Egypt is identified in the Bible as the place of refuge that the Holy Family sought in its flight from Judea:
When he [Joseph] arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod the Great, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt I called My Son (Matthew 2:12–23).
The Egyptian Church is traditionally believed to be founded by St Mark at around AD 42, regards itself as the subject of many prophecies in the Old Testament. Isaiah the prophet, in Chapter 19, Verse 19 says "In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border."
The first Christians in Egypt were common people who spoke Egyptian Coptic. There were also Alexandrian Jewish people such as Theophilus, whom Saint Luke the Evangelist addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When the church was founded by Saint Mark during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, a great multitude of native Egyptians (as opposed to Greeks or Jews) embraced the Christian faith.
Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Saint Mark's arrival in Alexandria, as is clear from the New Testament writings found in Bahnasa, in Middle Egypt, which date around the year AD 200, and a fragment of the Gospel of John, written in Coptic, which was found in Upper Egypt and can be dated to the first half of the 2nd century. In the 2nd century, Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into the local languages, namely Coptic.
Coptic Language in the Church
The Coptic language is a universal language used in Coptic churches in every country. It is derived from ancient Egyptian and uses Greek letters. Many of the hymns in the liturgy are in Coptic and have been passed down for several thousand years. The language is used to preserve Egypt's original language, which was banned by the Arab invaders, who ordered Arabic to be used instead. Some examples of these hymns are Epooro, Ekesmar'oot, Tai Shori, and many more.
Contributions to Christianity
Catechetical School of Alexandria
The Catechetical School of Alexandria is the oldest catechetical school in the world. St. Jerome records that the Christian School of Alexandria was founded by Saint Mark himself. Around AD 190 under the leadership of the scholar Pantanaeus, the school of Alexandria became an important institution of religious learning, where students were taught by scholars such as Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and the native Egyptian Origen, who was considered the father of theology and who was also active in the field of commentary and comparative Biblical studies. Origen wrote over 6,000 commentaries of the Bible in addition to his famous Hexapla.
Many scholars such as Jerome visited the school of Alexandria to exchange ideas and to communicate directly with its scholars. The scope of this school was not limited to theological subjects; science, mathematics and humanities were also taught there. The question-and-answer method of commentary began there, and 15 centuries before Braille, wood-carving techniques were in use there by blind scholars to read and write.
The Theological college of the catechetical school was re-established in 1893. The new school currently has campuses in Ireland, Cairo, New Jersey, and Los Angeles, where Coptic priests-to-be and other qualified men and women are taught among other subjects Christian theology, history, the Coptic language and art – including chanting, music, iconography, and tapestry.
Cradle of monasticism and its missionary work
Many Egyptian Christians went to the desert during the 3rd century, and remained there to pray and work and dedicate their lives to seclusion and worship of God. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, which was organized by Anthony the Great, Saint Paul of Thebes, the world's first anchorite, Saint Macarius the Great and Saint Pachomius the Cenobite in the 4th century.
Christian monasticism was born in Egypt and was instrumental in the formation of the Coptic Orthodox Church character of submission, simplicity and humility, thanks to the teachings and writings of the Great Fathers of Egypt's Deserts. By the end of the 5th century, there were hundreds of monasteries, and thousands of cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian desert. A great number of these monasteries are still flourishing and have new vocations to this day.
All Christian monasticism stems, either directly or indirectly, from the Egyptian example: Saint Basil the Great Archbishop of Caesaria of Cappadocia, founder and organizer of the monastic movement in Asia Minor, visited Egypt around AD 357 and his rule is followed by the Eastern Orthodox Churches; Saint Jerome who translated the Bible into Latin, came to Egypt, while en route to Jerusalem, around AD 400 and left details of his experiences in his letters; Benedict founded the Benedictine Order in the 6th century on the model of Saint Pachomius, but in a stricter form. Countless pilgrims have visited the "Desert Fathers" to emulate their spiritual, disciplined lives.
Role and participation in the Ecumenical Councils
Council of Nicaea
In the 4th century, an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius began a theological dispute about the nature of Christ that spread throughout the Christian world and is now known as Arianism. The Ecumenical Council of Nicea AD 325 was convened by Constantine after the Pope Alexander I of Alexandria request to hold a Council to respond to heresies, under the presidency of Saint Hosius of Cordova to resolve the dispute and eventually led to the formulation of the Symbol of Faith, also known as the Nicene Creed. The Creed, which is now recited throughout the Christian world, was based largely on the teaching put forth by a man who eventually would become Pope Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, the chief opponent of Arius.
Council of Constantinople
In the year AD 381, Pope Timothy I of Alexandria presided over the second ecumenical council known as the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, to judge Macedonius, who denied the Divinity of the Holy Spirit. This council completed the Nicene Creed with this confirmation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father through the Son is worshiped and glorified who spoke by the Prophets and in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church. We confess one Baptism for the remission of sins and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming age, Amen.
