The Greek and Eastern Churches/Part 2/Division 5/Chapter 1







(a) Eusebius; Socrates; Sozomen; Theodoret; Evagrius; John of Ephesus; Cosmas Indicopleustes, Typographie Chretienne (6th century); John of Nikiou, Chronicle (7th century), French trans., 1883; Malan, Documents of the Coptic Church, Eng. trans.

(b) Gibbon, Decline and Fall, chap. xlvii.; Neale, Patriarchate of Alexandria; Hefele, History of the Councils, Eng. trans., vols. iii., iv.; Vlieger, Origin and Early History of the Coptic Church, 1900; Isaak August Dorner, Doctrine of the Person of Christ, Eng. trans., Div. ii. vol. i.; Leipoldt, Schenute von Atripe, 1903.


The Coptic Church is the ancient national Church of Egypt, which was separated from the Greek Church in the fifth century because it did not accept the decision of the council of Chalcedon, just as the Syrian Church had been cut off by its refusal to admit the verdict of the council of Ephesus. While the Syrians adhered to Nestorianism, the Copts maintained its extreme opposite—Monophysitism. It is not correct to call them "Jacobites"—the title of the Syrian Christians who hold the same doctrine, because their position is independent of the more Eastern movement, and dates back to an earlier period. The few Egyptian Christians in communion with Constantinople and the Greek Church are known as "Melchites," the followers of the imperial policy. The name "Copt" is an adaptation of the Greek Aiguptos, originally used for the Nile and then for the land of the Nile, which is a Hellenised form of the old Egyptian title, Ha-ka-Ptah—"Houses of Ptah," the and where Ptah dwells. The Arabs call the Copts Qubti. Thus the name simply means Egyptian.[1] It has come to have an ecclesiastical significance, because most of the Copts are of the Monophysite Church in Egypt, while the Mohammedans are known as Arabs, although in the mixture of races now occupying Egypt Berber and Nubian blood is mingled with that of the conquerors from Arabia as well as such of the native Egyptian stock as went over to the Muslim faith. In the towns the true Egyptians are mainly Christians; but the Fellaheen of the country, evidently constituting the original indigenous peasant race, as their resemblance to the ancient monuments testifies, have been absorbed to a great extent into Islam.

The Egyptian Church is undoubtedly one of the most ancient churches in the world, dating back almost if not quite to apostolic times, although, like the Eastern Syrian, and even the Roman churches, it can furnish no historical record of its origin. The commonly accepted tradition that it was founded by St. Mark cannot be traced with certainty earlier than the fourth century;[2] and the fact that this tradition is not to be found in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, or any other writer of the second and third centuries, raises our doubts about its historicity. On the other hand, the personal obscurity of St. Mark—apart from his authorship of the Second Gospel—is in its favour. Great ancient churches were eager to trace their origin to apostles. When Antioch, Alexandria's rival, claimed St. Peter for its founder and first bishop, it is not likely that the Egyptian patriarchate would voluntarily accept a second place by putting in a claim for no more important a person than that very apostle's secretary, unless some undeniable testimony had determined the matter. On this account, therefore, we may admit a shadowy probability that tradition is right here, and that St. Mark really did found the Church of Alexandria.

In Egypt it is usual to refer the Babylon from which the First Epistle of St. Peter is dated to the place of that name on the Nile, near where Cairo now stands, and the seat of an important bishopric in early Christian times. But if the apostle himself as well as his secretary had been living there, how shall we account for the absolute silence of antiquity as to St. Peter's residence in Egypt and its attributing the origin of the Church there only to St. Mark?

