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  • Hello, and welcome to the history of the Copts. Episode 4. 10 Popes.
  • Okay, so a quick note on my use of certain terms. First, I am calling the historical figures that the Coptic Church considers saints, saints – Why? Because that’s what I am used to, and it will sound awkward and wouldn’t be who I am, if I try otherwise
  • Second, I will be using the term “Pope” to describe the Coptic bishop of Alexandria, there is a strong historical case for the use of that term, and again, it’s the term I am most comfortable with.
  • When we get to Pope Heracales (Yarakles) in two episodes from now, I will talk more about that term
  • Ok, so now with this out of the way, we can go back to our story.
  • Last time we stopped with Nero committing suicide as a result from the rebellion of the governor of His-Pania and future emperor, Galba
  • As soon as the news reached Egypt that there is a new emperor, that new emperor - Galba was killed by his body guards, who were bribed by a rich senator and future Emperor, -- Otho
  • But just like happiness, money can’t buy the imperial title – at least for more than 3 months.
  • The legions stationed in Germania decided they can do better than Otho, and took their governor, Vi-tell-ius, and marched on Rome
  • The Legions stationed in Egypt accepted Otho, as they accepted Galba before him without much input from them
  • But, when the Legions in Germania decided to hail their own Emperor, Vi-Tell-ius, the 3rd emperor so far in the year 69 AD – Well, the Egyptian legions asked the natural question, why not us?
  • While Otho and Vi-tell-ius were going at it, the Jewish revolt of 68 AD was also  at its height and an efficient and an experienced general Ves-p-asian, and his son Titus (Tay-Tus) were dealing with it
  • But since it seemed by then anyone who controls a legion or 2 can become emperor, Ves-P-asian with the support of the Syrian governor, was hailed as an emperor by his troops
  • The legions of Egypt quickly followed their Syrians colleagues and declared for Ves-p-asian
  • Ves-P-asian now controlling the East, went to Alexandria as his ruling headquarter, then sent the governor of Syria with some troops to fight Vi-tell-ius over Rome, while his oldest Son Titus (tay-tus) stayed in Judea and dealt with the Jewish revolt
  • Plan B for Ves-P-asian if he was defeated , was to sit tight in Alexandria, cut the grain supply to Rome and starve the city out. Fortunately for the inhabitants of Rome, Ves-P-asian won the civil war and became the 4th and final emperor in the year of the 4 emperors
  • If you were an Alexandrian elite around this time, there were great reason to be optimistic about the future
  • You have declared for the right person in the civil war, and was his seat of governance
  • You treated him like a living god, and spread the news that vas-p-asian can cure the blind and heal the lame
  • Surely, he will repay the favor and forgive some depts or reduce taxes, or at the very least not add new ones
  • But alas, Ves-P-asian was determined to get every dept that is owed to the state and tax every possible means of profit
  • A new tax on salted fish and his determination to get small loans earned Ves-P-asian a couple of demeaning nick-names among the city inhabitants
  • Ves-P-asian took the opportunity and raised even more taxes by imposing on the Alexandrians a poll tax, like the rest of Egypt. Although, possibly it may have been repealed by his son, Titus.
  • Also, in Ves-P-asian reign, the lower rate of taxation on the inhabitants of the nome capitals became hereditary, rather than based on where you lived. Therefore, essentially creating a new class of “metropolites” in addition to Roman, Greeks, and Egyptians
  • All in all, while Egypt for the most part was spared the anarchy of the year of the 4 emperors, Ves-P-asian in trying to stabilize the economy, increased taxation and continued the policy of social segregation and limiting avenues of social mobility
  • Ves-P-asian reigned for 10 years, and prepared his oldest son, Titus (Tay-tus) well to succeed him
  • When Tayhtus became emperor he got extremely good press from the ancient historians, but his rule only lasted 2 years, so essentially, not much have changed policy-wise
  • From 81 – 96 AD, Domitian, TahyTus younger brother reigned, and while the Roman republican ideals and the power of the senate suffered under his rule, for the most part, the empire prospered economically
  • His rule is to be noted for the universal prominence that the Egyptians gods Isis and Serapis achieved, with a temple built for them even in Rome, however that fame didn’t translate into power for the priests and the larger Egyptian religious establishment
  • Roman attitude toward the Egyptians as uncivilized people continued, with the most famous Roman poet of the time Ju-venal throwing a few digs at the Egyptians
  • After 15 years, Domitian was assassinated and was briefly followed by his old adviser Nerva, who, only reigned for short two years, with his greatest achievement as an emperor being the adoption of Trajan as an heir, who started a chain of emperors who were highly capable and reached the highpoint of Roman power for the next century
  • Thus was the first century of Roman rule in Egypt, from Augustus in 30 BC to Nerva in 98 AD.
