Coptic Christianity

As news of a new document, referencing the possible existence of a wife to Jesus Christ, emerges, world attention has been focused on this papyrus fragment and the Coptic community from which the document originated.

The Coptic community are an ancient group, that can trace their history directly back to the era of Jesus himself and the subsequent Church Fathers who travelled around the Mediterranean and beyond, spreading the message of the gospel. It was the arrival of St Mark the Evangelist in Egypt in approx. 42AD that started the Coptic Church, which even today has an important role to play in Egyptian society.

Coptic Hanging Church Cairo

Coptic Hanging Church Cairo

    • St Mark was one of Jesus’s apostles and Egypt, due to its proximity to the Holy Land, was an obvious target for those seek to convert pagans to Christianity.
    • The religion quickly took root in Egypt and spread from Alexandria, where Mark had preached.
    • It developed both a distinct culture and language, Coptic, the language the recent document was written in.

With the decline of the Roman Empire in the region, the Copts came to dominate society in Egypt and by the time of the Council of Chalcedon 451 AD, there was a firmly established Egyptian Coptic Church. Though the presence of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria at the Council of Nicea, 325 AD, indicates the prominent position that the Coptic Christianity must have played in Church history, before this establishment.

    • However the Coptic dominance soon came to an end in the 7th century, with the Arab invasion that bought with it,  not only another culture but another religion.
    • Islam came to dominate society in Egypt eclipsing Coptic Christianity.
    • However it was a slow transition from Coptic to Islam and it was not until the 12th century that the use of Coptic in everyday society had been completely replaced by Arabic. Even then, religious texts remained in Coptic.
    • Under Arab rule, the Coptic Church suffered much persecution, being seen as subversive to the Arab state and heretical.
    • However this was nothing new, as even under the Christian Byzantines the Coptics had been persecuted for heresy, for not following the theology of the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

Despite the persecution, the Coptic Church has always played an important part in Christianity. Many historians have argued that the concept of monasticism and hermits, developed within Egypt and the Coptic Church, was the first to develop monastic settlements widely round the region.

However, today it is the writings and insight into the ancient history of the Church, that experts see as the Coptic Church’s biggest contribution. In addition to the recent document, that seems to suggest the existence of a wife of Jesus, other finds in Egypt have included the oldest known complete copy of the gospels and the Nag Hammadi texts, whose importance for Church historians is equal to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Nag Hammadi texts are a series of papyrus codexes containg gnostic texts from an early period of Christianity in Egypt, estimated around the 3rd/4th centuries AD. At the time of discovery they, like the most recent Coptic document found, shocked the international community as they contained alternative gospels, most notably the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Philip. These provided an invaluable insight into the origins of Church history.

Ultimately dramatic finds, such as the Nag Hammadi texts, demostrate the importance of  the highly developed history of the Coptic Church in the wider spectrum of Christianity and Church history.

Many Thanks a Guest post from ‘A Little View on the World’


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