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 trips to Egypt. His inscription reads, “To Dad and Mom, With appreciation for all our wonderful trips, Love, Bob.” It is a book of lithographs and diaries by David Roberts, a British artist of the Victorian Era, who commenced his pilgrimage through Egypt in 1838. The lithographs record in remarkable detail the famous monuments of ancient Egypt including temples, obelisks, pyramids and tombs. The grandeur of Pharonic antiquity shines through every page of the book. Usually, when we think of ancient Egypt, our minds 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 interest focused on the period of Early Christianity. Egypt played a significant role in the development of early Christianity. Bob would love to stretch my intellectual capacity and engage me in lengthy conversations around such topics 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 early Church Councils. He was quite intrigued with the emergence of Christian monasticism, one of the most remarkable innovations of early Christianity. His travels in Egypt would include 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 were influential in the growth of Egyptian Christianity. For example, Saint Mark is credited with establishing a small group of Christians in the countryside. Alexandria was his next stop, but he soon became the object of hatred and pursuit. Before escaping the city, he established local leaders in the positions of priests and deacons. Later, he returned to the city to visit the Christian Community, but his enemies discovered him and put him to death. St. Mark is remembered as the founder and first martyr of the Christian Church in Egypt. Another revered saint is Saint Catherine of Alexandria. She was a young woman, welleducated and the member of a noble family. As the narrative of tradition goes, Catherine confronted the Emperor Maximinus Daia, who was persecuting the Christians, chiding him for his cruelty and persecutions. He was impressed with her brilliance and faith and admonished his scholars to attempt to undermine her beliefs. Contrary to his intentions, the scholars were converted and eventually killed. Other courtesans converted and eventually he had Catherine beheaded. Early tradition states
that angels carried her body to Mount Sinai where a monastery and church were later built 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 visiting the famous church which stands at the traditional site of the burning bush seen by Moses. The monastery, which is located nearby, houses precious manuscripts of Early Christianity, 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 the Monks” and is credited, along with his colleague, Saint Pachomius, with the founding of Christian monasticism. The monastic way of life attracted Bob’s attention so that his many 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 in Egypt. Hundreds of such monasteries are scattered throughout the Middle East and stand as testimony to a very special Christian lifestyle. Yet, it is Egypt that is considered to be the heart of the monastic idea. St. Anthony, away from the distractions of city and society, established a hermitage in the Egyptian wilderness in A.D. 305. Over time, a variety of types emerged with no central orders, thus maintaining themselves as autonomous institutions. The size of the monasteries varied; some owned land and engaged in commercial interests, while others, being small, restricted themselves to a mere hermitage. The periods following St. Anthony show that two basic types of monasteries existed in Egypt: the hermit style and the communal life style. Regardless of style, the Monks took vows of chastity and poverty, practiced fasting, provided services to nearby communities, and secured alms for 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 and give 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 to the poor. The remaining amount was given to his sister who went to live in a community of 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 a brief time following that he went to Alexandria and ministered to prisoners, but before long he was back in the desert to his simple life in work and prayer. The basic monastic garb was his creation and was represented as an all-purpose robe of white linen fastened 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 Monastery and the few monks who carry on in the tradition of their saint.
The Theological School of Alexandria Theologians stand alongside the saints and monks in the formation of early Christianity in Egypt. In fact, the Theological School of Alexandra, known as Didascalia, was possibly 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 debate in the Mediterranean World. Many church leaders came to Alexandria to be educated under the great teachers and theologians there. Bob’s favorites were Clement and Origen, who has been called the “Father of Theology.” St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin (The Vulgate) came to the school to engage the theologians in the exchange of ideas and to debate with these great Christian scholars. One of the main goals of the school was to educate converts from paganism to Christianity. These scholars and theologians designed a system of theology that by the use of philosophy would give a systematic exposition of Christianity. Thus, philosophy was used in the formulation of Christian theology. They developed an allegorical system of interpretation that has been a hurdle in Bible interpretation until today. As a system of interpretation, its underlying assumption is that the Bible has more than one meaning. This resulted in the Alexandrine Theologians ever seeking hidden meanings. Clement was an advocate of Greek Philosophy and learning, but his works give a strong theme that for him the Bible comes first in the life of the Christian. However, since all truth belongs to God, what truth existed in Greek learning should be brought into the service of God. Of course, the weakness in this approach was that Christianity could end 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 his tenure wrote more than 5000 scrolls on theological subjects. These subjects included textual criticism of the Scriptures, demonstrating the correct representation of the original biblical text. Also, he did extensive exegetical work. His greatest contribution to Christian literature was his treatise of systematic theology. The allegorical system of interpretation he used resulted in many doctrinal themes that were contrary to the more orthodox thinkers in the great Christian world. For example, he held the ideas of the preexistence 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 preaching opportunities. He will always be known as one who viewed the Scriptures through the lens 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 his views at a Church Synod in his own city of Alexandria in A.D. 399. His work is often considered the greatest intellectual achievement in the early Church, prior to Nicaea.
The Theological School of Alexandria is still very much alive. The Theological College of the Catechetical School of Alexandria was re-established in 1893, with extensions in Cairo, New Jersey and Los Angeles. Egypt and the Early Church Councils The early Church Councils of Nicaea (A.D. 325), Constantinople (AD 381) and Ephesus (A.D. 434) included representatives from the church in Egypt. The attention of the Bishops focused around fundamental concerns of doctrine, especially as to the dual nature of Christ—human and divine. The Egyptian Bishops were embroiled in the controversy that led to their eventual isolation from the Western Church. Underlying the doctrinal debate, however, was a deeper issue of a political nature. Following the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451), the relationships between the Egyptian churches and Constantinople were strained as the Egyptians refused to acknowledge the authority of the Alexandrian Bishops appointed by the Byzantine State. Alexandria and the Christians of Egypt were now separated from the churches of the east and Antioch, as well as from the churches of the west and Constantinople. Eventually, the Christians in Egypt formed what we know today as the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Coptic (or Egyptian Christian) Church holds to an unbroken succession of patriarchs to the present, making it one of the oldest Christian churches in existence. Bob’s interest in Egypt was not in its glorious monuments of antiquity, nor its magnificent contrast between Nile and desert, but its important role in the early formation of Christian life. Some of the earliest texts of the New Testament have been preserved in its dry sands as has other Christian literature. His favorite city was Alexandria, the intellectual center of Eastern Christianity with its famous theologians. And, finally, the simple life of monasticism represented for him the perfect life. These themes were at the heart of our “father and son” chats and, for me, are memories that help bridge the lonely gaps created by his passing.