Council of Ephesus
Another theological dispute in the 5th century occurred over the teachings of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople who taught that God the Word was not hypostatically joined with human nature, but rather dwelt in the man Jesus. As a consequence of this, he denied the title "Mother of God" (Theotokos) to the Virgin Mary, declaring her instead to be "Mother of Christ" Christotokos.
When reports of this reached the Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark, Pope Saint Cyril I of Alexandria acted quickly to correct this breach with orthodoxy, requesting that Nestorius repent. When he would not, the Synod of Alexandria met in an emergency session and a unanimous agreement was reached. Pope Cyril I of Alexandria, supported by the entire See, sent a letter to Nestorius known as "The Third Epistle of Saint Cyril to Nestorius." This epistle drew heavily on the established Patristic Constitutions and contained the most famous article of Alexandrian Orthodoxy: "The Twelve Anathemas of Saint Cyril." In these anathemas, Cyril excommunicated anyone who followed the teachings of Nestorius. For example, "Anyone who dares to deny the Holy Virgin the title Theotokos is Anathema!" Nestorius however, still would not repent and so this led to the convening of the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431), over which Cyril presided.
The Council confirmed the teachings of Saint Athanasius and confirmed the title of Mary as "Mother of God". It also clearly stated that anyone who separated Christ into two hypostases was anathema, as Cyril had said that there is "One Nature [and One Hypostasis] for God the Word Incarnate" (Mia Physis tou Theou Logou Sesarkōmenē). Also, the introduction to the creed was formulated as follows:
We magnify you O Mother of the True Light and we glorify you O saint and Mother of God (Theotokos) for you have borne unto us the Saviour of the world. Glory to you O our Master and King: Christ, the pride of the Apostles, the crown of the martyrs, the rejoicing of the righteous, firmness of the churches and the forgiveness of sins. We proclaim the Holy Trinity in One Godhead: we worship Him, we glorify Him, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord bless us, Amen. [not dissimilar to the "Axion Estin" Chant still used in Orthodoxy]
Council of Chalcedon
When in AD 451, Emperor Marcian attempted to heal divisions in the Church, the response of Pope Dioscorus – the Pope of Alexandria who was later exiled – was that the emperor should not intervene in the affairs of the Church. It was at Chalcedon that the emperor, through the Imperial delegates, enforced harsh disciplinary measures against Pope Dioscorus in response to his boldness. In 449, Pope Dioscorus headed the 2nd Council of Ephesus, called the "Robber Council" by Chalcedonian historians. It held to the Miaphysite formula which upheld the Christology of "One Incarnate Nature of God the Word" (Greek: μία φύσις Θεοῦ Λόγου σεσαρκωμένη (mia physis Theou Logou sesarkōmenē)), and upheld the heretic Eutyches claiming he was orthodox.
The Council of Chalcedon summoned Dioscorus three times to appear at the council, after which he was deposed. The Council of Chalcedon further deposed him for his support of Eutyches, but not necessarily for Eutychian Monophysitism. Dioscorus appealed to the conciliar fathers to allow for a more Miaphysite interpretation of Christology at the council, but was denied. Following his being deposed, the Coptic Church and its faithful felt unfairly underrepresented at the council and oppressed politically by the Byzantine Empire. After the Byzantines appointed Proterius of Alexandria as Patriarch to represent the Chalcedonian Church, the Coptic Church appointed their own Patriarch Timothy Aelurus and broke from the Chalcedonian communion.
The Council of Chalcedon, from the perspective of the Alexandrine Christology, has deviated from the approved Cyrillian terminology and declared that Christ was one hypostasis in two natures. However, in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, "Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary," thus the foundation of the definition according to the Non-Chalcedonian adherents, according to the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria is valid. There is a change in the Non-Chalcedonian definition here, as the Nicene creed clearly uses the terms "of", rather than "in."
In terms of Christology, the Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonians) understanding is that Christ is "One Nature—the Logos Incarnate," of the full humanity and full divinity. The Chalcedonians' understanding is that Christ is recognized in two natures, full humanity and full divinity. Oriental Orthodoxy contends that such a formulation is no different from what the Nestorians teach. This is the doctrinal perception that makes the apparent difference which separated the Oriental Orthodox from the Eastern Orthodox.
The Council's findings were rejected by many of the Christians on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire, including Egyptians, Syriacs, Armenians, and others.
From that point onward, Alexandria would have two patriarchs: the non-Chalcedonian native Egyptian one, now known as the Coptic Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of St. Mark, and the Melkite or Imperial Patriarch, now known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria.
Almost the entire Egyptian population rejected the terms of the Council of Chalcedon and remained faithful to the native Egyptian Church (now known as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria). Those who supported the Chalcedonian definition remained in communion with the other leading imperial churches of Rome and Constantinople. The non-Chalcedonian party became what is today called the Oriental Orthodox Church.
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria regards itself as having been misunderstood at the Council of Chalcedon. There was an opinion in the Church that viewed that perhaps the Council understood the Church of Alexandria correctly, but wanted to curtail the existing power of the Alexandrine Hierarch, especially after the events that happened several years before at Constantinople from Pope Theophilus of Alexandria towards Patriarch John Chrysostom and the unfortunate turnouts of the Second Council of Ephesus in AD 449, where Eutichus misled Pope Dioscorus and the Council in confessing the Orthodox Faith in writing and then renouncing it after the Council, which in turn, had upset Rome, especially that the Tome which was sent was not read during the Council sessions.
