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The Cooley Center Articles - Early Christianity in Egypt

The Cooley Center Articles - Early Christianity in Egypt

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Dr. Robert E. Cooley gives a synopsis of early Christianity in the region of Egypt through the eyes of his son.

This article is one of a series of articles published by The Cooley Center dealing with research around Early Christianity, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the relationships therein.



The Cooley Center seeks to uncover the historical foundations of the Christian faith by collecting research tools as assets for researchers, sponsoring lecture series on the topics of the Old Testament, New Testament and the Patristics, promoting research projects, disseminating research for a larger audience, and finally, sponsoring trips to the Holy Land.
Dr. Robert E. Cooley gives a synopsis of early Christianity in the region of Egypt through the eyes of his son.

This article is one of a series of articles published by The Cooley Center dealing with research around Early Christianity, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the relationships therein.



The Cooley Center seeks to uncover the historical foundations of the Christian faith by collecting research tools as assets for researchers, sponsoring lecture series on the topics of the Old Testament, New Testament and the Patristics, promoting research projects, disseminating research for a larger audience, and finally, sponsoring trips to the Holy Land.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on May 17, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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EARLY CHRISTIANITY IN EGYPT:
A Father’s Reflections on a Son’s Interest
 
Dr. Robert E. Cooley, President Emeritus and former Professor of Biblical Studies and Archaeology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary 
A very large book rests on our living room coffee table. This special book, Egypt:Yesterday and Today, was presented to us from our son, Bob, following one of his tripsto Egypt. His inscription
reads, “To Dad and Mom, With appreciation for all our 
 wonderful
trips, Love, Bob.” It is a book of lith
ographs and diaries by David Roberts, aBritish artist of the Victorian Era, who commenced his pilgrimage through Egypt in 1838.The lithographs record in remarkable detail the famous monuments of ancient Egyptincluding temples, obelisks, pyramids and tombs. The grandeur of Pharonic antiquityshines through every page of the book. Usually, when we think of ancient Egypt, ourminds rush to such monuments; or, to the period of Hebrew residence in the land prior
to Israel’s
formation of a national community at Mt. Sinai. However, for Bob, his interestfocused on the period of Early Christianity.Egypt played a significant role in the development of early Christianity. Bob would loveto stretch my intellectual capacity and engage me in lengthy conversations around suchtopics as the theologians, Origen or Clement of Alexandria, or the Saints like Catherine,Anthony or Pachomius, and the significance of Alexandria as a major player in the earlyChurch Councils. He was quite intrigued with the emergence of Christian monasticism,one of the most remarkable innovations of early Christianity. His travels in Egypt wouldinclude visits to the old monasteries, especially Saint
Anthony’s, where monks still carry
out his work there.
Saints
Christian tradition has honored many persons as saints, believing that they wereinfluential in the growth of Egyptian Christianity. For example, Saint Mark is creditedwith establishing a small group of Christians in the countryside. Alexandria was his nextstop, but he soon became the object of hatred and pursuit. Before escaping the city, heestablished local leaders in the positions of priests and deacons. Later, he returned tothe city to visit the Christian Community, but his enemies discovered him and put himto death. St. Mark is remembered as the founder and first martyr of the Christian Churchin Egypt.Another revered saint is Saint Catherine of Alexandria. She was a young woman, well-educated and the member of a noble family. As the narrative of tradition goes,Catherine confronted the Emperor Maximinus Daia, who was persecuting theChristians, chiding him for his cruelty and persecutions. He was impressed with herbrilliance and faith and admonished his scholars to attempt to undermine her beliefs.Contrary to his intentions, the scholars were converted and eventually killed. Othercourtesans converted and eventually he had Catherine beheaded. Early tradition states
 
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that angels carried her body to Mount Sinai where a monastery and church were laterbuilt by the Emperor Justinian.
Today, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, along with Mt.
Sinai, is a well-visited tourist site.Bob joined us on several such visits, always making the climb up Mt. Sinai and visitingthe famous church which stands at the traditional site of the burning bush seen byMoses. The monastery, which is located nearby, houses precious manuscripts of EarlyChristianity, awaiting scholarly exploration.
Christian Monasticism
Many other saints mark the development of Christianity in Egypt, but none were as
important as Saint Anthony in Bob’s
 
 judgment. He is often called the “Father of theMonks” and is
credited, along with his colleague, Saint Pachomius, with the founding ofChristian monasticism. The monastic way of life
attracted Bob’s attention so th
at hismany visits to the Holy Land and Egypt included visits to such monasteries as St.
George’s and
 
