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Coptic Orthodox Church History PDF Print
Written by Fr. Marcos A. Marcos   
Thursday, 16 August 2007
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Coptic Orthodox Church History
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The Coptic Church in History:

All through history and particularly during the Coptic Era, the Coptic Church played quite a significant role in shaping and defining Christian drought and doctrines. The contribution of the Coptic Church to world Christianity can be briefly summarized in the following four movements:

(1) Theological Scholarship and the Catechetical School:

Before Christianity, Alexandria was famous for having the largest library and museum in the world. That compound was actually the headquarters of the well known School of Alexandria. It housed millions of scrolls of papyrus which were said to have held all the knowledge of ancient scholarship. It was established by Ptolemy Soter in 323 B.C. In that school, seventy legendary scholars from the Jewish community translated the Old Testament from Hebrew to Creek in 270 B.C. It was a monumental work that stood the test of time and is known as the "Septuagint." Those scholars also established the order in which the books of the O.T., including the "Apocrypha", are arranged.

The school started as a predominantly scientific and literary institution. It then developed into a philosophical and theological university. The Catechetical School of Alexandria came in direct succession to it. This was the earliest important institution for theological education in Christian antiquity. Its deans, teachers, and graduates were responsible for what could be called the philosophization of Christian creed and for the most monumental works of exegesis. They defined Christianity in its final form for all generations to come.

The first known dean of the school was Pantaenus (died 190 A.D.), followed by Clement of Alexandria who made a real effort to successfully convert educated Creeks to Christianity. Next came Origen (about 215 A.D.) who was a biblical scholar and philosopher. He wrote lengthy commentaries on almost every book in the Old and New Testaments. His homilies are known to be the most ancient example of Christian preaching. Origen was succeeded by Dionysius of Alexandria (The Great) who later became the Patriarch of the Church (246-264 A.D.). Another distinguished dean elf the School was Didymus the Blind. He lost his sight when he was four years old. However, this handicap did not deter him from acquiring the vision of the mind and the soul. He mastered grammar, rhetoric, poetry, philosophy, mathematics and music. He knew by heart both the Old and the New Testaments. Among his pupils were St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Jerome, Palladius and Rufinus the historian. In his care for educating the blind, he became the first one in history to devise a system of engraved writing. By the fourth century, Coptic Alexandria had indeed become the seat of Christian Learning for the whole world.

(2) The Ecumenical Movement:

Early in the fourth century, and amid the fierce storm of persecution of the Copts by Diocletian, the Coptic Church was subjected to another storm rising from within. This storm was more dangerous to the Church than the first. It was the Arian heresy. The Coptic Patriarchs ex-communicated Arius successively stripping him from his priestly office. However, he continued preaching his heresy and, through his eloquence, he won many converts including two Libyan bishops and the Nicomedian bishop Eusebius.

The Arian heresy spread throughout all Egypt, Libya, Palestine and Asia Minor, and reached the ears of Constantine. The quarrel between the old patriarch and Arius was blazing furiously to the extent that there was bloodshed in the streets of Alexandria and Nicomedia. The Emperor summoned all of the bishops (about 1800) to meet in Nicea, Asia Minor to discuss the dispute and settle it once- and-for-all. It was the first Ecclesiastical Council with imperial authority and sanction. Because the heresy had not yet reached Europe, only six bishops represented the Western Church. The rest of the 318 bishops came from the East including the Metropolitan of India which was outside the Empire. It was difficult to overlook the signs of disfigurement and mutilation in many of these bishops who had been victims of the persecution of Diocletian, the predecessor of Constantine. The bishops of the Council represented all the varying traditions of Christianity.

The first order of business was to reach a verdict in the conflict between Abba Alexandros and Arius. Therefore Arius was called to present the nature of his beliefs. Having set them into chants and music, he unexpectedly started chanting accompanied by music and Alexandrian dance bands. Athanasius in turn, who was chosen by the Coptic Patriarch to reply, presented a close-knit argument, and in great eloquence stated step by step all the follies that result from the Arian folkloric lyric: "There was a time when the Son was not." Athanasius' argument swayed the Council members to the Orthodox position including the Emperor who commended him for the way he marshaled all his forces to present the Apostolic faith and to refute Arius' argument. After that heated debate a creed was called for. It was Athanasius again who formulated the text of the creed which was accepted unanimously by the Council.

The Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) was the beginning of an era in the history of the Church that could be defined as the age of the Ecumenical Councils. As mentioned earlier, those Councils set the basis of the Christian Creed. In all of them, the role of the Copts was supreme, and their theological and philosophical contribution to Christian doctrine and dogma was unsurpassed. The Ecumenical Movement ended with the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.)

(3) The Monastic Movement:

This particular movement is going to be dealt with in some detail as the general populace has very little knowledge of the roots of monasticism. Besides, there are some misconceptions about it in this day and age, especially in the Western world. Egypt is known to be the Motherland of Christian Monasticism. As Professor Atiya calls it "It is truly the gift of Egypt to Christendom" Monasticism sprang into existence in Egypt as early as the second half of the third century. In a few decades, it spread over the whole Christian world. The characteristics which shaped Coptic monasticism are:

a) The urge to pray without ceasing,

b) The hunger to meditate on the word of God, and

c) The disciplining of one's self by fasting, vigils, celibacy, the subduing of fleshly desires, willful proverty and the renunciation of worldly concerns.

Most historians consider St. Antony (251-356) to be the first to renounce the world and retire to the eastern desert of Egypt. It is true that, as a movement, monasticism started by St. Antony. However, long before that, organized flights to the deserts of Egypt took place. Just as an example, "Acta Sanctorum" tells us that in the second century, wealthy Alexandrian Christian called Frantonius decided to reject the world. He was able to persuade seventy others to accompany him. They all went to the Nytria desert and there they led a life of prayer and contemplation.

The main motive behind Coptic monasticism could be summarized in one word "LOVE". When a person loves God with all his heart, he wants to be alone with him all the time. He would not concern himself with anything or anyone but Him (I Corinthians 7:32 - 35), In his love, he sacrifices all to enjoy his oneness with God, to attain the purity of heart and thus to reach perfection in God.

For some others, there might have been another motive, namely to suffer with Christ and for His sake. St. Paul taught: "for to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also suffer for His sake." (Phil. 1:29). As he retires to the desert, the monk seems to be saying: "that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death." (Phil. 3:10).

Before the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, Christians were fought against, severely tortured and mass martyred for their faith. Now, after the issuing of the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., the Christians took on the fight themselves. The monks, torturing their bodies in the burning heat of the desert, and practicing severe ascetic disciplines, became the successors of the martyrs. One can almost hear them saying: "For your sake, we are killed all day long. "Rom. 8:56). In this regard, St.John Chrysostom says that the "martyr is tortured for few days to win the crown of martyrdom, but the monk suffers severely from his self-inflicted ascetic torture all his life."

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