A History of Christianity in Egypt

A History
of Christianity in Egypt

The history of Christianity in Egypt dates
back verily to the beginnings of Christianity itself. Many Christians hold
that Christianity was brought to Egypt by the Apostle Saint Mark in the
early part of the first century AD. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, in his

Ecclesiastic History states that Saint Mark first came to Egypt between
the first and third year of the reign of Emperor Claudius, which would
make it sometime between AD 41 and 44, and that he returned to Alexandria
some twenty years later to preach and evangelize. Saint Mark\'s first convert
in Alexandria was Anianus, a shoemaker who later was consecrated a bishop
and became Patriarch of Alexandria after Saint Mark\'s martyrdom. This succession
of Patriarchs has remained unbroken down to the present day, making the

Egyptian Christian, or Coptic, Church one of the oldest Christian churches
in existence. Evidence for this age comes in the form of the oldest Biblical
papyri discovered in remote regions of Upper Egypt. These papyri are written
in the Coptic script and are older than even the oldest Greek copies of
the Bible ordered by Constantine in AD 312.

The Egyptians before Christianity had always
been a deeply religious people, and many readily embraced the young religion,
having had their old beliefs effectively destroyed by the coming of the

Roman Empire and the final dethroning of the god-king Pharaohs. Many of
the concepts of Christianity were already familiar to the Egyptians from
their ancient religion, such as the death and resurrection of a god, the
idea of the judgement of souls and a paradisiacal afterlife for the faithful.

The ankh too, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life, is very similar to
that of the cross revered by Christians (especially in the form of the

Coptic cross, seen at right), itself also a symbol for eternal life. Furthermore,
the belief that God had chosen Egypt as a safe place for His infant son
to hide him from Herod was a great source of pride to the Egyptian Christians.

It was through Christianity that the Egyptian culture survived the Roman

Dominion.

The Church Suffering and Victorious

Yet these formative years were not without
problems. Throughout this time Christianity in Egypt was locked in an often
deadly struggle against the polytheistic religions of the Greco-Roman culture
as well as the Hellenistic movement that began in Alexandria spread to
other large cities. To counter Hellenistic philosophy that often criticized
the young religion the Christian leaders in Egypt established a catechetical
school in Alexandria, the Didascalia, founded in the late second century

AD. This school became the heart of what can only be called Christian philosophy,
and great teachers and orators such as Clement and Origen were able to
battle the Hellenistic philosophers on their own ground and advocate Christianity
in an orderly and intellectual manner. It was also in this great university
of Christian learning that Christianity first underwent rigorous studies
that created its first theology and dogma, as well as making the new faith
accessible to all. Pantaenus, the founder and first dean of the Didascalia,
helped the Egyptian people bridge the gap between Dynastic Egypt and the
new era by promoting the use of the Greek alphabet instead of the Demotic
("cursive" hieroglyphics) in translations of the Bible as well as in the
writing of religious theses and letters. Additionally, the school educated
everyone who came to it in Greek, opening the study of religion to just
about everyone, and making as many people as possible literate.

Yet the greatest persecutions on the young
religion came at the hands of the Roman government. Emperor Nero had set
the precedent in AD 64, about the same time as the martyrdom of Saint Peter.

It was unusual, for the actual offense was simply to be a Christian or
to profess the Christian faith, rather than any kind of criminal acts that
might go along with it (such as those later falsely attributed to Medieval
heretics). An arrested Christian could receive a pardon simply by offering
incense on a Roman altar, but many refused to do so, citing scripture passages
urging faith in the one God. Thus the true "crime" of the persecuted Christians
was their refusal to do homage to the Roman gods, including the emperor.

Those who did refuse to bow to the Roman religion were imprisoned, often
tortured, thrown to the wild animals in the coliseum, or suffered execution
by any number of other means. Rather than discouraging the Christians,
these actions encouraged them and reinforced their faith, echoing the words
of Jesus that those who suffered persecution because of his name