Episode Detail

Script


  • Hello, and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 14. The Return.
  • So last week we ended with St. Athanasius leaving Alexandria to avoid arrest and possibly execution and going to Rome to stay with his colleague Pope Julius in the summer of 339 AD
  • The transition of power in Alexandria from Athanasius to Gregory was rough and violence had to be used repeatedly to make the Egyptians fall in line, as St. Athanasius was popular in Egypt and Gregory was seen as a heretical foreigner imposed on the Egyptians by the imperial government
  • And as far as we can tell, Gregory didn’t really try to win the hearts and minds of the Egyptians by softening the theological dialogue or trying to win over the other bishops of Egypt
  • In a matter of fact, he ordered that an elderly bishop who happened to be a confessor from the Great persecution be scourged, and the bishop died a few days after from his wounds
  • Athanasius also complained in one of his letter on how Gregory prevented the proper burial of his aunt in a Christian manner, and proper burial was always a big deal for the Egyptians
  • All in all, Gregory was despised and seen as an illegitimate replacement for St. Athanasius, and could only maintain his hold on power using violence
  • Athanasius on the other hand was welcomed by Pope Julius on Rome which was in the territory of Emperor Constans who was either indifferent or sympathetic to St. Athanasius
  • As a result, St. Athanasius was free to send letters pleading his case and giving his version of the events to the wider empire
  • Now – Rome at this point was more or less a political backwater. The empire was divided in three among the three sons of Constantine. Constantine the second was based in Trier, Germany, Constans was based Dacia, and Con-stana-tious was based in Constantinople but since he was fighting the Persians on and off, he spent a lot of time in Syria closer to the actions 
  • As far as theology was involved, Con-stana-tious was decidedly Arian with Eusebius of Nicomedia in his court. The other two brothers were more or less sympathetic to Orthodoxy
  • So – If the bishop of Rome was to call an empire-wide council to resolve the outstanding issue of St. Athanasius, that would greatly enhance his influence which have been slipping and checks the growing power of Eusebius of Nicomedia
  • Thus, as soon as St. Athanasius arrived in Rome, Pope Julius sends out an invite for a universal council in Rome and sends a couple of priests specifically to Eusebius to invite him personally
  • Politically, around the same time, Constantine the second and Constans have a falling out
  • Constans have reached legal adulthood and was becoming more assertive in ruling his territory and the two brothers were in a dispute about who did North Africa belong too
  • As a result, Constantine the second decides to invade Italy and eliminate his younger brother Constans if possible
  • But remember when I said few episodes ago that Italy is a tough place to conquer? Well, Constantine the second was no Constantine the first. He failed in his adventure and died, leaving his territory to his younger brother Constans in 340 AD
  • Thus, the empire was divided again into the simple old East and West. The west ruled by Constans, and the East by Con-stana-tious
  • The death of Constantine the second was bad news for St. Athanasius and the Orthodox cause. St. Athanasius and Constantine had developed a cordial relationship during his first exile in Trier and Constantine became a strong advocate for St. Athanasius cause
  • So in the struggle between Constans and Constantine the second, St. Athanasius was seen as in the camp of Constantine – Even though, he went to great lengths to stay out of politics in Europe and in his words “I entrusted my cause to the church and devoted myself to the worship of God”
  • As a result, Constans ignored the case of St. Athanasius for a while and their communications were limited
  • Nonetheless, notables citizens in Rome were intrigued by St. Athanasius and again, a grass roots movement supporting him flourished
  • Historians speculate that during his exile in Rome, St. Athanasius spread the concepts of Monasticism that was flourishing in Egypt at the time, putting in the seeds for a movement that will shape Europe once the Roman empire falls
  • And that wasn’t the only thing that came out of St. Athanasius exile in Rome, in there, he began to write his Orations against the Arians, a masterful theological work that clearly set him apart as the leading Orthodox voice
  • As a minor side note, in Rome, St. Athanasius brought two monks. One of them was named Ammonius, and he came be known as the eldest of the Tall brothers. Now, the tall brothers will play a future role in our story. So keep him in mind for future episodes.
