not primarily a Christian aberration, but these two writers were Christian heretics. During the late 2d century, a catechetical school was established at Alexandria that seems to give evidence of a considerable Christian community. Once secure at Alexandria, Christianity spread up the Nile Valley. There is no evidence found in papyri dealing with administration or economic life, but numerous literary papyri bear witness to the presence of Christian communities even in Upper Egypt (Harvard Theological Review 37 [1944] 201).

Early Persecution of Christians. During the early part of the 3d century, Emperor Septimius Severus took action against the Christians. According to Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 6.2), Christian athletes, that is, the confessors who had the constancy to face torture and death, were brought from the thebaid and all parts of Egypt to Alexandria for trial and execution. In the course of the 3d century, the gospel spread further into the country places, and Bp. dionysius of alexandria devoted himself to converting the Egyptians or "Copts". The word "Copt" is a corruption of the Greek Aγεπτιος(Egyptian), which passed first through the Arabic qoubt. The country people were called Egyptian to distinguish them from the city dwellers in Alexandria.

More precise information on the spread of Christianity in the countryside may be gathered from documents of the persecution of the emperor decius (249251), even though the libelli (see libellatici) or certificates of sacrifice were required of the whole population, not only of Christians. Almost all certificates have come from Fayyûm. It seems that at this period Coptic translations of the Sacred Scriptures existed, at least of the books used in the liturgical ceremonies (Psalter, Gospel Book); but the problems raised by these books relative to their origin and spread have not been resolved.

The recorded history of the Church in Egypt begins with Bp. Demetrius of Alexandria (189231). (see demetrius, ss.) It is probable that until his time the only bishop in Egypt was at Alexandria and that he governed the Christians through their local priests and deacons (Ecclesiastical History 7.24). According to Eutyches (Annales; Patrologia Graeca 111:982), Demetrius was the first to consecrate bishops outside his own capital. That the Egyptian episcopate was the result of a division of the jurisdiction that had formerly belonged entirely to Alexandria explains the absolute authority its bishop enjoyed among his colleagues. His position was confirmed by the sixth canon of the Council of Nicaea (325): "The old customs in use in Egypt, in Libya, and in the Pentapolis shall continue to exist; that is, the Bishop of Alexandria shall have jurisdiction over all these provinces, for theirs is a similar relation to the Bishop of Rome" (Histoire des conciles d'après les documents originaux, 1:389). The power and authority of the bishop, later the patriarch, of Alexandria was exercised and recognized repeatedly until the Arab conquest. After the Council of chalcedon (451), the Monophysites disputed the see, and there were often two or more claimants: one, nominated by the emperor, called "melkite" or the king's man, was presumably faithful to the terms of Chalcedon; the other, a Monophysite, was chosen by the Egyptians themselves on the basis of his fidelity to the teachings of Cyril and Dioscorus.

Egyptian Monasticism. In the 3d century, Egypt saw the rise of monasticism. This institution was first associated with the Thebaid, to which many Christians had retired during the persecution of Decius. According to St. jerome, the first ascetic to settle permanently in the desert was Paul of Thebes (d. c. 341). The Vita Pauli by Jerome is a romantic story of monasticism, but the Vita Antonii written by St. athanasius (c. 357) is essentially trustworthy. Under Anthony common life began to take the place of the purely eremitical life. With Pachomius, monasticism in its cenobitical form became a permanent institution. From the Thebaid, monasticism spread to Lower Egypt; Ammon of Alexandria (d. c. 356) trained many disciples in the Nitrian mountains; Macarius (d. c. 390) did the same in the desert of Scete. These monasteries were visited by famous pilgrims, particularly in the late 4th and early part of the 5th century, such as Jerome, Rufinus, the two Melanias, Aetheria, John Cassian, Palladius, and Evagrius. The movement continued to attract famous and obscure recruits until the Arab invasions in the 7th century.

Athanasius. The early years of the 4th century had witnessed the persecution of bishops under Maximin Daia, the schism of Meletius, bishop of Lycopolis (see meletian schism) and leader of a policy of rigorism toward repentant lapsi, and the rise of the heresy of arius. The dominant personality of the period was Athanasius of Alexandria, who took part in the Council of Nicaea, called to condemn Arianism. In the persecution leveled against him by the semi-Arian emperors, Athanasius had the support of the monks, approval expressed by Anthony's visit in 339 or 354. The monks continued to support succeeding patriarchs of Alexandria, regarding them as the highest depositaries of religious authority.

Monophysite Troubles. During the late 4th and the 5th century the patriarchs played a crucial part in the ecclesiastical politics of the age. theophilus of alexandria had john chrysostom deposed at the Synod of the oak (403); Cyril acted as Pope Celestine's delegate at the Council of ephesus (431) and excommunicated nestorius, while dioscorus attempted to rehabilitate eutyches at the Robber Council of Ephesus in 449. The patriarchate was the center of the struggle over the Monophysite controversy all during the 6th and 7th centuries. While Emperor justin i (518527) did not attempt to dislodge the Monophysite leaders, justinian i (527565) frequently changed the patriarchs and resorted to strong measures or repression. The monasteries outside Alexandria became a refuge for exiled Monophysites, and those in the Nile Valley were taken over by the Aphthartodocetists, followers of julian of halicarnassus.

In 543 the exiled Monophysite patriarch Theodosius performed an episcopal consecration of great historical importance. The Arab vassal Prince Harith had asked for a bishop for his Christian tribes. At the request of theodora (1), Theodosius sent him the monk Theodore as bishop of the wandering Arab peoples and consecrated James baradai as bishop of Edessa. The latter exercised a roving commission among the Monophysites of the Mediterranean world, turning a discouraged party into a determined sect. The division of the Egyptians into Orthodox and Monophysite, and the disagreements of the Monophysites among themselves made the Persian conquest (617) inevitable. Under heraclius i (610641), the Persians were forced to evacuate Egypt (628), but the imperial victory was short lived. On Sept. 29, 642, 10 years after the death of Muhammad, the Arab conquerors replaced the Roman armies in Egypt.

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[m. c. hilferty]