Hello, and welcome to the history of the Copts. Episode 3. The Seed.
If you have been following in the last 2 episodes, you may be asking, where are the Copts?
Well, today, our story will take a marked turn
In the last 2 episodes, we saw what impact did the romans annexation have on the Egyptians, how society was transformed and divided, how it became wealthier, but more unequal and how - slowly and gradually, the Egyptian religious establishment were weakened, and no longer held much sway
With the religious establishment weakened, Hier-glo-lyphics, the written native language, was slowly dying, and the number of those who can read it or write it, dwindled everyday
The simplified secular versions of the hier-glo-lyphics, hier-atic and demotic were rendered obsolete, as the Romans used Greek and Latin, instead of the Ptolmy’s use of Egyptian and Greek
And since social mobility avenues for the average Egyptian were essentially closed, Egyptians stopped trying to be Greek, and the Greek cultural pull was weakened by the Romans.
In this, the ground was turned and fertilized, and today, the seed will be sown.
As Tiberius grew older, he took less and less interest in governing or preparing a successor, so that when he finally died in 37 AD, his successor, Caligula, was – to say it bluntly – a disaster.
Remember that guy who visited Egypt when he wasn’t really allowed to go from last episode? Yea, the guy who was poisoned, Germanicous.
Well, Caligula was his youngest son. Caligula childhood experience was a mix of his dad being poisoned, and his mother, and 2 older brothers being exiled, imprisoned, and killed.
Go ahead; imagine what would he do when given absolute power.
While Caligula was busy bankrupting the empire, the Martyrs of Alexandria first appear on our horizon.
But In a funny twist of fate, the Martyrs of Alexandria are not what are you thinking of, - Christians victims of prosecution- No, that would come soon –
Rather, the Martyrs of Alexandria are a group of elite, upper class Greeks who were executed by the Romans.
Their struggle is recorded in the Acts of Martyrs of Alexandria, which is literary works that were very popular in Egypt that tells the story of how the brave, death-defying pagan Greek Alexandrians stared down, an immoral, corrupt Caesar and defended their values and city against the Jews
Then the Caesar unable to match their bravery and oratory skills, orders their execution.
The acts of the Alexandrian martyrs are significant because in a way, they were anti-imperial propaganda showing the sentiments of the educated Egyptians.
but perhaps more importantly, given their popularity among all the inhabitants of Egypt, whether Greeks or Egyptians, we can surmise that Roman rule wasn’t very popular.
So what was the story of those first martyrs and why do their story matter to the Copts?
In 38 AD, King Agrippa of the Jews visited Alexandria, and yes, it is that King Agrippa from the New Testament that St. Paul almost converted.
Anyway, during his visit, the Alexandrian Jews triumphantly paraded him through the city with his bodyguard of spearmen, decked in armour gilded with gold and silver’
What did the Alexandrians do in response? Well, they got a mad man, dressed up him as a king, and essentially made a mockery of the whole thing
Riots then broke out for several days, where the prefect either blindly ignored it – according to the Jewish version – or the Jews continued fighting to stop the Prefect from enforcing Caligula’s edict that a status of him be placed in all temples, and therefore - synagogues for worship by his all his subjects
The Prefect was sacked as you would expect, but the precautions taken in replacing him, show the strong position held by a prefect of Egypt.
A centurion was specially dispatched from Rome with a large group of soldiers, and, on approaching Alexandria, waited till night before he entered the city and hurried to surprise the prefect
He arrested the prefect at a dinner party, and took him back on board quietly.
He was found guilty, exiled, and then executed -- Not a surprising result -- as at this point, Caligula was executing anyone who had money and confiscating their property.
The next prefect, referred the issues between the Greeks and the Jews to Caligula himself, extracting himself from the mess.
When the Jewish and the Greek delegations arrived, Caligula just wasted everyone time while insulting both parties just because he can. And No formal ruling was given.
Luckily, by then, everyone had gotten sick from Caligula and he was assassinated by his body guard.
His uncle Claudius (klaw-dee-uh s) succeeded him, who was the nice filling of the ugly sandwich of Caligula and Nero.
Claudius, made a formal ruling, where he tried to compromise and make everyone happy, and as a part of his ruling, he executed 2 Greek leading citizens, who became, the first martyrs. The inspiration of the Acts of the martyrs of Alexandria.
The tension between the Greeks and the Jews would have made it extremely hard for Christianity, seen as a Jewish sect by this point to spread in Alexandria among the Greeks or the Egyptians without, the intervention of an influential figure who can bridge that divide
We will get to this figure shortly, but for now
Claudius was only partially successful in preventing further rioting.
The Jews across the empire revolted three times against Rome: in 66–70 AD, around which time, St. Mark was killed and the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed.
In 115–17 AD where it was not only the Alexandrian Jews, but all the Egyptian Jews. But, by 132 AD, their third revolt against Rome, it was quiet in Egypt, where by then, essentially no Jewish communities existed.
It is to be noted, that Christianity continued to spread well- after 117 AD with the same fervor as before, even after there were no longer Jewish communities left in Egypt.