To make things even worse, the Tome of Pope Leo of Rome was, according to the Alexandria School of Theology, particularly in regards to the definition of Christology, considered influenced by Nestorian heretical teachings. So, due to the above-mentioned, especially in the consecutive sequences of events, the Hierarchs of Alexandria were considered holding too much of power from one hand, and on the other hand, due to the conflict of the Schools of Theology, there would be an impasse and a scapegoat, i.e. Pope Dioscorus. The Tome of Leo has been widely criticized (surprisingly by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox scholars) in the past 50 years as a much less than perfect orthodox theological doctrine.
It is also to be noted that by anathemizing Pope Leo because of the tone and content of his tome, as per Alexandrine Theology perception, Pope Dioscorus was found guilty of doing so without due process; in other words, the Tome of Leo was not a subject of heresy in the first place, but it was a question of questioning the reasons behind not having it either acknowledged or read at the Second Council of Ephesus in AD 449. Pope Dioscorus of Alexandria was never labeled as heretic by the council's canons.
Copts also believe that the Pope of Alexandria was forcibly prevented from attending the third congregation of the council from which he was ousted, apparently the result of a conspiracy tailored by the Roman delegates.
Before the current positive era of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox dialogues, Chalcedonians sometimes used to call the non-Chalcedonians "Monophysites", though the Coptic Orthodox Church in reality regards Monophysitism as a heresy. The Chalcedonian doctrine in turn came to be known as "Dyophysite".
A term that comes closer to Coptic Orthodoxy is Miaphysite, which refers to a conjoined nature for Christ, both human and divine, united indivisibly in the Incarnate Logos. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria believes that Christ is perfect in His divinity, and He is perfect in His humanity, but His divinity and His humanity were united in one nature called "the nature of the incarnate word", which was reiterated by Saint Cyril of Alexandria.
Copts, thus, believe in two natures "human" and "divine" that are united in one hypostasis "without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration". These two natures "did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye" (Coptic Liturgy of Saint Basil of Caesarea).
From Chalcedon to the Arab conquest of Egypt
Prior to Chalcedon, the Imperial Church's main division stemmed from Nestorianism, eventually leading the Church of the East to declare its independence in 424. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Coptic Church and its hierarchy felt suspicious of what they believed were Nestorian elements within the Chalcedonian Church. As a result, the anti-Chalcedon partisan, Timotheos Aelurus, consigned himself to depose the Chalcedonian Pope of Alexandria, Proterius of Alexandria, and to set himself up as the Pope of Alexandria in opposition to the entire Chalcedonian Church of the Byzantine Empire. Copts suffered under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. The Melkite Patriarchs, appointed by the emperors as both spiritual leaders and civil governors, massacred those Egyptians they considered heretics. Many were tortured and martyred in attempts to force their acceptance of the Chalcedonian terms, but the Egyptians remained loyal to the Cyrillian Miaphysitism. One of the most renowned Egyptian saints of the period is Saint Samuel the Confessor.
Muslim conquest of Egypt
The Muslim invasion of Egypt took place in AD 639. Despite the political upheaval, the Egyptian population remained mainly Christian. However, gradual conversions to Islam over the centuries had changed Egypt from a Christian to a largely Muslim country by the end of the 12th century. Egypt's Umayyad rulers taxed Christians at a higher rate than Muslims, driving merchants towards Islam and undermining the economic base of the Coptic Church. Although the Coptic Church did not disappear, the Umayyad tax policies made it difficult for the church to retain the Egyptian elites.
Under Islamic rule (640–1800)
The Church suffered greatly under the many regimes of Islamic rule. Sometime during the 2nd Millennium AD, the leadership of the Church, including the Pope, moved from Alexandria to Cairo.
From the 19th century to the 1952 revolution
Coptic monks, between 1898 and 1914
The position of Copts began to improve early in the 19th century under the stability and tolerance of the Muhammad Ali Dynasty. The Coptic community ceased to be regarded by the state as an administrative unit. In 1855 the jizya tax was abolished. Shortly thereafter, the Copts started to serve in the Egyptian army.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Coptic Church underwent phases of new development. In 1853, Pope Cyril IV established the first modern Coptic schools, including the first Egyptian school for girls. He also founded a printing press, which was only the second national press in the country. The Pope established very friendly relations with other denominations, to the extent that when the Greek Patriarch in Egypt had to absent himself from the country for a long period of time, he left his Church under the guidance of the Coptic Patriarch.
The Theological College of the School of Alexandria was reestablished in 1893. It began its new history with five students, one of whom was later to become its dean. Today it has campuses in Alexandria and Cairo, and in various dioceses throughout Egypt, as well as outside Egypt. It has campuses in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne, and London, where potential clergymen and other qualified men and women study many subjects, including theology, church history, missionary studies, and the Coptic language.