Although among the Nile villages Christianity has been suppressed by the Mohammedan tyranny, this melancholy fact should not blind us to the recollection that in early times it found a very fertile field in Upper Egypt. While Alexandria was largely Hellenised, the country parts farther south remained thoroughly Egyptian. The consequence was that the philosophic metamorphosis of the ancient cult, that gave it a new lease of life in the educated Greek area of Egypt, was never accepted or understood among the simpler folk of the rural districts. But conservative as these southern people were, they failed to hold to their old gods when they saw them trans- formed out of recognition by the Hellenic movement. Thus they had been tlung into a state of bewilderment before Christianity appeared as a new claimant for their faith, with the result that the gospel won its way among them with the more ease. Meanwhile, in the Hellenised north Christianity was adopted and adapted by the specific culture of the age, and, whether in heretical Gnosticism or more orthodox Origenism, it there appeared with peculiarities that were never appreciated up the Nile. The consequence was a difference between the purely Coptic churches of the south and the Græco-Egyptian Church of Alexandria. At a later time we shall see this distinction emphasised by doctrinal divisions when the Byzantine party obtains influence at Alexandria and makes that city the seat of the Melchites, while the Copts hold their own position in the south. It is in the churches of the Nile valley that we have the real root and spring of the genuine old Coptic Church. These Copts cared little for the enlightened Alexandrian theology. Their literature consisted of the Bible and tales of saints and martyrs.

The Church in Egypt has the terrible but heroic distinction of being the most repeatedly and continuously persecuted body of Christians all down the ages of history, from the second century almost to our own day. These much tried people endured at least their full share of persecution under the Romans during the two or three centuries when Christianity was always illegal and at intervals fiercely assailed. Neale says that the Dominitian persecution does not appear to have reached Egypt, but that possibly there was some persecution there under Trajan. But the first persecution of which we have any information is that under Septimius Severus, which was concentrated with exceptional severity in this province, when Leonidas, the father of Origen, suffered martyrdom, a persecution to which the romantic story of Potamiciena belongs. Till this period the history of the Church is a blank. The Decian, which was the first of the really great persecutions deliberately designed to destroy Christianity on lines of seriously planned State policy, fell with exceptional force on the Christians of Egypt. Then many fled to the desert, only to be seized as slaves by the Arabs. The Diocletian persecution was also severely felt in Egypt. In the year 311, Peter the bishop of Alexandria was beheaded without a trial by order of Maximin. So effectually were the horror and the heroism of this persecution branded into the memory of the Church that the Copts named the new era of Diocletian "the era of martyrs." Of course Egypt shared in the quiet of the breathing time under Galienus's edict of toleration, and in the peace of the Church that came in with the edict of Milan. But this peace proved to be disappointing and delusive. Persecution soon revived in new forms, now claiming Christianity itself as an excuse for harshness to Christians. The Arian heresy first appeared in Alexandria, and the worst of the consequent troubles were felt in that city, under the infamous rule of George the Cappadocian, whom Constantius forced on the Church, ordained, as the impartial pagan historian Ammianus says, "against his own and the public interest."[3] Athanasius tells us that "virgins were thrown into prison; bishops were led away in chains by soldiers; the houses of orphans and widows were plundered," etc.[4] According to Sozomen, George "imprisoned and maimed many men and women," and was "accounted a tyrant and became an object of universal hatred."[5] It is difficult to be very severe on the murderers of such a tyrant. They were pagans—not Athanasian Christians, as the Arians tried to show.

Arianism was suppressed; but new heresies disturbing the peace of the Church brought their train of troubles to Egypt. After the severance of the Monophysite party from the Greek Church, the imperial displeasure made life so hard for the Copts that they were ready to welcome the Arab invasion as a relief. But it was not long before they became the victims of Mohammedan persecution. With every change of masters they have hoped for better times; but whether under Arab, Kurd, or Turk, the Christians have always been the sufferers from each new invasion and fresh conquest of Egypt, in additional exactions, restrictions, wrongs, and insults. This went on until modern Europe interfered with Egyptian affairs, and, last of all, England brought equal justice to all classes and freedom in religion for all faiths.