Implying that by then Egyptians were converting other Egyptians to Christianity. And Christianity has shed its identity as a Jewish sect. But we will discuss that further when we get there.
For the rest of Claudius reign, things were relatively peaceful, and especially trade flourished. He, for, the most part, did many things right, but he picked the wrong wife, and as a result perished.
His wife poisoned him, and his step-son, Nero, became the emperor at the age of 16 in 54 AD, with of course, his mom, ruling on his behalf.
Don’t worry though, Nero likes a girl, and the girl and the mom don’t get along, so Nero kills his mom.
While the imperial family were killing each other, a Christian missionary and an apostle appears on the shores of Alexandria.
Before telling the story of St. Mark from the Coptic Church perspective, I think it would be worth exploring from the non-Coptic sources, a sort of a search of historical St. Mark
While the New testament writings give us some information about St. Mark, it’s mainly from the perspective of St. Paul acts, so a visit to Alexandria is not mentioned
In the version of events recorded in Acts, St. Mark first accompanies St. Paul and St. Barnabas on their first Journey to Seleucia and Cyprus, followed by Pamphlia in Asia minor of what is modern day Turkey
At this Point St. Mark leaves them and returns back to Jerusalem.
His departure becomes a source of tension between St. Paul and St. Barnabas when they decide to go back on a second missionary journey.
Barnabas wanted to take his cousin, St. Mark on the Journey, while St. Paul didn’t.
The result? Both St. Barnabas and St. Paul go to their separate ways, with St. Mark going with St. Barnabas
The Acts narrative then cuts out the story of St. Mark and continues with St. Paul
We also know from the New testament that St. Mark was with St. Peter at some point, where St. Peter relies greetings from St. Mark in his first epistle
We also know that St. Mark and St. Paul reconciled at some point, as St. Paul asks Timothy his disciple to bring Mark and come visit him in his 2nd epistle to Timothy
And that’s all there is about St. Mark in the New Testament.
So other than a mention in St. Peter epistle about Babylon, that some may argue it referred to a Roman fort in Egypt, there is no mention of St. Mark mission to Alexandria in the New testament
And in order to make things historically accurate, the notion that Babylon referred to a Roman fort in Egypt is now mostly dismissed, as archeological evidence show that the fort was built around Diocletian’s time, some 300 years after St. Mark, and either way, a Roman military garrison, would be an unusual choice for St. Peter and St. Mark to establish a church in
Nonetheless, we do have a couple of non-Coptic sources that attest to the founding of church of Alexandria, by St. Mark
The earliest non-disputed source of St. Mark role as the founder of the church in Egypt comes from the 4th century historian Eusebius in 325 AD, where he re-lies how St. Mark wrote down his gospel in Rome in response to personal appeals from the Christians there to write down the teachings of St. Peter
And then Eusebius immediately after that recounts how St. Mark used his newly written gospel to preach in Egypt
Eusebius places these events in 43 AD, I.E the 3rd year of Claudius reign, but the date is highly contested in academic circles, the “quote” “unquote” official Coptic Church date is 61 AD, which is much more realistic
Also, in his reporting, Eusebius gives no detailed account of St. Mark visit, and confuses a community of Jewish ascetics, that the Jewish philosopher Philo wrote about, to be, the members of the Church that St. Mark founded
Nonetheless, it does seem that by the time Eusebius wrote his account, St. Mark founding the Church of Egypt was an undisputed fact among the universal church, who, in their squabbles, would no doubt call into questions the apostolic founding of the Church of Alexandria if it was disputed
In addition to Eusebius, we have a much earlier, but a disputed, controversial letter attributed to Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century that refers to St. Mark mission in Alexandria. Modern historians either accept it with doubts, or dispute that it was written by St. Clement, or go all the way and call it a forgery – Which I personally lean toward.
Finally, from the non-Coptic sources, we also have St. John Chrysostom from the late 4th century, who at the times, was in dispute with the Coptic Pope, and in one of his homilies, not only he attested to the founding of St. Mark of the Church of Alexandria, he also, retells a tradition that St. Mark wrote his gospel in Egypt, contradicting Eusebius account that he wrote it in Rome.
All in all, even if we completely disregard the Coptic sources, which in no way we should, it does seem that there is some reasonable evidence of the account of St. Mark founding of the Coptic Church
So what does the Coptic sources say about St. Mark?
The most authoritative text from the Coptic Church is from the Synexrium, I.E, the liturgical book of the lives of the saints
However, the story of St. Mark in the Synexrium is based on the Acts of St. Mark, a work from much earlier time where the Story of the founding of the Coptic Church is told in great details.
The exact date of the acts of St. Mark composition is uncertain, but the text is traceable to as early as the late fourth century.
In the story told according to the Coptic sources, St. Mark is born in Cyrene, modern day Libya, where there was a large Jewish community
Shortly after, his parents move to Jerusalem, and due to their familial relationship with St. Peter, St. Mark and his family were in the circle of Jesus followers
After the Pentecost, i.E the founding of the universal church, The Acts of St. Mark follows the events as laid out in Apostles Acts closely, ending with St. Barnabas and St. Mark going to Cyprus
Then the story continues beyond the events of the New Testament, St. Barnabas dies in Cyprus, after which Mark decided to preach the gospel in his home land, Cyrene and Pentapolis.
