The Copts are native Egyptian Christians. According to tradition, Christianity was introduced to Alexandria by the Apostle Saint Mark around 42AD, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius, and quickly spread throughout Egypt. By the beginning of the 3rd century, Christians constituted the majority population in Egypt, with the Church of Alexandria recognised as one of Christendom’s four Apostolic Sees, the others being Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch. Christianity flourished in Egypt and elsewhere after the Emperor Constantine adopted it as the religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century AD but following the Muslim invasion of 639 AD, there was a gradual conversion of many Egyptians to Islam.
The Catechical School of Alexandria, the oldest in the world, became important for religious learning through Christendom. It was noted for its teachers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen, recognised as the first Christian theologian. The School offered teaching in science and mathematics, as well as Christian theology, and in order to teach blind scholars the school used carved wood as an early forerunner of Braille.
The Egyptian Church was also responsible for the tradition of monasticism, which began in the 3rd century when Christians sold their possessions and went to the desert to pray and dedicate their lives to worship of God. Saint Anthony and the other founders were known as the ‘Desert Fathers’ and by the end of the 5th century there were hundreds of monasteries and hermits’ caves throughout the Egyptian desert. A few of these monasteries are still in existence today. The Desert Fathers had a considerable influence on the development of early Christianity. Many of their early visitors went on to found monastic orders of their own, including Saint Benedict, who founded the Benedictine Order in the 6th century. Another, Saint Jerome, wrote down the sayings of the Desert Fathers, which survive to this day.
In the early 4th century, Arius, a Libyan preacher, initiated a theological dispute by suggesting that Jesus was created by God and therefore less than God. This was opposed by the Alexandrian Patriarch, who argued that Jesus’ nature was the same as God’s. Because the dispute had spread throughout Christendom, the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The arguments of Athanasius of Alexandria (later Pope Athanasius) eventually prevailed and he was responsible for the formulation of the Nicene Creed, which proclaimed the divinity of Jesus. Arius was excommunicated.
The true nature of Jesus caused further dispute in the early 5th century with the teachings of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople. He taught that Jesus had two separate natures, divine and human, the divine nature living within the human, and that the Virgin Mary could therefore not be called ‘Mother of God’ but only ‘Mother of Christ.’ Nestorius was opposed by Saint Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, who held that in Jesus the divine and human natures were united. Saint Cyril convened the Council of Ephesus in 431AD, at which Nestorianism was condemned as heretical. Nestorius’ followers fled to Persia, where his beliefs continued among a number of eastern churches.
Nevertheless, the dispute continued and eventually the Council of Chalcedon, called by Pope Leo of Rome in 451AD, affirmed the dual nature of Jesus, both divine and human, and condemned the teachings of the Alexandrian Patriarch Dioscorus as monophysite and heretical. This initiated a schism between those churches which affirmed the Chalcedonian doctrine and the Alexandrian family of churches led by the Alexandrian Patriarch, later the Pope. Although the Chalcedonian doctrine of the dual nature of Jesus is not unlike that of Nestorius, the Council of Chalcedon also confirmed the heresy of Nestorianism. This largely put an end to disputes until the 11th century, when the Orthodox churches broke with the Roman Catholic Church in the East-West Schism. Recent Christological dialogues between the Coptic and other Orthodox Churches have revealed their uniformity of belief concerning the true nature of Jesus, suggesting that the early disputes may have arisen solely through linguistic and political difficulties.
The Coptic Church Today
There are currently around 20 million Coptic Christians, with up to 11 million living in Egypt. Egyptian Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, as well as the largest religious minority in the region, accounting for 10-20% of the Egyptian population. The head of the Coptic Church is the Pope of Alexandria and the See of St Mark, currently Pope Shenouda III. The Alexandrian School was re-established in 1893 and exists today for theological training, with campuses in several countries.
In common with other Orthodox Churches, the Coptic Church tradition states that only men may be ordained priests, although they may be married provided this has occurred prior to ordination. Similarly, the major festival dates are shared with some Orthodox churches, with Christmas falling on 7th January. Fasting is a major part of religious practice, culminating in the Lenten fast and Holy Week, when Copts are effectively vegan for 55 days.
Coptic services in Egypt are conducted in Coptic and Arabic, although other languages may be used for the diaspora. Hymns are usually sung in the original Coptic language. This evolved from the Egyptian of the hieroglyphs and was spoken until the 17th century, when it was supplanted by Arabic. It was first written using the Greek alphabet but was adapted with the addition of signs from the hieroglyphic script to represent Egyptian sounds which did not exist in Greek. The language is now largely extinct and is mostly confined to liturgical use.