Turning to the internal characteristics of the Egyptian Church, we may observe how in patristic times Alexandria and the Delta, the cultivated north, were marked by liberalism both in polity and in doctrine. The sacerdotal and episcopal claims of Catholicism were slower to make themselves felt here than in any other Church. Eutychius, a patriarch of Alexandria in the tenth century, records a very significant tradition throwing light on primitive times. He states that "St. Mark along with Ananias"—who is reckoned St. Mark's successor in the "episcopate"—"ordained twelve presbyters to remain with the patriarch; so that when the patriarchate should become vacant they might elect one out of the twelve, on whose head the other eleven should lay their hands, and give him benediction and constitute him patriarch."[6] After citing this statement, Neale adds that "so monstrous a story" would lead us to think the author a fabricator but for St. Jerome, who says that "at Alexandria till the middle of the third century the presbyters nominated and elected from among themselves to the higher dignity of bishop,"[7] He attempts to save the situation by advancing the alternative explanations, that either this was only an election by the presbyters, not a consecration, or the twelve must have constitued an "episcopal college."[8] Both of these hypotheses are purely conjectural. They imply a regularity of episcopal ordination that was not enforced in early times. Bishop Wordsworth has shown that presbyterian ordination was not unknown.[9] It would appear that a presbyterian government was maintained in Egypt after it had been superseded by episcopal government in other provinces, and that even after the recognition of the three orders, the second order, the presbyterate, remained here more important for a long time. There were fewer bishops in proportion to the Christian population; the presbyters in the local churches over which they presided as individual pastors were more independent; and the personal prominence of conspicuous elders was more marked in Egypt than elsewhere. Nothing is more striking in the clerical development of the Catholic Church, than the disappearance of the elder from an active part in affairs. He seems to be squeezed out between the bishop and the deacon. He has his seat in the apse at the communion; but when we come to movements that excite public attention he is lost to sight, and we have only the bishop and his attendant deacon in view. But this picture does not represent the situation in Egypt, where we often meet with important elders. Two familiar examples spring into our minds immediately we reflect on the Alexandrian position. Origen was a presbyter—though ordained at Cæsarea and therefore not reckoned as such by his bishop Demetrius; Arius, too, was a presbyter. Further, Professor Harnack has shown that "unless all signs deceive us, we find that in Egypt generally, and especially at Alexandria, the institution of teachers survived longest in juxtaposition with the episcopal organisation of the churches, though their right to speak at services of worship had expired."[10]

In the second place, when making a general survey of the early history of the Church in Egypt, we are struck with its intellectual energy and freedom. It had every advantage in these respects to start with. Alexandria was the centre of an old school of learning, where the grammarians pursued the study of the classics, and the rhetoricians preached from texts in Homer, the most venerable of those classics. It was also a seat of philosophical speculation, and here Neo-Platonism grew up side by side with Christian theology. The Jewish scholarship represented by the Book of Wisdom and the teachings of Philo taught people who used the Septuagint to combine its sacred authority with Platonic and Stoic speculations. As a great centre of commerce, Alexandria came under the influences of Rome and Athens, and combined these with Persian and even Indian ideas. The most cosmopolitan of all the great seats of scholarship, this city, when it received Christianity, was prepared to give the new doctrine the freest and most varied treatment. Here it was that the gospel came into contact with the widest, fullest, most energetic thought of the age. The faith that had first appeared among the valleys of Galilee was now launched on the ocean of the world's intellectual life. The inevitable consequences followed. Sometimes it was perverted out of all recognition; at other times, while retaining its essential features, it was enriched by a noble, reverent development of its vital truths. The danger in both cases was that it should become little else than a gnosis, an intellectual system, a Christian theodicy, explaining the universe in terms of God as revealed in Christ. From this fate it was saved in early times by persecution. The dungeon, the torture chamber, and the executioner's sword taught men to take their religion seriously as a matter of life and death.

Egypt was the birthplace of speculative theology, which may be said to have begun with the Gnostics in the first half of the second century. There was Syrian Gnosticism and Asiatic Gnosticism, but neither of these would bear comparison for a moment in regard to intellectual vigour or influence on the Church's thought with the Gnosticism of Alexandria. Irenæus and Hippolytus discussed and condemned a great variety of Gnostic systems; but all the while they had in mind the one system of Valentiuus as the most serious rival of Catholic orthodoxy, winning its converts in the cultivated and fashionable Christian society at Home as well as in many parts of the empire—and probably Valentinus was an Alexandrian.

