History of the Coptic Orthodox Church
Sons of Pharaohs
The Copts are the rightful ancestors of the ancient Egyptians. The term “Copt” is derived from the Greek word “Aigyptos” which is in turn derived from the ancient Egyptian word “Ha-ka-Ptah” which means, the house of the spirit of Ptah, a most highly revered deity in Egyptian mythology. Since the Arab conquest and until today, this term refers to the Christian Egyptian, distinguishing them from the Muslim Egyptian. When the Arabs conquered Egypt in 642 A.D., all the native Egyptians were Christian. Therefore, they called Egypt “Dar-el-Qypt” which means, the home of the Copts.
The Copts are the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians or the “modern sons of the pharaohs” and the Coptic Orthodox Church is the indigenous Church of Egypt. They played an essential role in the whole Christian world, especially during the first five centuries.
Blessed is Egypt My People
Egypt was a refuge to many people especially during famines. Among those who found refuge in Egypt were: Abraham and Sarah, Joseph (who became its second man in command after pharaoh), Jacob and his sons who grew in Egyptas a nation, Moses the great prophet and his brother Aaron the first priest. The Bible talks about Moses saying: “Moses was taught in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was mighty in words and in deeds.” Also, among the prophets who visited Egypt was Jeremiah who uttered his last prophecy there.
Finally, it was visited by the Holy Family. Egypt was the only country in the world that our Lord visited. Thus, Egypt became a representative of the Gentiles to whom Christ came to establish His Church and to form His new people. The prophets Hosea and Isaiah both prophesied about the Son of God going out of Bethlehem and fleeing to Egypt.
Isaiah said, “Behold, the Lord rides upon a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will totter at His presence… In that day there will be an alter to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border.”
St. Cyril the Great interpreted this prophecy saying, “The swift cloud which carried the Child Jesus to Egypt was His mother, St. Mary, who surpassed the cloud in purity. The alter which was established in the midst of the land of Egypt is the Christian Church which had replaced the temples of paganism as the idols collapsed and the temples were deserted in the presence of the Lord Jesus.” Through Isaiah, later in the chapter we hear the Lord proclaiming, “Blessed is Egypt, My people.” Many miracles took place there during that visit and many places were blessed. At these holy places, many churches and monasteries were built, which are visited by people from all over the world. Thus Jesus Christ came during His childhood to Egypt to lay by Himself the foundation stone of His Church in Egypt.
St. Mark the Founder
The Coptic Orthodox Church is an Apostolic Church. It was founded by St. Mark the Apostle and Evangelist in the first century. It is also known as “The Church of Alexandria” or “The See of St. Mark.” It was one of the earliest four “sees” or “patriarchates”: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. The see of Constantinople was founded in the fourth century.
With the establishment of the Church in Alexandria, St. Mark ordained deacons, priests and a bishop to assist him in his ministry. Through an unbroken chain of apostolic succession, the present day patriarch, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, is the 117th successor of St. Mark.
St. Mark was a forward-thinking apostle; his ministry was productive and covered numerous spheres of activities, including the following:
- Preaching in Egypt and Pentapolis, next to Judea, Cyprus, Asia Minor and Italy; during this time he ordained bishops, priests and deacons;
- Authoring the first and oldest Gospel, most probably in Egypt. (65-68 A.D.);
- Authoring the Holy Eucharistic Liturgy, which is still used to this day in Coptic Orthodox liturgical services; and
- Establishing the Chatechetical School of Alexandria, which defended Christianity against the secular philosophical School of Alexandria, and conceived a number of great and famous fathers.
St. Mark was martyred in Alexandria in 68 A.D. His head is preserved in the great Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria, and his relic is at the Coptic Patriarchate located in Cairo, Egypt.
School of Alexandria
The Catechetical School of Alexandria was established in the first century of Christianity by St. Mark. It became renown in areas of study such as theology, dogma and doctrine, history, biblical studies and patrology. Numerous scholars were among its most prominent students, who taught in it later, such as Athenagoras, Pentaenous, Clement, Origen, Didymus, Athanasius the Apostolic, Cyril of Alexandria and Dioscorus.
Origen alone composed more than 6000 commentaries on the Bible. He wrote his Hexapla in which the Old Testament was written in six columns. He was also responsible for all the translations of that time. St. Didymus the Blind was the dean of the school during the time of St. Athanasius the Apostolic. He learned to read and write using carved wood, fifteen centuries before the introduction of Braille.
The Roman Emperors concentrated in their persecution on Christians of Egypt, especially in Alexandria, for the following reasons:
- The success of the Church of Alexandria and its School in attracting even philosophers to the new faith.
- Alexandria represented a vital center that provided the Roman capital with products. For this reason the Emperors were afraid of any revolution in Egypt.
- The courage of the Egyptians and their sincere desire to attain the crowns of martyrdom perplexed the persecutors, so that Diocletian went to Alexandria to practice persecution by himself.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is known as “The Church of Martyrs” because of the myriads of Copts who gave their lives in witness to Christ, thus preserving the Church and the Christian faith for future generations. Tertullian, a famous contemporary historian of the early Christian era stated, “If the martyrs throughout the world were to be put on one side of the scale and the Coptic martyrs alone on the other side of the scale, the latter would outweigh the former.”