  • Anyway, the priests sent by Pope Julius to invite Eusebius to the planned church council in Rome eventually arrive to Antioch, where they were kept waiting with no answer until January 341 AD
  • Then during the dedication of a great church in Antioch, where 97 local bishops were assembled for the occasion, Eusebius took the opportunity to declare a council where St. Athanasius was condemned again
  • And not only did Eusebius and the bishops assembled in Antioch condemn St. Athanasius, they accused Pope Julius of misconduct and requested the he either withdraw from communion from St. Athanasius or he himself would lose recognition from the Eastern bishops
  • and that was the answer to Pope Julius invite to the proposed council in Rome
  • Pope Julius responded by having the planned Council of Rome anyway without any of the Eastern bishops, where St. Athanasius was cleared from all wrong doing and he chastised the Eastern bishops and Eusebius for replacing St. Athanasius and many other Orthodox bishops illegally
  • Eusebius never saw the letter, as he died in the summer of 341 AD after a pretty impressive career, at least in politics
  • Eusebius was incredibly successful politically, not only he survived the Great persecution, he ended up in Licinus’ court after it, then when Licinus was defeated, he ended in Constantine’s court and became a major influence on Constantine religious policy and Con-stana-tious after him
  • He conveniently was able to transfer as bishop from Beyrot, to the more important Nicomedia, and finally to the new capital, Constantinople. Even though, technically, bishops were not allowed to transfer
  • Before his death, he was responsible for the removal of the Bishop of Antioch, the Bishop of Alexandria, and The bishop of Constantinople. An impressive trio as those was the major religious and cultural centers of the empire
  • But perhaps, his greatest achievement, is the ordaining of a man known as “little wolf” as a bishop to preach Arian Christianity to the Gothic barbarians beyond the empire borders
  • Little wolf was successful, and the Goths will be an Arians for hundreds of years to come. For a while, Even Rome itself would be under Arian control. But this is another story for a different day.
  • For now, his death was a huge blow for the Arian cause. There would be no longer strategic, patient long-term thinking. Now, Con-stana-tious would be leading the cause, and he is much more comfortable with the sword than the pen.
  • After the death of Eusebius, the seat of Constantinople was now open, and Paul, the exiled Orthodox bishop of Constantinople from last episode, came back to his seat without waiting for Con-stana-tious permission
  • The Arians who were in the city didn’t accept Paul as their bishop, and elected a different man as their bishop
  • Con-stana-tious who was staying in Antioch at this point naturally opposed Paul, and ordered a military official to arrest him and exile him outside the city
  • But when the official tried to remove Paul, a riot broke out, and the house he stayed in was burned with him inside
  • Con-stana-tious then travelled personally to Constantinople, punished the city by cutting in half the amount of free grain they receive and removed Paul and appointed an Arian bishop
  • Now, here we see the contrast between Con-stana-tius and Eusebius
  • Eusebius would have convened a council, found Paul guilty of something, and promptly removed him on that ground with a bit of legitimacy.
  • But, to show up and remove him by force because you didn’t like him, and then punish the whole city by cutting their grain is certainly quicker, but it doesn’t win many hearts or minds
  • Anyway, Paul then went directly to Constans court to complain, and Constans sensing a political opportunity to exploit, picked up his cause and invited St. Athanasius and many of the exiled bishops to interview them
  • After meeting them, Constans requested from his brother that an East and West council meets to decide on their case and he agreed
  • The Council was decided to take place in Serdica, in between the two domains and it took about 18 months to get it going.
  • But again, we see the difference the absence of Eusebius made on the Arian cause. First, the Orthodox bishops still slightly outnumbered the Arian ones, especially if the exiles ones were to be counted, so assembling an empire wide Council is likely to favor the Orthodox
  • The second, The Orthodox coalition was much more a solid block in their makeup and leadership than the Arian coalition which had no solid theological leadership once Eusebius died and its bishops were prone to defection for personal interest
  • Nonetheless, Con-stan-atious have casted the die when he agreed to the Council, and thus arrangement had to be made.
  • Athanasius, Paul, and the elderly bishop of Cordova, Ossius, who led the Council of Nicea – made the trip together to the council location discussing and formulating a unified position
  • While the Eastern bishops assembled in Cons-stan-atious territory before the Council to agree on a strategy where they were led by a civilian, the prefect of Egypt, the same one that exiled St. Athanasius and the proposed strategy was to insist that the exiled bishops are not to be allowed seats in the Council as they do not consider them to be bishops.