Then it was in Alexandria that speculative Christian theology sprang up in opposition to the dangerous disintegrating Gnosticism of the heretics as itself a true gnosis. Clement calls the enlightened Christian a Gnostic. In his De Principiis Origen gives us the earliest treatise on systematic theology in the Church. These scholars of Alexandria wrote in Greek; they belonged to the northern Hellenised community of Christians; but we must not forget that this was on the Delta and by the Nile. Origen, the greatest of them all, was a Copt. Thus the most daring thinker in the early Church was not of the Hellenic stock, where we look first for the budding of the speculative intellect; he was of the race of men who built the Pyramids and Karnak, and wrote "the Book of the Dead," and gave the world the myth of Osiris.

Coming down a little later, we see Arianism—the heresy that most seriously divided the Church for two generations, the only heresy that ever had the upper hand in Christendom—first promulgated and first condemned in Egypt. But it is a remarkable fact that this system, while it arose at Alexandria, found more real support in Constantinople and other cities away from Egypt. That is one of the facts to be borne in mind when we find Origen and his school charged with the parentage of Arianism. A full enquiry brings out results in which two such very different scholars as Cardinal Newman and Professor Harnack are found for once to be agreeing. It is not to Alexandria, but to Antioch; not to Origen, but to Lucian, that we are to trace the seeds and sources of Arianism.[11] Arius was condemned in his own Church at Alexandria quite early in the development of his teaching, and the place was soon made too hot for him, so that he had to escape. After that it is not likely that anything more would have been heard of Arianism if he had not made a convert of the influential Eusebius of Nicomedia, court chaplain to Constantine, a vigorous, astute, unscrupulous ecclesiastical politician. Subsequently, whenever the heresy is dominant in Alexandria, that is only owing to the forcible intrusion of an alien bishop, who obtains and holds the patriarchal chair by the aid of the imperial troops. In this way Arianism in Egypt came to be synonymous with tyranny and oppression, and its supremacy involved the Coptic Church in persecution.

It was not here, therefore, that the Copts were inclined to fall out of line with the Catholic Church. Their tendency drove them in quite the opposite direction. It pointed to the accentuation of the idea of the Divinity of Christ to the neglect of His humanity. Alexandria took the lead in opposition to Nestorianism. Here, as so often in other connections, the rivalry between Alexandria and Constantinople embittered the controversy, degrading it with political intrigue and the heat of offensive personalities, Cyril has been canonised and his writings are accounted standards of orthodoxy. But the unprejudiced reader must admit that they go a long way to prepare for the heresy that was to be condemned at the next œcumenical council, the denial of the two natures in Christ by the virtual suppresion of the human.

Eutyches followed on similar lines, and yet his development of the same trend of thought did not meet with the approval of the Church, and came under condemnation as a heresy. Now it is true that this heresy first appeared at Constantinople. Its advocate Eutyches was the archimandrite of a large monastery near that city. But he was a friend of Cyril, from whom he had received a copy of the Acts of the council of Ephesus, and he had vigorously seconded the patriarch of Alexandria during the Nestorian controversy, behaving as a fiery opponent of Nestorianism. Moreover, Cyril's immediate successor Dioscurus was the champion of Eutyches and the author of the type of thought less crude than that the old arcliiniandrite had expounded, which went by the name of the Monophysite heresy. The disgraceful proceedings of the "Robber Synod" were chiefly due to the conduct of Dioscurus and his monks—unworthy representatives of the Egyptian Church.

