A blog by: Marina Zaki and Joseph Gabriel
An introduction into the history of the Coptic Orthodox church
The Coptic Orthodox church was established in the name of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by St. Mark the Apostle and Evangelist. The first Coptic church has its origins in the city of Alexandria, Egypt around the year 42 AD. St. Mark was the apostle who preached Christianity to Egypt and established the church there; thereafter he became her first official Pope of the Coptic Church, and the founder of the See of St. Mark of Alexandria.
The first Christian that St. Mark baptised in Egypt was Anianus the shoemaker: as he entered the Alexandria suburbs, his sandal strap snapped. When the cobbler Anianus accidentally pierced his own hand with an awl, he exclaimed: “God is one!” St. Mark took this as the opportunity to preach Christ to him, and also healed his hand. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Christian population grew from this shoemaker (who would actually become the second Pope after him) and his family, to a great congregation by the time of St. Mark’s martyrdom in 68 AD.
Long before the arrival of St. Mark however, we see countless mentions of the land of Egypt in the Old Testament: Abraham and Sarah and their travels to Egypt, Joseph suffering at the hands of the Egyptians, Moses the prophet and the Hebrew people held captive in Egypt, King Jeroboam of Israel, the story of Jeremiah the prophet and many more. In relation to the New Testament, it is critical to mention the flight of the Holy Family to the land of Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). This fulfilled the prophecy of Hosea (11:1) in the Old Testament.
Two thousand years of Christianity and blessings in the land of Egypt should not only be recognised but celebrated, acknowledging our rich history.
Introduction to the Orthodox fathers and dogma
The Coptic Church of Alexandria has long been one of the most important centres of Christianity, providing the world a who’s who list of its greatest Fathers and theologians, who were critical in the formation and preservation of Christian doctrine, identity and philosophy. The Catechetical School of Alexandria, founded by St. Mark produced such luminaries as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, and was visited and influenced scholars in later centuries such as Gregory Thaumaturgus, Basil of Caesarea and Jerome.
The Coptic Church was central in the formation and defence of Orthodox dogma and played a central role in the first three Ecumenical Councils, the universal gatherings of Christian bishops the world over in response to the fiercest heresies of the day. It was St. Athanasius the Apostolic (296-373 AD), also known as the ‘Defender of the Faith’, then but a Deacon (and later 20th Pope of the See of St. Mark), who stood and defended the faith toe to toe against the heretic Arius in the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea (325 AD).
St. Athanasius defended the dogma of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ being Co-Essential and Equal to the Father. Pope Timothy I of Alexandria (22nd Pope of the See of St. Mark) presided over the second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (381AD) once more condemning Arianism, as well as Apollinarism and Macedonianism. The great Pope Cyril I of Alexandria (known as the Pillar of Faith) presided over the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus (431AD) to condemn Nestorius, with input from the great Shenute of Atripe. Without the Coptic Church, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Orthodox Christian teaching would have been long lost.
It was at the 4th Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) that the Orthodox Christian churches started to see the first schisms. The Coptic church, along with its sister churches in the Oriental family of Orthodox churches, became known as ‘non-Chalcedonians’. St. Athanasius affirmed the doctrine, our faith and beliefs and became known as the ‘Father of Orthodoxy’.
“In addition to the canon of the Scriptures, the Coptic church, like all other churches of apostolic origin, relies on the writings of the church fathers as authorities in matters of faith and morals”. Our blog series will aim to bring together stories of pre- (for example: St Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons) and post-Chalcedonian fathers (for example: Severus of Antioch and Pope Theodosius I).
Introducing the origins of monasticism, saintly life and martyrdom
Before being ordained a monk in 1954, Nazir Gayyid, (who would later become H.H. Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Pope of the See of St. Mark) pledged:
“I acknowledge that monasticism is a complete death to the world and all that is in it in the way of wealth and possessions, and in the way of relatives and friends, and in the way of appointments and occupations and that it is a life of worship and dedication to God, a life of penitence and deprivation and perfect obedience and exclusion and poverty”.
Discussion on monasticism in the Coptic church cannot begin without mention of St. Pachomius and St. Antonious (St. Antony the Great). St. Antonious is considered the father of organised Christian monasticism. St. Pachomius was the founder of the first coenobium in Upper Egypt and the first abbot of a double monastery for both monks and nuns. Further blogs will discuss the Coptic monasteries in for example, Wadi al-Natrun (Scetis) and the flourishing monasteries and abbeys worldwide, consecrated in the name of Saints.
Early and modern-day Copts suffer numerous trials, persecutions, and afflictions at the hands of unbelievers for their unshaken faith. Discussion on the Coptic martyrs and saints and their spiritually uplifting stories are endless. Their attributes however, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ are consistent: called to bear witness to the faith, fearless proclamations, refusal to partake in worshipping of idols, periods of intense suffering, followed by miraculous protection and comfort by the heavenly angels and finally receiving the crown of martyrdom in the paradise of joy.
Introducing the ecclesiastical oversight
“The Holy Synod is the highest ecclesiastical body in the church and is responsible for the church’s spiritual, ecclesiastical, structural, organisational and economic affairs”.
From the beginning of the 4th century, the Holy Synod of the Coptic church consists of members from the Coptic episcopate and oversee all aspects concerning the Coptic church and the See of Alexandria.
Moving into the 20th century, St. & Archdeacon Habib Girgis (Director of the Coptic Institute of Higher Theological Learning) recognised the crucial need for religious instruction of the young Coptic generation. A Sunday school committee was established and prepared a religious education curriculum for Coptic churches in Egypt. This was the beginning of the Sunday school programme, which prospered in the name of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and still thrives to this day,
Follow us in this series to hear more about the Coptic church, from: history and traditions to preaching and martyrdom and structure within the diaspora.
Meinardus, Otto. Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999.