While he was in Cyrene, he received in a vision that he should go and preach in Alexandria. The next day, St. Mark sailed there by ship and arrived in the city
While he was entering the city, the strap of his sandals broke, so he was forced to look for a local cobbler
While the cobbler was trying to fix the sandals, he accidentally struck his hand and cried out in pain, “o, One God”
The cry caught St. Mark attention, and he promptly healed the Cobbler hand and in thanks, The cobbler, whose name was Anianus, invited St. Mark to his home for a meal
There, Anianus was naturally curious about how St. Mark healed him, and St. Mark began to preach to him about Jesus Christ, and as a result, Anianus was converted and was baptized with his household, and many others living in his neighborhood
Those conversions angered some of the pagans, who began a plot to kill St. Mark, but when the Christians of the city heard, they urged St. Mark to leave Egypt temporarily, and after ordaining Anianus as a bishop, along with three priests, and seven deacons, St. Mark went back to Pentapolis.
The names of the priests are recorded are Milaius, Sabinus, and Cerdo. Remember those names, because we will go back to them.
After spending two years in Pentapolis, He returned to Alexandria where he found the believers had increased in number, and built a church for them in the place known as Bokalia or Boukoulou, east of Alexandria on the shore.
However, the spread of Christianity, and the return of St. Mark angered the pagan populace of the city, and in that year, during the celebration of Easter, which happened to fall on a festival day of Serapis, a riot broke out, and a pagan mob entered the Church, seized St. Mark, and dragged him through the streets of Alexandria until the streets were strained by his blood
When the evening came, they threw the barely alive St. Mark into a prison, where an angel, and then Jesus Christ himself both appeared to him and gave him comfort
The next day, the pagan mob finished the job, but when they tried to burn his body, a great storm arose and its rain extin-guished the fire
The believers then came and took St. Mark body and buried it him in the church of Boukalia. The date given for these events is April 25th, 68 AD.
And thus was the story of the seed that died and brought forth many fruits.
The year 68 AD is significant, It is when Nero committed suicide after one of his governors repelled
The rebellion was successful and by the end, Nero was abandoned by essentially everyone who mattered and he committed suicide out of fear of capture and trial by the Senate who favored the repel governor.
Nero had actually ruled for a good 14 years prior to his suicide, and for the first 5 years, his mom and her advisers were doing a pretty good job, but as soon as he exiled and killed her, things got from bad to worse
In addition to terrible fiscal policies, lack of interest in governing, and increasing taxation of the provinces – Which led to the revolt that ousted him as well as factored in the revolt of the Jews in 66 AD, Nero also caused a major fire in Rome or at least didn’t take decisive actions to stop it to build a massive palace for himself
When faced with the anger of Rome’s populace, Nero blamed the Christians, who, were an easy target, and were looked on with suspicion by the average Roman due to their radical religious views and association with Judaism
This passage from the ancient historian Taci-tus is telling about the mood in the time –
“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the offering for the gods, did not banish the sinister rumor that the fire was the result of an order by the emperor. Con-sequ-ently, to get rid of the rumor, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most ex-qui-site tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called "Chrestians" by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our pro-curators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mis-chievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
In this first official prosecution by the Romans, the Christian tradition holds that St. Peter and possibly St. Paul perished in Rome.
More vital to our story however, is perhaps, the Jewish Revolt of 66 AD.
The revolt in 66 AD began in Caesarea, ignited by growing tensions between the Greeks and Jews living there. Fighting broke out shortly after in Alexandria when the Greeks discovered and killed Jewish spies at a meeting in the theatre while they were deliberating sending an embassy to the emperor Nero.
The revolt ended in 70 AD, but by then according to the ancient historian Jo--sephus’ 50,000 men from the Alexandrian Jewish community perished, not to mention, the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Alexandrian Jews lost all their benefits and social status.
So right between the Christian prosecutions in Rome, and The Greeks v. Jews riots in Alexandria, we get the account of the martyrdom of St. Mark
So whether the Christian community growing in Alexandria was seen as an off-branch of Judaism or recognized as its own independent community, it wouldn’t be out of the question for their leader to be dragged and killed in a mob riot fitting the mood of the time and the overall geopolitical picture.
Next time, civil war will break out, and in a rarity, Egypt will pick the winner. But, perhaps foreshadowing tragedy, the Alexandrians will make fun of their emperor, earning them a poll tax and equating them with the rest of Egypt, at least in that respect.
Thank you for listening, and as always, I will appreciate if you leave a review and spread the word. Questions are still being accepted in History of the Copts facebook page.
Farewell, and until next week.
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
Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule by" Naphtali Lewis
The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt. The case of the Acta-Alexandrinorum by" Andrew Harker
The Coptic Synaxarium by" unknown
The Annals & The Histories, book 15. by" Tacitus
The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)