The historian who called the Coptic Church, “The Church of Martyrs,” not only did so because of the sheer number of martyrs, but also because of the ardent desire that its members had shown toward martyrdom. When they were prevented from worship in churches, they never fled to catacombs or tombs to worship; instead, they worshiped openly and fearlessly in the fields. Living the Scriptures in which the Apostle Paul teaches, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake,” it was not uncommon that many Copts traveled to seek the opportunity to witness to Christ and share in His sufferings and obtain the “Crown of Martyrdom.” Women and children were no less courageous than men. The Copts believed that their suffering is a sign of love to God, who suffered and died for us. Hence they longed to share in His suffering, even to the point of death.
Many Copts traveled from one place to another seeking the crowns of martyrdom. The waves of persecution in Egypt began since the first century when the Apostle St. Mark was martyred by the enraged pagan populace; and it continues to these days.
The Copts insisted on starting their calendar by the beginning of the reign of Diocletian, in 248 AD, calling it “Anno Martyri,” for in his reign the Church gained numerous numbers of martyrs, who are now glorified in Paradise. About the eleventh of September of every year we celebrate the commencement of a new Coptic year, calling it “Feast of Nayrouz,” in which we celebrate the Feast of Martyrs, as a spiritual preparation for starting a new year.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is also credited with the genesis of the monastic movement, which began during the latter part of the 3rd century and flourished in the 4th century under the example of St. Antony (251-356 A.D.), known as the father of all monks over the world. The monk essentially lives like an angel unceasingly lifting up prayers and praises to God – entails a life of asceticism consisting of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship, and purity of heart together with elements of manual labor. Monks strive to grow in spiritual virtues throughout their lives, starting by the virtue of celibacy.
All monastic forms started in the 4th century in Egypt. The three forms of monasticism, which took root in Egypt, are: anchoritism, semi-anchoritism and cenobitism. The Coptic Orthodox Church is known for its asceticism, not only because the monastic movement started there, but also because asceticism is a fundamental characteristic of its sacramental and liturgical life and worship.
Some Christians yearned for the anchoritic life and escaped to the desert. One such example of that is St. Paul the First Hermit, who lived in the desert more than 90 years (250-341 A.D.) without seeing a single man. Although there were others who preceded St. Antony the Great in the practice of monasticism, he is widely credited with its genesis because of the many who became his disciples, embraced it, and championed its development. St. Pachomius (290-348 A.D.) established the cenobitic system of monasticism because he found that the anchoritic system was not suitable for everyone seeking the monastic life. St. Shenouda the Archmandrite and Head of Anchorites (348-466 A.D.), embraced the anchoritic or hermitic life and he encouraged some of his monks to withdraw to the desert after a few years of cenobitic life. He was the spiritual father for 2200 monks and 1800 nuns. This movement attracted people from all over the world to come to the Egyptian desert to embrace and live the “angelic life” such as the Greeks, Romans, Cappadocians, Libyans, Syrians, Nubians, Ethiopians and many others.
The women’s monastic movement started side by side with that of men. Many Egyptian and foreign women were disguised in men’s garments to live an ascetic life in men’s monasteries, and they became pioneers in asceticism and spirituality. Later, monks contributed in the building of the nunneries. Many female leaders played effective roles, such as Abbess Sarah and Abbess Theodora.
At its climax, the number of monasteries reached as high up as in the hundreds besides the thousands of anchoritic cells and caves that are scattered throughout the Egyptian desert. Today, there are a number of Coptic monasteries outside the borders of the Egyptian desert. There are two in the U.S., two in Australia, one in Italy, one in Germany, and one in France.
Scholars who study the first three Ecumenical Councils are able to distinguish the Alexandrine Theologians as leaders and pioneers of the Christian faith on an ecumenical level. Among the most prominent are:
- St. Athanasius the Apostolic, the 20th patriarch, whose papacy was from 326-372 A.D., attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 A.D. Being only a deacon and the secretary for Pope Alexandros at that time, he fought Arianism locally and authored the Orthodox Creed, which he presented at the council and which was agreed upon by the 318 convening bishops. After Pope Alexandros’s departure, he took his place, becoming the 20th patriarch.
- Pope Timothy, the 22nd patriarch, whose papacy was from 380-385 A.D., played a significant role in defeating the Macedonian heresy, which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit at the second Ecumenical Council which was held in Constantinople in 381 A.D. and convened by 150 bishops. He authored the last section of the Orthodox Creed or Nicene Creed, which addressed the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
- St. Cyril the Great, the 24th patriarch, whose papacy was from 412-458 A.D., participated in the third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. He led the 200 convening bishops to the understanding that Nestor’s concept of Christ having two natures – divine and human – instead of one, was heretical and undermined His redemptive act on the cross. St. Cyril reiterated and articulated the Christological formula, “The One Nature of the Incarnate Word of God.”
These theologians’ prominence was not based on any political ties since Alexandria was under the Roman Empire, and subsequently under Byzantine rule until the Arab Conquest of Egypt. Their prominence, however, was based on the pious, spiritual, theological and Scriptural perspective.
The faith of the Copts is often referred to as “The Orthodox Faith,” which is to say the “Straight faith” that was handed down by the Apostles. The Copts have fiercely defended their faith throughout the ages and against numerous attacks.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is an Apostolic Church, not only because it was founded by St. Mark the Apostle, but also because it preserves apostolic teachings as passed down by the Apostles in the Scriptures and the Holy Tradition, which in Orthodoxy is known as the Oral or Spoken Gospel. The Apostolic teachings are upheld in all facets of Coptic Orthodoxy, from the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, to its doctrine and theology and to its spirituality and worship. The Church is considered a living extension of the Apostolic Church of the first century without deviation offering the precious gift of faith throughout the ages and where Christ transfigures its life, attracting many to Himself, working through its members by the power of the Holy Spirit.