Mar Saba in Israel, St. Catherine’s in the Sinai, and St. Anthony’s
inEgypt. Hundreds of such monasteries are scattered throughout the Middle East andstand as testimony to a very special Christian lifestyle. Yet, it is Egypt that is consideredto be the heart of the monastic idea.St. Anthony, away from the distractions of city and society, established a hermitage inthe Egyptian wilderness in A.D. 305. Over time, a variety of types emerged with nocentral orders, thus maintaining themselves as autonomous institutions. The size of themonasteries varied; some owned land and engaged in commercial interests, whileothers, being small, restricted themselves to a mere hermitage. The periods followingSt. Anthony show that two basic types of monasteries existed in Egypt: the hermit styleand the communal life style. Regardless of style, the Monks took vows of chastity andpoverty, practiced fasting, provided services to nearby communities, and secured almsfor the poor.
It was St. Anthony’s lifestyle that attracted Bob’s attention.
 
Anthony’s parents died
when he was only 18 years of age, leaving
him with the family’s belongings. At church
he heard the words
of Jesus, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions
andgive to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then
come, follow me” (Matthew
19:2). As a result, Anthony sold what property he had and gave most of the money tothe poor. The remaining amount was given to his sister who went to live in a communityof holy women.After much prayer and fasting, he went to a cave to live the life of a hermit. Others joined him and he became their spiritual mentor in the life of an ascetic. There was abrief time following that he went to Alexandria and ministered to prisoners, but beforelong he was back in the desert to his simple life in work and prayer. The basic monasticgarb was his creation and was represented as an all-purpose robe of white linenfastened about the waist with a leather belt. He died at the age of 105 years. During
Bob’s last
journey to Egypt, he spent time visiting the St. Anthony Monasteryand the few monks who carry on in the tradition of their saint.
 
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The Theological School of Alexandria
Theologians stand alongside the saints and monks in the formation of early Christianityin Egypt. In fact, the Theological School of Alexandra, known as Didascalia, waspossibly the greatest contribution of Egypt to early Christianity. It was founded in A.D.190 and it soon became the most significant center for theological learning and debatein the Mediterranean World. Many church leaders came to Alexandria to be educatedunder the great teachers and theologians there. Bob
’s
favorites were Clement andOrigen, who has
been called the “Father of Theology.”
 St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin (The Vulgate) came to the school toengage the theologians in the exchange of ideas and to debate with these greatChristian scholars. One of the main goals of the school was to educate converts frompaganism to Christianity. These scholars and theologians designed a system oftheology that by the use of philosophy would give a systematic exposition ofChristianity. Thus, philosophy was used in the formulation of Christian theology. Theydeveloped an allegorical system of interpretation that has been a hurdle in Bibleinterpretation until today. As a system of interpretation, its underlying assumption is thatthe Bible has more than one meaning. This resulted in the Alexandrine Theologiansever seeking hidden meanings.Clement was an advocate of Greek Philosophy and learning, but his works give a strongtheme that for him the Bible comes first in the life of the Christian. However, since alltruth belongs to God, what truth existed in Greek learning should be brought into theservice of God. Of course, the weakness in this approach was that Christianity couldend up being only a syncretism of Greek philosophy and Biblical teaching.
Origen, Clement’s star pupil,
succeeded to the leadership of the school and during histenure wrote more than 5000 scrolls on theological subjects. These subjects includedtextual criticism of the Scriptures, demonstrating the correct representation of theoriginal biblical text. Also, he did extensive exegetical work. His greatest contribution toChristian literature was his treatise of systematic theology. The allegorical system ofinterpretation he used resulted in many doctrinal themes that were contrary to the moreorthodox thinkers in the great Christian world. For example, he held the ideas of the pre-existence of the soul and the final restoration of all spirits.Due to the persecutions underway in Alexandria, Origen found a home in Caesarea,Palestine, where he continued his studies, teaching and frequent preachingopportunities. He will always be known as one who viewed the Scriptures through thelens of Hellenic thinking and held great sway in the thinking of early Christians,especially those in the eastern countries.In the end, the Western Church considered Origen to be a heretic, condemning hisviews at a Church Synod in his own city of Alexandria in A.D. 399. His work is oftenconsidered the greatest intellectual achievement in the early Church, prior to Nicaea.

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