Again and again we see the turbulent Coptic monks leading the mob in some act of violence. At the storming of the Serapeum, in the murder of Hypathia, during the Monophysite disputes, when the worst deeds of violence were done, if this was not by the soldiery, it was by the monks who poured in from the Nitrian desert or some other distant retreat, crowding the streets of Alexandria, and stirring up the dregs of the populace to criminal outbreaks. We must remember that monasticism had first appeared in Egypt. Following the example of the Therapeutæ, first as solitaries in their huts and caves, then, in the second stage, founding the Cœnobite life, the Egyptian monks laid the foundation of the vast system that spread over Syria and Asia Minor, and finally took possession of the whole Church, to the extent of securing the position that though a man might be a monk without becoming a saint, he could not be a saint unless he had been first a monk. Now it is not to be denied that there were genuine saints among the monks. The ascetic life had a fatal attraction for the strongest natures; it seemed to present the loftiest ideal to them. Such a monk as Father Jeremiah, the hermit whom the Emperor Anastasius had known in his early days, and whom he highly honoured when he reached the imperial throne, appears to have been a really good man, unselfish and unworldly. No doubt there were many such, whose names have never been preserved in history. But herein lies the fatal evil of the whole system as it was developed in Egypt. There were monks who behaved like savages—ignorant, superstitious, ferocious men. Some were guilty of nameless vice. But these degenerates were not the causes of the worst evil of monasticism. The worst mischief was wrought by the withdrawal of the best people from civic and domestic life. Thus the population of Egypt was checked in those very circles that should have dominated it if the character of the people was to attain a high standard, and the most serviceable men were withdrawn from the service of mankind. This was felt all over the empire. Eventually it became one of the causes of the fall of Rome. But nowhere did it have more serious consequences than in Egypt, the scene of the origin of monasticism and always that of its greatest popularity. Mrs. Butcher describes this rush to the monasteries as "the suicide of a nation."

One of the most famous of the Egyptian monks was Senuti, who lived during the second half of the fourth century and the first half of the fifth. The son of an Egyptian farmer, and brought up as a shepherd lad, he entered the monastery of Panopolis, near Athrebi, in Upper Egypt, and became a venerated monk, credited with supernatural powers, and known as the prophet. Cyril took him to the council of Ephesus, where he had a prominent place as a vehement, and if we are to believe his disciple and successor Besa, a violent part. According to this admirer of the venerated monk, Nestorius entered the council with great pomp, and, seeing the roll of the Gospels on the lofty throne in the centre of the hall, flung it down and seated himself there; whereupon Senuti picked up the volume and hurled it at Nestorius. Naturally the proud patriarch was indignant, especially when he learned that his assailant was of no ecclesiastical rank. Cyril quickly remedied that defect by creating his valiant henchman an archimandrite on the spot. How far this story is to be believed depends on what we think of its author in the sequel. He goes on to say that, when Cyril had started back for Egypt at the conclusion of the council without Senuti, the monk was wafted across on a cloud. So highly venerated was he, that Maximus, the Roman commander, before setting out on an expedition against those obscure people called the Blemmys, sought him out in the desert for his blessing, much to the saint's annoyance at the interruption. The idea that he joined the extreme party of Dioscurus after the council of Chalcedon may be an error.[12] Be that as it may, undoubtedly he was a bitter leader in the persecution of Nestorius till the death of that unhappy ecclesiastic. Senuti is said to have lived to the wonderful age of 118, and to have died when Timothy Ælurus was patriarch. The remains of his writings are gathered up among the fragments of early Coptic literature. It is a singular fact that Senuti is never mentioned by any Greek or Latin author. Prominent as his friend Besa suggests his position at the council of Ephesus to have been, none of our other accounts of that council make the least reference to him. This silence rather favours the view that he did overstep the narrow line of orthodoxy in his unflagging opposition to Nestorianism. If that were the case, we can well understand why the friends and admirers of Cyril would observe a discreet silence with regard to a man who, though of dubious orthodoxy, had nevertheless been that great patriarch's chief trusted assistant. Among the Copts no saint could be more highly venerated; but the Copts are heretics.

