The Coptic Orthodox Church
Boulos Ayad Ayad
The Establishment of the Church and its Creed
The church was established in Alexandria between 55 and 68 A.D. by St. Mark, one of the 70 Apostles of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the church is the same one that is cited in the New Testament according to the teaching of Jesus Christ and his Apostles (Mt. 16:18; 24:14). The Church believes in Jesus Christ, the Son of Man (Mk. 8:31, 38), Son of God (Mt. 3:17), and God (Jn. 14: 8-11), who was born through the Spirit of God to St. Mary 2,000 years ago (Mt. 1:18-23). He came to our earth to give salvation to mankind through his crucifixion on the cross (Mt. 27:27-44). After his death, Jesus was buried for three days in a tomb (Mt. 27:57-61), and on the third day his resurrection took place (Mt. 27:62-63). He appeared to his disciples (Mt. 28:16-20) relatives, and others. After 50 days, Jesus ascended to Heaven (Mk. 16:19). St. Paul emphasized such faith as follows: "He [God] was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the word, taken up in glory" (I Tim. 3:16). The Fathers of the Church summarize their faith according to the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament: "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:16-20), Three in One."
Pope Discorus of the fifth century A.D. as well as all the Alexandrian Fathers believed in and taught the pure Orthodox faith of their predecessors. Pope Discorus says the following concerning the Faith of the Coptic Orthodox Church: "If a piece of iron, heated to white heat, be struck on the anvil, it is the iron which receives the blows and not the white heat, though the iron and the heat form an indivisible whole. The unit of the iron and the white heat is symbolic of our Saviour’s incarnation, whose divinity never parted from his humanity, not even for a moment nor the twinkling of an eye. Yet though His divinity parted not from His humanity, their union was without mixing nor fusion, nor change, like unto the union of the iron and the white heat." The Fathers of the Alexandrian School define this union as "The one Nature of God the Word made "flesh" and is synonymous with St. John’s saying "the Word was made flesh" (Jn. 1:14).
One scholar writes about the early Fathers of the Coptic Church as follows: "Alexandrine Christianity became the light of the world. The venerable Fathers of the Coptic Church, the great theologians of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, the Coptic Saints and heretics, the founders of monasticism, the immortal leaders of the oecumenical movement, all these and numerous other categories of illustrious Copts made indelible contributions to the establishment of the new faith."
The Coptic Language and its Alphabet
The Coptic language is the last phase of the ancient Egyptian language. We know that the ancient Egyptian language was used by the Egyptians through the country's long history, even during the Greco-Roman period. But when the Ptolemaic Dynasty started to rule Egypt after the invasion of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., Greek was used as the official language while the ancient Egyptian language remained the popular or common one used by the Egyptians. Both languages continued to be employed after the Roman and Byzantine occupation until the invasion of the Arabs in the 7 th century A.D. (642 A.D.). "In 705/706 A.D. the Umayyad Viceroy 'Abd-Allah ibn 'Abd-al-Malik issued the hazardous and untimely decree substituting Arabic for Coptic in all state affairs. Though his injunction could not be carried out in practice, it proved to be an incentive for the native scribe to learn the language of the conqueror, and this resulted in the appearance of many bilingual documents in subsequent centuries". The Coptic language was employed as "a spoken and liturgical language until approximately the thirteenth century A.D." (7) But in the late Middle Ages (about the 17 th century A.D.) the Coptic language was discontinued as the spoken language of Egypt, "though it is still used as a liturgical language in Coptic churches to the present day" (with the Arabic language), among some Coptic communities in a few villages scattered in Upper Egypt. Much of its vocabulary has been used in the spoken Arabic of Egypt. Philologists have noticed that the Coptic language has different dialects such as Bohairic (the dialect of Lower Egypt), Saidic (Upper Egypt), Faiyumic, Bashmuric, Akhmimic, and sub-Akhmimic. The Bohairic dialect is still used in the Coptic liturgy.