  • The Egyptians were conquered, relegated to the bottom of society, heavily taxed, and with only a shadow of their old gods to rely on
  • The prosperity brought by the Romans went for the most part to a few urban elites, who built and enlarged their cities with the masses getting only the trickle down from their wealth
  • But while the empire was prospering, in a few unremarkable houses, a movement were growing
  • From 68 AD when St. Mark was martyred until 180 AD when the golden age of Rome ended with Marcus Aurelius, the Coptic Church counts 10 Popes who continued to enlarge and shepherd their community
  • We know almost nothing about them, With the only non-coptic , undisputed source who mentions them is Eusebious, the church historian from the 4th century
  • A disputed letter from Hadrian, the emperor who followed Trajan, also mentions a Christian bishop who was forced to worship Serapis, but the letter is from a controversial, and not very reliable ancient history source, so it is accuracy is debatable
  • Even the Coptic sources don’t say much about our 10 popes, but there is a few facts we can piece together from the wider geopolitical scene
  • The first 4, are all mentioned in the already discussed work of the Acts of St. Mark– and were ordained as a bishop or a priest by St. Mark himself
  • Anianus, the Cobbler and first convert was the bishop after St. Mark for 22 years passing away in 83 AD,
  • He was followed by Abilius also known as Milieus, who was one of the priests ordained by St. Mark.
  • Pope Abilius was in charge from 83 to 95 AD, passing away shortly before Domitian did
  • He was followed by also one of the priests ordained by St. Mark, Pope Cerdo, who was Pope until 106 AD
  • Finally, the last of the Popes who was ordained into priesthood by St. Mark, was Pope Primus, who passed away in the beginning of Hadrian reign in 118 AD
  • So if we are to assume, that those first Popes were in their 20’s and 30’s when they were first converted and ordained, it would be reasonable for that first class of Christians to be in charge for the first 50 years,
  • and considering that they were converted by St. Mark himself, they wouldn’t veer too far off Orthodoxy
  • Now at this point in time, Orthodoxy or the “quote” unquote” correct belief ” as a concept is a misnomer, but I am using that term now to contrast it with a group that will shortly appear in our narrative, the Gnostics
  • Who will have to wait for a little bit because in the years 117 to 118 AD several factors converge to form a defining moment for the Copts
  • The first, and perhaps the most important geopolitical event was the Jewish Rebellion of 117 AD
  • Briefly, Trajan during his 20 years reign fought multiple wars, the last and most significant was with the Par-thian empire, in modern day Iran -  drawing many of the legions stationed in the provinces, including one of the two stationed in Egypt
  • Sensing the distraction of the Romans, the Jews of Cyrenica revolted, which soon spread to neighboring Alexandria
  • Eventually, Trajan pulled some troops out of the war to deal with revolt and soon after, he died naturally, and his successor Hadrian was able suppress the revolt
  • But the revolt was extremely bloody, and wide-spread. In the aftermath of the revolt, the province of Cyrenaica was heavily depopulated and colonists had to be recruited to live there
  • In Alexandria, the Jews inside were wiped out and the walls of the city protected those living inside,
  • but outside, it was a free for all and instead of the Revolt being Jews v. Romans, it was more like Jews v. Gentiles, with Egyptians farmers and Hellenized city dwellers getting involved with significant loss of life in both sides
  • After the years 117,118 AD, there was no organized Jewish community left in Egypt, and if the first Christians wanted to expand their rolls, they had to go to the native Egyptians
  • And naturally, the Jewish influence on the pudding Christian movement ceased in Egypt
  • So while scholars debate whether prior to 117 AD, the Christians converts were mainly Greeks or Jews or mixed– After 117 AD, Christianity in Egypt started pulling the Greeks and the Egyptians toward a Christian Identity that would culminate 200 years later in a fully developed Coptic Identity
  • The 2nd factor that shaped the Copts and their beliefs, was the rise of the Christian G-nostics
  • Gnosticism is a general term applied for many schools of thought in early Christianity
  • to define it in a very general way, the gnostic teachers emphasized a secret knowledge that could only be imparted by them through their own personal teachings
  • In fairness, that definition doesn’t do it enough justice, but to go through all the different sects and define what each sect believes in is beyond this podcast, for now, that definition will do
  • Sometime after 117 AD and before 138 AD, an Alexandrian Christian teacher with the name of Valen-tinus started to teaching gnostic concepts in Egypt
  • But perhaps due to not attracting enough students, or his desire for his teaching to spread even further, he migrated to Rome in 140 AD, where he attracted a large following and made a bid to become a bishop
  • When his bid failed, he broke from the church and in the back and forth between him, other g-nostics – which also included another Alexnadrian, Basil-lides versus the ordained bishops of the church on what is a “correct” faith and what is “not”,
  • I-re-naeus, The bishop of what is now Lyon, France,  laid down the pillars of orthodoxy or the correct faith in his famous work, against heresies
  • Those pillars of Orthodoxy are the scriptures, the tradition handed down from the apostles, and the teaching of the apostles' successors.