The circumstances that led to the final severance of the Coptic Church have already been traced in earlier chapters.[13] The decree of Chalcedon deposing Dioscurus was the direct cause. The thirteen bishops who had accompanied him were in a terrible dilemma. Hieracles, their spokesman, pointed to a canon of Nicæa, declaring that the whole of Egypt should follow the bishop of Alexandria and do nothing without him. It was of no avail. The papal legate who ruled the council treated their plea with contempt. "Have pity on us; have pity on us!" cried the feeble old men. No pity was shown them. They were forced to sign the deposition of their patriarch, and then packed off to Alexandria to see to the election of his successor. There they were met with a storm of indignation. Proterius, who had been serving as locum tenens for Dioscurus during his absence, and who therefore was presumed to be one of his supporters, now turned round to accept ordination on the lines of Chalcedon. This raised the passions of the populace to fever heat. We cannot be surprised that the excited people, hating the renegade for his treason to their banished patriarch, and taking advantage of the temporary weakness of the government at the death of Marcian, rose in a mad riot, and murdered the man they regarded as a Judas. Thus another red stain was added to the annals of the Coptic Church. When, on the death of the banished patriarch Dioscurus, Timothy Ælurus was elected his successor at Alexandria, the rivalry of the two parties in the city was revived. This was before the murder of Proterius; but that crime did not end the quarrel. The new Emperor Leo banished Ælurus, and a really good man, Timothy Surus or Salofaciolus, was elected to the patriarchate on the basis of Chalcedon. So highly respected was he that people would greet him in the street, saying, "Even if we do not communicate with thee, yet we love thee." Efforts were now made by moderate men to bring about a settlement that should unite the two parties. But the cleavage was too deep. It was racial as well as theological. The party of Chalcedon, the Melchites, were Greek; the Copts were Monophysite almost to a man. This is the secret of the obstinate continuance of the schism. It was a national movement, and the intrusion of patriarchs of the Greek persuasion was resented as an outrage on the rights of the national Church. The new Coptic patriarch, John Talai, who seems to have acted weakly if not dishonourably in accepting the vacant post on the death of the good Timothy (a.d. 482), when the emperor had commissioned him only to try to bring about a reconciliation between the two parties, was really the representative of the national Church as against the Greeks, and of Christian rights and liberties generally as against imperial interference. It was the same even with that unworthy man Peter Mongus, whose election the emperor encouraged in place of John, since the patriarch's double-dealing had given great offence at Court.

Evagrius states that, as a result of Zeno's Henoticon—which simply silenced controversy without settling it, "when this had been read, all the Alexandrians united themselves to the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church."[14] That, however, is not correct. Evagrius is a fair-minded historian, but always too anxious to make as little as possible of ecclesiastical divisions—a rare fault in his age and venial. In point of fact, when Peter Mongus signed the Henoticon, the extreme Monophysites broke off from communion with him, and so earned the title of the Acephali. Still, there was outward peace; and this was maintained in Egypt under Zeno's successor, the amiable Anastasius, whose reign saw the quarrel transferred to Constantinople on account of the favour shown by the emperor to the Monophysites. On his death and the accession of Justin to the throne (a.d. 518), the temporary Monophysite triumph was ended, the Henoticon cancelled, and all the Church required to agree to the decision of Chalcedon, with the inevitable consequence that the temporary reunion of Egypt with the orthodox Church was ended. Thus the Copts were again cut off as a heretical body.