The Coptic people left many writings in Coptic that include the sayings of the Egyptian Fathers, the monastery rules, theological writings, biographies of saints and martyrs (the Synaxarion), prose narrative, poetry, contracts, letters, stories, funeral texts, religious texts, grammatical study, historical events, gnostic writing, magical text, miracle texts, and medical texts as well as the translation of the majority of the books of the Bible. Most of the books of Old Testament were translated from Hebrew into Coptic, and all the books of the New Testament were translated from Greek into Coptic. In addition, they left texts "of the apocryphal gospels and Acts, the violent tenor of the lives of their martyrs" and "the Coptic Manichaean papyri discovered in 1930 in the Faiyum. Today, the Copts (Christian Egyptians) write in the Arabic language. Their literature is part of Arabic literature. Among the modern Coptic literary men are Ikladious Labib, Akhnoukh Fanous (1856-1946), Tadros Wahba (1860-1934), Francis El-Atr (b. 1882), Nasr Losa El-Assiuti (b. 1887), Iskander Kousman, Roufail Nakhla." I would add to this list: Yassa Abd El-Messih, Ayoub Faraq, Pahor Ikladious Labib, Shaker Basilios, Iris Habib El-Masry, and many others. "All these had an Islamic Arabic education, in addition to a thorough knowledge of Coptic Christian doctrine and history." These people "are of Ancient Egyptian stock, without such Turkish or other foreign blood, being the direct descendants of the Pharaohs." About the third century A.D. onwards, the Egyptians or the Copts adopted all the 24 Greek letters and other seven letters from the Demotic (the last phase of the writing of the ancient Egyptian language which in Greek means the writing of the commoners) using all the 31 letters as a new system of writing, the Coptic language, instead of about 750 signs which the ancient Egyptians invented. These signs usually were pictures of buildings or parts of buildings, human beings, parts of men, mammals and parts of mammals, birds, amphibia, fish, insects, plants, heaven, stars, earth, water, sea, boats and their parts, wind, temple articles, clothing, jewelry, insignia and more pictures from their environments.
The History of the Coptic Church
The Coptic Church of Egypt started during the Roman Empire and continued under the Byzantine Empire, thereafter under the Islamic rule and into modern times. The church and its people met severe persecution since early Christianity in the first century A.D. and through the centuries. Thus it has its own history of two thousand years which includes:
1. The history of the Popes with their deeds since the first century A.D., starting with the first Pope, Anianus, until the life of His Holiness the 117th Pope, Shenouda the Third. We know the lives and deeds of all these Popes without any gaps with the number of years when each occupied the seat of Alexandria.
2. The Popes and their relationship with the ruling dynasties of Egypt. The founder of the Coptic Church was St. Mark, who was martyred during the rule of the Roman Emperor Nero (54-68 A.D.). Since that time, the Coptic Church and its creed spread throughout Egypt. The Christians of Egypt met 10 persecutions during the reigns of the following Roman Emperors: Nero (54-68 A.D.), Domitian (81-96 A.D.), Trajan (98-117 A.D.), Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.) Septimius Severus (193-211 A.D.), Maximinus (235-238 A.D.), Gordian III (238-244 A.D.), Decius (249-251 A.D.), Valerianus (253-259 A.D.), Diocletian (284-305 A.D.), and Maximian (286-305 A.D.). The relationship between the Popes of the Coptic Church and the ruling dynasties of Egypt, was sometimes good or bad, according to the policy of the many rulers of Egypt.
3. The Popes and their relationship with the other churches. Christianity started in the first century A.D. and, until the middle of the fifth century A.D., there was "a strong unity among the traditional church." "Each church was considered a bishopric under the leadership of an archbishop who was in complete charge…When there were problems concerning the creed, the heads of the churches met in ecumenical councils to resolve them." The first ecumenical council of Nicea took place in June 325 A.D. because the Libyan priest Arius denied the divinity of Christ; this heresy was rejected by the council. The second council, that of Constantinople, was held in 381 A.D., to discuss "the heresy of Bishop Macedonius of Constantinople who did not believe in "the divinity of the Holy Spirit." The members of the council."excommunicated the heresiarch." In 431 A.D., the members of the third ecumenical council gathered in Ephesus and excommunicated Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople, who believed "that the Christ was two distinct persons: one divine and the other human; that each of these two acted independently of each other." Only the first three ecumenical councils were accepted by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The fourth council was held in 448 A.D. in Ephesus because Eutyches who became an archimandrite of one of the monasteries in Constantinople, rejected the humanity of Christ. But during the council, he changed his opinion and accepted that "Christ is 'the Word made flesh'," which saved him from excommunication. In 451 A.D., the fifth council took place in Chalcedon, because of the "false accusations that Pope Discorus of the See of Alexandria was Eutychian, although he was not". Pope Discorus interpreted his faith to the members of the council, that his faith and the faith of the Alexandrian Fathers is the pure Orthodox faith of their ancestors; the council believed that "his orthodoxy was true indeed." During the meeting of this council, a strong conflict appeared among the different churches because of their creeds. After the council of Chalcedon, no other ecumenical councils were held. Before and after this council, major gaps opened among these churches. "The first of the churches to be alienated was that of Egypt, then those of Antioch, Armenia, Ethiopia and India."
The classical and modern historians tell us that many of the Christians of Egypt, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, the United States, Central and South America, Canada, Australia, and Asia are following the same creed of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Many of Coptic Orthodox Churches were established in Egypt and other countries in the early centuries A.D. and have continued through the centuries until today.
"It is evident from the foregoing "story" that the Coptic Church is not a Church of the past alone, she is also a Church of the present: stretching across the generation from the moment of St. Mark founded Her to the present day. She has conserved the Legacy bequeathed to Her most carefully; at the same time, encouraging the endeavors of the human mind in its search after knowledge. This encouragement is clearly seen by the members of creative works still extant despite all the destructive forces."
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