  • Thus, if the western bishops agreed, the slight numerical advantage disappears, and the exiled bishops are guilty and their innocence now has to be proven. A very advantageous starting position
  • But if they refused the demand, then, the Eastern bishop would refuse to attend, and the Council would lose its legitimacy as an empire-wide Council and the Eastern bishops can go home avoiding being a part of a losing battle
  • The strategy worked. The western bishops naturally refused the demand that St. Athanasius and Paul to not sit on the Council, and despite Ossius efforts to find a compromise solution, the Eastern bishops insisted on their demands
  • The two parties at Serdica never met together as a single Council, many days have passed and the back and forth diplomatic efforts were failing until the political situation changed
  • A letter arrived from Con-stan-atious announcing victory over the Persians. With Con-Stan-atious free from the war constraints, the Eastern bishops felt more comfortably that Con-stan-atious could back the Arian cause more assertively and by military force if necessary against the claims of his younger brother
  • Thus, they left immediately, but before they left, they sent a letter excommunicating their opponents to the rest of the Arian bishops of the empire as to imply that this was the result of the Council
  • The western bishops then met and denounced the Eastern bishops, proclaims the innocence of St. Athanasius, Paul, and the rest of the exiled bishops and sent their decisions to the rest of the empire asking for the bishops to sign if they agreed and as a result they got more than 300 bishops supporting their position
  • As a minor side note, the Council of Serdica also passed several controversial cannons, but theologians debate their universal applicability to this day. One of them, was that bishops should no longer appeal to the emperor but either resolve their dispute within their province, or appeal to the bishop of Rome
  • On one side, some take that cannon as a sort of perpetual moral authority of the bishop of Rome, but some consider it to be related to the local circumstances and the issues that the council dealt with
  • Surely, with the Orthodox Bishops of Alexandria, Constantinople, and Antioch all exiled and replaced by Arian bishops, there were no leading Orthodox bishops to go to but Rome’s
  • Anyway, these kind of things tends to lead to a big rabbit hole that have no end, but as far as I can tell, the Coptic Church position is the Council cannons were only applicable to situation at the time
  • But, to go back to our story, I hope you are getting the point that it was pretty clear that the theological stalemate would only be resolved by the direct actions of the emperors as repeated attempts at solving the issue within the church have been failing
  • As a result of the failing of the Council, The two emperor started to be more involved and a high stakes game of chicken ensued
  • For his part, Con-stan-tious ordered that St. Athanasius is to be beheaded if he ventured into Alexandria and exiles more clergy from Alexandria
  • And Constans, by 345AD, didn’t mince words in his communication with his brother, to quote one of his letter
  • Cons-stan-atious folded first. But to his credit, Gregory the replacement bishop of Alexandria died shortly after the letter, and if the Alexanerians were given the expected election, they would have elected St. Athanasius anyway. Thus, he could accommodate his brother demands and save face in the same time
  • So, finally after close to six years of exile, St. Athanasius were allowed to return to Alexandria
  • At first glance, one would think that he owes his return to Constans alone, but while Constans threat of war settled the issue, the monastic support in Egypt exerted constant pressure on the civil authorities, and the theological legitimacy obtained by the support of a coalition of bishops outside of Egypt played their part as well
  • Anyway, St. Athanasius didn’t return right away, as they were questions about Con-stan-atious intentions once he gets there
  • After a year of communication between the Emperors and assurances of St. Athanasius safety, he returned to Alexanderia on October 21st, 346 AD where the crowd gathered 100 miles outside the city and escorted him in all manners of honor and glory
  • During his exile, St. Athanasius was in constant contact with the Church Egypt, and his exile casted him in the image as a bishop who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake and his influence and popularity only grew
  • Gregory’s reliance on imperial force and lack of monastic support also assured that the Arian theology in Egypt would find no lasting home and Egypt’s Christians would overwhelmingly be in the side of St. Athanasius
  • During the Exile, Bishop Serapion of Thumis was doing an excellent job leading the Orthodox bishops loyal to St. Athanasius in Egypt, and slowly the Meletian bishops in Egypt were disappearing in favor of Orthodox ones
  • By the time of the Council of Serdica, only 5 Meletian bishops were present, and one of them is the infamous Ischyras of Mareotis from the last episode, who by now was a bishop
  • The degree by which St. Athanasius was able to cultivate the loyalty of the Egyptians during his exile was impressive
  • For example, for the first time in the Coptic Church history, he called for a forty day fast before Easter in one of his festal letter during the exile which was duly approved and practiced by all the bishops of Egypt and stuck even to this day where the Copts continue to fast before Easter but the days have increased to 55 days for reasons we will get too when we get to the 7th century
  • By the time he returned in 347 AD, he ordained 16 new bishops and managed to get a handful of the remaining Meletians to his side, thus ending the significance of the Meletian schism
  • A few clergy and monks stayed around for a while longer, but nothing that was significant
  • Now, we can speak of a truly united Egyptian Church representing the whole of Egypt and Libya with significant influence on the Christians of Ethiopia as well
  • The Theological school of Alexandria also flourished after the appointment of Didymus the blind by St. Athanasius
  • Didymus was a remarkable man that lost his sight when he was about four, and as a consequence, his formal education was neglected
  • Nonetheless, his intellect and passion for knowledge were his teachers
  • He had the letters of the alphabet engraved on wooden tablets, and taught himself to read by feeling them.
  • And once the basics of reading was established, he became a great scholar and eventually becoming the dean of the School of Alexanderia
  • Rufinus and Jerome, influential western Christian theologians in their times were his students
  • He was a devout Origen defender, writing several books explaining and defending Origen’s views
  • Anyway, from 347 AD when St. Athanasius returned to Alexaneria to 350 AD when the tide turned against him again, things were more or less peaceful in Egypt. Although, the same can’t be said about the wider empire
  • Next week, we will continue to follow the story of St. Athanasius and his 50 plus year plus struggles. Constans will be killed, and the brief period of peace will end. After all, it’s not like Con-stan-atious and St. Athanasius were on great terms, remember, it took a threat of war and the death of his replacement to make his return possible.
  • With that though to ponder, Farewell, and until next week!

References


  • The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
  • The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire by" Timothy D. Barnes
  • The Story of the Church of Egypt by" E. L. Butcher
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