Then came the controversy on "The Three Chapters" under Justinian. The weak emperor had been persuaded to condemn Theodoret, Ibas, and Theodore of Mopsuestia as guilty of Nestorianism. It was suggested that the real objection to the council of Chalcedon lay in its approval of these three theologians, rather than in its doctrinal statements. Thus it was hoped that by making scapegoats of the dead men, who could not defend their case, all parties might be satisfied. The second council of Constantinople (a.d. 553) took a middle course, and, while anathematising "The Three Chapters" in which their supposed errors were set forth, exonerated two of them, Theodoret and Ibas, and only condemned the third, Theodore of Mopsuestia, who no doubt was the actual originator of Nestorianism. Thus this council leaned towards the Monophysite position. But the Egyptian Church took no notice of its decisions. Then came Jacob al Bardai and his vigorous campaign in Syria under the patronage of the Empress Theodora, the result of which was the separation of the Syrian Jacobite Church from the Nestorians and a great addition to the Monophysite strength in the East. Such a triumphant proselytising in favour of their theology could not but be very encouraging to the Copts. Unfortunately the new controversy with the Julianists on the incorruptibility of our Lord's body—which Julian of Halicarnassus had maintained—brought fresh trouble to the Church of Alexandria. It was a great pity that the Monophysites should now begin to quarrel among themselves just when they were becoming most powerful. But it was the same with the Protestants in the later days of Luther and Zwingli, and with the Methodists in the separation between Wesley and Whitfield. Expediency counts for nothing when men's convictions are at stake. The Julianist division at Alexandria facilitated the appointment of an orthodox patriarch—one of the Greek persuasion—who of course was acceptable to neither body of Monophysites. It is like the case in an English election when a Conservative is returned for a Liberal constituency because there is a split in the Liberal camp. In this case, however, the appointment of a Melchite meant the victory of the imperial over the popular party. Syria and in a measure Armenia, as well as Egypt and Abyssinia, were now of the Monophysite persuasion.

The Monothelete proposal was the last attempt at reunion with the lost provinces on doctrinal grounds. The case was desperate. The lopping off of these limbs from the orthodox Church was a very serious matter when regarded from the Catholic standpoint. But another consideration gave urgency to the situation. First Persia, the age-long rival of the Roman Empire of the East, had become aggressive, and had carried its victories even into Egypt. Then a new terror had risen in the South, where it was least expected, and Arabia threatened ruin both to Church and empire in the sudden rise and triumphant march of Islam. Thus there was a strong political as well as a grave religious motive for uniting the divided Church and empire. Although proposed by the patriarch of Constantinople, the Monothelete idea was really put forth on lines of imperial policy. It was offered to the Church by the government; and it made some headway under the influence of authority. Cyrus the bishop of Phasis, on condition of accepting the novel doctrine, was made patriarch of Alexandria by the Emperor Heraclius (a.d. 630); and he won over some of the Monophysites. But he could not make much headway, and meanwhile Sophronius, the champion of orthodoxy, was successfully resisting the spread of the new heresy in the Greek Church. The Ecthesis which the Emperor Heraclius issued as an authoritative edict of religious doctrine (a.d. 638), plainly leaning towards the Monothelete idea, though approved by councils at Constantinople and Alexandria, never made any progress towards securing real conviction among the people of either party. The whole idea of this latest refinement of Christology was inept and futile. It deserved no better fate, for it was founded on policy, not on conviction; and it was promoted by State authority, not by religious reasoning. Equally political, equally resting on government influence, was the Type, which the Emperor Constans put forth in the year 648, and which, without pretending to favour either side, forbade any further controversy and threatened severe penalties against all who should dare to break the rule of silence. About thirty years later the heresy was condemned by the third council of Constantinople (a.d. 680–681).

None of these attempts at reconciliation, compromise, and suppression had succeeded in bringing back the Egyptian national Church into union with the Greek Church. It has ever since remained in separation. With the exception of some 6,000 Melchites, mostly Greeks, nearly all the Christians in Egypt at the present day are Monophysites. The national Church of Egypt, the Coptic Church, is of the same faith as the Jacobite Church in Syria.

Eeturning for a little to the internal condition of the Coptic Church during this period, we see that for sixty years after the banishment of John Talai there had been no Melchite patriarch in Egypt. Then Justinian forced a man named Paul into the vacant post (a.d. 541). No Copt would recognise him. But a cruel injustice was done to the national Church in transferring its revenues to the Melchite patriarch, who enjoyed them in his sinecure office, while the patriarch who was actually working at the head of the Church in Egypt was left dependent on the freewill offerings of his people. It was the same with the clergy under him. The ecclesiastical endowments and official revenues were confiscated for the little handful of Melchites. The situation is parallel to that of the United Free Church in Scotland in our own day; and that without any parliament to secure a tolerable equity. Thus the Coptic Church was not only anathematised by the orthodox Church; it was disestablished and disendowed by the State. Yet it was not crushed; nor did the small favoured community gain anything but the sordid profit of revenue by the unfair transaction. With all its endowments it never flourished, never grew. It has remained to this day a phantom Church with offices, but without functions, and in all respects an alien in the land on which it was forced many centuries ago. After the Mohammedan invasion, this Melchite organisation lost its privileges and its dues.