  • The last of those, the teachings of the apostles’ successors, is of great importance to the Coptic identity
  • For the Copts always presented their theological positions as true Orthodoxy and the fact that the Coptic Popes are unbroken chain of successors of St. Mark, is the bed rock of that belief
  • In the years following 118 AD, Christianity in Egypt followed a  gradual road toward consolidating authority into a single institution, that is the Coptic Church with the Coptic Pope at the head drawing their authority from being the successor of St. Mark
  • While the aspiration of a single church as we will see, wasn’t always successful, because of those early formative years and the drawing of the line of Orthodoxy v. the G-nostics –
  • The view that the Copts repeatedly took, is that you are either in “quote””unquote” in the right church, or you are not. Compromise on what they saw as orthodoxy was hard to come by which will play a major role in their history
  • The state of Church in Egypt then presents itself during the years from 68 AD to 118 AD as a church closely following the teaching of the first apostles and probably stuck between a world of animosity between the Greeks and the Jews with not much evidence for the spread beyond Alexandria
  • But after 118 AD, Christianity  in Egypt takes a marked turn, not only reaching the upper echelons of the philo-sophi-cal schools in Alexandria as attested by the rise of the g-nostics and the School of Alexandria which we will talk about next week, but also the small towns and cities of Egypt as confirmed by the spread of Christian pap-yri all over Egypt
  • The spread of Christianity into Egypt beyond Alexandria during the 1st century has left a tangible trace by multiple papyri that was found in Middle and upper Egypt
  • Scholars have identified between 11 and 14 different papyri that are Christian in nature with most being canonical biblical books and those papyri were more than likely meant to be used by believers between 100 to 200 AD
  • In this also, we see that after 118 AD, Christianity was beginning to take a distinctly Egyptian identity
  • But to maintain neutrality, I will say this, that the dating of those papyri is not beyond doubt as they are dated based on the writing style and other features in the text that are not always 100% objective
  • Not to mention it is not always possible to be sure if books were being read where they were found in the second century or were taken there later
  • For those interested in analyzing the scholarly work arguing for the two sides, take a look in the sources for the episode posted in the Facebook page.
  • Having read both sides, I am personally persuaded by view of Historian Colin H. Roberts that those Papyri were indeed tangible evidence of the spread of Christianity beyond Alexandria in the 1st century
  • The next 6 popes until Pope Demetrious were truly unknowns. They were active in Egypt during the golden Age of the Romans, and geopolitically, economically, and socially, not much is known about Egypt in that time which is to be expected in a time of peace and prosperity
  • The only 2 incidences of note in Egypt, is a shadowy rebellion during the reign of Antonius pious which we will talk about more next week and the founding of a 4th Greek city with the usual Greek privileges
  • The city, Antoni-polis, was founded during a visit from Hadrian, where his male lover drowned in the Nile, and in the spot where he died, Hadrain founded the city
  • The city was named after the drowned lover antonious who in addition to having a city named after, was also deified and became the center of a new religious cult that spread all over the empire for those who wanted to the earn the favor of the Emperor
  • Antonio-polis was in upper Egypt and its citizens were recruited from the urban elite of the Fayoom where as we discussed earlier, they were probably the most ethnically Greek group in Egypt, but were still considered Egyptians by the Romans legal classes
  • And to aid further in populating the city, marriage for citizens was not restricted to their class as it was in the other Greek cities, therefore opening a small door for social mobility for the natives
  • In the 40 years between Hadrain and Trajan, the Roman policy toward the Christians was that they should not be sought out, and should only be punished for specific offences, such as refusal to swear oaths
  • Thus, for the most part, Christianity was able to grow without much harassment both inside and outside Egypt
  • Hadrian eventually died naturally after close to 20 years ruling the Romans empire and his successor Antonious Pius was also not a natural son, but an adoptive one
  • Antonious Pius 22 year reign was also a quiet and a peaceful one other than the shadowy rebellion mentioned earlier, but toward the end, and especially during the reign of his successor, Marcus Aurlius, cracks started to appear, with a major rebellion forming in Egypt
  • But this will have to wait until next week, where Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Pope Demetrious will form the foundation of a new era of Christianity in Egypt and the Roman will begin a descend in fortune that will transform the empire and everyone living in it
  • Farewell, and until next week

References


  • The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
  • The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt by" Christina Riggs (Editor)
  • A History of Egypt under Roman Rule by" Joseph Grafton Milne
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • Manuscript, Society, and Belief in Early Christian Egypt by" Colin. H Roberts
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