Meanwhile the real Church of Egypt became more national. The liturgies were now translated into the Coptic language. Early in the reign of the Emperor Maurice (a.d. 582) there was a revolt in North Egypt, headed by three brothers—Abaskiron, Mena, and James—against the blue, or imperialist party, which for a time succeeded in wresting almost the whole of the Delta from the government. Other revolts followed. How plainly we can see in this seething discontent the undermining of the Byzantine power in Egypt. It fell for a time under the Persian invasion, which could not have been altogether unwelcome to the Copts. It was temporarily restored by the victories of that great military genius, the Emperor Heraclius. But the situation was such that the empire could not expect to find loyal defence in Egypt against the dread Mohammedan invasion, when the Arab army was on the wing like a swarm of locusts. And yet defence now meant nothing less than protection of Christendom from imminent total ruin.

  1. Vlieger, Origin and Early History of the Coptic Church, p. 7. This etymology is now almost universally accepted. Others, now rejected, are the derivation from the town Coptos, and worse than that, the derivation from the Greek κόπτω, indicating either (1) schism, or (2) circumcision.
  2. It is found in the apocryphal Acts of Barnabas, which may perhaps be as early as the third century. The first reference to it in history is by Eusebius, who only makes it in the form of an allusion to a tradition that he does not undertake to authenticate: "and they say that this Mark was the first that was sent to Egypt, and that he proclaimed the gospel which he had written, and first established churches in Alexandria" (Hist. Eccl. ii. 16). Eusebius says that Mark was succeeded by Annianus "when Nero was in the eighth year of his reign" (ii. 24), i.e. in a.d. 62. If he means that Mark had died then, apparently a martyr to the Neronian persecution, this is not consistent with the tradition that Mark wrote his gospel at Rome under the influence of Peter, or, as our best authority Irenæus; says, after Peter's death. After Eusebius, later references to Mark in Egypt—in Epiphanius, Jerome, Nicephorus, etc.—cannot be cited as affording additional testimony.
  3. Amm. Marc. xxii. 11.
  4. De Fuga, 6.
  5. Hist. Eccl. iv. 10.
  6. Annales in Migne, tome iii. p. 982.
  7. Epist. 146.
  8. Opus cit. p. 11.
  9. The Ministry of Grace, p. 140, where the 13th canon of Ancyra is cited, namely, " Country bishops (χωρεπίσκοποι) are not permitted to ordain (χειροτονεῖν) presbyters or deacons, nor even is it permitted to city presbyters to do so except with the licence (χωρὶς τοῦ ἐπιτραπῆναι) in writing of the bishop in each diocese." Here we see the city presbyter (1) reckoned above the country bishop, and (2) permitted to ordain presbyters and deacons, the only restriction on his liberty in this matter being the requirement of a written licence from his bishop.
  10. Expansion of Christianity, Eng. trans., vol. i. p. 451. Dionysius of Alexandria, in the latter part of the third century, referring to his visits to Egyptian villages, says, "I called together the presbyters and teachers of the brethren in the villages" (Eus. Hist. Eccl. vii. 24).
  11. See p. 43.
  12. This is asserted as a positive fact by Salmon in Smith's Dic. of Chr. Biog. vol. iv. p. 612a, but Leipoldt in his work, Schenute von Atripe, maintains that there is no evidence whatever of his having supported Dioscurus.
  13. Part I. chaps. v. vi.
  14. Hist. Eccl. iii. 14.